Why Didn't Britain Democratize Hong Kong?
During her appearance at Asia Society last Friday, former Chief Secretary of Hong Kong Anson Chan described how the territory's autonomy has eroded significantly in the two decades following the 1997 handover from Great Britain to China. This trend has not gone unnoticed in London, where the British government has complained about China's flouting of the Joint Declaration, the document presenting the terms of the handover, as well as Beijing's attempts to suppress the pro-democracy movement in the territory. Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, said last year that he "should have done more" to democratize the territory.
The Chinese Communist Party has been less than sympathetic to this argument. In 2014, during the height of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the government mouthpiece People's Daily reminded its readers that Britain once regarded democracy in Hong Kong as "excessively dangerous" and, despite being a liberal democracy itself, never bestowed the same rights for its subjects in Hong Kong.
But Chan pointed out that Britain tried — and China said no.
"Even in the '60s and '70s, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London attempted to introduce democracy and free elections only to be told by Beijing, including by Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, that under no circumstances would [China] tolerate a democratically elected Hong Kong because they saw that as the first step toward independence," she said.
Furthermore, she added, China "did not rule out the possibility that they would take Hong Kong back by force."
Chan's statement is based on a series of declassified documents showing that, as far back as the 1950s, Britain floated democratic reforms in Hong Kong only to be firmly rebuffed by the People's Republic.
Why didn't Beijing attempt to retake Hong Kong in any case? As Quartz' Gwynn Guilford explained in this 2014 article, Beijing had a vested interest in having a prosperous, capitalist territory on its doorstep when the Communist Party began introducing economic reforms.
"Several decades of phenomenal economic growth in mainland China was kickstarted by Hong Kong money, Hong Kong managerial know-how, Hong Kong financial expertise, and Hong Kong's well-regulated supervisory systems," Chan said.
Chan discussed Hong Kong's eroding autonomy in general terms here:
Watch Chan's complete appearance at Asia Society here: