IF possession is nine-tenths of the law, it could be argued that the 99-year lease was invented to protect the remaining one tenth. Such a lease owes its origins to common law practice. It draws a distinction between perpetual ownership and transient occupancy, a 99-year period covering more than the lifespan of an average human. It is applied usually to land leases, exceptionally to colonial territories. Hong Kong is one contentious example.
To understand the present stand-off in Hong Kong, one needs to unbind history. In the 18th century, Britain’s East India Company (EICo) grew rich trading in tea imported from China, some it being resold on preferential terms in the American colonies. One consignment achieved immortality as the Boston Tea Party of 1773.
Soon, the EICo discovered that opium grown cheaply in India could be exported profitably to China. Gradually, the Chinese became addicts, as Americans are now to other equally damaging substances. Opium wars resulted, settled by ‘unequal treaties’ of 1842, 1860 and 1898. Under the latter, Hong Kong was leased to Great Britain for 99 years, ie until 1997.
Old sins, as Agatha Christie wrote, have long shadows.
Old sins, as Agatha Christie once wrote, have long shadows. The shadows over Hong Kong shortened each day. To the Chinese, Hong Kong was not a priority: Taiwan was. As Chairman Mao Zedong told Henry Kissinger in 1973: “We can do without Taiwan for the time being, and let it come after a hundred years.” He knew that Hong Kong would be his much earlier.
For the British, however, Hong Kong hardened over the years into the lynchpin of its Far-Eastern policy. Anticipating the inevitable, in 1979 the British governor of Hong Kong paid a preparatory visit to Beijing. Three years later, in 1982, Margaret Thatcher paid her first visit as prime minister to Beijing. Flushed by her success in the Falklands war, she assumed she could negotiate firmly with the Chinese: concession on sovereignty in exchange for continued British administration of the colony ‘well into the future.’ Deng Xiaoping countered bluntly that sovereignty was beyond discussion: “We can walk into Hong Kong any time we want to.”
Aware, though, that making too rapid a meal of Hong Kong would cause China political indigestion, the Chinese leadership waited until the lease expired in 1997, after which it designated its prodigal port “the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China”.
The Chinese leadership went beyond the pragmatism it had shown over Taiwan in the Shanghai Communiqué in 1972, negotiated during president Nixon’s visit, by instituting a ‘One country, Two systems’ arrangement for Hong Kong and later Macau. Both would retain their own economic and administrative systems, while mainland China would continue with Sino-tinted socialism. Beijing was preparing a spare bed for the US colony of Taiwan.
It is against this backdrop that the neo-abusive confrontation shown by President Trump’s administration towards the People’s Republic of China appears so incomprehensible. It negates almost 50 years of US-PRC diplomatic rapprochement.
On July 23, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo chose the Richard Nixon Presidential Library as the venue for another vitriolic, incendiary diatribe against the PRC. He acknowledged the daring leap president Richard Nixon took in the early 1970s to recognise the PRC when few countries (other than Pakistan) did. As Secretary Pompeo’s predecessor Dr Henry Kissinger had written (grudgingly): “Nixon had been the president to open the way to China, knew how to cast the resulting dialogue in geopolitical terms, and had presented the American view of world affairs.”
Pompeo then orated that he had come not to praise Nixon but to bury him and his pro-PRC policy. Pompeo deplored “the massive imbalances in that relationship that have built up over decades, and the Chinese Communist Party’s designs for hegemony”. He called upon everyone outside China — “the United Nations, Nato, the G7 countries, the G20” to join the US in opposing the PRC. Their combined “economic, diplomatic, and military power”, Pompeo rumbled, would be enough “to meet this challenge if we direct it clearly and with great courage”.
Clearly, Pompeo had chosen not to consult Dr Kissinger, nor to read his book On China (2011). In it, Kissinger warns that any “cold war to develop between the countries, would arrest progress for a generation on both sides of the Pacific [and] spread disputes into internal politics of every region at a time when global issues such as nuclear proliferation, the environment, energy security and climate change impose global cooperation”.
Tomorrow, should Pompeo call Prime Minister Imran Khan and ask whether we — China’s all-weather friend and iron brother — are with the US or against, what would be his response? We know how, post 9/11, Gen Musharraf reacted. Will we kowtow again and share Trump’s table to chi ku (eat bitterness)?
The writer is an author.
Published in Dawn, July 30th, 2020