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The Hong Kong government denied London’s request to favour British companies in the bidding for the construction of the new airport project in the 1990s, unless they were as good as other foreign bids, newly declassified files reveal.

The then-governor David Wilson said it would set a bad precedent for Chinese interference after the 1997 Handover if he approved such a request.

In a UK document – made public on Tuesday – the then-UK minister for trade Tim Sainsbury reflected on a visit to Hong Kong in September 1990. He said he had spoken with Wilson about the Lantau airport project in an effort to persuade him.

Hong Kong International Airport
Hong Kong International Airport. File Photo: GovHK.

“I made it clear to the Governor that I believed it was of primary importance that UK firms should win a major part of the work on the project,” Sainsbury wrote.

See also: Declassified: China halted talks on new Hong Kong airport to stop Martin Lee’s appointment to top gov’t body

“Of course their bids would need to be fully compliant and competitive; but I said that many, both inside Parliament and elsewhere, would find it hard to understand if, after the [British] Government’s substantial commitment to Hong Kong over a difficult time, the UK were to fail to win a major part of the project,” Sainsbury added, likely referring to the turmoil after the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre in Beijing.

Sainsbury said it was important that the playing field should be “tilted gently in our favour” in light of the UK government’s political difficulties domestically and internationally.

But Wilson did not concede, and said that contracts would essentially be awarded on the basis of open competition.

David Wilson Carrie Lam
David Wilson and Carrie Lam at the annual dinner of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council in London in 2017. File Photo: GovHK.

In Sainsbury’s notes, Wilson “vigorously denied” claims by UK companies that the Hong Kong government “sometimes made it more difficult for UK firms to win work” when compared to their overseas competitors.

A note from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to 10 Downing Street in December 1990 said that the UK foreign secretary shared Sainsbury’s wish to see British companies winning a substantial share of the contracts.

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

“The Governor of Hong Kong has made it clear that he would also be delighted if British firms did well in getting contracts, and indeed said privately that if two bids, otherwise equal, include a British bid, the natural Hong Kong reaction would be to give the contract to the British contender. But British firms cannot expect to do well unless they are competitive,” the note quoted Wilson as saying.

FCO David Wilson Hong Kong airport
Photo: HKFP.

The note further added that Wilson believed it was essential for Hong Kong to operate a genuinely open and competitive tendering system, in order to ensure the city remained an international financial and trading centre.

“Given the fierce international competition for all major contracts in Hong Kong and the close interest taken in these matters by the Hong Kong press, it would be neither practicable nor desirable for the Governor to tilt the playing field in favour of British companies,” the note cited Wilson as saying. “If he were to intervene personally in this way, it would undermine both the system and his own position.”

“It would also be grist to the mill for protectionists in the US and would set a bad precedent for PRC interference after 1997,” it added.

According to the note, UK companies had at the time won – or had a partnership share – in 17 of the 22 contracts awarded up to December 1990. The 17 contracts were worth £52 million at the time.

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.