In the official Chinese and British versions of Hong Kong’s history, the choices of the great powers take up most of the pages. Little space is given to the voices of the people of Hong Kong. But in the years before the territory was handed over in 1997, a group of local industrialists tried – in vain – to influence the course of history.
They were called “unofficials”, a group of well-connected local advisers appointed by British governors to their de facto cabinet to advise on the territory’s policies. For years, this group of local Hong Kong Chinese has been seen as the go-to for complex issues. And for a long time, their advice seemed to have some influence over colonial governors.
But the role of non-officials began to change when the most controversial topic emerged in the late 1970s. with China’s Supreme Leader, Deng Xiaoping. The governor saw the issues as an “inevitable source of crisis” if left unresolved.
left in the dark
MacLehose’s trip to speak to Deng in Beijing did not go well, according to historians who wrote of the meeting years later. At the time, most of his senior advisers – including SY Chung, an “unofficial” engineer-turned-politician – remained in the dark as to what had been discussed between the British and the Chinese. Without information, many in Hong Kong continued to believe that the British administration would extend beyond 1997.
For some, the British governor’s secrecy over the details of the meeting with Deng exposed a rift between crown interests and the people of the colony. Like Chung, most non-officials have also been left behind, says Louisa Lim, author of Indelible City: Dispossession and Challenge in Hong Kong. “Their enforced ignorance was no accident; it was a well-considered strategy by the British government, recorded in diplomatic notes,” she says.
In the early 1980s, uncertainty about the future of Hong Kong hung over the territory. Having been kept in the dark, there was a sense of urgency among the unofficial; they should fight alone – not against Beijing, but against London.
Throughout this decade, the question of Hong Kong’s identity has constantly resurfaced. The Nationalities Bill 1980 proposed a new status for Hong Kong residents as “citizens of a British Dependent Territory”. As the Guardian reported on March 7, 1981, this led some to question whether Britain would waive its obligations to them if a transfer took place.
So, before the last parliamentary debate in October of that year, two unofficials went to London to lobby the British government to obtain British nationality status for Hong Kong residents. But the response from British MPs shocked them.
“They all reassured us that it wasn’t the British Hong Kong subject they were looking for – it was the Gibraltarians and all that – but they said, ‘We don’t mind you have, but I certainly wouldn’t like to wake one up. day and go to my butcher and pharmacist to find out that Hong Kong Chinese are running them,” according to one of the unofficials, banker Li Fook-wo, who recalled this version some time after the event in Hong Kong. British Kong academic Steve Tsang.
They were humiliated and returned home. The frustration continued to mount. So much so, Chung told Margaret Thatcher in a private meeting a few months later that if the British government could not trust its own local advisers, some of them might have no other choice. than resign.
“The non-officials were in a particularly powerless and paradoxical position,” Lim said. “For Beijing they were non-existent although sometimes sought after for their views, while in Britain they were consulted and then ignored.”
Fears for the future
Throughout the nearly two dozen rounds of negotiations between Beijing and London in the early 1980s, none of the unofficials, like Chung, were allowed to be present. The British thought their views on China were too “confrontational”.
When the decision to abandon Hong Kong in 1997 was finally announced on April 20, 1984, ironically it brought a sense of liberation to councillors. Emboldened, a nine-member delegation – led by Chung – travels to London in an attempt to pressure the government.
But London was ready. The press was briefed against them before their arrival and called their statement “militant”. Their crucial questions to their colonial masters were: what would happen if China violated the Sino-British Joint Declaration? Could Hong Kong people vote on the joint statement? If so, how?
It was also a controversial visit home. Pro-Beijing newspapers accused the delegation of “sowing gloom in Hong Kong”, although Hong Kong’s stock index has already fallen 200 points since the April 20 announcement. “We are here to try to reflect the aspirations of the people of Hong Kong,” said Selina Chow, a member of the delegation, as reported by the Guardian on May 13, 1984. “We ask the British government: ‘How are you you fulfill your obligations to me? How are you going to protect me against these doubts?’ »
But before they got a response from London, they were fired – including by their former boss, MacLehose, who had now been given a peerage for life. For Chung, it was unforgivable. “I will never forget the words of MPs who criticized us, saying that the unofficial members of the two councils were not elected so how could they represent Hong Kong? … I said to them, ‘How can you pretend that you can negotiate for us? Nor do you have a mandate from us; I never elected you,’” he later reminded Tsang.
As a sophisticated businessman who had often dealt with China, Chung had warned the British against being too gullible towards the Chinese. He had also urged London to ensure that Beijing did not break its promises. He had reservations about the proposed deal. His fears ranged from whether future governments in Hong Kong would actually be governed from Beijing, to whether Chinese politics would revert to the far left. “Looking back today, they were all prophetic,” Lim says.
A cold welcome in Beijing
Seeing that things were going nowhere with London, the unofficials started meetings with Beijing on their own. In June 1984, Chung led a three-member delegation to see Deng in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
Just as they have been accused by London of not having the right to represent the people of Hong Kong, the non-officials have been similarly palmed off. “Deng told the delegation he was ready to listen to their views as individuals, but that would make no difference to China’s plans for the settlement,” according to a June 25, 1984 Guardian report. .
“You can say what you want, but I must stress that the People’s Republic of China firmly stands by its positions, principles and policies on the Hong Kong issue,” Deng told the trio. “We have heard many different opinions, but we do not recognize that they represent the interests of all the people of Hong Kong,” he added, accusing Chung and his colleagues of “[having] no faith in the People’s Republic of China”.
The Hong Kong press described the meeting as “humiliation”. Unofficials, however, showed courage, describing the Chinese leader’s disguise as “very frank and thorough”.
“The unofficials tried to submit the wishes of the people of Hong Kong to policy makers in China and Britain, but were dismissed out of hand by the Chinese leadership and not taken seriously enough by the British government,” said Tsang, who runs the Soas China Institute in London.
A few years after these humiliating trips to the two capitals, Chung became a prominent voice in calling the territory’s direct election plan “unrealistic”. In April 1987, he reaffirmed to the press that Great Britain would hand over Hong Kong in 1997 “to China, not to the people of Hong Kong”.
Shortly before Christmas in 1993, Chung went to see Chris Patten, who had started as Hong Kong’s last governor a year earlier. This time, his role had changed. “Perhaps inevitably, having failed to sway the outgoing colonial power, he eventually crossed over and is now one of Beijing’s advisers,” Patten wrote in his recently published diary.
A few weeks later, the two men meet again. “He broke down for the Chinese version of the end of the talks,” Patten recalled on Monday, January 10, 1994. “It’s sad and surprising. He used to say we should hang on to Victoria Island and bring water by tanker if needed.
After the handover in 1997, Chung was appointed by Tung Chee-hwa, the territory’s first general manager, as the unofficial convener of the executive council. He died in 2018 at the age of 101. The local press dubbed him “the godfather of Hong Kong politics” and “the gentleman of gentlemen”.