23rd February 2021 Vienna, Austria
Diplomatic lessons 5, 1995-98: make a difference
“September 1996, Beijing: second of three formal sessions of the Joint Liaison Group. There are 15 on each side of the long tables, with consecutive interpretation and note-takers on further tables behind us. We go through the agenda, rehearsing positions on each side, notching up here and there agreements that will be the evidence in due course of progress made.”
In 1995, after three years in Moscow, I returned to London. I was offered the chance to work in Hong Kong Department (HKD), dealing with the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. ‘It really matters,’ someone told me. ‘You can make a difference.’
I took the job.
Talks between the UK and China over the future of Hong Kong had been going on since 1979. Following a meeting between Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping in Beijing in September 1982, two years of intense negotiation led to the signing of the Joint Declaration in December 1984, setting out agreed principles for Hong Kong’s future after the handover to China on 30 June 1997.
Joint Liaison Group XL, May 1997
The Joint Declaration established a “Sino-British Joint Liaison Group” (JLG), designed to ensure a smooth transfer of government in 1997. HKD led the London end of the meetings, as well as dealing with a host of practical issues in the run-up to the handover. When I arrived in the department in November 1995, I plunged into policies including the issue of new British National (Overseas) passports to 3.5 million eligible residents of Hong Kong and the building of the new Consulate-General in Admiralty.
The work of Hong Kong Department in the period up to the handover was intense. The eight-hour time difference meant that the end of the day in Hong Kong coincided with the start of that in London, putting a premium on turning work around at each end within a working day.
The job involved regular visits to Hong Kong and Beijing. It was a privilege to participate in meetings of the JLG and to work with the immensely dedicated teams of the Hong Kong Government, led by Chief Secretary Anson Chan, and the Governor’s Office, led by Governor Chris Patten. Policy on many issues was intensely debated on the British side.
Advice from the Hong Kong Government on a suitable Chinese name for me
As the Deputy Head of HKD I did not attend the handover but was present at a ceremony at the Banqueting House in London, hosted by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, where events in Hong Kong were shown on a big screen. A hush fell as midnight neared in Hong Kong, with a slight intake of breath as the first soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army marched into the Convention Centre in Hong Kong carrying the Chinese flag they were about to raise. As the Union Jack came down, a waitress in London dropped her tray of drinks.
January 1996 Countdown Clock in Tienanmen Square showing days and seconds to the Handover on 30 June 1997
With effect from 3 July 1997 I became Head of Hong Kong Department. A note of mid-September says that the computer at work, when switched on, recorded that it was “minus 73 days until the Handover”. We continued to deal with policy issues affecting the relationship between the UK and Hong Kong, including the introduction of six-monthly reports to parliament on the implementation of Joint Declaration. The JLG continued to meet: I remember flying from Hong Kong to Beijing in November 1997 on an Air China plane whose in-flight video boasted “no accidents since 1955”.
In Mao Zedong’s mausoleum in Beijing, January 1996
Becoming more senior meant contact with more senior people, both in Hong Kong and in London. In November 1997 ex-PM Sir Edward Heath invited me to his house in Salisbury for a lunch to discuss the issue. Indeed, it was around this time that a senior (British) diplomat told me “I am about as senior a diplomat as you can get, you know”. This was excellent coaching in humility.
The chief lesson I drew from three years working on Hong Kong was that diplomatic work that directly affects people’s lives is both challenging and rewarding. Policy on what are today called Overseas Territories, like my time working in the home departments of the UK civil service from 1979-83, was both more political than much Foreign Office work and had more immediate real-world impact. The sense of responsibility was intense. I would return to working on the (remaining) Overseas Territories from 2006-8.
The final meeting of the Joint Liaison Group took place in 1999. The UK continues to publish six-monthly reports on Hong Kong – the most recent came out in November 2020.
On 1 July 2020, in response to events in Hong Kong, the UK announced a new tailored immigration route to the UK for British Nationals (Overseas) and their immediate family dependants. This came into effect on 31 January 2021.
Did I make a difference? I don’t know. But I tried my best for three intense and fascinating years.
The previous posts in this series are:
Coming up next: Diplomatic lessons 6, Germany 1998-2002: expertise helps