AP front 1 - 2022

26 June 1997 Edition

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Stealing the best China

Brian Campbell explains how Britain came to occupy Hong Kong

Very little has been heard in the media in the run-up to the British handover of Hong Kong of how the colony was acquired by Britain in the first place. And no wonder. It is a dirty tale of drug dealing, imperial bullying and greed.

Two hundred years ago Britain imported vast quantities of tea from China; it was then the only place where it was grown. China at the time was ruled by the powerful Manchu Emperor Chien Lung and was a country which the imperial powers would not have thought to attack militarily. The tea was paid for in silver bullion until the British hit upon the idea of selling opium to the Chinese.

The drug was produced exclusively in Bengal by the East India Company, one of the trading companies which grew rich on British imperialist expansion. Opium was exported to China in huge quantities, doing great harm to the Chinese economy and to the wellbeing of the growing numbers of people who smoked it.

The Chinese banned opium in the 1830s but the British simply ignored the ban and continued the trade, smuggling the drug through coastal towns and thus creating a network of criminals who acted as their middlemen. By 1839 opium was India's largest export and China was facing ruin with the loss of money and the degeneration of its people who had been turned into addicts. Quite literally, the British Empire in India grew rich and China was ruined by British drug dealers.

In 1839 Emperor Tao Kuang - Chien Lung's grandson - ordered that over a hundred tons of British opium be confiscated and destroyed. This was done and Tao Kuang told the British to stop further importation.

The British response was to say that this was a violation of free trade. They sent gunboats and so the First Opium War began. Within two years China had been heavily defeated and the imperial powers gained control of important coastal cities. The war was not just about opium - it was also aimed at opening up the country and its vast market to imperial trade.

At the end of the war the British demanded six million dollars as compensation for the loss of its hundred tons of opium as well as an important addition: the island of Hong Kong. Britain acquired the island ``in perpetuity'' and subjugated its people who, at that time, were a few thousand fishing villagers.

A Second Opium War took place in 1860 and again China lost territory to the imperial powers. It was at this time that China was forced to cede Kowloon, a strip of the Chinese mainland beside Hong Kong island, to the British.

Then, in an imperialist sleight of hand, the British acquired what is now the largest part of modern Hong Kong - the New Territories - on a 99 year lease signed in 1898. It is this which expires at midnight on 30 June. The British were forced to concede control of all of Hong Kong because Hong Kong island and Kowloon on their own would not have been viable.

The Chinese have never recognised the treaties that handed Hong Kong to the British - saying they had been signed under duress - and the handover ends a national humiliation which has bitten very deeply into the Chinese consciousness.


Britain's late Hong Kong democracy

By Dara MacNeil

Britain's passion for democracy was slow to surface in Hong Kong. It was only in the early 1990s, with the handover to China of the territory agreed, that Hong Kong's colonial master began to show evidence of its oft-expressed enthusiasm for democratic practices.

The result, not surprisingly, is something of a mess. China has already said it intends to abolish the 60 member Legislative Council established by the colony's governor, Chris Patten. It is to be replaced by a similar-sized body, all of whose members will be appointed by China.

Last year, then British Prime Minister John Major fell just short of threatening all-out war on China if Beijing went ahead with the abolition of the Legislative Council, Hong Kong's first elected body in 150 years of colonial rule. Major charged that the move would amount to a breach of the 1984 Sino-British pact, the agreement which formally ratified the territory's return.

However, the Chinese have pointed out that under the 1984 pact Britain had agreed to handover the territory with its laws unaltered. They insist that Britain's last minute 'democratisation programme', which began only after the 1984 pact was signed, constitutes a breach of the accord.

Surprisingly, in the rush to condemn Chinese totalitarianism and anti-democratic instincts, few seem to have queried precisely why it took the 'mother of all parliaments' 150 years to deliver an approximation of democratic rule to one of its colonies. And why Britain's rush of democratic blood to the head occurred only after it had agreed the transfer of Hong Kong?

Margaret Thatcher had initially opposed the return of Hong Kong, despite the existence of the 99-year lease wrung from the Chinese under duress in the 19th century. However, it was clear that Britain had not a legal, political or indeed, military leg to stand on. This was not going to be the Malvinas Part II. So Thatcher, once convinced of the inevitability of return, promptly set about negotiating the terms of the transfer -- unbeknownst to the citizens of Hong Kong. In 1984, the Sino-British Pact was made public and the people of Hong Kong were presented with a fait accompli.

Despite their oft-expressed concern for the fate of Hong Kong's citizenry under Chinese rule, the British refused to grant passports to all but a tiny minority. In all, a mere 50,000 out of a population of 6 million were given the option of residence in Britain. A further 3.25 million people who have British Dependent Territory Citizenship were refused residence in the supposed Mother Country.

For most of its 150 year history, Britain ruled Hong Kong in much the same way as the Chinese intend to. An unelected governor enjoyed the powers of an absolute monarch. Advice was furnished by an unelected body of civil servants and businessmen -- all appointed to their posts by the governor.

The governor ruled with the aid of draconian legislation which placed severe restrictions on freedom of speech and demonstration. The Communist Party was banned and membership was punishable by jail. Simply distributing 'anti-British' political material meant imprisonment. In addition, all demonstrations were heavily-controlled.

Leung Kwok Hung, head of the April 5th pro-democracy movement, was himself arrested no less than eight times by the colonial administration for participating in "unlawful assemblies."

Thus, a radio reporter speaking from Hong Kong recently explained that what the people of Hong Kong fear most -- in terms of restrictions on civil liberties -- was not the imposition of new curbs by Beijing, but simply the resurrection of the colonial regime's very effective authoritarian strictures.

Anti-Chinese discrimination was also widespread. For many years, Chinese were barred from membership of exclusive clubs, such as the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club, just as they were prohibited (Apartheid-style) from residing in certain designated areas of the territory. In addition, people without 'competence in English' were barred from serving on juries. As the head of Hong Kong's Law Society recently commented: "Is that a right to trial by one's peers?"

Only in 1985, after the handover had been agreed, did Britain begin to relax its grip. Even then its democratic reforms meant that only half the colony's 6 million population actually enjoyed the right to vote in last year's Legislative Council elections. Too little, too late.

Had Britain been serious about democratising Hong Kong, it would have done so long, long ago by abolishing its own autocratic and anti-democratic regime and instituting comprehensive reforms, well before the negotiations with China had begun.

As it is, their half-hearted efforts smack of cynicism. Either they will provide a suitable platform for Chris Patten to relaunch his political career in Britain, or will prove a very useful stick with which to beat China in the years to come.

Thus in many respects, Mr Tung Chee-hwa, the man who takes over from governor Chris Patten, is simply stepping into a role filled with ease by 28 previous colonial rulers of Hong Kong.

And as Britain beats a chaotic, disorderly and very dishonourable retreat, its late conversion to the democratic cause looks ever more unconvincing. China's authoritarian regime in Hong Kong has ample historical precedent.


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