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20 years of Hong Kong handover: When India missed a shot at sealing ties with China

Sarosh Zaiwalla
Sarosh ZaiwallaJun 30, 2017 | 13:23

20 years of Hong Kong handover: When India missed a shot at sealing ties with China

July 1, 2017, marks the 20th anniversary of the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to the People's Republic of China. The landmark event marked the end of British rule in Hong Kong as well as the end of the British Empire.

This anniversary reminds me of my firm’s involvement in 1994 in facilitating resolution differences which had arisen between Britain and Hong Kong concerning the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, under a special arrangement of one country, two systems.

In the early 1990s, after we had acted for the Bachchans in the Bofors libel case in the English Court, my firm were removed as the Indian High Commission’s solicitors on orders from the new administration led by Prime Minister VP Singh. A few weeks later, I happened to be seated next to the Chinese Ambassador at an event in the House of Lords. 

He had read about me being involved in the hosting of a dinner for the first time by British Prime Minister, John Major, for immigrant businessmen in the Cabinet Room of 10 Downing Street. He was also aware that my firm was no longer acting for the Indian government in UK. Following my lunch encounter, the Chinese Ambassador asked me if I would be willing to help China to set up a modern legal system. I agreed and the Chinese Ambassador then arranged a weeklong visit to Beijing for me during the 1990 Christmas holidays. The Chinese Embassy promptly fixed my meetings in Beijing. 

Back then in 1991, there were only four law firms operating in China and to my surprise, I found that they were not qualified lawyers but were appointed lawyers by the Communist Party.

On my return, the Chinese ambassador told me that the government would like me to set up an office of my firm in Beijing which I eventually did. Some time later, my firm started acting for Chinese Government owned corporations like CNPC and Min Metals in their international arbitration cases. This brought me in close contact with the Chinese Government. During this period I became a frequent visitor to China.

On one such visit I was scheduled to travel with the British trade minister, Sir Richard Needham’s on his official visit to China. This visit was unilaterally cancelled by the Chinese government because China was concerned that the then governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patton, had sought to introduce democracy in Hong Kong, when the colony did not have the same under British Colonial rule.

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China suspected Patton’s action as a premeditated attempt by the British government to go back on the agreement to handover Hong Kong in 1997.

I immediately contacted the then Chinese ambassador in London, Ma Yu Zen. He explained to me that China was increasingly concerned about the UK turning back on the Hong Kong handover agreement and China wanted confirmation from the highest level that this was not the British Government’s plan. The Ambassador also knew that I was close to the Prime Minister, John Major, and he asked me if I could help. I agreed to speak with the powers behind the throne in the UK.

I then arranged a lunch meeting at my office for Lord Feldman and Lord Hasketh, to meet privately at my office without any Civil Servants being present and have confidential discussions over lunch with the Chinese team led by the Ambassador. Lord Feldman was then the Chairman of the National Union of Conservatives and in this capacity, he met the British Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street once a week for 30 minutes. Lord Hasketh who was the leader of the House of Lords was also a close confidant of the Prime Minister. 

At this lunch meeting at my office which lasted for about three hours there were frank discussions between the representatives of 10 Downing Street and PRC representatives. The British team assured the PRC representatives that it was not in the British Government’s interest to go back on the handover of Hong Kong. 

It was decided at this meeting that further meetings would be held without any civil servants being present. This meeting restored good understanding between PRC and Britain. Thereafter, I accompanied Michael Heseltine on his visit to China as president of the Board of Trade and later on his second visit to China as deputy prime minister of Britain.

The Chinese government was pleased with me for arranging this private meeting for a second channel dialogue between the governments. Some months later, the Chinese Ambassador whom I met frequently informed me that the central committee of the Chinese Communist Party would be grateful if I could arrange a similar second channel dialogue with the then Indian Government to resolve the border dispute

I was told that as Tibet was recently made part of China, all that the PRC government wanted was for the demarcation of the boundary with India on the basis of what was Tibet’s boundary. The Chinese ambassador presented me historical books and documents and highlighted to me that there were no minerals in the Himalayan mountain range of which China was claiming Indian territory. 

During my discussions with the Chinese ambassador, I asked him if China would be prepared to exchange on the basis of reciprocity, the territory covering the route to Mansarovar and Kailash which were considered holy places for pilgrimage for many Indians. The ambassador assured me that China wanted peace and friendship with India and that the PRC would be prepared to consider any such proposal from India. This proposal was forwarded by me in writing to the then Indian foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, through my then client, Menaka Gandhi.

Maneka Gandhi confirmed to me that she had personally handed over my note to Singh, however, there was no response. I believe that if Jaswant Singh had responded positively, the India and China border dispute could well have been settled through the second channel. China at that time was not very powerful and was very keen to bring about good relations with India.

Last updated: June 30, 2017 | 13:23
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