The Brits Blew It in Hong Kong
“[China] looks increasingly like it has reached a dead end.” —Frank Dikötter, Professor, University of Hong Kong
As we learned last week, from 1898 until 1997 Britain owned two of the three regions of Greater Hong Kong—in perpetuity—while China owned the third region, subject to a 99-year lease to Britain. Yet, in 1997, all of Hong Kong was turned over to China. We also discussed how such a travesty could possibly have happened. This week we’ll discuss what should have happened.
Letting the chips fall where they may. If the Brits hadn’t spent all their time kowtowing to China they could simply have done nothing. In 1997 the lease on the New Territories would have expired and China would have taken over that part of Greater Hong Kong. But Britain would have held the other two regions: Hong Kong itself and the Kowloon Peninsula.
Okay, that wouldn’t have been an ideal outcome. The New Territories have become so integrated into Hong Kong that it would be as though someone had drawn a line down 42nd Street in Manhattan and given the north half to China.
But so what? “Not ideal” is a hell of a lot better than “We’re turning all of you over to the Commies.” There are, in fact, lots of places in the world where international borders mean very little: the EU, for example; the Vatican; Finland-Sweden-Norway; and so on.
Or consider the U.S.’s 2,000-mile border with Mexico—not an armed solder in sight on either side. Same for the 5,500-mile U.S.-Canada border, the longest international border in the world. If it weren’t for illegal immigration and international terrorism, citizens of the U.S., Canada and Mexico could pass through the two borders almost as easily as we now pass into states and provinces.
Partitioning Hong Kong. Following Germany’s defeat in World War II most of the country was partitioned. The western two-thirds of Germany consisted of the American, British, and French zones, while the eastern third was in the Soviet zone. Berlin itself, the capital, was completely surrounded by the Soviet zone but was also partitioned into four sectors. An entity called the Allied Control Council was established to coordinate governance of the entire country. Like Berlin, Vienna was also partitioned into four zones even though Austria itself was not.
The same thing could have been done in Hong Kong, with the Brits overseeing Hong Kong Island and Kowloon and the Chinese overseeing the New Territories. In all probability this would have ended up looking a lot like East Berlin, with residents of the New Territories living under tyrannical conditions and desperate to leave. But if the Brits had to choose it would have been a lot better to destroy the lives of people living in one of the regions of Hong Kong rather than to destroy the lives of everyone in Hong Kong.
Condominiumizing Hong Kong. A “condominium,” under international law, is a territory that is governed by two sovereign powers without dividing the territory up into spheres of influence, as happens with partitioning—joint sovereignty, if you will. Condominia are rare but they exist and have existed throughout history.
Today, for example, Antarctica is effectively a multidominium, since it is governed jointly by 54 countries pursuant to the Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1961. The International Space Station is also a multidominium, operated jointly by five countries (the U.S., the EU, Canada, Russia and Japan). The Space Station is also partitioned, however, with the Russians occupying one section while everyone else occupies the other section.
Similarly, Lake Constance is a tridominium governed by Switzerland, Germany and Austria; the Brčko District in Eastern Europe is a condominium of Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina; and Andorra, although a sovereign state itself, is really a condominium of France and Spain. It’s co-heads of state are the President of France and the Bishop of Urgell.
The same thing could have been done in Hong Kong, with Britain and China exercising co-sovereignty over Greater Hong Kong. The region could have had co-executives or the executive could have been appointed consecutively, first by Britain for a number of years, then by China, and so on. I once chaired the board of a college with two campuses, and the president of each campus served as president of the entire college in rotation.
Make Hong Kong a sovereign nation. As I noted last week, the island of Taiwan has been a sovereign nation since 1949, despite China’s constant demands for the “return” of the island. The same thing could have happened in Hong Kong—the Brits could simply have given Hong Kong its freedom. China would have been outraged, of course, but, as we have seen with the example of Taiwan, China’s bark is a lot worse than its bite.
Letting the people of Hong Kong decide. Apparently, despite being the country of the Magna Carta, it never occurred to the Brits to allow the citizens of Hong Kong to decide their own fate.
Think about the wonderful ballot the Brits could have set up. Voters in Greater Hong Kong could have entered the voting booth and found three options: vote to remain with Britain, vote to switch to China, vote to become a sovereign nation. Once that vote was over, there would have been a runoff vote with the top two choices that had prevailed in the first vote.
Technically, we can’t know what the top choices would have been since the Brits never gave the people of Hong Kong a choice. But in reality we know that staying with Britain or becoming independent would have been the overwhelming choices. Of the roughly three million voters in the city, going with China would have gotten 814 votes: the 600 Hong Kong residents who were members of the Chinese Communist Party and the 214 professors at Hong Kong University.
It was a tragedy that Britain simply turned Greater Hong Kong over to Communist China without a fight, and it’s a tragedy that will haunt the UK as long as there’s a UK. Next week we’ll take a quick look at the fate that has befallen Hong Kong since the 1997 turnover.