Declassified British files show how Beijing tried to stifle 1990s democratic reform in Hong Kong with airport finance negotiations

Minutes of Cabinet Office meetings released by Britain’s National Archives shed light on wrangling in the run-up to transfer of sovereignty in 1997

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 December, 2017, 8:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 December, 2017, 8:24am

A new batch of declassified British government files has shed light on how Beijing tried to use negotiations over airport construction financing in the 1990s to curtail the development of democracy in Hong Kong and undermine public support for the city’s last colonial governor Chris Patten.

Minutes of Cabinet Office meetings released by Britain’s National Archives on Thursday also show how London tried to internationalise Hong Kong affairs in its dealings with Beijing over the city’s future in an attempt to garner support for its positions.

In a meeting on July 14, 1992, it was reported that John Coles, then deputy undersecretary in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, had visited Beijing as “the prime minister’s personal emissary” to discuss financing for Hong Kong’s new airport at Chek Lap Kok off Lantau.

Beijing is said to have objected to what was called the “callable equity” in the project.

“The Chinese government made limited counter proposals. They were trying to link the airport to the issue of the composition of the Executive Council and the number of directly elected seats in the Legislative Council. Mr Patten would no doubt want to think carefully before responding,” the minutes read, without specifying whose words they were.

Hard-fought Sino-British negotiations over Hong Kong revealed in declassified files

The plan to construct a new airport was announced by then governor David Wilson in October 1989 as part of the Airport Core Programme, commonly known as the Rose Garden Project, which involved 10 infrastructure projects costing over HK$100 billion (US$12.8 billion) in total.

The announcement, which came without advance agreement with Beijing, drew heavy criticism from China, which accused Britain of emptying the public coffers before the handover of sovereignty in 1997.

Another set of documents show that major construction contracts for the airport project worth some £700 million (US$938 million) were awarded to an Anglo-Japanese consortium, while three British companies secured “good contracts” worth £250 million.

No mention is made in the documents of how Patten responded to Beijing, but the ex-governor proposed in October 1992 to significantly broaden the electoral base for the 1995 Legco polls.

Minutes from another cabinet meeting led by then prime minister John Major on October 29, 1992, quote secretary of state Douglas Hurd as saying Patten’s visit to Beijing earlier that month had seen China show “no interest” in discussing the substance of his electoral reforms.

Lu Ping, Beijing’s top official on Hong Kong affairs during the handover talks, branded Patten a “sinner for a thousand years” in a press conference after the visit.

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“They were taking a line in public designed to undermine support for him in Hong Kong. So far, the mood in Hong Kong had been encouragingly resilient, although, without Chinese cooperation over important matters, including the airport, a difficult period lay ahead,” the minutes read.

About two months later, in December, the British foreign secretary reported in another meeting that Beijing had made clear its objection to Patten’s electoral reforms and refused to accept his offer to discuss any changes.

Chris Patten admits Britain did poor job in introducing democracy to Hong Kong

“Instead, their opposition had now entered a belligerent phase and the attempt was being made, which was unacceptable, to stir up opinion in Hong Kong against the governor,” the documents said.

Patten would not insist on the electoral reform proposals if Legco did not want them, but would press ahead if the lawmakers agreed and “the United Kingdom would stand by them”.

But the minutes said it would be important to prevent the ramifications spilling over into Sino-British relations as a whole.

The documents also reveal how Britain sought to make use of its allies when dealing with Beijing.

“In a brief discussion, it was pointed out that internationalisation of Hong Kong issues as the result of talking to friendly and influential governments with interests in Hong Kong would be helpful.

“The governor had already talked to the Japanese government, which, though unlikely to say much publicly, would be influential in private in Beijing,” the minutes read.

The British cabinet also believed China losing most favoured nation status at the World Trade Organisation when Bill Clinton became president of the United States in 1993 would offer some leverage over the Chinese authorities.