Britain, China forged 1987 deal on direct elections for Hong Kong, archives reveal
London pledged not to introduce direct elections for the Legislative Council until after the Basic Law was promulgated in return for the mini-constitution providing for such polls
Britain secured a “private commitment” from Beijing in 1987 that provision for direct elections for the Legislative Council would be included in the Basic Law if they were not introduced until after the mini-constitution was promulgated in 1990.
The existence of the mutual understanding came to light in British cabinet files recently declassified from the National Archives in London.
The files also revealed that the British government had considered the idea of creating a post of deputy governor in the early 1990s which would be filled by a chief executive-designate who would be selected after consultation with Beijing. The person would then become Hong Kong’s first chief executive in 1997.
In a minute to then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher on October 2, 1987, then foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe wrote that “during the summer, the Chinese have continued to represent to us their view that we should not introduce direct elections in 1988”.
“We proposed [to Beijing] that the white paper in early 1988 should acknowledge public support in principle for an element of direct elections, and state that these would be introduced in 1991 and 1992,” Howe wrote.
“For their part the Chinese would make it clear that the Basic Law would permit an element of direct elections to the Legco into the years after 1997. The Chinese replied that if direct elections were not introduced until after the promulgation of the Basic Law [in 1990], the Chinese government would see that there was appropriate provision for them in the Basic Law,” the foreign secretary wrote.
In a minute to Thatcher’s private secretary Charles Powell on October 29, 1987, Anthony Galsworthy, Howe’s principal private secretary, wrote that “we have secured from the Chinese a private commitment that if direct elections are not introduced until after the promulgation of the Basic Law [in 1990], there will be an appropriate provision for them in the Basic Law.”
“The Chinese also agreed that the white paper to be published next February  could state with an ‘appropriate reference’ to the Basic Law that direct elections will be introduced in 1991 or 1992,” Galsworthy wrote.
The white paper stated that the Hong Kong government noted that “all the options in the latest draft of the Basic Law concerning the election of the future legislature include an element of direct elections”.
Direct elections for the 1988 Legco were ruled out after the colonial government set up an office to gauge public opinion and concluded people were “sharply divided” over its introduction that year.
The Hong Kong government was criticised for manipulating the views of some Beijing-friendly groups to ensure that no clear mandate for direct elections in 1988 emerged, although many surveys at the time showed more than 60 per cent supported direct elections.
Eventually the Hong Kong government decided to introduce 18 directly elected seats in 1991.
Martin Lee Chu-ming, a former member of the Basic Law Drafting Committee and an advocate of direct elections for 1988, said: “Now we know both sides kept Hong Kong people in the dark and that the consultation in 1987 was not genuine.”
Meanwhile, from 1986, the British government explored the idea of creating a post for a chief executive-designate in the final years of British rule.
In a paper drafted in September 1986, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) proposed the creation of the post as early as 1992, with the office holder becoming deputy governor.
“He becomes involved in the processes of government at the highest level, and is closely consulted by the Governor on all important matters.
“The chief executive-designate would assume presidency of the Executive Council in 1994 and thereby assumes executive responsibility for all areas of government except defence and foreign affairs reserved to the Governor.”
In a minute sent to Thatcher in February 1988, Howe wrote that the chief executive-designate would be selected in 1996 following consultation with Beijing and would occupy the special post until he was formally appointed chief executive on July 1, 1997.
“From about 1995, the Chinese might be informed of appointments at the highest levels in the Hong Kong government,” he wrote. “In 1996, the chief executive-designate’s nominees would be brought into the posts which they were destined to occupy after July 1, 1997.”
The FCO also suggested the establishment of an independent Electoral Affairs Commission, with members from Hong Kong jointly selected by Britain and China, to supervise the conduct of the last Legco elections.
Allen Lee Peng-fei, an executive councillor at the time, said Beijing and London reached an agreement around 1990 that a Hongkonger of Chinese descent would be appointed deputy governor in July 1995 and the person would become the chief executive two years later.
But he said the idea was shelved after the last governor Chris Patten announced in 1992 a controversial reform package for elections in 1994 and 1995 which angered Beijing.