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China refused to continue negotiations over Hong Kong’s new airport in 1992 unless plans to appoint democratic leader Martin Lee to the city’s top government advisory committee were dropped, according to UK files declassified on Tuesday.

Lee was a leader of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement following the Beijing Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. After the massacre, he left the drafting committee for the Basic Law – the de facto constitution which would be effective after Britain’s 1997 Handover of the city to China. However, the committee claimed he was not approved to quit and he was instead kicked out. The United Democrats of Hong Kong, co-founded by Lee, went on to win 12 out of the 18 directly elected seats in the 1991 legislative election.

Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong, was rumoured to be considering appointing pro-democracy lawmaker Lee to the Executive Council (ExCo). But the Chinese side – led by top diplomat Lu Ping – opposed the appointment of democrats, including Lee. They claimed that Lee’s goal was to overthrow the Chinese government and that he opposed the Basic Law.

Martin Lee
Martin Lee. File Photo:

In 1992, the British, Chinese and Hong Kong governments were in negotiations to construct Hong Kong’s new airport on Lantau Island, but the financing arrangements had reached a deadlock.

See also: Declassified: Top gov’t advisers opposed having only one overseas judge at Court of Final Appeal hearings

John Coles, the UK prime minister’s personal emissary, was in high-level talks in Beijing in July 1992. He wrote that, after 14 hours of discussion with no results, it was clear that Beijing would not permit any progress until it was satisfied that London and Hong Kong would not entertain political decisions it opposed.

“It is clear that their minimum price is a decision [by Patten] not to appoint United Democrat politicians to ExCo,” Coles wrote in documents seen by HKFP.

The Chinese hostility for Lee was apparent in May 1992, when Lee met UK prime minister John Major in London.

Martin Lee Executive Council
Photo: HKFP.

The Chinese embassy in the UK called Percy Cradock, the prime minister’s foreign affairs adviser, in the hopes that Major would not agree to receive Lee. But Cradock replied that the meeting had already taken place when the embassy called.

‘Independence option’

Meanwhile, there were different views on Lee in the UK and Hong Kong.

Lydia Dunn, then-senior member of the ExCo, met Major in January 1992 and spoke about Lee, describing him as a “lawyer who played to win.”

Lydia Dunn Martin Lee John Major
Lydia Dunn’s comments on Martin Lee when meeting with John Major. Photo: HKFP.

“Baroness Dunn said that Martin Lee’s strategy was based on the assumption that change would happen in China. He might even be tempted to think that independence for Hong Kong was an option,” a Downing Street record of the meeting said.

But Major replied that he did not want to “box Martin Lee in.”

Alastair Goodlad, then-minister of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs, visited Hong Kong in June 1992.

“There would be little point in putting Martin Lee on ExCo simply to have him resign over democracy,” Goodlad wrote in a document reflecting on his trip.

“I was struck by the fact that Martin Lee and some of his [United Democrats] colleagues are men of political substance who should if at all possible be brought in from the political wilderness and given a stake in the governing of Hong Kong, if not on ExCo then in some advisory capacity,” Goodlad said.

Lydia Dunn
Lydia Dunn (centre) in 1991. Photo: Hong Kong Trade Development Council.

Unbeknownst to Lee

Lee, now 80 years old, never joined the ExCo. He was a lawmaker from 1991 to June 30, 1997, and was elected again in the 1998 election, until he retired in 2008.

He told HKFP that, in the 1990s, Patten never revealed to him why he was unable to join the council, despite leading the largest group of directly elected lawmakers: “I only know now it was related to the airport deal.”

He said he had twice been invited by David Wilson – Patten’s predecessor – and a third time by then-foreign secretary Douglas Hurd to join the ExCo. But he refused the invitations as he disagreed with the council’s secrecy and collective responsibility rules.

Chris Patten.
Chris Patten. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

He said that, under such rules, he would have had to have kept secrets from his United Democrats colleagues, and he would have to support decisions by the ExCo that he would not support.

Lee said that Patten had intended to relax the rules to allow him to enter the ExCo: “But it seems pressure [from China] forced him to compromise,” Lee said.

On Dunn’s comments, Lee said that he had always been supporting “One Country, Two Systems” and not independence. He said Dunn’s action amounted to making complaints behind his back.

“But the prime minister was quite fair to me – he said he would not want to ‘box me in’ to try to limit me,” Lee said.

This latest public release of UK government documents on Tuesday was comprised mostly of Cabinet Office files up to 1993.

The new Hong Kong International Airport at Chek Lap Kok opened in 1998, replacing Kowloon’s Kai Tak.

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.