The ‘unofficial’ Hong Kong who advised Britain on the transfer – and were ignored | Hong-Kong

lIn official Chinese and British versions of Hong Kong’s history, the choices of the great powers occupy the most pages. Little space is given to the voices of the people of Hong Kong. But in the years leading up to the area’s 1997 handover, a group of local industrialists tried — and failed — to influence the course of history.

They were called “unofficials”, a group of well-connected local advisers appointed by British governors in their de facto cabinet to advise on the policy of the area. For years, this group of local Hong Kong Chinese was seen as the go-to figures for complex issues. And for a long time their advice seemed to have some influence on colonial governors.

But the role of the unofficial began to change when the most controversial topic emerged in the late 1970s. In March 1979, the governor, Murray MacLehose – known locally as Big Mac – began investigating the ‘1997 issue’ with China’s top leader, Deng Xiaoping. The governor saw the problems as an “inevitable source of crisis” if left unaddressed.

The Guardian, Feb 3, 1991.
The Guardian’s report on the matter, dated February 3, 1991. Photo: Guardian

Left in the dark

MacLehose’s trip to talk to Deng in Beijing didn’t go well, according to historians writing about the encounter years later. At the time, most of his senior advisers – including SY Chung, an “unofficial” engineer turned politician – were left in the dark about what was being discussed between the British and the Chinese. Without information, many in Hong Kong continued to believe that British rule would extend beyond 1997.

To some, the British governor’s secrecy about the details of the meeting with Deng exposed a rift between the interests of the crown and the inhabitants of the colony. Like Chung, most of the unofficial ones were also kept out, says Louisa Lim, author of Indelible City: Expropriation and Resistance in Hong Kong. “Their enforced ignorance was not just done; it was a thoughtful strategy by the British government, documented in diplomatic notes,” she says.

In the early 1980s, uncertainty about Hong Kong’s future hung over the territory. After being kept in limbo, there was a sense of urgency among the unofficial; they should fight alone – not against Beijing, but against London.

Throughout that decade, the question of Hong Kong’s identity kept cropping up. The Nationality Act of 1980 proposed a new status for residents of Hong Kong as “citizens of a British Dependent Territory”. As the Guardian reported on March 7, 1981, some wondered whether Britain would waive its obligations to them if a transfer were to take place.

Chris Patten, the 28th and last governor of colonial Hong Kong, receives the Union Jack flag after it was last lowered at Government House in 1997.
Chris Patten, the 28th and last governor of colonial Hong Kong, receives the Union Jack flag after it was last lowered at Government House in 1997. Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

So before the last parliamentary debate in October of that year, two unofficials went to London to lobby the British government for British national status for the people of Hong Kong. But the reaction of British MPs shocked them.

“They all assured us it wasn’t the British Hong Kong national they were looking for – it was Gibraltar people and everything – but they did say, ‘We don’t mind you being there, but I certainly wouldn’t want to wake one of them. . bye and go to my butcher and my drug store to find out that Hong Kong Chinese run them,” said one of the unofficials, banker Li Fook-wo, who recalled this version to British Hong Kong academic some time after the event Steve Tsang.

They were humiliated and went back home. The frustration kept piling up. So much so, Chung told Margaret Thatcher in a private meeting a few months later that if the British government couldn’t trust its own local advisers, some of them might have no choice but to resign.

“The unofficials were in a particularly impotent and paradoxical position,” says Lim. “Before Beijing they did not exist, although they were sometimes asked for their opinions, while in Britain they were consulted and then ignored.”

Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 1982 during one of the meetings leading up to the signing of the Joint Declaration.
Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 1982 during one of the meetings leading up to the signing of the Joint Declaration. Photo: AFP/Getty

Fear of the future

During the nearly two dozen rounds of negotiations between Beijing and London in the early 1980s, none of the unofficials like Chung were allowed to attend. The British thought their view of China was too ‘confrontational’.

Ironically, when the decision to renounce Hong Kong in 1997 was finally announced on April 20, 1984, it brought a sense of liberation to the advisers. Encouraged, a nine-member delegation – led by Chung – went to London to try to put pressure on the government.

But London was prepared. The press was advised against them before their arrival and described their statement as “militant”. Their crucial questions to their colonial masters were: What would happen if China violated the Sino-British Joint Declaration? Could Hong Kong residents vote on the joint statement? If so, how?

It was also a controversial visit at home. Pro-Beijing newspapers accused the delegation of “spreading gloom in Hong Kong” despite Hong Kong’s stock market index falling 200 points since the April 20 announcement. “We are here to try and reflect the aspirations of the Hong Kong people,” said Selina Chow, a member of the delegation, as reported by the Guardian on May 13, 1984. “We are asking the British government, ‘How are you doing? your obligations to me? How are you going to protect me from these doubts?’”

SY Chung in
SY Chung in Photo: South China Morning Post/Getty Images

But before they got any response from London, they were fired – including by their former boss, MacLehose, who had meanwhile been peered for life. For Chung, it was unforgivable. “I will never forget the words of the MPs who criticized us saying that the unofficial members of the two councils were not elected, so how could they represent Hong Kong? … I said to them, ‘How can you claim that you can negotiate for us? You also do not have a mandate from us; I never chose you,” he later recalled to Tsang.

A sophisticated businessman who had often dealt with China, Chung had warned the British not to be too gullible about the Chinese. He had also urged London to ensure that Beijing did not break its promises. He had reservations about the proposed agreement. His fears ranged from whether Hong Kong’s future governments would actually be ruled from Beijing, to whether Chinese politics would return to the far-left. “Looking back, they were all prophetic,” says Lim.

A cold welcome in Beijing

Seeing that London was going nowhere, the unofficials began meetings with Beijing on their own. In June 1984, Chung led a three-person delegation to see Deng at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

Just as they were accused by London of not having the right to represent the people of Hong Kong, the unofficials were similarly fobbed off. “Deng told the delegation that he was willing to listen to their views as individuals, but that it would make no difference to China’s plans for the colony,” according to a Guardian report on June 25, 1984.

“You can say what you like, but I must point out that the People’s Republic of China is firmly committed to its positions, principles and policies on the Hong Kong issue,” Deng told the trio. “We have heard many different opinions, but we do not recognize that they represent the interests of all Hong Kong people,” he added, accusing Chung and his colleagues of “[having] no confidence in the People’s Republic of China”.

The Hong Kong press described the meeting as a “humiliation”. However, the unofficial put on a brave face and described the dress-up by the Chinese leader as “very candid and thorough”.

“The unofficials tried very hard to put the will of the people of Hong Kong before policy makers in China and Britain, but were immediately turned away by the Chinese leaders and not taken seriously enough by the British government.” says Tsang, who now heads the Soas China Institute in London.

The Guardian, May 27, 1987
The Guardian, May 27, 1987. Photo: Guardian

Changing loyalty

A few years after those humiliating trips to both capitals, Chung became a prominent voice by calling the area’s direct-election plan “unrealistic.” In April 1987, he reaffirmed to the press that Britain would hand over Hong Kong in 1997 “to China, not to the Hong Kong people”.

Shortly before Christmas in 1993, Chung went to Chris Patten, who had started as the last governor of Hong Kong the year before. This time, his role had changed. “Perhaps inevitably, because he failed to influence the outgoing colonial power, he eventually went to the other side and is now one of Beijing’s advisers,” Patten wrote in his diary, which was published recently.

A few weeks later, the two men met again. “He fell with a hook, line and sinker for the Chinese version of the end of the talks,” recalled Patten on Monday, January 10, 1994. “It’s sad and surprising. He always claimed we should hold on to Victoria Island and all that.” needed to supply water by tanker.”

After the transfer in 1997, Chung was appointed as an unofficial chairman of the executive council by Tung Chee-hwa, the area’s first chief executive. He died in 2018 at the age of 101. Local press called him “the godfather of politics in Hong Kong” and “the lord of lords”.

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