Back in the Year — Hong Kong 1984

Hong Kong Apostasy


This is the latest chapter in ‘Hong Kong Apostasy’, a feature of ‘The Best China’ section of China Heritage that is devoted to the 2019 Anti-Extradition Bill Protest Movement. Its author, the veteran journalist Lee Yee 李怡 (李秉堯), was the founding editor of The Seventies Monthly 七十年代月刊 and he has been a prominent commentator on Chinese, Hong Kong and Taiwan politics, as well as the global scene, for over half a century.

This essay is translated from ‘Ways of the World’ 世道人生, a column that Lee Yee writes for Apple Daily 蘋果日報.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
31 July 2019



  • Explications added by the translator are generally marked by square brackets [].


Other Essays by Lee Yee on the 2019 Hong Kong Protests:

See also:

Zhou Nan, chairman of the Chinese negotiating team, and Sir Richard Evans of the United Kingdom sign the draft agreement of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on 26 September 1984


Back in the Year

Lee Yee 李怡

Translated by Geremie R. Barmé


At the end of my essay the other day, I wrote:

‘if, in the past, we had had the courage that Young Hong Kong has today, we would not be in the present predicament.’

— [Lee Yee, ‘Living and Learning
in Hong Kong 2019’
, 29 July 2019

Perhaps I should say a few words about exactly what I meant by ‘in the past’ [當年, or ‘back in the year’]? More to the point, what was it about that era that meant we did not demonstrate the kind of courage evinced by Young Hong Kong today?


When writing he words ‘back in the year’ I was thinking of the year 1984 — it is probably no coincidence that this also happens to be the title of George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel Nineteen Eight-Four. It was in that year, on 20 April 1984 to be precise, that Geoffrey Howe, the British Foreign Secretary, formally announced that the United Kingdom would cede suzerainty over Hong Kong in 1997.

To be even more precise, ‘back in the year’ is about those five months between Howe’s 20 April announcement and the 26th of September that same year. On that later date, the People’s Republic of China and the United Kingdom initialled the draft agreement of the Sino-British Joint Declaration [which was the product of two years of negotiation].

[Note: In Hong Kong on 20 April Sir Geoffrey Howe made a statement on the approach of Her Majesty’s Government to the negotiations. He said that it would not be realistic to think of an agreement that provided for continued British administration in Hong Kong after 1997: for that reason Her Majesty’s Government had been examining with the Chinese Government how it might be possible to arrive at arrangements that would secure for Hong Kong, after 1997, a high degree of autonomy under Chinese sovereignty, and that would preserve the way of life in Hong Kong, together with the essentials of the present system. He made it clear that Her Majesty’s Government were working for a framework of arrangements that would provide for the maintenance of Hong Kong’s flourishing and dynamic society, and an agreement in which such arrangements would be formally set out.

from the White Paper ‘A Draft Agreement between
the Government of the United Kingdom of
Great Britain and Northern Ireland and
the Government of the People’s Republic of China
on the Future of Hong Kong’
, 26 September 1984


If, during those five months, the people of Hong Kong had reacted en masse to the negotiations about the territory’s future in a manner similar to the Anti-Extradition Bill Protests of today, and had they thereby attracted a corresponding level of international attention, the British may well have felt obliged to reconsider their approach to ceding control. Even then, they it is highly unlikely that they would have changed course entirely, surely such an outpouring would at least have pressured them to raise the stakes in the negotiations with Beijing.

For example, they could have argued a case favouring the implementing political democracy prior to the 1997 handover; they also could have pressed  for the establishment of an effective mechanism of international oversight that could monitor the status of Hong Kong’s political autonomy after 1997.

Back in the year, however, people in Hong Kong just did not evince any substantive opposition to the way in which the British were selling out their long-term interests without consultation.


It goes without saying that this lack of awareness among average people had a great deal to do with the fact that Hong Kong did not have a democratic system; but you can’t entirely blame the British for this. That, however, is a topic for another day.


Having never enjoyed the benefits of democracy, Hong Kong people had not evolved any substantive sense of political autonomy nor, in relation to that deficiency, had they developed a  particularly strong sense of belonging. For this crucial reason — the lack of democracy and all that pertains to it — that Sze-yuen Chung [appointed by the British as] the Senior Member of the Hong Kong Executive Council ended up shuttling impotently between Beijing and London in a strenuous lobbying effort on behalf of Hong Kong people. Neither side ever accorded his views any particular weight. As he remarked when I later interviewed him, Chung simply did not have the wherewithal to oppose effectively the various proposals that were being advanced either by the British or by the Chinese side. Or, as he put it to me, ‘I had no real standing; it’s because I wasn’t appointed democratically’.

[Note: For more on Sze-yuan Chung in this context, see 李怡, ‘昔人已乘黃鶴去’,《蘋果日報》, 2018年11月16日]

Indeed, at the time, there were no legitimate representatives of Hong Kong popular opinion at the negotiating table; furthermore, throughout the negotiations the Chinese side was adamant in its refusal to countenance Hong Kong people having any say in the matter. They rejected out of hand all suggestions that the discussions should be a ‘three-legged stool’, that is, three-way negotiations.

[Note: The Hong Kong Chinese-language media at the time decried the situation as being akin to ‘盲婚啞嫁’ — an arranged marriage in which the bride has no say over arrangements made by patriarchs.]


Most Hong Kong people came to this place to escape tyranny on the Mainland.

[Note: ‘to escape tyranny on the Mainland’ is our transition of 避秦, literally, ‘to flee the Qin’. In his depiction of an idyllic world of peace and contentment, the fourth-century writer Tao Yuanming 陶淵明 said that people had come to the Peach Blossom Spring 桃花源 ‘to flee the Qin’, that is, they sought (and found) a refuge from the harsh rule of the Qin dynasty and its infamous First Emperor 秦始皇, a figure to whom Mao Zedong compared himself.]

Many just wanted a place where they could enjoy the ‘Freedom From Fear’. Over time, the British system with its traditions and protections instilled in Hong Kong people a belief that freedom and the rule of law were a natural state of affairs, something that was theirs to enjoy without them having to exert any particular effort. They had grown so accustomed to this environment that it seemed as natural as breathing the air around us; they did not give it a second thought. It simply was; it was a given; it wasn’t something for which you had to fight.

Back in the year 1984, although the majority of Hong Kong people opposed to the territory being handed over to the People’s Republic — something reflected in the media at the time — there was no widespread support for organised protest. In fact, there were hardly any demonstrations against what was going on at all, let alone any violent resistance.


Added to all of that was the political situation in China.

Back in the year 1984, the Mainland was still recovering from the disastrous Cultural Revolution and Beijing had launched policies in favour of economic openness and systematic reform. Superficially at least, the party-state was being run by an enlightened faction led by Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang and Premier Zhao Ziyang. Although the majority of Hong Kong people shared a generally negative view of the Communists, at the time things seemed to be moving in a positive direction and that gave them reason to be cautiously optimistic about the future.


There were, of course, other factors also at play, including the activities of the advocates of Hong Kong democracy. These people argued that, following the end of British colonial rule and under the umbrella of Chinese national sovereignty, the people of Hong Kong would finally be able to rule themselves independently.

At the time, Premier Zhao Ziyang even responded to questions about this posed by Hong Kong university students by declaring in writing that:

‘It is self-evident that Hong Kong will be run democratically’.

Back in the year, many students at tertiary institutions were lulled into a state of quiescence by all of this; they were complacent and they believed that once Hong Kong ‘returned’ to China true democracy could be realised.


That’s why — back in the year 1984 — it was simply impossible for there to be what I described earlier as ‘the courage that Young Hong Kong has today’.

And, back in the year, just like now, I was involved in the media, as well as being a writer. When the Sino-British negotiations started in the early 1980s the magazine I edited — The Nineties Monthly — had already severed itself from the Leftists Camp. In 1979 [when the Governor of Hong Kong, Murray MacLehose, made his first official visit to the People’s Republic and raised the question of Hong Kong’s sovereignty with Deng Xiaoping], right up to 1984, and then during the lead up to 1997, both in my work as an editor and as a writer, I consistently expressed my opposition to the Mainland takeover and my support for democratisation in Hong Kong.

In my view, once under Chinese sovereignty Hong Kong had scant hope of enjoying any meaningful kind of democratisation. But I was only a magazine editor, and a writer. All I could do — and did do — was to make my opinions heard. I was not a social activist; nor did I have the wherewithal to have any major impact on the situation.


Nonetheless, I have no regrets about the views I expressed and have maintained since leaving the Leftist Camp [in 1981], and I certainly do not think that they have been nugatory.


Back in the year, however, people like me were creatures with but limited understanding. In particular, we didn’t appreciate the importance of resistance; we should have openly fought against the looming threat of authoritarianism.

Over the past two months, people like me have learned many things from Young Hong Kong. In the struggle for the future of this place, although we might not be able to protect the young from the onslaughts they are enduring, at least we should not cast brickbats as they stand on the front line.




  • 李怡, ‘當年’, 《蘋果日報》, 2019年7月31日