Tue, Jul 04, 2017 - Page 8 News List

China’s Hong Kong after 20 years

By Chris Patten

While I was governor of Hong Kong, from 1992 until the handover of the territory to China in 1997, I kept a diary. Consulting that diary over the past few months, as I write a book partly about my experience there, I have discovered several passages describing China’s “struggle” school of diplomacy — one that endures even today, as we approach the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty.

In China’s struggle school of diplomacy, no decision could be confirmed without a protracted argument with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials. That argument ended only when it became clear that the Chinese could squeeze no other concessions out of those on the other side of the table.

Time, Chinese negotiators seemed — or pretended — to believe, was on their side, so they could always wait out their opponents.

It was often difficult to see the point of the whole miserable exercise. Why, for example, push up the price of a new airport for Hong Kong by delaying its construction?

I suppose the Chinese authorities preferred that the project be completed when China, not the UK, was responsible for the territory.

Another example of this bullying approach concerned the arrangements for the handover itself.

China made a number of proposals that, had we not resisted them, would have allowed its army to sweep into Hong Kong well before June 30, 1997, the agreed handover date.

The Chinese also pushed hard to make the handover ceremony itself a humiliation for Britain.

They wanted the Prince of Wales, the principal British representative at the ceremony, to pay court to then-Chinese president Jiang Zemin (江澤民) — though they did not demand that he bow before handing over the keys to the territory.

Here, too, we held firm, eventually agreeing that China’s president and the Prince of Wales would enter a room at the same time.

The Chinese president made a short formal speech, to which the prince and then-British prime minister Tony Blair offered impromptu responses.

With a flurry of handshakes, everyone departed and that was that.

It was not the kind of ceremony that should have taken such pains to plan, particularly given that the Chinese had nothing substantial to say; yet, as was so often the case, it was the product of a struggle.

Chinese negotiators’ obstreperousness might be somewhat palatable if the agreements that resulted were ironclad.

However, contrary to the perceptions of many — including those to whom I have spoken about China’s struggle diplomacy — evidence suggests that Chinese authorities do not necessarily keep their word.

Consider China’s accession to the WTO. During the negotiations, in which I was involved, China promised to open its market to the rest of the world.

However, it has done so only slowly — far more slowly than other countries opened their doors to Chinese exports and investment.

More broadly, the CCP connived to create a sloping playing field — just ask any foreign chamber of commerce in Beijing.

It probably seems hypocritical for a Western politician to criticize emerging powers for untrustworthiness, at a time when the president of the US — once the leader of the West — is the shockingly undependable Donald Trump.

With moves like withdrawing the US from the Paris climate agreement, Trump has shown that he can be trusted no further than he can be thrown.

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