Hong Kong political reform

Declassified files reveal disagreement between Chris Patten and British government over how to deal with China before Hong Kong handover in 1997

  • Governor Chris Patten was at odds with country’s own diplomats when it came to negotiating tactics
  • Patten’s electoral reform proposals angered Beijing, and 1993 talks ultimately collapsed
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 January, 2019, 7:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 January, 2019, 10:14am

The city’s last governor, Chris Patten, squabbled with British negotiators over their tactics in talks with Beijing on electoral reform in Hong Kong’s before the 1997 handover, newly declassified British files reveal.

Patten’s proposal to give 2.7 million residents the vote angered China, and put him at odds with some of his country’s own diplomats, who took a more pragmatic approach.

Files released by the National Archives in London last week have revealed the internal discussions within the British government on how to deal with negotiations in 1993.

In a telegram to assistant undersecretary for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Christopher Hum on February 15, 1993, Robin McLaren, Britain’s top negotiator, suggested taking the initiative to move the talks forward to more substantive discussion, by exploring Beijing’s reactions to possible alternatives.

“To get to the next stage of substantive discussion, we should have to take the initiative. Whether this happened over the main negotiation table, in restricted session or in some even more private format we should have to explore Chinese reactions to some possible alternatives,” wrote McLaren, who was also Britain’s ambassador to China at the time.

“This might be on a hypothetical basis (‘if we were to propose such and such …’). Such an initiative is likely to be necessary if we are to move forward,” the ambassador wrote.

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But Patten, whose reform package angered Beijing, insisted British negotiators needed to limit themselves to explaining his proposal once the talks began.

In a telegram to Hum later that same day, the governor argued it would be “exceedingly difficult” to accept a Chinese refusal to put forward specific alternative proposals on the functional constituencies, and the Election Committee, and “in the absence of such specific proposals to put forward alternatives ourselves”.

Patten wrote: “Surely that would be playing entirely into Chinese hands? Would they not immediately leak the fact that we had effectively withdrawn my proposals?”

Under Patten’s electoral reform package, 2.7 million electors would be given a vote in nine new functional constituencies in the 1995 Legislative Council election. Ten lawmakers would be drawn from elected representatives of district boards, which were renamed as district councils after 1997.

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Beijing believed the plan breached the Basic Law – the city’s mini-constitution – and Sino-British agreements already in place.

Peter Ricketts, head of the Hong Kong Department in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and a members of the British team for the talks, warned that Patten’s inflexible approach could result in their rapid collapse.

In a letter to Hum, and J S Smith, private secretary to then-Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, on February 16, Ricketts wrote that Patten argued that the first round of talks should be limited to explaining his proposals, and pressing the Chinese side to come up with alternatives.

“We believe that this approach is likely to mean that the talks break down rapidly,” Ricketts wrote.

But Patten, who had direct access to then British prime minister and close friend John Major, had his way.

In his reply to Ricketts the following day, Smith wrote that Hurd was “reluctant to dissent from the governor”.

“He understands your concern that we should not allow the talks to break down,” Smith wrote. “But at the same time he is particularly concerned about how our approach in Peking will be seen in terms of Hong Kong internal politics, which of course the governor is best placed to judge.”

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Contacted by the Post for comment, Patten said: “Peter Ricketts’ messages reflected my view that Beijing had no proposals to put forward itself to develop democratic accountability in Hong Kong, even though this was something they regularly promised to deliver.”

“Their only objective was to string out the talks and to prevent anything that was supported by people in Hong Kong and proposed by the Government to make Hong Kong’s elections fairer,” Patten said.

He also said he believed that Beijing would play the negotiations as long as possible but that they would get nowhere.

“This is exactly what happened until the eventual breakdown of the talks and the vote by the Legco to support the government’s (reform) plans,” he said.

He said that in the past he had declared that he wished the British government had ended the talks earlier. “This would have given the new Legco longer to bed down,” Patten said.

On February 19, the British government finalised a “steering brief” outlining its objectives, expected approach of the Chinese side, and tactics for conduct of the discussions.

The talks kicked off two months later, but collapsed in November 1993.

The “through-train” arrangements – under which the members of Hong Kong’s last Legislative Council were to become members of the Special Administrative Region’s first legislature – were derailed.

In his 1996 paper for the Royal Institute of International Affairs on Britain’s record in Hong Kong, McLaren questioned whether limited democratic improvements introduced by the British government for Hong Kong’s elections justified the decision to sacrifice the “through train”, and provoke China into dissolving the elected government at the handover.

The retired diplomat, who died in 2010, said this must be “a matter of judgment”.