Talks on Chek Lap Kok airport nearly collapsed, insider reveals

Beijing and London argued over signing of agreement on new airport, insider reveals

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 September, 2012, 8:39pm

Sino-British talks on building the new airport at Chek Lap Kok almost broke down in 1991 after Beijing insisted the agreement be signed by the two heads of government in the Chinese capital, according to a new book by a former top mainland official.

Detailing heated exchanges between Beijing and London, Chen Zuoer , a key negotiator on issues leading up to the 1997 handover, recalls how Percy Cradock, foreign policy adviser to the then British prime minister, John Major, eventually backed down.

Chen, a former deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, was a member from 1994 to 1997 of the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group that discussed handover arrangements.

He writes in Negotiations on The Handover of Sovereignty of Hong Kong - A Witness Recount that during a visit to Beijing in June 1991, Cradock pushed for the airport deal to be signed at that time between him and Lu Ping , then director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. Told of Beijing's requirement, Cradock backed down but wanted the welcoming ceremony for Major to be held at Beijing Airport, rather than Tiananmen Square where the pro-democracy movement had been suppressed two years earlier.

Lu said it must be held in Tiananmen Square, "otherwise, there won't be any red carpets for your Prime Minister," according to the book. Cradock finally agreed and Major visited the capital in July 1991, the first head of a leading Western country to do so after the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Chen will appear at the launch ceremony of the book in Hong Kong tomorrow.

A person close to Chen said he chose to publish the book shortly after the 15th anniversary of the handover to highlight the importance of the Basic Law for Hong Kong's development.

Chen also writes in the book that during a talk with Lu in Beijing in October 1992, governor Chris Patten had no idea of the existence of seven letters exchanged between the foreign ministers of Britain and China in early 1990, in which the two countries had reached agreement on Hong Kong's constitutional development.

Patten's political reform package for the 1994-95 elections angered Beijing. According to the book, this was because his plans differed markedly from the letters between the two sides.