Lee Kuan Yew, the then Singaporean Prime Minister, told British diplomats in 1989 that – although there was a much larger push for Hong Kong democracy after the Tiananmen massacre – China would not accept “a separate, democratically based, Hong Kong identity.” He said the city’s people must learn to love China, newly declassified files revealed.

The British High Commissioner to Singapore Michael Pike paid a visit to Lee in July 1989, along with the British Ambassador to China Alan Donald who was in Singapore on leave. They discussed the student protesters’ strategy before the bloody crackdown in Beijing a month before, as well as China’s leaders and developments in Hong Kong.

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Student displays a banner with one of the slogans chanted by the crowd of some 200,000 pouring into Tiananmen Square on 22 April 1989 in Beijing. Photo: Catherine Henriette/AFP.

The records of the meeting written by Pike were included in a batch of cabinet files from the Margaret Thatcher government. They were declassified from the National Archives in Kew, London and released online on Friday.

See also: UK granted 6 special visas to Chinese ‘in extreme danger’, days after 1989 Tiananmen massacre

Lee was recorded twice expressing his gratification at the UK government’s continued commitment to the Sino-British Joint Declaration after the massacre: “[He said] There was no alternative.”

“But he had been puzzled by the violent and quite untypical reaction in Hong Kong to events in China,” Pike wrote. “He could only put this down to the impact of massive television coverage.”

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1990: Candlelight vigil at Victoria Park for the first anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre. Photo: Mike Faila/AFP.

“He went on to emphasise his concern about the equally unanticipated upsurge of interest in Hong Kong in more rapid movement towards a moree [sic] fully democratic system,” Pike added.

But Lee was not optimistic, as recalled by Pike: “This would, he said, inevitably provoke Chinese hostility. The reality was that China could not accept what she regarded as a subversion by certain political groups in Hong Kong.”

Photo: UK gov't records.
Photo: UK gov’t records.

“The Chinese regime would also reject any assertion of a separate, democratically based, Hong Kong identity, as distinct from a Hong Kong which understood its role as part of China albeit a component with a high degree of autonomy,” Lee was quoted as saying. “The people of Hong Kong must learn, in [Chinese leader] Deng’s words, ‘to love China’, whatever their real feelings, if Hong Kong were to survive.”

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Visiting British Queen Elizabeth II (R) chats with Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew when he pays a courtesy call on her at the Presidential Palace several months later on October 9, 1989. File photo: Toru Yamanaka/AFP.

Lee again said there was no alternative for Hong Kong.

See also: In Pictures: June 4, 1989 – the night the tanks rolled into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square

Pike, commenting in response, told London that Lee’s views reflected “his long standing conviction that China will never be prepared to tolerate anything other than a measured, tightly controlled, and step-by-step, shift in this direction before 1997” and Lee could see that the UK had little control over it.

Jiang Zemin ‘would not last a year’

The Tiananmen massacre occurred on June 4, 1989 ending months of student-led demonstrations in China. It is estimated that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people died when the People’s Liberation Army was deployed to crack down on protesters in Beijing.

Before the massacre, Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang visited Tiananmen Square in person to meet students on May 19. Lee told the diplomats it was a wrong move that cost Zhao the trust of Deng.

tiananmen zhao megaphone
Chinese Communist Party Secretary General Zhao Ziyang (C) addresses the student hunger strikers through a megaphone at dawn 19 May 1989. Photo: AFP/Xinhua.

“While intelligent and hard working he was clearly no ‘street fighter’,” Lee was recorded saying. “Yet he had decided to support the students… why had he miscalculated?”

Zhao lost his positions, and Jiang Zemin, a relative newcomer to Beijing’s power circle, was installed as Party General Secretary in late June, 1989.

Lee said no Chinese government could be sustained without a single dominant leader, and Jiang “would not last a year” as he was insufficiently tough. Pike noted Lee knew Jiang well as Jiang travelled with Lee in China during his last visit.

uk gov't records
Photo: UK gov’t records.

However, Jiang managed to stay in power until he left his last official position as Chairman of the Central Military Commission in March 2005.

Wrong strategy

Pike described Lee as puzzled that student protesters in Beijing decided on May 19 to move from general demands for change to direct attacks upon Chinese Premier Li Peng and elderly leader Deng. This “act of folly” made Lee feel “in his bones as a Chinese” that Deng would have no option but to crush the student opposition.

Lee agreed with Donald that the Chinese army’s failure to deal with the situation on two successive occasions “had intensified their sense of humiliation and made the final onslaught almost inevitable.”

Kris Cheng

Kris Cheng

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.