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  • Hong Kong: Appointment with China
  • J. Y. Wong (bio)
Steve Tsang . Hong Kong: An Appointment with China. London: I. B. Tauris, 1997. xiii, 274 pp. Paperback $17.95, ISBN 1-86064-311-6.

This is one of the best books I have read on the restoration of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty. It is focused and well written. The author calls the restoration an "appointment," and, like all appointments, it could have been advanced, postponed, canceled, or kept. The restoration was one appointment that had to be, and was, kept.

The appointment had been made in 1898, when Britain leased from China for ninety-nine years what was to become known as the New Territories of Hong Kong. The lease was intended to consolidate the position of the existing British colony, which consisted of Hong Kong Island (ceded in 1842) and Kowloon Peninsula (ceded in 1860). The cessions were made in perpetuity and theoretically were not affected by the lease. However, the New Territories had become such an integral part of "Greater Hong Kong" that the ceded territories could no longer survive without the leased territories. Thus, as the inevitable appointment approached, the whole of Hong Kong had to be considered as one entity.

The book begins with why and how the appointment was made back in 1898 during the scramble by the Powers for concessions in China. Ironically, the scramble heightened the sense of crisis among the Chinese, facilitating the rise of modern nationalism, which led to the early return of territories leased by the other Powers—but not the British New Territories. Thus, as early as 1925, the Nationalist government under Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) was demanding a premature end to the lease, while pledging to honor the cessions. The Nationalist government continued to make such demands until it was silenced by exile to Taiwan in 1949 .

The new regime in Beijing had different ideas. It did not recognize the "unequal treaties" that had stipulated the terms of the cessions and the lease, but was prepared to let sleeping dogs lie until such time as it saw fit to recover its lost territory. It was a legally minded and overconfident Hong Kong governor, Sir Murray MacLehose, who surprised paramount leader Deng Xiaoping by raising the issue of the lease during a visit to Beijing in 1979, some eighteen years before the scheduled appointment. What could a nationalist of the May Fourth Movement vintage say but to declare his determination to retrieve the whole of Hong Kong in 1997? MacLehose had the backing of the British Foreign Office in taking the initiative that he did, which shows a lack of understanding by the British of how the Chinese leaders felt about the question of sovereignty.

Indeed, sovereignty is a recurrent theme throughout the book. The British lack of sensitivity concerning Chinese sovereignty jeopardized subsequent Sino- [End Page 555] British negotiations. The difficulties encountered by Margaret Thatcher in Beijing in 1982 and by Christopher Patten in Hong Kong in 1992-1993 can perhaps be attributed to this British shortsightedness and by the failure of both Thatcher and Patten to put themselves personally in the shoes of the Chinese. This failure is all the more remarkable since they had just fought an extremely expensive war against Argentina to defend British sovereignty over the remote Falkland Islands.

On the other hand, the author shows that the Chinese as well failed to appreciate the fact that Patten's controversial reform agenda for Hong Kong was designed partly to help Beijing in its determination to bar two democratic leaders, Martin Lee and Szeto Wah, from entering the Executive Council. Patten's separation of the Executive Council from the Legislative Council was also aimed at helping Beijing achieve its objective of creating an "executive-led" government in Hong Kong. These are very perceptive observations that largely escaped the political commentators of the time.

The author's forecast for the future of the former British colony, which he compares to that of a bride in an arranged marriage, is equally perceptive. After the official celebrations, the bride's "choices are to learn to live with the reality, to make her life...


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