WAITING FOR CHINA: An Empire at Dusk
British Leave Hong Kong In Sour Kind of Grandeur
By WARREN HOGE
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
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
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
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
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
''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.''