When the Tiananmen crackdown sparked British fears about 5 million Hong Kong refugees
Papers released from the British government’s vaults show worries of a colony fallout over Beijing event, and deliberations about rights of abode
The 1989 Tiananmen crackdown prompted Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet to consider seeking international help in the “worst case situation” of a mass exodus of five million Hong Kong refugees to Britain, according to a declassified record.
But as history played out, the British government only granted rights of abode to 50,000 families from certain classes including the business elite.
While full deliberations of the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Selection Scheme, which took effect in 1990, are yet to come to light, the public can now catch a glimpse of the discussions in the latest batch of declassified cabinet files from the National Archives in London.
The files dated June and July 1989 – right after the military crackdown on the democratic movement in Beijing – reveal the heightened attention the British government gave to the campaign in Hong Kong for the rights of abode of some 3.25 million holders of British Dependent Territories Citizens (BDTC) passports.
A file dated June 15, 11 days after the crackdown, saw then foreign and commonwealth secretary Geoffrey Howe telling other cabinet members in the weekly meeting that the incident had “severely shaken the confidence of Hong Kong”.
Howe recounted his statements to the House of Commons foreign affairs committee that the government would have to “take its obligations to Hong Kong refugees very seriously indeed, but would need to seek the widest possible help on an international basis”.
“In a brief discussion, it was noted that in the worst case situation described by [Howe] the number of refugees was potentially five million, the entire population of the colony,” the cabinet file read.
It further stated: “British passport holders could not be denied initial entry to this country since their passports entitled them to make a short visit.”
Allen Lee Peng-fei, a former Hong Kong executive councillor who paid several visits to London in 1989 to lobby British officials for rights of abode, told the Post he had not heard of this estimate from officials. “They were just deploying scare tactics,” he said.
Two weeks after that meeting, Howe, while embarking on a trip to Hong Kong to “steady nerves”, suggested to the cabinet that further work needed to be done on “contingency planning for mobilising the international community” in the event of a major cataclysm leading to a mass exodus from Hong Kong.
But subsequent cabinet files showed no more of such plans.
To the disappointment of Hongkongers, the British government eventually granted citizenship to only 50,000 Hong Kong families, a matter of “take it or leave it” as Lee described.
Meanwhile, the issue of granting rights of abode to Hongkongers was once “considered in parallel” with another thorny issue in the city – the influx of Vietnamese refugees, according to another cabinet file dated 1988.
Some 25,000 Vietnamese boat people had arrived in Hong Kong by that time, causing rising complaints that the asylum seekers were straining the city’s financial resources. There were calls for Britain to resettle the refugees as soon as possible.
In a letter dated 5 December 1988 to her colleagues, Thatcher, through her private secretary, indicated that Britain would take in 1,000 boat people.
“In her view, we should help to alleviate the problem which taking the Vietnamese boat people will create by facilitating the citizenship for Hong Kong business people,” the letter read.
The prime minister wanted to reach decisions on both at the same time. It is unclear whether the crackdown six months later affected Thatcher’s choices.
While Lee said he and his allies did not link the fight for abode to the Vietnamese issue, “it is calculative and smart enough that [the British] would have nothing to lose if they let professionals in Hong Kong, such as doctors, entrepreneurs and accountants, settle in Britain.”