WAITING FOR CHINA: An Empire at Dusk

British Leave Hong Kong In Sour Kind of Grandeur

By WARREN HOGE
 
03/27/97
The New York Times
Late Edition - Final
Page 1, Column 1
c. 1997 New York Times Company

 

LONDON, March 22 -- This summer brings Britain an emotive reminder of how the empire was supposed to end, the 50th anniversary of the independence of India, and the rude truth of how rancorously it is in fact ending -- the distressed return of Hong Kong to China.

There was a grandeur and great-power pageantry to the first event, despite division and bloodshed that was to follow, which will be acutely missing in the present ceremony.

Fifty years ago, Indian independence leaders who had fought the British were magnanimous in their victory -- the Harrow- and Cambridge-educated Jawaharlal Nehru toasted a portrait of King George VI during the ceremonies. When Hong Kong returns to Chinese control at midnight on June 30, the British face resentful and suspicious Chinese successors, and any sense of British accomplishment is mixed with chagrin.

The stunningly prosperous community that emerged under British rule is arguably the most successful colony ever, but that legacy has been undermined by disillusionment over the impasse between China and Britain in recent years, and by the awareness that Britain's traditionally restrictive attitude toward immigration forestalled extending the protections of full citizenship to more residents of Hong Kong.

The British must swallow the humiliation of knowing that the Chinese will crush even London's last-minute attempts at fostering civil liberties. And they must endure the embarrassment of knowing that the tough new Chinese measures to curb freedom of expression, ban protests and cut back on Hong Kong's two-year-old Bill of Rights are in many cases the same measures by which the British colonialists themselves ruled the territory for much of this century.

Perhaps because of the feeling that this is an ignoble exit, the British public as a whole seems indifferent to the loss of its last major outpost of empire, and there is little public debate over how well Britain has managed its departure.

''After all, Britain will be turning over 6.5 million people to the most unpleasant and authoritarian government there is,'' said Gerald Segal , senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London and author of the book ''The Fate of Hong Kong.''

It has become more and more difficult for Britain to meet its goal, which Mr. Segal described as ''achieving some dignity in retreat.''

The growing impotence of Britain in Hong Kong has been pointed up by China's defiant decision to scrap the British-sponsored constitutional reforms and by rebukes this month from the leadership in Beijing to British claims of the right to ''monitor'' the Hong Kong agreement after the transfer of sovereignty on July 1.

''No one, including Britain, has the right to meddle in Hong Kong affairs,'' Li Peng, the Chinese Prime Minister, said this month in response to an assertion by Malcolm Rifkind, the British Foreign Secretary, that the Chinese-British Joint Declaration entitled Britain to consult on Hong Kong's future.

Neither have the British offered refuge for many Hong Kong residents who might want to leave rather than face curbs on political expression. The only time there was great public support for broadening immigration rights to Hong Kong residents was in the immediate aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. The Government responded with a plan, British Nationality Selection Scheme, under which 50,000 Hong Kong heads of households and their family members were given citizenship with the right to live in Britain if life became inhospitable for them at home.

Britain is leaving 3.5 million people with passports that identify them as citizens of a British Dependent Territory, entitling them to visit Britain without a visa but not to live here. In a move championed by Chris Patten, Hong Kong's Governor, the British Government has just permitted 8,000 members of the colony's ethnic minorities -- mainly longtime residents of Indian and Pakistani descent who would have been stateless after the transition -- to apply for full British citizenship.

Policy makers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are focusing their attention these days on the ceremony itself on June 30. They are keenly aware that the world will be watching, and whatever else may have declined in Britain, a concern with maintaining appearances has not. The number of journalists expected -- 3,500 -- is cited frequently by British officials.

While the lowering of the Union Jack over Britain's last major colony will signal the end of an empire on which the sun never set and in which a quarter of the world's population resided, the moment carries little substantive meaning for Britain or its role in the world. ''It may still exist in a couple of clubs in Pall Mall, but for most Britons the empire is no longer a reality,'' said one official at the Foreign Office.

Echoes of Imperial Past As Power Is Yielded 

  
There will be intoxicating reminders of Britain's colonial history, however, because of the confluence of the commemoration of the beginning of the end of empire and its actual end.

When Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, turned over the governing of newly independent India to Nehru at midnight on Aug. 14, 1947, he extolled the moment as ''not an end, but a beginning, an unbelievably happy beginning.''

The next day Lord Mountbatten, resplendent in dress whites with full decorations and the dark sash of the Garter slung across his chest, was hailed by throngs of Indians as he rode in a horse-drawn state landau to Council House to address the new constituent assembly.

''All the animosities between the Indians and the British which had grown up over decades seemed to melt away,'' he recalled years later, ''and it was wonderful to be carried along on the tides of friendship.'' In Britain, the day was one for expressions of national pride, even from Conservatives angry at the breakup of empire.

Despite the euphoria, Britain's exit from India had its own troubled legacy. Britain did not willingly grant India independence; instead, economically and militarily exhausted, it reluctantly began to shed its empire in the aftermath of World War II. And ethnic tensions between Hindus and Muslims exploded into bloodshed in the riots after the partition of India and Pakistan.

The departure from Hong Kong on July 1 will not be short on ceremony; the pipes and drums of the Black Watch, which presided over the end of colonialization in India, will be joined by the Band of the Scots Guards, the Highland Band and the Gurkha Band. Soldiers in kilts and tam-o-shanters crowned with vulture feather hackles will march, but the only parading that Prince Charles, the leader of the British delegation, Governor Patten and Maj. Gen. Bryan Dutton, the commander of British forces in Hong Kong, will be taking part in will be a short walk to the Royal Yacht Britannia for the final departure. Fittingly, it is the 44-year-old vessel's last task before decommissioning.

The Chinese have said they will let the Britannia sail away before they begin their celebration of what they consider the cleansing of a 156-year-old stain of shame and the restoration of the physical integrity of the motherland.

''They've decided to give the old lion a bit of face,'' a senior official said wanly.

The current mood contrasts with the satisfaction in London at the signing of the long-negotiated Joint Declaration in 1984 that sought to insure that Hong Kong's freedom and unabashedly capitalist way of life would continue for at least 50 years under Deng Xiaoping's ''one country, two systems'' formula. Britain's 99-year lease on much of the colony's territory was to run out in 1997, and the only option for a nation dedicated to the rule of law was to negotiate the best possible exit.

About the only contentment in the Foreign Office over what has evolved in recent years in Hong Kong is the feeling that since an abrupt policy shift in 1992, Britain has tried to do the honorable thing, even if it came too late and had little effect.

A Burst of Rancor From a Diplomat  

  
That limited sense of achievement has come under attack in a steady tattoo of unusually personalized criticism from one of the country's most distinguished diplomats, Sir Percy Cradock, an architect of the original accord and a former Ambassador to Beijing and foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her successor, John Major.

Sir Percy and his policy of cooperation with the Chinese became anathema to British public opinion after Tiananmen.

A ''Who lost Hong Kong?'' sentiment arose in the Parliament and the press, and cooperation with China was likened to appeasement. When Mr. Major went to China in 1991 to sign an accord that Sir Percy had brokered, he told associates he felt ''humiliated'' to have been the first important Western leader to visit Beijing after Tiananmen.

Sir Percy was soon gone, and Mr. Major resolved to change Britain's posture with China dramatically, sending an outspoken politician rather than a compromise-minded diplomat to Hong Kong as the colony's last Governor. That person was Mr. Patten, the combative head of the Conservative Party, who had just lost re-election to Parliament from his constituency in Bath.

Mr. Patten arrived in Hong Kong in 1992 to find many of the local residents still traumatized by the events in Beijing and eager for increased constitutional protections. Mr. Patten tried to negotiate a more democratic government for Hong Kong and, when 17 months of talks with the Chinese produced no agreements, he moved unilaterally to put one in place. Mr. Patten's purpose was an effort to make up in a short time what had been a longtime British neglect of democratic principles.

The Chinese responded by criticizing and eventually shunning Mr. Patten. They pledged to throw out the elected Legislative Council, replace it with their own Provisional Legislature, which they set up last December, and weaken civil liberties.

Mr. Patten called that move ''legal nonsense'' and said it represented ''reckless disregard'' for the ''freedom, success and stability'' of Hong Kong. Britain threatened to take China to the International Court of Justice, but Mr. Rifkind, on a visit to the colony in February, noted the futility of such a move.

''If the Chinese are determined to maintain the Provisional Legislature, then they have the power to do so because they are the sovereign power,'' he said. Mr. Rifkind tried to hold a meeting with the new assembly, and all but 8 of its 60 members snubbed him.

While the British actions were bringing rebukes from the Chinese, they were looked upon favorably in the press and Parliament here.

''The greatest virtue of the Patten policy is that it smoked out the fundamental contradictions of the Chinese policy of one country, two systems,'' Mr. Segal said.

The Chinese action dashed the hopes of the negotiators of the original accord that there would be a partly appointed, partly elected legislature in place that would survive the transfer of executive power.

Sitting in the book-lined study of his retirement home in South London recently, Sir Percy performed a vituperative vivisection of the policy adopted after his departure and delivered an unforgiving assessment of Mr. Patten.

''He has been incompetent, and as a result of it, we are getting less democracy, less protection, less rule of law than we would have if he hadn't come,'' he said.

The Foreign Office says that a policy of cooperation with China was ''unsustainable'' after the events of 1989, and that relations necessarily took on a different cast. Sir Percy is impatient with that argument.

''The Joint Declaration was an agreement with a Communist Government, we always knew that,'' he said. ''We never pretended we were dealing with Asquithian liberals.'' Herbert Asquith was the Liberal Prime Minister who championed Home Rule for Ireland .

''I'm not saying the Chinese action was right, but it was totally explicable, totally predictable,'' said Sir Percy. ''What we did was to encourage the Chinese in their belief that we are not to be trusted. We confirmed all their old suspicions.''

While the nations of the European Union and Asia have remained largely aloof from Britain's efforts for democracy in Hong Kong, the United States has remained solidly in London's corner. A British diplomat, offered the opportunity to comment with full candor on the nature of American support, voiced no misgivings. An American diplomat said, ''The kind of Hong Kong after transition that they wanted and the kind we wanted were virtually identical.''