Sino-British handover deal proved a windfall for Russia

Soviet-era officials struck balancing act that eventually paid off in territorial gains

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 August, 2013, 5:10am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 August, 2013, 6:38am

As the 30th anniversary of the Sino-British talks that resulted in Hong Kong's return to Chinese sovereignty approaches, two declassified Soviet files have revealed how Russia emerged as an accidental winner.

Two letters sent to the USSR's foreign ministry, dated June 1983, show that Soviet diplomats and advisers trod carefully amid the tense negotiations between London and Beijing. They knew that whatever final agreement emerged would greatly affect the USSR's interests, and the success of their strategy yielded territorial gains for post-Soviet Russia.

"The final outcome of the Sino-British negotiation gave Russia extra land from Qing dynasty China [1644-1911] - the only territory the Communist government has given up claiming back," said historian Michael Share, a visiting professor at the University of Macau who obtained the two documents from the Soviet ministry's archive and who is the author of a book on Soviet relations with Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau.

The first letter, from V.A. Krivtsov, deputy director of the USSR's Institute of the Far East, explained Russia's concerns over the talks on Hong Kong.

"These are … attempts by the Chinese side to categorise as unequal not only the treaties on Xianggang [Hong Kong}, but also other treaties … including those concerning the frontiers of China and Russia," Krivtsov wrote.

Hong Kong had been colonised as a result of three treaties signed in 1842, 1860 and 1898. That raised worries in Moscow, due to the parallel with three treaties Russia had signed with China in 1858, 1860 and 1881, which defined the border between the two countries and gave Russia resource-rich territory.

"Russia was in a difficult position," said Share. "On the one hand, it wanted to normalise the frosty relationship it had  … with China over the previous decade by standing on China's side over the future of Hong Kong. On the other, it did not want the status of treaties to be brought up in the discussion, as China had insisted the foreign treaties signed during the Qing dynasty were unequal."

Had the then British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, conceded that the treaties were unequal, Share said, "that would be a bad precedent for the USSR and China would have had a case for chasing back the land".

The second document, written by Y. Safronov, a Soviet diplomat in London, accurately predicted the outcome of the talks.

Share said: "The USSR predicted that Britain would have decided it was more important to expand trade with China and it did no good to stubbornly hold onto Hong Kong."