All Our Pomp of Yesterday

The Falklands and Hong Kong

Another island conflict provided a curious epilogue to the British Empire. It was caused, paradoxically, by the continuing desire of governments in London to shed burdensome dependencies. That process was usually made easier because colonies yearned to be born again as nations. But the inhabitants of the Falkland Islands, 1,800 people of British stock, wished to stay securely in the imperial womb. Above all, they were determined not to be absorbed into the body politic of Argentina. Only three hundred miles away, this South American country had long claimed sovereignty over islands whose Spanish name was Las Malvinas, along with their icy, empty satellites such as South Georgia and South Thule, the Shag Rocks and the Clerke Rocks. Who discovered and who owned the Falklands had been a matter of dispute since Tudor times. In fact Britain nearly went to war with Spain over the issue in 1770, when the Admiralty maintained that the islands were “the key to the whole Pacifick Ocean”1—another key, but a world away from its putative holder. Dr. Johnson denounced the folly of such a conflict in lapidary prose that was still relevant two centuries later. “The Rubicon was ennobled by the passage of Caesar,” he wrote, “and the time is now come when the Falkland’s Islands demand their historian.”

Alas, there was nothing to say since nothing had happened there save the occasional advent of “wandering navigators, who passed them by in search of better habitations.” Here, in the freezing ocean adjacent to Tierra del Fuego, was a

bleak and gloomy solitude…thrown aside from human use, stormy in winter and barren in summer…which not [even] the southern savages have dignified with habitation; where a garrison must be kept in a state that contemplates with envy the exiles of Siberia; of which the expence will be perpetual, and the use only occasional.2

Johnson exaggerated. The climate of the Falklands was temperate. Permanently occupied by the British in 1833, the islands would provide employment for a small colony of shepherds and “kelpers”—seaweed gatherers. Port Stanley proved its worth as a coaling station before Admiral Sturdee’s victorious naval battle in December 1914. Yet the Great Cham’s remonstrance rang down the ages, resonating along the corridors of Whitehall and echoing through the lobbies of Westminster. There was no point in fighting to become the undisputed lords of a tempest-torn wilderness.

Certainly by the 1960s London had become disenchanted with this South Atlantic relic of empire. It had no strategic value. It was a political liability. It had few economic prospects. It was sadly impoverished. The Falklands’ largest source of income, after the half-million sheep ranging over the treeless, tussocky peat, came from stamps. And the Government Printing Office was “a working museum.” Other amenities were notable by their absence. As one Governor despairingly exclaimed, there was “no banker, no solicitor, no accountant, no estate agent, no cobbler, no greengrocer, no dry-cleaner, no hairdresser, no garage mechanic, no mason, no builder, no undertaker. How did the islands work?”3 The answer is that they barely worked at all. Lacking the resources to become independent, as Johnson had said, they required constant support from the mother country. But the mother country was slow to invest and reluctant to subsidise. Communications presented a particularly expensive challenge—the islands had a toy airfield and only seven miles of road. Britons had little faith in the commercial enterprise or pioneering spirit of the kelpers. Most of them, in any case, worked for the Falkland Islands Company, which owned half the land and conducted most of the business. And “with frighteningly few exceptions,” wrote an English visitor who actually liked the islanders, the labour force was “a drunken, decadent, immoral and indolent collection of dropouts.”4 The Falklands, said another visitor, might conjure up a “vision of romantic solitude.” But the reality was “an unending diet of mutton, beer and rum, with entertainment restricted to drunkenness and adultery, spiced with occasional incest.”

Whatever the truth of this, the population, already smaller than that of an average English parish, was undoubtedly ageing and shrinking. Yet after the United Nations resolved in 1965 that Britain and Argentina should reach a peaceful settlement over what most countries seemed to regard as a colonial issue, Labour and Tory ministers proclaimed that the islanders’ wishes must be paramount. The British insisted on the principle that people should be free to decide their own political fate, the very principle that had cut at the root of the Empire. To their chagrin they now found that this principle saddled them with responsibility for a territory which they would gladly have ceded to its powerful neighbour, who claimed it with such avidity. Throughout the 1970s, therefore, Britain counselled its colonists to enter into some kind of association with Argentina. It urged the virtues of joint sovereignty. It proposed transferring ownership of the islands but retaining them on a long lease. It stressed the benefits that would flow from cooperation with Argentina. Lord Shackleton, son of the Antarctic explorer, said that the Falklands were “islands entirely surrounded by advice.” The Foreign Office grew increasingly exasperated by their refusal to take it. The British ambassador in Buenos Aires even offered to go to Port Stanley and make Councillors’ “flesh creep with expert advice on potential Argentine frightfulness.”5 Meanwhile he and his ilk exhorted governments of Argentina, which became notorious by the end of the decade for violating the rights of their own people, to court the islanders with kindness. As the diplomat in charge of Britain’s dependent territories liked to say: “Rape of the Falklands, no; seduction, by all means.”6

In fact, the military junta in Buenos Aires became ever more impassioned. Crowds chanted with growing fervour, “Las Malvinas son argentinas.” As Britain played for time, Argentina dealt out provocations. Its aircraft flew over the Falklands. Its navy harassed foreign vessels around the islands. Its transport services to Port Stanley became erratic. Its soldiery landed on South Thule. In 1977 James Callaghan’s government grew so concerned about the prospect of Argentine aggression that it covertly sent a small force to the South Atlantic. This was a temporary “insurance policy,”7 for it was deemed too expensive to secure the islands on a permanent basis, to create a Fortress Falklands. Other options were equally unacceptable. London ruled out Lord Shackleton’s proposals for major investment, including the further modernisation of Stanley airport and an extension of the runway. Resettling white Falkland islanders would have been politically impossible—unlike resettling brown Chagos islanders. So Margaret Thatcher’s ministers continued negotiations in the hope of somehow reconciling the islanders’ right to self-determination and the continentals’ right to territorial integrity. A clandestine understanding to promote the leaseback arrangement was reached between the Argentine Foreign Minister and Nicholas Ridley, a singularly abrasive Thatcherite, who told the Falklanders to accept it or “take the consequences.”8 Instead they became even more obdurate, fearful that they were being sold up the River Plate. The British could only keep talking to the Argentinians, even though they had nothing to say. In the words of their Buenos Aires ambassador, they had “no strategy at all beyond a general Micawberism.”9

Meanwhile, Mrs. Thatcher was struggling with a major recession at home. Three million people were unemployed. Bankruptcies reached record levels. Inflation stood at 15 per cent. Riots occurred in London, Liverpool and Manchester. Of the shambles in Toxteth, the grocer’s daughter famously exclaimed: “Oh, those poor shopkeepers!” The Labour opposition was in a harsher mood, charging that the century’s worst outbreak of civil unrest stemmed from the ruthless implementation of Tory monetarist policies. The Prime Minister blamed the disturbances on human wickedness and sank to unprecedented depths in public opinion polls. Preoccupied with the domestic crisis, she overcame her reluctance to sacrifice the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. Furthermore, she made economies which appeared to encourage an Argentine invasion and to confirm the end of the British Empire. Most important was the plan to reduce defence expenditure, “a bombshell”10 which struck the Royal Navy far harder than the other services. The Defence Minister John Nott argued persuasively that proponents of a navy with global reach were victims of “nostalgia for the days of Empire.”11 But he forgot that vestiges of the Empire remained—when Argentine aggression was imminent he had to hunt for the Falklands on a large globe in his office.

The diminution of the fleet was bound to affect Britain’s defensive capacity and Admiral Sir Henry Leach, the First Sea Lord, said that Nott’s attempt to pretend otherwise was “the con trick of the century.”12 As Leach asserted, the proposed cuts would have “emasculated”13 the senior service. They included the scrapping of two assault ships and the loss of two aircraft carriers—Americans scoffed that they were broken up for “razor blades.”14 There would also be a halving of the sixty-strong complement of frigates and destroyers, “the backbone of the fleet.”15 Yet the Prime Minister vehemently supported the savings. She even briefed against Nott for being too timid. And she plucked “the Red Plum” of Antarctica. This was the ruddy-coloured ice-patrol vessel HMS Endurance, commanded by the redoubtable Captain Nick Barker, which cost £3 million a year. Mrs. Thatcher, who retained the royal yacht Britannia for reasons of prestige, said that Endurance was “a military irrelevance.”16 In fact, the survey ship was “a key intelligence asset.”17 It was also a potent symbol of Britain’s commitment to the Falklands. News of its impending withdrawal was “greeted with unalloyed joy in the Argentine press.”18

Other signals reached General Leopoldo Galtieri, who became leader of the Argentine junta in 1981, suggesting that Mrs. Thatcher had washed her hands of the Falklands. None seemed clearer than her government’s Nationality Act. This was designed to deny any right of abode in Britain to Hong Kong Chinese by excluding all but those descended from a parent or grandparent born in the United Kingdom. It also excluded eight hundred Falklanders—though Gibraltarians were given a special dispensation. In the South Atlantic the Act was seen as a flagrant abdication of imperial responsibility, comparable to Mrs. Thatcher’s desertion of the whites in Southern Rhodesia. Galtieri, who sought to divert attention from an internal crisis far worse than Britain’s, concluded that he could seize Las Malvinas with impunity. After all, the British had pursued a policy of appeasement without deterrence—little was done even when, late in the day, Mrs. Thatcher called for contingency planning to meet hostilities. Her ministers were not interested in the islands—Ridley quipped that the only alien territory that he wanted to claim was Bordeaux. The British had tried to disburden themselves of the islanders. It seemed inconceivable that they would shed blood to reverse an Argentine fait accompli.So, after much preparation and a preliminary sortie to South Georgia, which caused alarm in London where earlier journalistic and diplomatic warnings had been ignored, the junta launched the invasion. Signals intelligence picked up in Britain, where cryptographers had cracked Argentine codes, indicated that enemy forces would land in the Falklands on 2 April 1982. The Foreign Office sent its diminutive Governor, Rex Hunt, a helpful telegram saying: “You will wish to make your dispositions accordingly.” Hunt could only deploy his few dozen Marines, shred his secret papers and issue a general caveat via the Falkland Islands Broadcasting Service (FIBS). Reflecting bitterly that soft answers had failed to turn away Argentine wrath, he said: “It looks as if the buggers really mean it this time.”19

Margaret Thatcher reached the same conclusion and she determined to get the islands back—if necessary, by force. She had emulated Chamberlain in attempting to negotiate a settlement with a dictator from a position of weakness. Now she donned the mantle of Churchill and set out to defend “our honour as a nation.”20 Such rhetoric disguised the incongruity of fighting to preserve a micro-colony which successive governments had tried to liquidate; and fighting, moreover, against a regime equipped with weaponry often purchased from Britain. But the Iron Lady was resolute and fortune favoured the bold. The popular press raged not at 10 Downing Street but at the Foreign Office, “rotten to the core, rotten with appeasement, rotten with real scorn for British interests.”21The defence cuts had not yet bitten and within seventy-two hours Admiral Leach was able to dispatch a powerful “Task Force.” The Prime Minister’s military ignorance proved a positive advantage. It was surprisingly comprehensive, perhaps the product of a “television view of war.”22 When Leach said that the armada would take three weeks to reach the Falklands, Mrs. Thatcher riposted: “Three weeks, you mean three days?”23 The admiral pointed out that the distance was eight thousand nautical miles. However, she listened to men in uniform with a grace seldom seen by ministers and civil servants. These she hectored fiercely, earning her nickname “Attila the Hen.”

Yet they frequently deserved better. Lord Carrington resigned as Foreign Secretary, taking the blame for having “miscalculated that the Argentines would invade.”24 Although “rattled and blubbery,” obsessed by the Suez fiasco and haunted by the spirit of an ancestor who had been caught up in the debacle of the First Afghan War, John Nott remained willing to bear “responsibility without power.”25 Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations, Sir Anthony Parsons, deftly obtained a resolution in the Security Council demanding an Argentine withdrawal. Just as necessary was help from the United States. It included permission to use the American-built runway on the vital staging post of Ascension Island, itself a British possession—though today security agencies deny its native people the “right of abode”26 enjoyed by sooty terns and masked boobies. Ronald Reagan’s Defence Secretary, Caspar Weinberger, provided unstinting aid, despite the diplomatic and linguistic tergiversations of his Secretary of State, General Alexander Haig. Eventually the President decided that his South American ally, despite its staunch anti-Communism, was less important than his European ally. But he could not really understand why Mrs. Thatcher was so keen to regain the “little ice-cold bunch of land down there.”27

She told Haig that “it was essentially an issue of dictatorship versus democracy.”28 And the Falklands conflict was presented as a struggle for freedom. Fortunately for the Prime Minister, most Britons shared that view. The press and public opinion favoured retaliation, on the assumption that it would not result in a big butcher’s bill. The left-wing leader of the Labour opposition, Michael Foot, opposed fascist aggression as “a moral duty, a political duty and every other kind of duty.”29 Liberals extolled the rule of law and denounced the evils of the junta (though Tory ministers played these down because they feared countercharges about abuses of human rights in Ulster). Thoughtful officers going south reckoned that, despite the absurdity of sending 28,000 men to fight for islands that Britain did not want, the “ideal is most praiseworthy.”30 But ideals were muted in the crescendo of neo-colonial chauvinism. As ships sailed, bands played “Rule, Britannia!” and “Land of Hope and Glory.” People waved Union Jacks and sported T-shirts saying “Don’t cry for me Argentina, we’re going to knock the **** out of you.”31 There was talk of reversing the nation’s shameful decline and putting the Great back into Britain. As the radical historian E. P. Thompson wrote, this was “a moment of imperial atavism, drenched in the nostalgias of those now in their late middle-age.”32

None was more atavistic than Rupert Murdoch, whose tabloid newspaper, the Sun, dismissed peace proposals with headlines such as “STICK IT UP YOUR JUNTA.” It also celebrated the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano with the infamous illiteracy, “GOTCHA.” The satirical magazine Private Eye mocked the Sun’s squalid antics with a competition entitled “KILL AN ARGIE AND WIN A METRO.” And as Murdoch’s biographer acknowledged, men aboard the expeditionary force were offended by the paper’s “trivial, ghoulish jingoism.”33 Yet their own senior officers maintained that victory was the due of the “bulldog breed.”34 The commanding admiral, Sandy Woodward, expressed contempt for “a job lot of spics flying ageing Canberras” and after Marines recaptured South Georgia he forecast “a walkover.”35 In the words of Lieutenant David Tinker, who was killed during the campaign, “the Navy felt that we were British and they were wogs, and that would make all the difference.”36 As for the army’s special forces, they were sometimes regarded as supermen. The commanding general, Jeremy Moore, suspected that “fatuous expectations” of what they could achieve stemmed from “avid reading of Boy’s Own or Beano.”37

In fact, British self-confidence took some hard knocks during the few weeks of war. Intelligence proved inadequate. Lieutenant Tinker said that it consisted of an Education Officer “who knew where the Falklands were because he had an atlas and Jane’s Fighting Ships to tell us what the Argentinians had in their navy.”38 There were farcical cases of mistaken identity: ships depth-charged whales and troops machine-gunned elephant seals. Despite heavy losses, the Argentine air force fought with courage and skill. Equipped with modern Mirages and Super-Etendards carrying sea-skimming Exocet missiles, it inflicted severe injuries on the British fleet. Altogether fifteen ships were damaged and seven sunk, including the supply vessel Atlantic Conveyor with its vital cargo of Chinook helicopters and the auxiliary Sir Galahad, which was slow to disembark soldiers and suffered forty-eight fatalities. Admiral Woodward had to keep his carriers so far east of the Falklands that he was known as “the South African.”39 This meant that the Harrier jump jets, armed with deadly American Sidewinder missiles, could only spend a few minutes over the islands. So the main amphibious landing, at San Carlos Water on 21 May 1982, went ahead without the promised air cover. The British were lucky with the weather and the lack of opposition. But they soon found that their own missiles (Sea Dart, Sea Wolf, Rapier and Blowpipe) did not provide a proper shield against low-level air attacks. These would have been even more devastating had not many of the Argentine bombs failed to explode. The Argentine pilots were also deterred by a fusillade of old-fashioned weaponry, Bren guns and Bofors guns, as well as small-arms fire. It was, said a witness, “real cowboy stuff.”40

Political pressure forced a costly attack on Goose Green. Advance news of this leaked, allegedly as the result of a briefing by John Nott himself—the worst security lapse of the war. Nott also maintained that the Belgrano was “closing in on”41 the Task Force when it was torpedoed whereas it was actually moving away, a line repeated by Mrs. Thatcher which generated corrosive conspiracy theories. In its approach to public relations the Ministry of Defence resembled the Kremlin. It appointed “brain police”42 who imposed a capricious censorship on reporters. And its own spokesman, a civil servant called Ian MacDonald who made announcements like an animated speak-your-weight machine, became a national joke. Argentine snipers had better rifles and night-vision glasses than British troops and some of their units put up fierce resistance. But many consisted of raw conscripts, ill led, ill fed and ill clad, who soon capitulated. General Menéndez, who had done little but sit behind fixed defences, surrendered on 14 June 1982. The journalist Max Hastings, who accompanied the relief force into Stanley, wrote that it was “like liberating an English suburban golf club.”43 Yet some of the liberators were down to their last few rounds of ammunition. It had been a close-run thing. Sandy Woodward said that “if the Args could only breathe on us, we’d fall over!”44

Most of the doubts and deprecations vanished in the euphoria of victory. “We won,” Nott wrote to the Prime Minister, “and that is good enough for the overwhelming proportion of the British people.” What mattered was the heroism of servicemen who had overcome fearful odds. Fascist aggression had got its just deserts. National pride, which had suffered such a crippling blow at Suez, was miraculously restored. The cost was certainly exorbitant: 253 Britons killed and over 750 wounded; nearly £2 billion for the relief expedition and billions more to secure the Falklands against any future attack. But few were prepared to say that the blood had been shed in vain. And when the Jewish Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Leon Brittan, tried to squeeze payment for the campaign out of the existing defence budget, Nott accused him of behaving like “a Pakistani accountant.”45 The cabinet worried that it might be criticised by the committee set up under Lord Franks to assess how well governments since 1965 had dealt with the Falkland Islands. But like many such chairmen Franks had been selected because he was a pillar of orthodoxy and a quintessential member of the Establishment—the economist Roy Harrod unkindly called him a “bum-faced purveyor of last year’s platitudes.”46The worst his report did was to state that announcing the withdrawal of Endurance had been “inadvisable.”47 Otherwise Franks produced a classic whitewash, which said in essence that everyone was responsible and no one was culpable.

Mrs. Thatcher needed no such official vindication for she had been swept back into popular favour on the wave of nationalist sentiment. In a state of personal exaltation bordering on self-intoxication, she did much to foster the triumphalist mood. She played Boadicea at a victory parade in the City of London, inviting no members of the royal family and taking the salute herself. She declared that a glorious new chapter had been written in the history of liberty. She invoked “the spirit of the South Atlantic—the real spirit of Britain.” She proclaimed that the war had dissolved the “secret fears” of her compatriots that “Britain was no longer the nation that had built an Empire and ruled a quarter of the world.”48 The response was Pavlovian. Illusion outlived reality and the past governed the present. The Empire had gone but the emotions associated with it survived, like phantom feelings after an amputation. This boded ill for Britain’s future since subsequent leaders would face the temptation to exploit imperial longings—to promote general nostalgia while encouraging selective amnesia—in order to justify overseas interventions. Of course, Britain could only participate in substantial conflicts as a junior partner of the United States. But, as the historian Linda Colley put it, there has been “a persistent inclination to pursue empire vicariously by clambering like a mouse on the American eagle’s head.”49 Ministers such as Douglas Hurd tried to disguise Britain’s subordinate role, claiming that it was “punching above its weight in the world.”50And despite having led Britain through what was evidently its last colonial war (though in 2006 Argentina made “a renewed push for the islands”),51 Mrs. Thatcher herself became increasingly belligerent. This was all too evident on her trip to the Far East three months after the victory. In China she ignored emollient Foreign Office counsel. Instead she expressed her wish to retain control of Britain’s last major colony, Hong Kong, whose loyal Executive Council voted to contribute £10 million to the cost of the Falklands War.

The final episode in the history of the British Empire was in some ways the strangest. For Hong Kong did not mature, in the standard fashion, from colonial tutelage to self-government. It regressed from the relative freedom afforded by laissez-faire capitalism to subordination under the shadow of a Communist colossus. Unlike other British possessions, it did not nurture a nationalist movement committed to smashing the imperialist yoke. Nor, since Red China insisted that Hong Kong was an internal matter, did it become the focus of international anti-colonialist pressure. It could never hope to become an independent sovereign state, let alone a member of the Commonwealth. Instead it would revert to China as a Special Administrative Region. The transfer of power might be postponed but it could not be avoided, especially when Britain’s ninety-nine-year lease on the New Territories surrounding the crown colony expired in 1997. Margaret Thatcher’s “heart kept cherishing the alternative,” recalled her Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe, “dreaming of a way in which we could have something more permanent.”52 But it was just a dream, a neo-imperialist pipe dream. Hong Kong was, in Richard Hughes’s well-worn adaptation of Han Suyin’s phrase, a “borrowed place, living on borrowed time.”53 In this “most brilliant and bullish of the world’s entrepôts,”54 as Jan Morris noticed, every deed of estate ran out before the end of the millennium. The glittering emporium of Asia was, as travel brochures liked to repeat, “the pearl in the dragon’s mouth.” It could have been swallowed at a gulp. Why did China take so long to consume it? And how was its ingestion accomplished when the time came?

Of course, the decaying Manchu Empire could not have seized Hong Kong. On the contrary, by the late nineteenth century Britain and other imperial powers dominated the Orient. And they had begun (in Lenin’s words) “to rob China as ghouls rob corpses.”55But even if Victorian Hong Kong had been liable to attack from the mainland, it was scarcely much of a prize. To be sure, Hong Kong was strategically valuable to Britain as terminus in the line of naval stations running from Plymouth via Gibraltar, Valletta, Alexandria, Aden, Trincomalee and Singapore. It was also a deliciously picturesque possession, extolled by Victorian travellers such as Isabella Bird. As she observed, every oriental costume, often “emphasised by the glitter of ‘barbaric gold,’” seemed to float through the island’s streets:

Parsees in spotless white, Jews and Arabs in dark rich silks; Klings in Turkey red and white; Bombay merchants in red and white turbans, full trousers, and draperies, all white with crimson silk girdles; Malays in red sarongs; Sikhs in pure white Madras muslin… and Chinamen of all classes from the coolie in his blue or brown cotton, to the wealthy merchant in his frothy silk crêpe and rich brocade, make up an irresistibly fascinating medley.56

More than a generation later another visiting writer, Stella Benson, was equally excited by the “extraordinary exoticness and variation of the Hong Kong crowd.” Watching passengers as they flooded with “dramaticcinematic” intensity from the ferry at Kowloon, she admired “the gentle, coarse young kilted soldiers; Indian police with their dyed scarlet beards” yellow parchment-skinned old men and “lovely slim young Chinese girls in…[their] neat and graceful half-foreign dresses.”57 Local colour apart, though, Hong Kong was a drab backwater.

It was commercially quiescent, politically insignificant and socially stagnant. After 1860 the vast bulk of British mercantile interests were concentrated in the treaty port of Shanghai, at the mouth of the Yangtse. Hong Kong was never more than a pawn in the great game of Sino-British relations. Parochial but pretentious, whites created what one colonel called a “serviette civilisation.”58 The state of the colony was most clearly illustrated in the person of its Governor. Although an autocrat “next to the Almighty,”59 he had little to do and sometimes, like Sir Arthur Kennedy in the 1870s, did “as little as possible.”60 Sir William Des Voeux found that his work was far lighter than it had been in tiny St. Lucia and said that Hong Kong was “a paradise to a man inclined to be idle.” Most Governors had leisure for playing golf and tennis, or sailing aboard their sumptuous yacht, or taking the steam-driven Peak Tram (the first funicular railway in Asia) up to their summer retreat, Mountain Lodge, with its Pompeian red-and-yellow tiled floors. What occupied them most were the ceremonial duties attached to their role as petty viceroys, bonsai Grand Ornamentals. At Government House, a square, granite, neo-classical edifice overlooking the Botanical Gardens that was smoothly run by pig-tailed Chinese in long blue gowns, they gave magnificent balls and entertainments. They travelled in state, bearers of the Governor’s sedan chair clad in “bright-red liveries, white gaiters, and ‘mutton-pie’ hats with red tassels.”61 They welcomed visiting dignitaries, spending vast sums on multi-gun salutes which shook the floating slums of Victoria Harbour. They presided over public occasions such as jubilees, regattas, horse races, parades and banquets. Sir Frederick Lugard grumbled about having to attend incessant functions, standing “first upon one leg and then upon another, or bowing like a Chinese image on a mantelpiece whose head wags for an hour if you touch him under the chin.”62 Everywhere Governors imposed a strict regard for protocol—Sir Matthew Nathan complained that Hong Kong wives were “pushful persons who would like to ‘get into society.’”63 And they set high standards of formality in an already artificial community. It was said to be social death for a man to forget “to put a flower in his coat, or to curl the ends of his moustache.”64

Controversial matters certainly arose, which prompted interference from London, such as licensed gambling, prostitution and drug-smuggling. Governors tried to suppress crime, piracy, slavery, infanticide, spitting and foot-binding—Isabella Bird said that Chinese women had hooves. They also had to respond to the demands of the few thousand Europeans, led by opulent and rapacious taipans. Whites insisted on their supremacy. They used pidgin English because it was “easier to a Chinaman’s intellect.”65 They said that the “heathen Chinee” was morally defective because of his “carnal conscience.”66The Hong Kong Guide of 1893 noted that the Chinese pony “resembles his human compatriot for treachery.”67 In the streets Europeans habitually struck Chinese with their canes and umbrellas. And they demanded that Governors should be equally stern. “The cry was for a Caesar.”68 Thus over the years the Chinese were subjected to a host of discriminatory ordinances, including segregation, a night-time curfew and pass laws. Three hundred thousand of them (by Lugard’s time) huddled together in noisome tenements on the coastal rim, often shared with pigs and fowls, overlooked by a European Surbiton rising towards the social eminence of Victoria Peak. The Chinese also received harsh punishments, among them public flogging and hanging. Any Governor who spared the rod, such as Sir John Pope Hennessy, was accused of “mollycoddling.”69 Pope Hennessy, who introduced the treadmill, was more eccentric than progressive. Preferring the good earth, he had a morbid aversion to water closets and denounced the “evils of sewage flushing.”70 He therefore delayed sanitary reform, which advanced cholera. The delay may also have helped the spread of bubonic plague, which was hardly checked by the Medical Officer of Health who thought it “more probable that rats caught the plague from man rather than that men were infected through rats.”71 So noxious was this island, where health was regularly sacrificed to wealth, that the first body with an elected element to be set up in Hong Kong (in 1888) was the Sanitary Board. Virtually no further progress was made towards democracy for almost a century. At least, though, as the historian John Darwin wittily remarks, “Hong Kong recognised the principle of no sanitation without representation.”72

As appeared during the 1898 uprising of the Boxers (“Righteous Harmonious Fists”), the Chinese repaid British xenophobia with interest. They never overcame their aversion to “foreign devils.” They resented western interference in oriental customs. They distrusted European medicines, suspecting that British doctors used the eyes of Chinese babies to treat plague victims and favouring herbal and other remedies, including decoctions of snake and hedgehog skin, dried lizard and cockchafer. They kicked against colonial discipline—every year some 10 per cent of Hong Kong’s population were hauled before an English magistrate. In the streets of Victoria township Chinese men often jostled, cursed and spat at whites. Hatred of the alien dispensation sharpened after the First World War. Hong Kong workers struck against starvation wages, spiralling inflation and abysmal living standards. The Hong Kong Club was reduced to providing “tiffins on cafeteria lines.”73 The labour troubles led to violence which worsened in 1925 when protests spread to Shanghai and Canton, where British-commanded police and troops shot down dozens of demonstrators.

In Hong Kong hostility towards the imperialists reached fever pitch. A general strike paralysed the island and 250,000 strikers decamped to Canton where sympathisers gave them food and shelter. Canton also imposed a damaging boycott on Hong Kong’s trade. Rather than responding with force, as the Governor Sir Cecil Clementi wanted, Britain “preferred to endure the almost untenable conditions.”74 For a time it seemed that the ruthless, bullet-headed leader of the nationalist Kuomintang, General Chiang Kai-shek, might abrogate the unequal treaties and eliminate all foreign settlements. Instead, identifying Bolshevism with “Red imperialism,”75 he turned against his Communist allies. In 1926 he embarked on a civil war, later complicated by Japanese aggression, which lasted until Mao Tse-tung’s victory in 1949. Chiang quickly lifted the boycott and the British restored order in Hong Kong. It was subsequently an important station on the “Red Underground Communication Line”76 and when the Communists took power they continued to regard Hong Kong as a nexus of subversion. It also became a key conduit for arms and other supplies vital to the Kuomintang. In 1930 Chiang did get agreement in principle to abolish the anachronistic treaty ports. But Hong Kong faced no threat until the rising of the blood-red sun, with its sixteen fiery rays, of imperial Nippon.

Meanwhile, despite the Depression, Hong Kong made sufficient progress to ensure the collaboration of its Chinese population, who numbered nearly a million by 1937. They gave passive assent to a colonial government that was detached, paternalistic and wedded to the rule of law. It had long since abandoned grosser forms of discrimination, repealing pass regulations, for example, as early as 1897. In 1922 it introduced the colony’s first labour legislation, prohibiting the industrial employment of children under the age of ten. Subsequent reformers made further attempts, some of them inept, to improve social conditions. Shocked by the government’s toleration of a system that “makes the enslavement of the girls more rigid,”77 they got brothels outlawed in 1932. But this increased the incidence of venereal disease, especially among British troops. Tommies had little to comfort them except prostitutes, who “were outcasts from their society,” one soldier wrote, just as “we were outcasts from ours.” And no decree could eradicate the oldest profession, which remained active in Hong Kong.

Slant-eyed Chinese maidens all around I see

Calling out “Artillery man, abide with me!”78

Even in one of its periodic fits of morality, though, the British Empire was preferable to the decadent and oppressive Manchu regime. Indeed, the father of the Chinese republic, Sun Yat-sen, had been impressed by its good governance. He said that his “ideas for the revolution had come entirely from Hong Kong.”79

The British were also far less brutal and authoritarian than Chiang Kai-shek. His quasi-fascist New Life Movement prohibited spitting, smoking, drinking, guzzling, using lipstick and letting off firecrackers. Chiang also claimed to have suppressed the opium trade. In fact he tried to monopolise this vital source of Kuomintang funds, disguising his operation behind Orwellian terminology. Thus the “Opium Suppression Bureau” ran the business and “de-toxification clinics” sold drugs under the label “anti-opium medicine.” In Hong Kong the British were less cynical but more hypocritical. Since late Victorian times there had been increasing opposition at home to Hong Kong’s role as an opium entrepôt. One MP said that for “every soul our missionaries send to Heaven from China, the British Government was sending ten to hell by this traffic.”80 Such sentiments were echoed abroad and America, especially, put pressure on Britain. In 1913, therefore, India officially ceased to sell opium to China and Hong Kong imposed restrictions on drug use. But Governors wanted to postpone prohibition. This was because “the finances of the Hong Kong government had become as dependent on opium as any addict on his drug.”81 Half the revenue of the colony derived from the poppy in 1918. So between the wars successive Governors, abetted by the Colonial Office, engaged in an elaborate (and sometimes clandestine) rearguard action to defend the commodity that had been Hong Kong’s raison d’être. Yet they also tried to live up to high-minded professions about social welfare. They therefore found other sources of income, opium providing only 5 per cent by the beginning of the Second World War and finally being outlawed at its end.

Before its outbreak, as China was ravaged by civil strife and foreign invasion, with the forces of Hirohito advancing faster than those of Genghis Khan, life seemed sweet under the Union Jack. Of course, it was much sweeter for Hong Kong’s Europeans and the contrast between white and yellow existence was stark. Stella Benson might snipe at the narrowness, Philistinism and games-mindedness of her compatriots—“In Hong Kong it really isn’t what you are but what you play that matters.” But she herself indulged in an interminable round of entertainments. There were beach parties, boat picnics and ladies’ tiffins with afternoon bridge. There were fencing displays at the Yacht Club, dances at the Peak Club and teas at the Fanling Golf Club, itself “spotted with rules…[and] hedged about with verbotens.” There were cocktails at the Jockey Club, sundowners at the Repulse Bay Hotel and dinners at the Peninsula. There were outings to the cinema, where Europeans wore evening dress in the dress circle, while Chinese occupied the stalls. There were glittering receptions at Government House—“The Governor himself has a very gentlemanly face.”82 A few prominent Chinese were invited to selected functions, though even when they met their colonial masters they did not mix. Yet despite social constraint and racial prejudice, as well as the uneven distribution of wealth and privilege, oriental attitudes towards Britons were by no means entirely “belligerent and one-sided.”83 Some Chinese admired western achievements, imitated western fashions, even adopted western sexual tastes, preferring women with broad hips and big breasts. Above all, the Chinese benefited from a free enterprise system of which, in an increasingly protectionist world, Hong Kong was the brazen epitome. Through skill and diligence, they developed many industries, the largest being textiles, which together with trade and financial services were to make Hong Kong a dragon economy in the “East Asian Miracle.”84

Prior to that, of course, the colony became an involuntary part of Nippon’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Hong Kong was scarcely better prepared for war than Fiji, which received two 4.7-inch guns from New Zealand in September 1939 only to find that they were dummies. Churchill had long assumed that if Japan declared war all Britain’s interests in the Yellow Sea would be “temporarily effaced.”85 Unlike Singapore, Hong Kong could not be held, he said, adding in January 1941 that its garrison should be “reduced to a symbolical scale.”86 Actually it was reinforced with two ill-trained and largely French-speaking battalions of Canadian infantry. These were supplemented by a contingent of elderly volunteers called, after their founder, the “Hughesiliers”—or “Methuseliers.”87 But there were still not enough men to defend the aptly named Gin Drinkers’ Line, which snaked for a dozen miles through the New Territories. And the authorities’ refusal to arm the Chinese caused “a disastrous disaffection”88 among the local population. The Chief Information Officer went so far as to say that “the ultimate cause” of Hong Kong’s fall was the failure to tap “the vast reservoir of manpower within our own gates.”

In Hong Kong there were about 300,000 able-bodied men. Making all possible allowance for fifth columnists, expatriates and jelly-fish who ooze quietly to the winning side, there cannot have been less than 75,000 Chinese who would willingly have borne arms and fought, not particularly for the British Empire, but against the hated monkey men from Japan.89

But colonial society in Hong Kong had succumbed to the kind of racist torpor that infected Singapore. “It was not so much fatuous complacency,” said one officer, “as a determined unwillingness to have the pleasant routine of their lives disturbed by those ‘short-arsed yellow bastards’ who were overrunning China.”90

The Japanese, who controlled the air and the sea, quickly drove their foes from the mainland. On 18 December 1941 their hardened troops mounted an amphibious assault on Hong Kong island and, despite being heavily outnumbered, achieved an immediate breakthrough. In the hope that this “forlorn outpost”91 could survive for weeks or even months, Churchill cabled: “We expect you to resist to the end. The honour of the Empire is in your hands.”92 The Japanese swept aside all opposition with ruthless force, shooting prisoners, bayoneting hospital patients, raping nurses and committing other atrocities against civilians. On Christmas Day Sir Mark Young surrendered, something no British colonial Governor had ever done before. Meanwhile, his ADC, Captain Battye-Smith, went round telling the fugitives congregated at Government House not to drop cigarette ash on the Governor’s carpet. The loss of Hong Kong in seventeen days was the first major blow to the prestige of white imperialists in Asia. It was compounded by the humiliation of captive Europeans, who were subjected to malnutrition, forced labour and hideous cruelties. A doctor who treated survivors found it heartbreaking “to learn that the elderly emaciated gentleman before your eyes was a boy in his twenties.”93 Some were so skeletal as to be unrecognisable, prompting one British police superintendent to incoherent fury: “What insufferable swine these yellow dogs are.”94 However, the conquerors inflicted worse horrors on the Chinese, face-slapping, looting, exiling, torturing, starving and executing on an unimaginable scale. The Japanese said that the Chinese could eat grass, of which there was plenty growing in the streets. Some were driven to cannibalism, buying human flesh in night markets. The vicious and corrupt Co-Prosperity Sphere was an excellent advertisement for the British Empire.

As the war continued, though, it seemed as if the Empire might relinquish its rights to Hong Kong. In 1943 Britain and the United States signed agreements with China abolishing all extra-territorial concessions and handing over treaty ports such as Shanghai (after the expulsion of Nippon). Encouraged by President Roosevelt, Chiang Kai-shek also expected the return of Hong Kong. The Foreign Office leant towards conciliation. When the Chinese pressed Anthony Eden over the lease of the New Territories, he accepted that Britain should “discuss its surrender after the war.”95But the acting head of the Far Eastern Department, Sir Maurice Peterson, took a tougher line. He said that “in view of the ignominious circumstances in which we were bundled out of Hong Kong, we owe it to ourselves to return there and I personally do not believe that we will ever regain the respect of the East until we do.”96 Needless to say, Churchill shared this opinion. He was scathing about “people who got up each morning asking themselves how much more of the empire they could give away.”97 And in March 1945 he confronted Roosevelt’s ambassador to China, Patrick Hurley, a bluff Irish-American who echoed the President’s hostility to British colonialism in the Far East. Churchill “‘took him up with violence’ about Hong Kong and said that he would never yield an inch of territory that was under the British flag.”98 President Truman was not prepared to make an issue of this pimple on China’s backside, especially when Bevin turned out to be as stubborn as Churchill. Equally intransigent was the senior British official in Hong Kong, Franklin Gimson. Released from prison camp after Japan’s capitulation on 14 August 1945, he took charge of the colony in the name of His Majesty’s Government. By sheer force of will Gimson made the Japanese obey him until the arrival of the Royal Navy at the end of the month. Admiral Sir Cecil Harcourt accepted the Japanese surrender on behalf of China and Britain. Invested with emergency powers, he also began to impose order on chaos. Harcourt stopped revenge killings, provided food relief, restored public services and breathed new life into the economy. In lieu of a police force, he employed seven hundred Chinese gangsters.

Hong Kong’s position was still precarious when Sir Mark Young returned as Governor in 1946. So in addition to carrying out physical reconstruction he proposed political reform. Young advocated a kind of dyarchy, which would devolve control of local affairs to elected representatives of the people. This would, he hoped, meet the general desire of Hong Kong’s “inhabitants to remain under British rule and to resist absorption by China.”99 Here was a real opportunity, in the turbulent aftermath of the war, to inject a democratic element into the constitution. But mandarins at the Colonial Office failed to grasp it, a fundamental “mistake.”100 Their reason, according to Young’s successor Sir Alexander Grantham (Governor from 1947 to 1957), was that Hong Kong would inevitably be reabsorbed by China, almost certainly when the lease of the New Territories expired. The Kuomintang’s Governor of Kwangtung Province, T. V. Soong, told Grantham personally that in due course China would “ask for Hong Kong back and we shall expect to get it.”101 There was no point in planting a democratic seed since it could not engender independence, as happened in other colonies. In fact, of course, Hong Kong might have enjoyed a measure of self-rule for half a century, good in itself and better than the last-minute token it received. But the British had another reason for maintaining the status quo. Any change might antagonise China’s dictators, first Chiang Kai-shek and, after 1949, Mao Tse-tung. To be sure, voters in the United Kingdom “didn’t care a brass farthing about Hong Kong.”102 But they would certainly have cared if it had been seized by China. While being reluctant to appease, therefore, London could not afford to provoke Peking. It did, indeed, send heavy reinforcements to deter the victorious Communist People’s Liberation Army from crossing the border. To American delight, Grantham even talked of making Hong Kong “the Berlin of the East.” But, as China-watchers repeated over the next twenty-five years, Mao could take city-state with a telephone call.

Under Grantham’s auspices the colony experienced political and social stasis. He remained a benevolent despot, convinced that the Chinese were “politically apathetic.” So long as they got law and order and low taxes, they were “content to leave the business of government to the professionals.”103 Actually, the Chinese had little scope for action and their Reform Association, which pressed for popular suffrage, “was kept under police surveillance.”104 Meanwhile, the Governor was much preoccupied with his decorative functions. He maintained in an interview that Hong Kong now “lacked the pomposity of the Taipan era,” when “we juniors…always had to walk out backwards” from the presence of seniors.105 Yet, as emerges from Grantham’s smug memoir, published in 1965, he and his wife spent an unconscionable time fussing over the minutiae of their pygmy court.

Fortunately we had a very good domestic staff, presided over by Ah Yau, the number 1 boy, a most admirable and kindly man. Even so, constant supervision was necessary…The cooks—three of them—had to be kept up to the mark. In the same way, the table boys, if not watched, might appear in grubby uniforms, or during lunch or dinner, stand around daydreaming, failing to notice that the water or wine glasses needed replenishing…It took eternal vigilance to maintain a high standard.

Grantham was especially exercised about correct seating plans and suitable arrangements for entertaining royalty. Having invited the Crown Prince of Iraq, who turned out to be aggressively anti-Semitic, the Governor felt obliged to tell another dinner guest, the Jewish film producer Michael Todd, that for the evening he must “be a Scot or anything but a Jew.”106 Paying such nice attention to the proprieties, Grantham preserved Hong Kong society in aspic. A new civil servant, Austin Coates, who had been told to equip himself with a white, gold-braided, brass-buttoned uniform, aiguillettes, pith helmet and sword, concluded that Grantham’s government was “still living in the Victorian era.”

Yet when Coates arrived, in 1949, he was as much struck by the furious human energy inside the Hong Kong hive as by its ossified colonial carapace. Refugees from Communism thronged into its narrow confines, joining those who had fled from the Kuomintang and quickly increasing the population from two to three million. Coates recorded:

All over the rocky hillsides near the urban area, tens of thousands of ram-shackle little huts were sprouting day and night, built of packing cases, sacks, kerosene tins, linoleum, worn-out rubber tyres, anything anyone could lay their hands on, tied together with bits of wire, or even with rice straw.107

In the farming valleys of Kowloon entire shantytowns sprang up like mushrooms. Peasants, workers, beggars and wounded soldiers hobbled across the border, which was closed in May 1950. Simultaneously Rolls-Royces and Cadillacs arrived, their springs groaning under the weight of evacuated gold. Since 1945 Hong Kong had become, in effect, the last treaty port. And Shanghai, with all its professional skill, industrial drive and entrepreneurial flair, “transferred itself bodily there.”108 Labour and capital would combine to make Hong Kong’s economy astoundingly progressive at a time when its colonial regime was increasingly obsolete. The contrast between new dynamism and old fogyism appalled some visitors and appealed to others. Amid the indigenous boom of the 1950s, Jan Morris noted, Britons habitually bullied Chinese—so abused them, indeed, that their English sometimes consisted entirely of such phrases as “‘Fuck you,’ ‘bastard,’ ‘son of a bitch.’”109 Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, exulted that Hong Kong was “the last stronghold of feudal luxury in the world.”110

The Cold War was the making of Hong Kong. Nothing promoted its prosperity more than the trade embargo which the United Nations imposed on China as a result of its intervention in the Korean conflict in November 1950. It is true that the colony’s role as an entrepôt, which had been boosted during the first months of the war, was damaged by the prohibitions. But contraband had always been the lifeblood of Hong Kong and significant supplies of strategic materials were smuggled into China, which earned nearly half its foreign revenue from sending exports through the free port. These were reduced to a trickle by the United States’ total ban on commerce with China, imposed in order to stem what Time magazine called “the red tide that threatens to engulf the world.”111American hysteria, aggravated by Senator Joseph McCarthy, manifested itself in Hong Kong in a frenetic investigation into exports to the United States (such as ducks, prawns and timber) which might have had Communist origins. However, such curbs had the inestimable benefit of stimulating diversification. Industry took the place of commerce as the engine of economic progress in Hong Kong. Textiles remained the staple. But now backroom factories produced toys, plastic goods, basic electronic equipment and other items. Growth was phenomenal: within fifteen years Hong Kong went from making a tenth to making three-quarters of its exports.

Rising profits depended on continuing stability and Hong Kong was fortunate that every interested party accepted that its status should not change for the moment. China, preoccupied with letting a hundred flowers bloom (1956), with taking the great leap forward (1958) and with unleashing the Cultural Revolution (1966), found it convenient to wait. The view of the Hong Kong Chinese was well expressed by one of their number on the Legislative Council: “Hong Kong is a lifeboat; China is the sea. Those who have climbed into the lifeboat naturally don’t want to rock it.”112 The United States, which treated Hong Kong as part of its own informal empire, came to appreciate its worth as a centre for diplomacy, propaganda, journalism, espionage, rest and recreation, and duty-free shopping. For Britain Hong Kong was a political and strategic liability without being much of a financial asset. But the territory (as Hong Kong was now called, though the word “colony” remained on banknotes until 1985) was valuable in terms of prestige. Declining in the West, Britain relished its oriental eminence. Westminster and Whitehall preferred to keep Hong Kong than to lose face.

Despite its constitutional inertia, the territory became a showplace in which the colonial masters could take pride. Of course, it was embarrassing that the Chinese were excluded from top jobs in the civil service as well as from government and that they played little or no part in the direction of princely hongs such as Jardine, Matheson. It was also unpleasant to hear the charge that Hong Kong was the sweatshop of the world. Yet its authoritarian regime eventually managed to graft an embryonic welfare state on to a Victorian system of unbridled free enterprise. During the early 1950s, after fires at squatter camps left tens of thousands homeless, Grantham initiated an ambitious building programme. The first dwellings were “barrack-like hutments,”113 with no amenities except communal kitchens and bathrooms—some tenants preferred to return to their cardboard boxes. But standards slowly improved and in forty years three million people were housed. Grantham’s successor, Sir Robert Black, extolled the “wonderful partnership” between the British administrators and the local inhabitants. It was “a creative experience as far as I was concerned, and, without doubt an inspiration for the people of Hong Kong.”114

Subsequent Governors could afford large investment in health, education, transport and other services. There was even legislation to improve working conditions in factories. In fact, the state did not hesitate to intervene. It arbitrarily detained or deported “trouble-makers.” It banned films and prosecuted newspapers deemed to be seditious. It quelled disturbances that spilled over the border from China. It even tackled police corruption, though this was so endemic that the Governor concerned, Sir Murray Maclehose, issued an amnesty, confirming Chinese suspicions that he would “swat the flies, not catch the tigers.”115 After the rapprochement with China that followed President Richard Nixon’s historic visit in 1972 and the American recognition of the People’s Republic, the British even cooperated with Peking to stop the flow of illegal immigrants (“eye-eyes”) into Hong Kong—though “snakeheads” (people smugglers) remained active. Earlier the Communists had portrayed the white imperialists as pigs and their Chinese collaborators as “yellow running dogs.”116 Now, when the British Foreign Secretary Sir Alec Douglas-Home followed in Nixon’s footsteps, a military band in the Great Hall of the People played the Eton Boating Song.

Good relations partly stemmed from Peking’s recognition, especially after the death of Mao in 1976, of how much China benefited from the stupendous money-making machine on its doorstep. Where the colonial economy was concerned, the British had allowed a virtual free-for-all. Regulation was conspicuous by its absence. Taxation and public expenditure were kept to a minimum. Wages found their own level and profits soared. In the two decades after 1960 Hong Kong’s gross national product increased at nearly 10 per cent a year in real terms. By the 1980s Hong Kong was China’s biggest trading partner and provided 70 per cent of its foreign investment. It exported more than China and four times as much as India. But it also moved many factories to Kwangtung province, where labour was cheap, transforming the local economy. Meanwhile, it developed a financial and services sector to rival those in the West. Oriental tycoons multiplied, threatening the dominance of occidental taipans. For example, the shipping magnate Sir Y. K. Pao, who started as a trader in duck feathers and bean curd, took over those quintessential colonial institutions, the Peak Tram, the Lane Crawford department store (“the Harrods of the East”), and Star Ferries, whose snub-nosed, green-and-white vessels linked the island to the mainland. The growing opulence of Hong Kong was reflected in its tumescent architecture, which glowed in the city’s “neon orgasm.”117 With incontinent speed towers of glass and concrete thrust themselves heavenwards, only to be superseded by yet more virile erections. Even the Hong Kong Club became upwardly mobile, sacrificing its Mughal palace to a high-rise monolith. That size did matter was illustrated by the Bank of China’s steely, angular skyscraper, which was designed not only to direct emanations of bad feng shui towards Government House but to overshadow the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank. The British lions in front of the “Honkers and Shaggers” were reclining; the white stone lions flanking the Bank of China, modelled on those in the Forbidden City, were rampant.

No one could mistake the symbolism. China was in the ascendant. It could beat the capitalists at their own game. Hong Kong, if properly handled, would suit Chinese economic purposes just as well, if not better, under the control of Peking. Politically, the restoration of sovereignty was essential to the self-respect of the motherland. Arguing from analogy, Whitehall officials had long recognised this. If Chinese invaders had turned the Isle of Wight into a pagoda-covered “heaven on earth,” they said, Britain would still “want it back.”118 For China itself the recovery of Hong Kong was a “sacred mission.”119 Nothing else could purge the unbearable hurt and shame that the nation had suffered at the hands of the barbarous imperialists. Nothing else could allay what pro-Chinese demonstrators in Hong Kong called “the agony of our ancestors.”120 One experienced journalist even perceived a “thinly disguised desire on the part of the Chinese leaders to humiliate Britain in some way in order to wipe clean the sheet of the 19th century.”121 It would surely be poetic justice for renascent China to impose on Britain, at its last gasp as a colonial power, an unequal treaty.

This was hardly what Margaret Thatcher had in mind when she visited Peking in September 1982 to decide the future of Hong Kong. Buoyed up with the afflatus of victory over Argentinians, she was in no mood to be dictated to by “Chinamen”—a term she was eventually persuaded to drop. Indeed, she saw distinct similarities between the Falkland Islands and Hong Kong. Both were distant colonies threatened by neighbouring totalitarian states. Britain’s claim to both was sound yet in both cases the Foreign Office canvassed “ideas for pre-emptive surrender.” The Prime Minister bitterly attacked defeatism over Hong Kong. Against appeasing diplomats such as Sir Percy Cradock, the British ambassador in Peking, she conducted “a species of guerrilla warfare.” She even hankered to hold Hong Kong by force, until convinced that China was not Argentina and that the island was “militarily indefensible.”122 Without the New Territories, which comprised 92 per cent of the colony, it was also untenable. So the Iron Lady confronted Chinese leaders with this proposal: parliament would give up sovereignty over Hong Kong in return for a continuing British administration that would preserve its prosperity. “The Quite Honourable Margaret Thatcher,” as the interpreter called her, was repelled by the evident cruelty of Deng Xiaoping. Deaf, squat and having the glazed look of a Chinese figurine, he smoked, hawked and made copious use of a white enamel spittoon. But she held her ground, even insisting on the validity of the Victorian treaties. Deng was so outraged that what he said could not be translated, his most printable remark being that he couldn’t talk to this “stinking woman.” Suffering from a head cold and having failed to budge Deng, the Prime Minister tripped on the steps as she left the Great Hall of the People and fell on her hands and knees. Unkind Chinese journalists said that at last she had decided to kowtow.

They were wrong. Although Mrs. Thatcher had insisted on secret covenants secretly arrived at, she herself resorted to megaphone diplomacy. At a press conference in Hong Kong she repeated her faith in the sanctity of the “unequal treaties,” remarking pointedly that a country which would not stand by one treaty might not stand by another. Peking reacted fiercely, excoriating aggressive British imperialism. Fears of a clash sent the Hang Sen stock market index down by 25 per cent inside a week. Property prices tumbled and the Hong Kong dollar began a slide in value that only stopped when it was pegged to the American greenback in 1983. The Times’s correspondent, David Bonavia, declared: “Seldom in British colonial history was so much damage done to the interests of so many people, in such a short space of time by a single person.”123 But all Margaret Thatcher had really done was to make negotiations over the inevitable handover of Hong Kong more difficult and protracted. She continued to chafe, suggesting the creation of democratic structures in Hong Kong and the holding of a UN-supervised referendum with a view to granting the colony independence. Soon, though, as Sir Geoffrey Howe observed, logic overcame emotion. Despite further wobbles, she now “contended that a deal had to be sought because the Chinese would get everything they wanted anyway in 1997.”124

Sir Percy Cradock, the champion of this analysis, was detailed to reach a settlement. He made no progress. Indeed, he likened his discussions with the “tough and unyielding” Chinese to trudging through mud “on the Western Front”—scarcely an apt analogy. More apt was the showing of a new film in Peking entitled The Burning of the Summer Palace, which focused less on the barbarity of the Europeans than on the humiliation of the Chinese. Eventually the ambassador, who found his experiences in China comparable to those of Lord Macartney in the eighteenth century, had to give way on the key questions of continuing British sovereignty and administration. Being such a skilled diplomat, Cradock disguised each retreat as a “finesse.”125 He saved face but he could not save his case. As one Hong Kong politician put it, British negotiators could only “rearrange the cards in the Chinese hand: for they hold them all.”126 Nevertheless, the agreement that Howe clinched in 1984 was surprisingly favourable. Once inside the belly of the Communist dragon, Hong Kong would not be digested. For at least fifty years after 1997 it would retain its capitalist identity. Except in matters of defence and foreign policy, it would have a high degree of autonomy. It would have an elected legislature to which the executive would be responsible, though there was ambiguity about how this machinery would work. Hong Kong would keep its way of life, its educational system, its laws, its own currency and rate of taxation. There would be no interference with freedom of speech or assembly. There would be no censorship of the press. The new Special Administrative Region would even have its own flag. In short, it would embody Deng’s long-standing formula: “one country, two systems.” That concept, Margaret Thatcher told him when she returned to Peking in December 1984 to sign the Joint Declaration, was a “stroke of genius.”127

The people of Hong Kong, in whose interest Mrs. Thatcher professed to act, were not informed, let alone consulted, about the Sino-British accord. Opinion polls revealed that they would have preferred to retain the status quo. But, accepting that the handover was inescapable, they welcomed its terms. Stability and prosperity seemed assured. There was not even much resentment about that consummate piece of parliamentary humbug, the British Dependent Territories passport. This identified Hong Kong citizens as overseas British Nationals without giving them the right to live in the United Kingdom or in Hong Kong. The optimistic mood was sustained in 1986, when Queen Elizabeth became the first British sovereign to make a state visit to mainland China. The Duke of Edinburgh punctuated the tour with characteristic gaffes. Not only did he harrumph about the pollution caused by Chinese factories but he remarked, when meeting an English student on a protracted visit: “Good heavens, if you stay here much longer you’ll develop slitty eyes.”128 But when Howe formally apologised the Chinese made nothing of the insult, which anticipated a more considered royal contribution to Sino-British relations. This was Prince Charles’s unhappy valediction to Hong Kong. Distributed to friends and inevitably leaked to the press, his account described the Chinese leaders as “appalling old wax-works.”129

However, in the later 1980s there were already underlying tensions between London and Peking. Deng regarded Margaret Thatcher’s claim to feel a moral responsibility for the people of Hong Kong as both impertinent and disingenuous. In his view the imperialists had always been intent on exploitation and he feared that before 1997 they would suck Hong Kong dry. “Watch those British,” he said, “lest they abscond with the capital.”130 Britain in turn distrusted China, which posed in an insoluble form the most acute problem of decolonisation: how to prevent the imperialist hegemony from lapsing into a nationalist autocracy. Before they left other colonies the British tried to lay the foundations of democracy. In Hong Kong they had barely begun and could scarcely proceed without obstruction from the Red Empire. The first election to the Legislative Council only took place in 1985 and a mere seventy thousand citizens (out of a population of nearly six million) had the vote. When liberals in the territory campaigned for wider, speedier and more direct suffrage, they provoked opposition from nervous capitalists in Hong Kong as well as hard-line Communists in Peking. Deng stated flatly, “We cannot accept people who want to use democracy to turn Hong Kong into an anti-communist base.”131 Anxious to ride towards the “convergence” of their systems aboard a “through train,” the British capitulated and dissimulated. They secretly agreed to postpone further constitutional changes and conducted a fraudulent opinion survey to confirm that this was what the Hong Kong Chinese wanted. In fact, they wanted the opposite. One million of them proved this point when they took to the streets in the spring of 1989 to protest at the massacre of hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators in Peking’s Tiananmen Square.

No one was more appalled by this atrocity than Margaret Thatcher. According to her friend Woodrow Wyatt, what she was “most excited about is how we can hand over Hong Kong at all to these dreadful people who do these awful things to their own subjects.”132 Her response was to force through legislation permitting fifty thousand of the colony’s top administrators and businessmen to settle in the United Kingdom. Right-wing Tories opposed the measure. But the new Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, asserted convincingly that “the last main chapter in the story of this country’s empire…should not end in a shabby way.”133 Of course, there were limits to British generosity. And the Prime Minister accepted that the only way to protect most Hong Kong people was through cooperation with China. Thus Britain did not repudiate the Joint Declaration. Indeed, Hurd exchanged confidential letters with the Chinese, enabling them to codify it into a Basic Law, promulgated in 1990. In particular, he agreed that Hong Kong should receive only gradual accretions of democracy; there would be eighteen directly elected members of the Legislative Council in 1991, twenty in 1997 and thirty (half the total) in 2003. By a disastrous oversight the last Governor was not told of this accord. Appointed by the new Prime Minister, his friend John Major, Chris Patten was a successful ex-minister and Chairman of the Conservative Party who had lost his seat in the 1992 general election he did much to win. Patten was dynamic, forthright, charming, humorous and magnanimous. He felt a generous compulsion to shield the inhabitants of Hong Kong from the so-called “butchers of Beijing.” He would calm the colony’s fears and meet its hopes by a swifter extension of the franchise and a deeper entrenchment of human rights. Backed by Major and Hurd (who had changed course in deference to the Prime Minister), Patten announced his plans without consulting the Chinese leaders. Yet he himself correctly predicted their reaction. “I think some of them suspect that, having come to democracy rather late in Hong Kong, we’re trying to construct some democratic time bomb to blow their system to smithereens.” They retaliated in the Maoist manner, denouncing Patten as a “serpent,” “assassin,” “clown,” “dirty trickster,” “tango dancer,” “strutting prostitute” and “Triple Violator.”134

British critics, especially Old China Hands, were equally insulting in their way. Sir Percy Cradock, who condemned his “dangerous and reckless policy,”135 said that Patten was “on an ego trip.” He was striking “a heroic pose”136 and salving his conscience at the expense of the inhabitants of Hong Kong. Doubtless the last Governor had purer motives for attempting to make his mark. An ardent champion of the Westminster system, he was attempting to compensate for Britain’s past constitutional failure and to satisfy the aspirations of people facing engorgement by a tyranny red in tooth and claw. But Patten, who had no experience of China, misjudged the situation. He did not comprehend how the collapse of Communism in Europe had exacerbated paranoia in Peking. Nor did he appreciate Chinese bitterness over what appeared to be the ultimate piece of imperialist chicanery. The Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine, who drummed up trade in China, was not alone among Patten’s colleagues in recognising this.

How could one expect the Chinese to accept such a unilateral approach so shortly before 1997? We had governed Hong Kong for long enough to introduce a democratic constitution if we had believed it necessary or desirable. Perhaps it was to our discredit that we did not, but deathbed repentance, however genuine, looked very different when viewed from Beijing…[The reason for this last-minute change of heart] could only be that we wished to create restraints for the mainland government which we had not suffered under ourselves.137

Chinese suspicions were understandable since British hypocrisy over Hong Kong dated back to the Opium Wars. Now Patten seemed to be making a parade of liberalism in order to embarrass, or even to subvert, Communism. He would thus assuage his country’s guilt for the sins of colonialism and contrive an honourable exit.

The Chinese had real grounds for doubting Patten’s sincerity. Although eschewing the ceremonial uniform and “chicken feathers”138 of previous Governors, he proved to be no less masterful. He ruthlessly overruled his Legislative Council. And in a belated effort to conciliate Peking he not only banned anti-Communist dissidents from Hong Kong but opposed the establishment of a Human Rights Commission. Moreover, his propaganda was accomplished and his policy was chimerical. Patten conjured up a glittering illusion of democracy that could not be realised. After seventeen futile rounds of negotiation, he introduced new representative structures in 1994 and just three years later the Chinese fulfilled their promise to dismantle them. During this time Patten did achieve agreement over important matters such as the construction of a new airport. But the political sterility of his governorship became ever more apparent as the seconds ticked away on the electronic signboard in Tiananmen Square indicating that China’s sovereignty was just a matter of time. The hard-headed Cradock had been right in saying that Britain’s only chance (and it was only a chance) of safeguarding the people of Hong Kong was to cooperate with China over implementing the Joint Declaration. The high-minded Patten chose confrontation. But the Chinese had no reason to give ground. The British Empire—weak even in its prime, though more than a match for the decadent Manchus—was now moribund. It might persuade but it could not compel. In 1997, therefore, China subordinated Hong Kong to the political control of Peking while encouraging it to forge its own identity as an economic unit. It was almost as though the new Chinese leader, Jiang Zemin, had devised a fresh formula: one system, two countries.

So the curtain was rung down and the lights were extinguished in the great theatre of the British Empire. The grand finale took place on 30 June 1997. The ceremony was staged at the new Convention and Exhibition Centre, nicknamed “the Flying Cockroach.”139 According to The Times, it was “lifted unchanged from every retreat-from-empire textbook.”140 Others saw it as a carnival of kitsch. There were choirs and orchestras, parades and masquerades, orations, gyrations and pyrotechnics. The spectacular did not dispel the atmosphere of apprehension in Hong Kong, especially among demonstrators for democracy, though even its doom provided a marketing opportunity—hawkers sold a “Handover Beer” called Red Dawn Lager, T-shirts proclaiming “The Great Chinese Takeaway,” and spray cans of “colonial air” said to be “The Last Gasp of Empire.” The British mood, already lachrymose, was further dampened by the monsoon—loyalists said that the heavens wept. Patten certainly did, biting his lip and wiping away his tears with a handkerchief. He tried, though, to strike a positive note in his farewell address. Britain had provided, he claimed, “the scaffolding that enabled the people of Hong Kong to ascend; the rule of law, clean and light-handed government, the values of a free society.”141 He shook hands stiffly with Jiang Zemin. But it was plain that the Chinese, who had boycotted the earlier banquet, still considered him “the last colonial aggressor.” Faced with massed ranks of Communists, Margaret Thatcher looked “fierce and unforgiving.”142 Bored by a drama ending in anti-climax, her husband stifled yawns. The white-uniformed Prince of Wales, who made an anodyne speech on behalf of his mother, privately deplored the “ridiculous rigma-role” and “awful Soviet-style display” of goose-stepping Chinese troops. He also disliked Jiang Zemin’s “‘propaganda’ speech which was loudly cheered by the bussed-in party faithful.”143 At the stroke of midnight, as the Union Jack was lowered and the yellow-star flag was raised, the Hong Kong police ripped the royal insignia from their uniforms and replaced them with the badges of Communism. The Governor’s party embarked on Britannia, where a band of the Royal Marines played “Rule, Britannia” and “Land of Hope and Glory.” The royal yacht, now looking old and frail, set off on its final voyage. To most Britons it was the “symbol of a vanished age.”144 But to Prince Charles it was a beloved emblem of British prestige. Its demise, which compounded the loss of “the last jewel in the British Crown”145and the dissolution of the imperial monarchy, filled him with “a kind of exasperated sadness.”146

Britannia faded into the gloom a hundred years to the week after Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. At that imperial apogee, as many deemed it, Kipling had warned of Britain’s faltering dominion over palm and pine while urging Americans to take up the white man’s burden. Reflecting on the fact that the British Empire had now passed away (except for a sprinkling of rocks and islands containing fewer than 200,000 people), whereas the United States had become the heir to Rome, the New York Times quoted Kipling’s famous lines:

Lo, all our pomp of yesterday

Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

Epitaphs and obituaries multiplied. For some commentators the handover of Hong Kong, with £37 billion in reserves and inhabitants who were richer per capita than those of the United Kingdom, was a crowning vindication of Britain’s colonial stewardship. Others thought that no end to the Empire could be more fitting than the sanctimonious consignment of six million people to the mercies of the most monstrous despotism on earth. Immediate historical judgements varied in their emphasis, as did later ones. Some were coloured by nostalgia for imperial glories; others were infused with indignation about imperial crimes. Still others reflected the impact of the Empire on post-war British society. Opinions clashed, for example, about Commonwealth immigration. Liberals such as Ralph Dahrendorf believed that modern Britain, “like ancient Rome,” was enriched by transfusions of new blood. But many opposed the alien influx and quite a few shared Enoch Powell’s vision of the “Tiber foaming with much blood.”147

Some instant historians ascribed much to the credit of the British Empire: roads, railways, culture, language, free speech, good governance, democratic institutions, the rule of law, sport and the ideal of fair play, faith in progress, liberalism and Christianity. Its relatively bloodless end amounted to “a triumph for all that was best in British life.”148 According to one pundit, the British Empire had been “a force for good unrivalled in the modern world.”149 Western Europe lived on the legacy of Rome, he said, and “our Empire leaves at least as rich a legacy to the whole world.” Critics reckoned that the balance sheet of Empire was deeply in the red. On the debit side were arrogance, violence, exploitation, jingoism, racism and authoritarianism. At its heart was a betrayal of the civilised values which the British claimed to espouse. They had professed libertas but practised imperium, subjugating alien lands in the name of freedom. In the words of a disapproving journalist, “much of the world, including Hong Kong, will remember us as perfidious Albion, an inheritance of Empire that will outlive all of us.”150 No doubt hypocrisy was integral to the British Empire, which deployed fine words to hide its ultimate reliance on coercion. Whereas a “torrent of Barbarians might pass over the earth,” as Gibbon said, “an extensive empire must be supported by a refined system of policy and oppression.” At any rate, one thing was sure. The British system, after more than two centuries, was defunct.

It had been the product of temporary circumstances that occurred after the loss of the American colonies—the supremacy of the Royal Navy, the establishment of the workshop of the world and the relative weakness of rival states. When these circumstances changed, the Empire, which anyway had within it the germ of its own destruction in the shape of Burke’s libertarian commitment to trusteeship, was doomed. Its passing was good for the newly independent nations since, to repeat Gibbon’s essential argument, there is nothing “more adverse to nature and reason than to hold in obedience remote countries and foreign nations, in opposition to their inclination and interest.”151 It was also good for Britain, which lacked the strength to carry out its overseas responsibilities after 1945 and needed to adapt to its reduced global position. Yet in Britain and elsewhere round the earth, empire is more than just a romantic memory. It is the embodiment of real ambitions. Nations ache for territorial aggrandisement. The craving for power and wealth is an atavistic instinct. The lust for conquest is part of the human condition. The spirit of imperialism is not dead: it haunts the modern world and its manifestations are legion.

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