My Take

Old master Thatcher's lesson in realism on handover

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 April, 2013, 3:03am

The two British architects of Hong Kong's return to China are now dead. First it was Percy Cradock. Now, it's his boss Margaret Thatcher. Yet, the logic of their arguments for preserving Hong Kong's way of life by not confronting but by negotiating with Beijing and securing guarantees from it is still with us. It still very much underlies the thinking of the more intelligent and principled people from the pro-Beijing camp in Hong Kong.

Once Cradock convinced Thatcher that it was impossible to keep Hong Kong as a British territory or grant it independence, it was a no-brainer for these two political realists on how to proceed. What was imperative, to their way of thinking, was to preserve the most fundamental institutions that would keep Hong Kong functioning as a rich city and a free-trading port - its own currency, the Court of Final Appeal, and civil and legal rights safeguards within the existing body of laws, the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. These are the foundation for "one country, two systems". They were obviously compatible with democracy but it was not paramount.

These two British realists had no illusions about the Chinese communists. But they also appreciated that once Chinese leaders made a deal, they tended to honour it. This is a characteristic usually overlooked by most Western politicians and the local pan-democrats who often warn against imaginary mainland interference. But by and large, Beijing has honoured "one country, two systems" far more than was imaginable for most Westerners. Just see how Germany dominates member states in the euro zone or the US over its allies.

"One country, two systems" only became a code word for democratisation under Chris Patten and his close friend and boss John Major. By accelerating its pace, the policy pursued by Major and Patten still encapsulates the thinking of most pan- democrats. But for Beijing, they simply breached the prior agreement between the two countries. As Cradock had predicted, Beijing simply reversed Patten's electoral reforms after the 1997 handover.

So who was right among our former colonial masters? Well, the pan-dem and pro-Beijing camps are still fighting over that.