April 22, 2013, by Editor

Hong Kong and the Thatcher Legacy in Britain

Written by Jeremy E. Taylor.

Now that Baroness Thatcher has been laid to rest, the analysis of her legacy that dominated the British media for over a week has largely subsided. It is now possible, however, to start dissecting the debate about the Thatcher years in the UK media, and to think about which major events and developments – for better or worse – are now accredited to Britain’s first female prime minister, and to question why certain things have been left out of the narrative.

Regardless of where one stands on Baroness Thatcher and her policies, the story of her premiership has been a fairly uniform one. On the foreign policy front, in particular, there appear to be three major areas of focus in the United Kingdom: her decision to defend the Falklands (and her subsequent victory in that conflict); her role in confronting the Soviet Union, and the importance of the US-UK ‘special relationship’ during her years in power in ending the Cold War; and her skepticism about an enlarging European Union, and Britain’s place therein.

What is remarkable for those of us who spent much of the 1980s and 1990s either living in, or interested in, the Asia-Pacific region, however, is the lack of interest on the part of much of the British media about the fact that Margaret Thatcher also played a pivotal role in overseeing British withdrawal from, and indeed in setting the subsequent course of, what was in the 1980s and 1990s one of the UK’s most important colonies – Hong Kong. In Asia, there has been discussion about Thatcher’s legacy in the region. In her own country, however, Hong Kong has rarely even been raised in the recent debate.

This is surprising for a number of reasons. It might have been Tony Blair who oversaw the transfer of sovereignty in July 1997, but it was Margaret Thatcher who, back in the early 1980s, had led discussions with Deng Xiaoping over the nature of a postcolonial Hong Kong. Indeed, it was Margaret Thatcher who had tacitly agreed to the notion of ‘One Country Two Systems’, and also to the Sino-British Joint Declaration, through which Britain agreed to cede Hong Kong to China, and through which both sides agreed to the city maintaining the social and economic systems it had developed for at least 50 years after 1997.

Arguably just as important was the appointment of Christopher Patten as the colony’s final governor – a move that is often seen as reward for Patten’s role in helping the Conservatives win the general election if 1992 (when Patten himself lost his seat). Having served as Secretary of State for the Environment under Thatcher, Patten served as governor from mid-1992 to the end of British rule, maintaining an often difficult relationship during these years with Beijing, but also, his admirers would argue, playing a significance role in enhancing democracy in the city.

There is much scope for a thorough analysis of Margaret’s Thatcher influence on late colonial Hong Kong. Might another Conservative leader, or a Labour government, have dealt with the joint negotiations over the future of the colony differently? Would Hong Kong have experienced a different sort of transition in the 1990s if Christopher Patten had not been selected as the colony’s governor? And what of all the other variables in which Baroness Thatcher played a role, such as the demise of the Soviet Union; how might things have played out in Hong Kong had there been a different relationship between Moscow and London, for example?

My aim here is not to attempt to answer such complex questions, but to ask why they seem to be of so little interest in Britain itself these days. Indeed, I find Hong Kong’s absence from the debate about the Thatcher legacy quite striking. For those who believe that Hong Kong’s transition to postcolonialism was a success, surely Margaret Thatcher’s role in the process deserves to be highlighted; equally, for those who see in the ‘return’ of Hong Kong many problems and contradictions, would it not be fitting to question some of Margaret Thatcher’s policies on the colony – the decision not to include local Hong Kong representatives, for example, in Sino-British discussions over the city’s future back in the 1980s?

I suspect there are two main reasons for this. The first may be that it is simply difficult to fit Hong Kong into the longer trajectory of the Thatcher years. If Baroness Thatcher is remembered as the patriotic leader who sent British forces into the Falklands to defend her country’s honour and the rights of colonial subjects in the southern Atlantic, then how does one square this with a slow process of decolonization in which Britain’s imperial legacy in China was muted, and in which local colonial subjects in Hong Kong were relegated to the margins of the discussion. Equally, if Margaret Thatcher is remembered as a Cold Warrior who loathed state socialism and successfully undermined it in Europe, then how can we make sense of her decision to hand over a lively society built on free market capitalism and freedom of expression to what was, in 1984, still a clearly socialist power? Indeed, Hong Kong even poses problems when it comes to the celebration on the Right of the domestic legacy of Thatcherism in the UK, for market capitalism was already well established in colonial Hong Kong before Margaret Thatcher sought to introduce it into Britain, and was still developing in 1997 as Britain handed the city over to the People’s Republic. In all of this, Hong Kong represents something of a ‘spanner in the works’ for current British narratives of the Thatcher years.

I think, however, that there is a far more fundamental reason for this lack of discussion about the Thatcher-Hong Kong connection, and that is the broader British disinterest in Hong Kong over the last decade or so. Hong Kong simply does not register for many people in the United Kingdom in the same way that as it did in the years immediately following the ‘handover’. Since 1997, Britain has not only relinquished control of its Chinese colony, but has largely given up even remembering its role in governing the city. Even when it comes to discussions over the UK-China bilateral relationship at the broadest level, Hong Kong is often simply relegated to the footnotes. Readers may be amused to learn, for instance, that a frightening number of British students entering universities nowadays seem to have little notion that the Chinese city of Hong Kong was, not so long ago, a British possession.

This disinterest may be a consequence of ambiguities over the UK’s past in East Asia–is it in Britain’s interest to remind China that it was once a colonial power, for example? It may also be a by-product of the greater engagement with Europe that the United Kingdom underwent during the years of New Labour. Either way, it has left us with what I consider a substantial hiatus in understanding the transformation that Britain underwent in the 1980s and 1990s, and the changes that Britain under Margaret Thatcher brought to the wider world in the same period. Whatever one may think of the way in which the Thatcher government handled Britain’s withdrawal from the crown colony, Hong Kong should be as central a part of the Thatcher story in Britain today as the Falklands, Europe or the end of the Cold War are today.

Jeremy E. Taylor is Associate Professor in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies and a Senior Fellow in the China Policy Institute.

Posted in International Relations