On 4th July 1997 Hong Kong was returned to China. It was my privilege to represent France on that occasion. René Monory, the President of the Senate led our delegation, which included amongst others, Alain Peyrefitte
The symbolism of this “hand-over” was not lost on us. Martial China and its elite troops goose-stepped their way as they took back this tiny piece of land, that had become British after the signature of some “one-sided treaties”.
Indeed, the island of Hong Kong and the peninsula close to Kowloon were British forever. It was the new territories, leased for 99 years, which were to be returned - but it was difficult to separate them from the rest, such was the density of the urban fabric. However, Margaret Thatcher, who signed an act of retrocession in 1984, could not help but “regret having to give all of that back to the Communists.” She was not wrong. It was clear that the Chinese would not keep their word which had however been included in a treaty filed with the UN Secretary General, and that they would not protect Hong Kong’s status for 50 years.
Despite the Chinese Communist Party having become the champions of capitalism, it could never tolerate political liberalism, and quite simply, the freedom of expression. During the four days of endless rain we were able to take stock of the extent of the misunderstanding unfolding before our eyes.
Chris Patten, the British governor explained his efforts to leave behind the seeds of democracy in Hong Kong, where, rather late in the day and to the great displeasure of the Chinese, he had organised the first free elections.
Prince Charles, whose poise was admirable under the downpour that required the lamination of the pages of his “retrocession” speech, was not deceived either. In his opinion it was yet another ceremony of decolonisation. He had become the specialist of these. Since the 1960’s he had always represented the UK on the many occasions that former British possessions became independent. God knows he had witnessed the lowering of the Union Jack enough times! And to think that some envied him!
The British always quit the territories of their former empire awkwardly. They left suddenly, coldly - with regret - but curtly. They abandoned the citizens of Hong Kong to their fate because the banks interested them more than the challenge set by the Chinese Communist Party.
Today, it is the young people who are demonstrating. Their idea of freedom is also ours: economic and political freedom are indissociable. As in an Asian picture, they go hand in hand like air and water. In the eyes of the Chinese dictatorship the challenge is a vital one. Possibly its existence depends on the way it emerges from this crisis?
The victory of the Beijing regime over the democrats in Hong Kong would mean the greatest danger for our freedom. Angela Merkel was not mistaken when she advocated giving support to the young demonstrators in China, and as she criticised the Orwellian system of social rating that the Chinese regime is now deploying across the land, before extending it to Asia and beyond. The future confrontation with the Middle Empire will first affect the universal values of freedom and democracy that it rejects.
Whoever knows the region also knows that Hong Kong is not just a rock that was occupied for a few years by a Western power. It is an island of freedom in an autocratic ocean. Its survival could be the starting point for a return of freedom on the continent. Neighbouring Shenzhen now has the same skyscrapers and its opulence is even more evident. But it lacks that one vital thing!
The West and Europe might very well be inspired to support those who are defending their idea of Freedom. Before it is too late.