Shortly before midnight on June 30, 1997, a Chinese national flag replaced the Union Jack in Hong Kong, marking the end of British colonial rule.
China celebrated with fireworks. Britain’s Prince Charles, who was in attendance at a handover ceremony in Hong Kong, was less impressed. In a diary entry that later became public, the prince complained about the "awful Soviet-style" ceremonies that night, including top Chinese officials whom he described as "appalling old waxworks".
Seventeen years later, Great Britain, China and Hong Kong continue to spar over the handover and the 1984 pact that set it up, the Sino-British Joint Declaration. The language and intent of that pact - signed by two legendary world figures, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping - are at the heart of the pro-democracy protests that have wracked the city for more than a month.
The 1984 declaration didn’t require China to allow Western-style democracy in Hong Kong, though it did promise the territory “a high degree of autonomy,” outside of issues involving Chinese national security. It's now clear, however, that that wording gave China enough room to control the outcome of politics in Hong Kong. Hopes among many residents that they would obtain some measure of independence seem to have been misplaced.
"In hindsight, one could always say, there are things the British could have pushed for harder," said Steve Tsang, a Hong Kong-born historian who teaches at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom. "But you have to put yourself into the situation of people who were handling the negotiations, and where they thought were the limits of Chinese acceptance at the time."
Tsang, the author of the 2004 book A Modern History of Hong Kong, is among a number of scholars who anticipated the constitutional crisis that's now unfolding.
For more than four weeks, protesters have occupied key streets in Hong Kong, frequently clashing with police and counter-protesters. Many pro-democracy activists say they’ve been betrayed by local officials and Beijing after years of promises about self-governance.
In 1990, for instance, the National People’s Congress approved Hong Kong’s Basic Law, a type of constitution that Chinese officials said they would honour, along with Hong Kong’s desire for an elected government.
"How Hong Kong develops its democracy in the future is completely within the sphere of the autonomy of Hong Kong," Lu Ping, China’s top official on Hong Kong, was quoted as saying in the People’s Daily in 1993. "The central government will not interfere."
And now . . .
Flash-forward to 2014: Beijing has said it will allow a 2017 vote on the region's next chief executive but will effectively control who can run for the office. In August, it approved a system in which two or three candidates may vie for the seat after being vetted by a 1,200-member elections committee controlled by the Communist Party.
Some legal scholars see Beijing’s proposal as no better than the election system in Iran, where the government gets to pick who runs. Yet others note that China is within its authority to impose such a system, based on a close reading of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration and the 1990 Basic Law.
"Contrary to what some are saying, the proposals on the table do not contravene what was agreed upon between China and the UK,” Tim Summers, a senior consulting fellow in Hong Kong for Chatham House, the noted British research center, wrote in a commentary October 8 for CNN.com. "All the joint declaration said is that the chief executive will be 'appointed by the central people’s government on the basis of elections or consultations to be held locally (in Hong Kong)."
Tsang, the historian, agrees. The 1984 joint declaration, he said, was intentionally vague - at China’s insistence. Great Britain, a fading colonial power, could hardly press the issue with a rising China.
The pact, said Tsang, was "nothing stronger than a very thin glass door. Everyone knew that they (Chinese leaders) could kick it in."
A brief history of Hong Kong
Great Britain acquired Hong Kong Island in 1843 and expanded its holdings in 1856, in what would later be called the second opium war. With its deep harbour and strategic location, Hong Kong would grow to become an international port and Asian banking capital and a conduit for British trade throughout Asia.
But for a succession of Chinese leaders on the mainland, Hong Kong would remain a symbol of imperial humiliation, an attitude that continues to define their relationship with the Britain and other Western countries on a range of issues, not just Hong Kong.
Paradoxically, Great Britain never introduced democracy to Hong Kong; the governor was appointed by London and there were no elections. But the British did set up a highly responsive, efficient administration. In Tsang’s view, that administration "delivered what you would usually see in a democracy," including an independent court system and, an oddity in much of Asia, real "rule of law".
Under British control, Hong Kong residents were spared the ravages of China's civil war, the post-1949 famines and the Cultural Revolution. Refugees from those conflicts streamed into Hong Kong, along with immigrants from other corners of Asia. Some built their fortunes here.
By the 1980s, it was clear that Great Britain couldn't hold on to Hong Kong forever. While it wasn't obligated to hand back Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon district, a treaty required it to transfer to China the New Territories, where half of Hong Kong’s population lived. And so, with Thatcher and Deng in power, discussions started on a complete transfer of the UK's imperial holdings.
Why didn't Hongkongers protest for democracy then? According to Tsang, they weren't consulted on the talks, and many, having grown apolitical, trusted that Great Britain would look after their interests.
In addition, some British officials have said that, looking back, they were reluctant to respond to democratic aspirations in Hong Kong during this period.
"We didn't introduce democracy," Charles Powell, a foreign policy adviser to Thatcher, said in an interview on October 5 with the BBC. "And one reason we didn't is because we knew it was eventually going back to China, and it would have been far worse to introduce full democracy and then take it away from them."
Threats from China
Yet there was another reason Britain didn’t fan Hong Kong’s democracy: threats from China. Recently unearthed British documents suggest that, as early as the 1950s, the Chinese warned their British counterparts that any attempt to introduce democracy to Hong Kong would be considered a hostile act. And such an act might be met with force from China, according to a recent report by Gwynn Guilford in Quartz, an online newsmagazine.
In 1960, Liao Chengzhi, a high-ranking Chinese official, told Hong Kong union representatives that China would "not hesitate to take positive action to have Hong Kong, Kowloon and the New Territories liberated" if the British introduced self-governance.
Look at where we are now
At Hong Kong's main protest site in Admiralty recently, a McClatchy reporter came across Andrew Leung, a 58-year-old retired engineer. He said he'd been coming out daily to support the occupiers, many of whom are students.
Asked why his generation didn't protest for democracy back in the 1980s, Leung had this answer:
"At that time, we were not aware of where this all would lead," said Leung. "Plus, the situation has changed a lot in 30 years. Look at where we are now."
Hong’s Kong's transition
Since China took control of Hong Kong in 1997, tensions have simmered between Beijing and Hong Kong citizens. Each year since 1989, tens of thousands of city residents attend a June 4 candlelight vigil to mark China's 1989 crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square.
In 2003, more than 500,000 Hong Kongers took to the streets to protest proposed legislation that legal experts feared would undermine press freedoms and other liberties. In 2012, large numbers turned out to support student protests against school curriculum changes. In both cases, the Hong Kong and Chinese governments backed off.
All those protests have set the stage for the current civil disobedience, along with economic frustrations. Many young people say Hong Kong is weighted toward pro-Beijing "tycoons" and multinational corporations cashing in on tourism from mainland China.
Questions of British responsibility over the situation have also resurfaced.
In recent weeks, some Hong Kong democracy leaders have accused Great Britain of staying too far on the sidelines. One of them is Anson Chan Fang On-sang, the former chief secretary to Chris Patten, Great Britain's last governor of Hong Kong.
"Talk to British business people and their first instinct is to keep their heads low," Chan wrote in a scathing commentary October 5 in The Guardian. "They just want things to carry on as before, would like the protests to disappear, and maintain good relations with China. The view from the British government is not much different."
Since that opinion piece, Britain has more forcefully commented on the Hong Kong protests. That's contributed to numerous claims by Chinese leaders that the demonstrations are the work of "foreign influence".
In Tsang’s view, British leaders didn't have much leverage in 1984 and they don't have much now, given what he says are chronic Chinese government misunderstandings.
"The Chinese keep misinterpreting what is happening on the ground," said Tsang, who was born in Hong Kong and educated there. As a result, he said, the local government - led by Leung Chun-ying - overreacted to the initial demonstrations, turning a manageable protest action into one that's become highly volatile. "Beijing's response got harder and harder, quite unnecessarily, and that is where we are."