40 years of reform and opening up

The Hong Kong group of professionals tasked by Beijing in 1980s to study city pre-handover

  • Paul Yip led a research bid commissioned by the HKMAO to lend insight on British decolonialisation process
  • Democrat Albert Ho, also a group member, recalls how their views were welcomed and respected by central government
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 November, 2018, 3:04pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 November, 2018, 9:18pm

Paul Yip Kwok-wah recalls the 1980s when he was commissioned by a mainland Chinese agency overseeing Hong Kong affairs to organise local professionals across the political spectrum to study the city’s systems.

A Beijing-friendly businessman at the time, he would later become a special adviser to Hong Kong’s first chief executive Tung Chee-hwa from 1997 to 2002. Yip noted how the central government’s liberal stance towards Hong Kong in the 1980s was in stark contrast to its tough position in recent years.

In a recent interview with the South China Morning Post, Yip said reports written by professionals in the study were submitted to the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) and he believed Beijing was receptive to their suggestions.

When Hong Kong democrats were welcomed with open arms by Beijing

Yip said he had suggested inviting some professionals in Hong Kong to conduct research and set up the ACL Consultancy to coordinate the projects.

He said he was approached in 1983 by Wang Luming and Li Hou, then deputy directors of the HKMAO. “[The office] earmarked HK$2 million to fund the studies,” Yip said.

Nearly 40 professionals and experts from different sectors were roped in, covering political development, the relationship between Hong Kong and the mainland, as well as finance, legal, and education matters.

Members involved in the studies included: former Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho Chun-yan; barrister Martin Lee Chu-ming, also the party’s founding chairman; professor of economics at the University of Hong Kong Jao Yu-ching; Chinese University political scientist Chang Chak-yan; and media professional Ng Chi-sum.

Mainland officials were desperate to grasp how Hong Kong’s political, economic and legal systems operated
Paul Yip. former chief executive adviser

“Mainland officials were desperate to grasp how Hong Kong’s political, economic and legal systems operated, after Beijing started the negotiation with Britain on Hong Kong’s future,” Yip said.

The direction of their studies centred on what Britain did before retreating from former colonies and how it would shed light on Hong Kong’s handover, according to Yip.

“At the time, Beijing respected the views of Hong Kong professionals very much and was willing to heed their opinion,” he said.

The professionals were divided into eight groups. The reports, which included suggestions for the way forward, were submitted to the HKMAO.

Ho, who is a lawyer by profession, said he conducted studies with Martin Lee on the models of constitutional development, the process of decolonialisation and human rights law.

“Beijing was relatively open-minded at the time and willing to embrace Hongkongers with divergent views,” Ho said. “We were encouraged by the availability of channels to express our views to the central government.”

But Yip said it was regrettable that the copies from those studies were lost by his group and the HKMAO after the relocation of offices.

We were encouraged by the availability of channels to express our views to the central government
Albert Ho, Democrat

Yip said those who took part in the studies were public intellectuals who cared about Hong Kong’s future. “Many of them played crucial roles in Hong Kong’s political development since the 1980s,” he said.

Ho said the relationship between him and Beijing turned sour in the wake of the debate on whether direct elections should be introduced to the Legislative Council in 1988 and the Tiananmen crackdown the following year.

Yip, who in 2004 called for reconciliation between Beijing and pan-democrats, lamented the tension between Beijing and the camp in recent years.

“I still believe the central government should take the initiative to improve ties with pan-democrats. Neither side should demonise each other,” he said.