Chapter 18: So Much for Fairy Tales
Those who believed in fairy tales - particularly of geese laying golden eggs - thought it a mistake to remind China of the New Territories lease. They felt that, if nothing were done to draw attention to the fading 'use-by' shelf-life on the New Territories label, Hong Kong could slip through the 1997 time barrier with no one being the wiser.
There was in fact no prospect of ever playing things that way. The governor and his advisers were clear that, lacking sound arrangements for the future, confidence in Hong Kong would begin to run out soon after 1982. The precise year can be disputed, but there is no doubt that anxieties among investors would increasingly have undermined confidence as the deadline approached and nothing was done about it. Nor could the British administer Hong Kong after 1997 without an extension of the Order in Council from which the governor drew his authority; and no such legislation would have been possible without evidence of Chinese agreement.
It was a fallacy to believe the Chinese were content to let things run on. They had made repeated attempts to recover either the whole of Hong Kong or at least the New Territories. As far back as the close of World War I, the Chinese representative at the Paris Peace Conference had put forward a resolution calling for the abolition of spheres of influence in China, the return of foreign concessions and of leased territories, including - quite specifically - the New Territories.
Nevertheless expectations were raised in 1979 by an invitation from the Chinese Minister of Foreign Trade, as a result of which Sir Murray MacLehose made the first-ever official visit to China by a Hong Kong Governor. Confidence was further fuelled when Sir Murray returned from Beijing with an assurance from Premier Deng Xiaoping that Hong Kong people could set their hearts at ease.
Whatever comfort lovers of the status quo might gain from that statement was of brief duration. Against a background of continuing economic prosperity, and a cautious experiment with limited forms of representative government, tempered with concern for renewal of the New Territories lease and a settlement of the growing crisis of illegal immigration, Hong Kong watched with bated breath as Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, fresh from victories in the Falklands War, made her way to Beijing in September 1982 for discussions with the Chinese leaders.
There had already been significant pronouncements in Beijing. Peng Zhen, a vice-chairman of the Communist Party and leading authority on constitutional and legal affairs had stated, in July that year, that Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan were to become special administrative regions of the People's Republic. And in January that year, Britain's Deputy Foreign Minister Humphrey Atkins had met with Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang and Vice-Premier Ji Pengfei. At these meetings, according to Wang Yincheng, in The Return of Hong Kong: "Zhao reiterated China's stand regarding the Hong Kong issue: First, China possessed the sovereignty over all the territory including the Island of Hong Kong, Kowloon and the New Territories. Second, the Chinese Government stressed Hong Kong's position as a free port and international trade and financial centre. Third, in the near future, both the Chinese and British sides would negotiate over Hong Kong's future position."
Despite these omens, it was hoped Mrs Thatcher's visit would produce some words of encouragement similar to those which - at least for public consumption - had been conveyed by Sir Murray on his return from China three years earlier. One hundred and eighty nine years had elapsed since Lord Macartney, envoy of King George III, headed in that direction to persuade China to open up to world - and more specifically British - trade. But that was long before Hong Kong came into existence, and even longer before it became rich and famous.
Wang Yincheng says that Deng Xiaoping told Mrs Thatcher: "No latitude is allowed in the issue of sovereignty. Frankly speaking, sovereignty is not negotiable. Now the time is ripe. It should be made clear that China will take back Hong Kong in 1997. In other words, China will not only take back the New Territories but also the Island of Hong Kong and Kowloon. China and Britain (should) conduct negotiations under this precondition to find the way to settle the Hong Kong issue.
"We've waited for 33 years. It will be 48 years in 15 years. Our long wait has been based on the people's full confidence. If we couldn't take back (Hong Kong) in 15 years, the people would have no reason to trust us again and any Chinese Government would be forced to relinquish power and step down from the stage of politics of its own accord. There can be no other choice."
ISD had organised numerous press conferences, but seldom one as portentous as that given by Mrs Thatcher on her return from Beijing. This time the message was loud and clear. And information channels had to be geared to convey its considerable ramifications.
Chapter 19: Faster than the Speed of Thought
The Chief Secretary of the time, Sir Philip Haddon-Cave, decided if ISD was to meet the greater demands now placed on it, in a time of uncertainty and anxiety over what the future might bring, the department was due for an overhaul.
On an inspection of Beaconsfield House, not only ISD but also other floors still occupied by miscellaneous and largely non-departmental tenants, he encountered a rat. Nobody is entirely clear as to the precise setting for this encounter - or even if the rat was there entirely of its own volition - but it was momentous for the results it produced. In Sir Philip's mind the cause was due to the presence of food on the premises. The messes, together with their assorted restaurants, would have to go.
The news was greeted with jubilation among information officers and their loyally-supportive but long-suffering administrative personnel. Not only would they no longer have to share the one and only lift with porters in blood-stained aprons bearing raw carcasses and baskets of meat, but there was finally a real prospect of freeing up some space for long overdue expansion within the building.
Another of Sir Philip's decisions was to have a greater impact on the management not only of the building but of the department itself. He selected Peter Tsao from the administrative grade to head ISD - making him the first director without prior experience of the department's workings. Tsao's immediate predecessor, Bob Sun, may have spent a long sojourn outside the ranks of the civil service, heading the publicity arm of the Trade Development Council, but he possessed considerable knowledge of how ISD functioned from his news room days.
Tsao had cut his teeth in Trade and Industry, long before that department outgrew its boots and broke up into separate spheres of responsibility. He had made a name for driving hard bargains across the discussion table whenever Hong Kong had to fight against restrictive practices and other barriers set up against its survival in global trade markets.
He arrived in ISD with a charismatic personality, a blunt manner, an aggressive attitude and - some suggested - a determination, if necessary, to turn the department upside down with his demands for better results. He began at the top by bringing new blood into the directorate and replacing all but one of its posts. The sole survivor, Moss, who until then had been the youngest assistant director, suddenly found himself the oldest.
Though he insisted on maintaining the time-honoured ritual of morning briefings, to catch up on overnight news and discuss any response that might be necessary, Tsao laid even heavier insistence upon the latter consequence. His style was nothing if not proactive. "I feel particularly robust this morning," he would announce to those assembled at the elongated table in his office, thereby making it clear he was in no disposition to accept negative advice.
Some of the old-timers at these morning meetings, including Geoffrey Somers and Harry Tsui, found this disinclination hard to accept. It was, they felt, their job to play devil's advocate and to point out the possible negative repercussions of any course of action. At one such meeting Somers, who decided he had taken enough, snapped back at Tsao and reduced the table to silence.
Tsao said nothing at the time but, when the meeting broke up, enquired privately what had precipitated the outburst. Told it was probably due to the stress under which everyone was working, Tsao nodded affably and said he perfectly understood. He would forgive anyone surrendering to such pressure, but added - holding up a finger to emphasise the point - 'once'.
Among the new arrivals in the directorate were Cheung Man-yee, also brought in from outside the information grade, although at least it could be argued she had come from the related field of broadcasting, Irene Yau and Kerry McGlynn. The latter had years of experience heading departmental information units, including a stint running the press office of the Hong Kong Government Office in London, where he had been closely involved with promoting, under his old boss at ISD, Commissioner David Ford, the ambitious Hong Kong in London carnival staged at Battersea Park in 1980.
Irene too was steeped in departmental information work, including a long stint as head of the Police Public Relations Division, and had a acquired a wealth of experience of both public relations and news.
Tsao expected his new team to behave as a 'think tank', matching him in brilliant ideas as to how to engender public confidence in a time of great uncertainty, when the whole question of Hong Kong's future was thrown into debate, when the Hong Kong dollar was plunging and the stock market went into a tail spin. Another of his catch phrases was "Crisis? How do you spell crisis?" As though the whole concept of a crisis was alien to him and not to be entertained.
Proposals would sometimes ricochet so alarmingly inside this think tank that its one surviving 'old timer' would duck for cover, dodging ideas which he grumbled were 'flying faster than the speed of thought'.
Chapter 20: Suspended by a Pair of Chopsticks
Sir Edward Youde had succeeded Sir Murray MacLehose as Hong Kong's 26th governor in May 1982. He joined the British delegation, headed by Sir Percy Cradock, at the bilateral talks on the future of the territory, nobly bearing up to the scrutiny of television cameras and the interrogations of the media in his frequent commuting between Hong Kong, Beijing and London.
Peter Tsao sought to attach himself to the delegation to provide public relations support. But he failed to obtain prior approval through the New China News Agency before announcing his intention, and as a result suffered humiliation when his subsequent bid was rejected. Used to organising the local media whenever Hong Kong officials confronted them on their home ground, ISD could only watch helplessly as those same reporters pursued Sir Edward down Beijing streets or collared him at the gates of the British Embassy. They sympathised with Chinese officials who had never before encountered press liberties so brazenly flaunted and aggressively pursued.
In the old days, Governors of Hong Kong had cut patrician figures and spoken from Olympian heights. MacLehose had loosened up the style a bit, but was still cast in the aristocratic mould. It was left to Youde, modest, disarming and engagingly ready to talk - even when waylaid in the road by a battery of microphones - to play the role of the ever amenable, ever accessible governor. It mattered not to him that this meant devising new ways of saying nothing of moment on matters as sensitive as the Sino-British negotiations, so long as one expressed it in a basically helpful and co-operative tone of voice.
Nevertheless, despite the oft-repeated statement that the talks were ‘useful and constructive’ - the term carefully agreed between both parties as their concerted response in all dealings with the media - the impression grew that they were running into serious difficulties, that both sides were negotiating from irreconcilable standpoints.
The Pearl of the Orient had once been memorably portrayed, in tourist posters, as delicately suspended by a pair of chopsticks. The opposing implements were now Chinese and British. In the course of transferring it from one platter to another, the fear was that somebody would fumble that precious orb and let it slip.
Yet of the two sides, it was demonstrably apparent that the Chinese were by far the better prepared. They had in their favour the fruits of various carefully-laid initiatives, going back over many years, for the reclamation of their sovereign rights in regard to Hong Kong. They had laid the foundations for their negotiating position with great care. According to Wang Yincheng: "The Chinese Government sped up preparation for negotiating with the British Government from the beginning of the 1980s. It set up special organisations to make investigation and research, formulating the principle and policy regarding the Hong Kong issue."
But time, he remarks elsewhere in his book, was an unfavourable factor for the British Government.
Given this race against the clock, and the distance that had to be covered in bringing both parties to any kind of reconciliation, the final product of the protracted talks surpassed expectations. British Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe, returning from a meeting with Deng Xiaoping, held a press conference in Hong Kong on August 1, 1984 - again organised by ISD - at which he presented the broad outlines of an agreement about to be initialed in Beijing.
Sir Geoffrey said the purpose of his visit to Beijing had been to 'review progress of the negotiations, to make real headway on remaining issues and to strive for the best possible result for the people of Hong Kong'. The two sides, he announced, had agreed to 'the framework and key clauses of a legally-binding accord which would preserve Hong Kong's unique economic system and way of life'. Furthermore, he added, there would be 'satisfactory provisions for liaison and consultation after the conclusion of the agreement'.
Reaction was bullish. The stock market climbed as the Hong Kong public eagerly awaited proof of Sir Geoffrey's assurances in the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
David Wilson - later to become Lord Wilson - joined the British team in the final stages of the negotiations, and well before his eventual replacement of Sir Edward Youde as governor of Hong Kong. He recalls (in Hong Kong Remembers) that the last lap was intense and absolutely exhausting.
"Matters were complicated by the fact that the Chinese text of the agreement was as important as the English, and would be read by more people in Hong Kong. We didn't want a separate negotiation on the Chinese version of the text after an English one, however, so the two were negotiated together. We were aided by the use of modern technology with a computer in the Embassy which could transmit in cipher the Chinese text of what was being agreed. The Chinese side either had to use a typewriter or revert to pens. I believe the use of this sort of information technology for diplomatic negotiations was probably unique at the time."
ISD was made responsible for organising publication of both Chinese and English versions of the draft agreement on September 26, 1984. Presented in the form of a White Paper, this led to queues that wound through the streets of Central and other districts as thousands filed their patient way to the counters of government publications outlets and district offices to receive their free copies. They had heard that the seemingly impossible could be made achievable; that it really was feasible to have one country with two systems. They wanted, in their own hands, tangible evidence to support this miracle, to justify claims of life after 1997.
Chapter 21: The Long and Winding Road
George Orwell prefigured 1984 as a year of grave portent, by using it for the title of his novel set in an authoritarian future where Big Brother would be forever watching the movements of every citizen. He simply inverted the numerals of 1948, the year in which the book was written. For Hong Kong, the year proved far removed indeed from any Orwellian prophecy. Given the assurances of the Joint Declaration, within the parameters of the foregone conclusion that the colony would revert to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the future seemed about as rosy as anyone could dare hope.
By any reckoning, the declaration was a remarkable document, in which China guaranteed the retention of laws, customs and social institutions very different from her own, together with the preservation of the freedoms enjoyed by all Hong Kong citizens. Not only that, but the terms of the guarantee would endure for 50 years - to June 30, 2047.
Thirteen years was a long time in which to prepare for the Handover. Under Lord Mountbatten's guidance, India had been rushed to independence - and separation into India and Pakistan - in a mere five months. If all of the intricacies associated with the severance of an entire sub-continent could be dealt with in less than half a year, the equivalent of 150 months - from the signing of the Joint Declaration to the enactment of its intentions - was a generous margin indeed.
So generous in fact that it gave rise to another difficulty altogether - the question of pacing. As any journalist knows, nothing so concentrates the mind as a tight deadline. Prolonged lead-time encourages ennui and boredom, prevarication and delay. All of the latter results were to beset the long and winding road to 1997.
Although the grace period seemed lengthy enough, something had fundamentally changed. A watershed had been passed. Before 1984, if you asked what made Hong Kong tick, you might be told it was the mechanism of one of the world's great engines of industry. After 1984 you didn't need to ask. The ticking was in everyone's head, relentlessly counting down the days.
But everything started out with the best of intentions. While there was no question of calling a referendum, the people of Hong Kong were invited to submit their views to an assessment office. Many did so, collectively and individually. The independent monitoring team concluded that 'most of the people of Hong Kong found the draft agreement acceptable. It also detected a general feeling of relief and a wish to build Hong Kong's future on the foundation provided by the draft agreement'.
However, the monitors further noted that, of the 1 000 or so written views received, more than two-thirds expressed dissatisfaction with the agreement. Nevertheless, submissions from 430 representative bodies, including residents' associations, trade unions and religious organisations, showed that 334 approved the agreement and only 33 opposed it.
Ever since Mrs Thatcher's fateful visit to Beijing, every utterance that might be construed as having any bearing on Hong Kong's future had taken on profound - though frequently unwarranted - significance. As an early Greek philosopher is alleged to have noted, in times of uncertainty people will read omens even in bird droppings.
Still taking to heart David Ford's description of them as 'the opposition', the media pursued their investigations - and their quarry - with renewed vigour. It was a time for instant rent-a-quotes from those who might be presumed to, but very likely didn't know, and for cautious prevarication by those who did know but were reluctant to admit to their knowledge.
As Assistant Director in charge of the news division, Irene Yau had long been used to facilitating a more orderly access to senior government officials, sparing them from being overpowered by all this media attention. Her GIS 'minders' now came into greater prominence as 'Irene's Army', surveying locations in advance for the best placement of mike stands and Mills barriers they carted around to provide media opportunities. Key figures in these operations were Akber Khan and S Y Tam.
While more aggressive journalists might resent being 'herded' into situations where they must compete with their rivals for hoped-for words of enlightenment, it was the only way to manage what might otherwise have been an impossible situation that would discourage threatened senior officials from making any kind of public appearance.
As it was, many such officials, performing ceremonial functions which they felt deserved the greater and more topical prominence, refused to answer questions on matters that did not pertain to the occasion because they felt that to do so would rob that occasion of much deserved publicity. Life, as they were at pains to point out, went on regardless, and wasn't all future-oriented.
Lacking that excuse, delegates from both sides of the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group, which would follow through on the nitty-gritty of amending and implementing the numerous laws, ordinances and procedures to be sorted out, had a particularly hard time of it whenever they met in Hong Kong.
They had already agreed a schedule of meetings to process this considerable volume of business. The first meeting was held in London in July 1985. The objective was to ensure that 'the transition of present-day Hong Kong to a Special Administrative Region of China should be smooth and co-ordinated, causing as little disruption as possible to the social, business and administrative environment in Hong Kong'.
The Basic Law had been stipulated by the Joint Declaration as the means of enshrining its provisions in greater detail. It was intended to serve as the Bible for the administration of the future Special Administrative Region. The Basic Law Drafting Committee had been formed even before the signing of the Joint Declaration.
Its deliberations took so long that most of Hong Kong's avid newspaper readers began to tune out of those columns devoted to their coverage. Nevertheless the appearance was of no stone left unturned, and when the draft document was published in 1988 the public were invited to comment. Those citizens who woke up to the fact that this - and not the Joint Declaration - was going to define the mode and manner of the future Special Administrative Region began to scrutinise its contents with greater application.
Seminars were called to discuss the Basic Law and books were published analysing its provisions. Although not responsible for producing the API's and other publicity materials urging such discussion, ISD did much to schedule television placements and distribute print materials.
Chapter 22: Cutting Apron Strings and Getting Wired for New Technology
Meanwhile, changes were taking place in the way government conducted its own public relations. Departmental heads were given greater autonomy to determine their individual PR needs and to either expand their PR units or, as happened in some cases, develop entirely new ones. And ISD hard pressed to staff the rapidly increasing new posts that resulted.
The '80s were proving a testing time for a 'mother ship' in danger of losing communication with its flotilla of offshoots out there, in the wild blue yonder, doing their own thing. Those 'client' departments that had nurtured the belief ISD was too monolithic in its approach to what could and could not, should and should not, would and would not be publicly said, were revelling in their independence. Others, uncertain as to whether they needed any, and unwilling to cut their apron strings, still counted on ISD to handle the whole awkward, uncertain business of information presentation.
In an effort to 'stay in touch', Bob Sun had instituted with Johnny Johnston a programme of visits to departmental units, allowing for perhaps two such calls a week. Giving the growing number of units to be covered, it was estimated that each unit might be visited perhaps twice a year. In reality, the intervals were to become progressively longer - so much so that, by the next time round, it was often pointless discussing topics that had been raised the time before.
The visits became, in effect, social calls, useful for discussing establishment scales and possible staff movements, but illuminating principally for the visitors, who departed envious of the way in which some units were acquiring equipment and technological apparatus far in advance of anything possessed in Beaconsfield House.
Technology became the new battle cry. Hong Kong's leading newspapers had long been computer literate, while ISD newsroom personnel were still battling away with ancient typewriters and teleprinters. Though younger recruits were anxious for the department to emerge from the Iron Age, the 'old guard', whose technological excursions had been limited to changing typewriter ribbons, were more sceptical. Despite what David Wilson may have said about the technological advantage in processing the text of the Joint Agreement, they thought computers should be left to accountants and bank tellers.
The newly-formed Information Technology Services Department, the listing of which in the government telephone directory fell immediately after ISD's - and was the cause of frequent confusion when callers failed to check more closely - was given the task of deciding where, in ISD, lay the greatest need of the equipment they were empowered to dispense.
The decision went in favour of the Public Relations Division whose veterans, such as Tse Ming and Harry Tsui, had lived in almost monkish seclusion, distilling great tides of potential 'feedback' too vast for mere mortals to digest. Suddenly they found themselves required not merely to summarise today's headlines but also to hark back to hitherto inconceivably unmanageable archives of past editorials and opinions.
They were called upon, in effect, to set up a data bank from which withdrawals could be made instantly in any denomination and on any topic. No more trying to remember which past issue of GIST - by now filed in such towering columns that they threatened to collapse and smother their compositors - might contain something somebody had previously said. It had to come at the press of a keyboard.
The compilation of this huge information base took much time, manpower and heartache - particularly when hard disks collapsed and backup systems failed - but the end result was to give ISD an unparalleled resource of encyclopedic dimension.
If, for example, you wanted to know how many times the press had said nasty things about Secretary for Transport Alan Scott's proposed scheme of Electronic Road Pricing, a brilliant concept ahead of its time (and one being studied again now), you had only to key in the necessary phrase. The cumulative death knell was enough to drive the project into premature extinction and Scott, who had earlier served a spell as Secretary for Information, into accepting an appointment as governor of the Cayman Islands.
Once PRD's technological requirements had been met, the second urgent priority fell to another set of backroom boys. These were the sales personnel of Publishing Sub-division, by now installed in the high-ceilinged but poorly-ventilated rooms of the historic French Mission Building.
Much lower on the priority list was Creative Sub-division, whose artists were still grappling with paint pots, acrylics and airbrushes on large sheets of paper long after they could have been producing better results on computer monitors in a fraction of the time.