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Thatcher's legacy in Hong Kong

The death of Margaret Thatcher — the longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century and the only woman ever to serve in that office — quite naturally ushered in debate over her political legacy.

Her successor, John Major, discussed on CNN her achievements and her mistakes. Interestingly, her decision to return Hong Kong to China did not figure in either category. It was simply not mentioned.

But for China, there is little doubt that the most important decision Thatcher made was to accept Deng Xiaoping's demand that Hong Kong be returned to China. It was almost 30 years ago that she signed the Joint Declaration, which saw Hong Kong handed back to China in 1997.

A decade after the handover, Mrs. Thatcher reportedly spoke of her regret at having been unable to persuade Deng to extend Britain's lease on most of the colony.

From the Hong Kong perspective, the bigger regret, of course, was that Britain never gave democracy to its colony.

The terms of the Sino-British agreement went far to restore calm in Hong Kong, since it guaranteed existing rights and freedoms. Moreover, it promised something Britain never provided: representative government.

Until Britain agreed to return Hong Kong to China, there was not a single elected member in the legislature. And while the civil service was mostly Chinese, the top echelon of the government was all white. No Chinese was ever promoted to head a government department.

Today, the rights and freedoms from British days remain but the government is still not fully representative, even though universal suffrage elections have been promised by China in 2017 for chief executive and in 2020 for the whole legislature.

But a recent speech by a senior Chinese official, Qiao Xiaoyang, chairman of the Law Committee of China's National People's Congress — a man who has handled Hong Kong issues for many years — raises the possibility that the so-called “universal suffrage” election may be a meaningless exercise where candidates for chief executive will be screened and only those acceptable to Beijing will be allowed to run.

That would be a big step backward since in the last two chief executive elections — in 2007 and 2012 — pro-democracy candidates could be nominated even though only members of the Election Committee could vote.

If, in 2017, everyone is allowed to vote but pro-democracy candidates are not allowed to be nominated, such an exercise would be condemned not only in Hong Kong but around the world as a farce.

The recent appearance of British colonial flags at demonstrations has angered China almost as much as it has embarrassed Britain, which has no desire to be dragged into a debate between Beijing and Hong Kong protesters over the degree of autonomy allowed under the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984.

In fact, ever since 1997, the British government has issued a six-monthly report on Hong Kong. The report issued in mid-2010 said, typically: “At the end of the six-month reporting period covered by this report we conclude that the 'one country, two systems' principle of the Joint Declaration has worked well and that the rights and freedoms guaranteed in the Joint Declaration have been respected.”

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