Amid growing fears among Hongkongers over the 1997 handover, a landmark visit by then governor Murray MacLehose to Beijing in March 1979 was hailed at the time as the prelude to extensive Sino-British negotiations on the future of the colony. The historic talks, during the first official visit by a Hong Kong governor, were viewed as a key step in securing a safe future for the city. The visit enabled the governor to raise the issue of the New Territories lease, due to expire 18 years later, and a pivotal moment was his meeting with Deng Xiaoping in Beijing. MacLehose then returned to Hong Kong, triumphantly bearing the message from Deng for Hong Kong investors to 'set your hearts at ease'. His comments came at a time of considerable concern among Hongkongers over the looming handover. But a secret report recently declassified by the British government paints a different picture of the lead up to the encounter, showing that contrary to public perceptions at the time, London had long been planning to hand control of the colony back to China and saw the visit by the governor as a chance to implement those plans. The report showed Britain had been agonising over the future of the colony since 1969 and that MacLehose merely followed a script written from the report drafted 10 years before his visit. In the report prepared by the ministerial committee on Hong Kong under Britain's Cabinet Office in March 1969, which was classified as 'top secret', the British government recognised the need to co-operate with China in finding a solution to the future of Hong Kong. 'There is no real prospect of any solution to the Hong Kong question which does not provide for the resumption of Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong,' the report said. It admitted it was inconceivable that any Chinese government would negotiate an extension of the Hong Kong lease. The crisis of confidence sparked by uncertainty over the city's future before the conclusion of the Joint Declaration in 1984 proved that British officials drafting the report in the late 1960s were casting their minds to the future. The report showed that the British government had seen public confidence in Hong Kong's future slip and it feared a possible wave of emigration in the 80s if the 1997 question remained unresolved. It foresaw scenarios of Hong Kong professionals seeking to emigrate and foreign companies removing their assets by the mid-80s. It expected professionals with qualifications acceptable in overseas countries to start emigrating from the 60s, with the situation expected to become acute by the mid-80s. The report spelled out four possible scenarios, with the best being an informal approach to Beijing with a view to reaching a tacit understanding. 'The course best suited to our interests would be an informal and disavowable approach to the Chinese when the time is ripe aimed at reaching an eventual withdrawal at a suitable agreed date,' it concluded. 'The purpose would be to tell the Chinese that we acknowledge that Hong Kong must eventually be returned to China and we are anxious to effect an orderly transfer as soon as public opinion would allow us to. 'To this end, we will endeavour to avoid doing anything in Hong Kong to make the transfer more difficult, for example by constitutional changes towards representative and more responsible government.' The recommendation was in line with Britain's post-war policy of rejecting any idea of full democracy for Hong Kong so as not to spark resentment and suspicion from Beijing. MacLehose had warned of holding free elections in the colony, saying 'if the communists won, that would be the end of Hong Kong. If the nationalists won, that would bring in the communists'. The informal approach to Beijing was preferred by the ministerial committee because it would minimise the dangers of a formal approach, giving Britain the means of withdrawing if it was rebuffed. The report recognised that meaningful negotiation could not be mounted in the foreseeable future given the internal strife on the mainland during the Cultural Revolution. The report suggested the British government approach Beijing no later than the early 80s in the hope of negotiating an agreement on Hong Kong's future. 'The other end of the time scale is determined by the strong probability that public confidence in the colony's future will start to slip and the economy to run down in the 1980s; it could become a serious liability to us and lose its value to China,' the report said. 'All this points to an initiative on our part taken not later than the early 1980s or as soon as there emerges in China a regime with which we might be able to do business.' The moment came in 1979 when MacLehose was invited by China's minister of trade, Li Qiang, on a visit to China, a trip supposed to focus on cross-border trade and economic co-operation. During a meeting on the morning of March 29, 1979, the governor tactfully raised the lease of Hong Kong with Deng. He told Deng that business confidence in Hong Kong would be undermined if the Hong Kong government did not issue commercial leases beyond 1997. MacLehose went on to ask Deng to allow the Hong Kong government to do so. Former chief secretary Sir David Akers-Jones said the report was interesting to the extent that it demonstrated that Britain recognised at an early date the consequences of the expiring lease of the New Territories. 'Thereafter, developments followed much the same lines and time lines as indicated by the scenarios [envisaged by the report],' said Sir David, who was deputy commissioner for the New Territories from 1967-69. George Walden, assistant political adviser to the governor during the 1967 riots, said: 'I think the report was commonsensical, and its preferences natural. What it could not envisage was [the emergence of] a more outward-looking China of Deng Xiaoping, confident it could run Hong Kong by itself.' Former governor Sir David Wilson, who served as political adviser to MacLehose from 1977-81, declined to comment on the confidential report. Ray Yep Kin-man, associate professor with City University's department of public and social administration, said the 1969 report indicated that the British government no longer pinned any hope on extending the lease of Hong Kong beyond 1997. 'Since the late 1960s, Britain had recognised the need to facilitate Hong Kong's economic development and speed up social reform in the colony so as to enhance London's bargaining power in negotiation with China,' he said. Dr Yep, who has been studying the British government's archives on policy towards Hong Kong for the past few years, said avoidance of provoking China, particularly by introducing democratisation in Hong Kong, had been Britain's consistent stance on the Hong Kong question. Apart from devising the strategy of handling the future of Hong Kong, the secret report also mapped out a plan for withdrawal from the city in 1969 against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution and the mounting wave of unrest. The contingency plan was drafted despite a public undertaking by London and the colonial administration to maintain law and order in Hong Kong during the 1967 riots. The disturbances, which briefly brought the colony to a standstill, stemmed from the Cultural Revolution which had started a year earlier on the mainland. 'We might feel obliged to withdraw following a prolonged period of physical pressure by local communists. This, even without direct support from China, might make our position impossible ... because of economic disruption and loss of business confidence within and without the colony might slowly sap its economic health,' the report continued. 'We would have seriously to consider withdrawal if such pressure had China's support in furtherance of the aim to reduce us to a position of subservience,' the report said. It explained that the means available to Beijing might take an economic form such as denial of food and water supplies to Hong Kong, the promotion of strikes or work stoppages. Beijing's support for bringing the colonial administration to its knees might also take a political form, such as the open encouragement of subversion and violence among local communists and their supporters, with a clear indication of China's support in the form of organised border incidents. Those fears were realised on July 8, 1967, when five policemen were killed and 11 wounded when the police post in Sha Tau Kok came under machine-gun fire during border violence with mainland militia. The report said the British government would have to make a special effort to discharge its responsibilities to those Hong Kong Chinese who were serving in the Hong Kong police force and the civil service in the scenario of Britain's withdrawal from the colony. 'A very rough estimate is that they would number about 20,000 to 30,000, with their dependants about 90,000 to 135,000,' the report said, adding that the figure might be a considerable underestimate. The cabinet's report said Taiwan would take 'quite a large number of those Hong Kong Chinese while the US and Canada might also take a significant number'. The report noted that temporary transit areas for evacuating those people would be necessary, adding that the Philippines, and Singapore and other British dependencies might be possible destinations. Mr Walden said responsible governments had to envisage all eventualities. 'It would have been remiss of the British government not to have had a withdrawal plan for a colony which was indefensible, at a time when China seemed highly unstable, not to say a little crazy, even though our general assessment was that she was unlikely to walk into Hong Kong,' he said. The confidential report also cast doubt on the loyalty of Hong Kong's police force in the wake of Britain's withdrawal. 'The force is preponderantly Chinese and would understandably be looking over their shoulders. The task of maintaining public order might devolve entirely on the garrison,' the report said. According to another file declassified in 2000, the British government was contemplating in September 1967 a partial evacuation of Hong Kong in the face of the Cultural Revolution. An interim report was prepared by the British government in July 1967 on the prospects for withdrawal from the colony if a military invasion from China was forced upon the government. If Hong Kong deteriorated to the extent the government ceased to be able to maintain law and order, an emergency evacuation would have to be carried out of those who would be in particular danger of communist retaliation. As the confrontation between the colonial administration and the leftist camp in Hong Kong escalated, the British government started to deliberate a scenario of withdrawal from Hong Kong if Beijing went for all-out conflict. In a telegraph to then-governor Sir David Trench on May 17, 1967, the then British foreign secretary George Brown said: 'Once it became clear the CPG [the Chinese government] intended to go for all-out confrontation of this kind, this might well be the point at which we should have to consider withdrawal from Hong Kong.'