Although the United Kingdom traditionally regarded Hong Kong as a colony, this changed over time.
Given the stigma increasingly associated with colonialism, and the need to confront historical realities, the UK decided, in 1981, to rename British crown colonies as British dependent territories (BDTs).
In consequence, when Chris Patten arrived in Hong Kong in 1992, he assumed the governorship of what Britain considered a BDT, and this remained its status until July 1, 1997. This implied he was not just another colonial satrap, a point he emphasised by his refusal to don the governor’s traditional garb of white uniform and plumed hat. As a former Foreign Office minister, he would have been acutely aware of the harm that colonialism had caused to China, and he presumably welcomed the city’s progression to a BDT, even though some saw the change as cosmetic.
Indeed, as recently as April 27, 2021, Patten told the Oxford PPE Society that “nobody today would try to justify colonialism”. He explained to the students how, in the 19th century, China had been forced by Britain to buy opium from India with the silver that was then used to purchase its porcelain, silk and tea, and historically he was quite correct.
After the First Opium War (1839-42) between the UK and China concluded, with the latter’s defeat, humiliating terms were imposed on the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). This arose after Commissioner Lin Zexu, in light of the Chinese law that banned the importation and sale of opium, had seized opium stocks and ordered the destruction of opium at Humen, in Dongguan. Although he did this in circumstances where opiate addiction was rampant, causing sickness, poverty and immorality, the British demanded reparations. When this was not forthcoming, they used their latest military technology to pummel China into submission.
To capitalise on its victory, Britain forced China to sign the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, formally ceding already occupied territory. In Article III thereof, “His Majesty the Emperor of China cedes to Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain, etc, the Island of Hong Kong, to be possessed in perpetuity by Her Britannic Majesty, Her Heirs and Successors.” As if this was not bad enough, insult was then added to injury by Article IV, which required China “to pay the sum of Six Millions of Dollars as the value of Opium which was delivered up”, which meant Britain was to be compensated for Commissioner Lin’s attempt to protect his countrymen from the horrors of the opium trade.
Quite clearly, this treaty was obtained under duress, and was, therefore, not worth the paper it was written on. Hong Kong Island was stolen from China as a result of “gunboat diplomacy”, and it therefore lacked any legitimate status under international law, however it was dressed up. As any law student knows, if one party to a contract enters into it after being threatened by another, the courts treat it as a nullity. This reflects China’s own stance, given its free will was overborne, and it is hard to see how anybody can claim that coerced treaties ever affected Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong, although people like Patten and his Hong Kong Watch lackey, the serial fantasist Benedict Rogers, have certainly tried.
In 1949, therefore, Zhou Enlai, who was simultaneously China’s first premier and foreign minister, ordered a review of the treaties entered into by previous Chinese governments. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs then established the Committee of Treaties (now the Department of Treaty and Law), and it examined the circumstances under which treaties had come about since the time of the Qing Dynasty. The committee concluded that, apart from certain clauses that required further consideration, none of the treaties could be fully recognised or were worth revising for application in modern China.
Over the years, the bilateral treaties that the UK, and other foreign powers, imposed on China in the 19th century became known, for obvious reasons, as “unequal treaties”. They were coercive or predatory in nature, and devoid of genuine consent. As the historian, Wang Dong, explained in 2005, China considered those treaties to be unequal “because they were not negotiated by nations treating each other as equal but were imposed on China after a war, and because they encroached on China’s sovereign rights”.
A key principle of international law has always been the equality of states, and a treaty obtained in defiance of this and without the necessary reciprocity is worthless. Indeed, after the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonisation was established in 1961, to promote self-governance among colonies, the UN General Assembly decided in 1966, by a vote of 99-5, that Hong Kong, like Macao, was outside its ambit. Although the Treaty of Nanking had ceded Hong Kong to Britain in perpetuity, the committee recognised that it still belonged to China, and that there was, therefore, no colony requiring of self-determination or independence.
This was after the committee had accepted the submission from China’s then-representative that “the settlement of the questions of Hong Kong and Macao is entirely within China’s sovereign right and does not fall under the ordinary category of ‘Colonial Territories’ ”, and this meant it was, therefore, none of its business.
This, of course, begs the question of why modern China, as sovereign, did not simply demand the immediate return of Hong Kong after 1949. Why, that is, did it wait until 1997, the date when the 99-year New Territories lease imposed on China by another unequal treaty, the Second Convention of Peking of 1898, expired? The answer undoubtedly lies in enlightened pragmatism, in the sense that China decided not to rush things, but to wait until the time was right. Even then, it took the view, with obvious prescience, that it would not simply take Hong Kong back unconditionally, as was its right. Its leaders, including Deng Xiaoping, decided instead to negotiate with Britain the terms of its return, and it did this, at least in part, to reassure the local population and the business world; hence the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984.
There is, of course, a world of difference between regarding a treaty as legally void, on the one hand, and accepting it de facto, on the other, and this is exactly what China did with Hong Kong. Its sovereignty notwithstanding, it recognised the reality of British administration, bided its time, and chose July 1, 1997, as the right day for the resumption of the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong. In the case of Macao, where there was no treaty date to provide guidance, the date of Dec 20, 1999, was chosen, given that was as good a date as any as the 20th century expired and the 21st century beckoned.
With his historical awareness, Patten presumably felt comforted in 1992 when he moved to a BDT rather than what had previously been viewed as a colony, not least because he would have been aware of the pain the “century of humiliation” had inflicted upon China and its people. If so, he is now singing from a different hymn sheet, for reasons that arouse suspicion. Indeed, his latest pronouncements show not only crass insensitivity, but also a love of mischief-making.
Writing in The Times, on June 26, 2022, Patten poured cold water on the notion that Hong Kong, when he arrived in 1992, was simply an “occupied territory”, which is a possible definition of a BDT. He insisted instead, despite Hong Kong having been classified as a BDT since 1983, that he “really was the governor of the colony of Hong Kong from 1992 to 1997”, apparently implying British sovereignty. Quite why he trotted out this old canard many years after Britain had distanced itself from colonial pretensions is anybody’s guess, although one reason may lie not a million miles away from the imminent release of his Hong Kong Diaries, on July 1.
Eager to drum up publicity, Patten is once again reverting to type, and showing himself to have been an old-fashioned colonialist all along. This, of course, sheds light on his ongoing provocations of Beijing in the run-up to 1997, when he behaved like the proverbial bull in a China shop, insulting the sovereign at every turn. Indeed, by now misrepresenting the past and seeking again to needle China, he reveals just how much he has in common with those of his forebears who abused it in the 19th century. If he feels this is a price worth paying to flog some books, then good luck to him. His prospective readers, however, will be hoping that his diaries are not as badly flawed as his latest pronouncements.