Written by Kerry Brown.

Just after I had left the British Foreign Office in 2005, to work independently on raising awareness of China and the opportunities from engaging with the country commercially and politically, I remember having the idea that the UK had a major advantage over many competitors because of its unique experience of negotiating with China over the return of Hong Kong. For almost two decades from 1979 to the final night when the British flag was lowered over the territory in 1997, officials and politicians from the UK and China had been involved in intense discussion over interpretations of the Basic Law, and the arrangements post 1997. Surely, over this period they must have learned a lot about each other.

I remember discussing with someone around this time how lucky the UK was to have a generation of hardened Sinologists, who had worked so intimately and strenuously with Chinese counterparts. This was an amazing knowledge resource for the UK in its new era of engagement with China post the handover.

Nearly a decade has passed since I made these confident assertions, assertions which now look increasingly wrong. The Foreign Office as an institution during this period, and most of the people who were working in this area, had a very clear world view. It was best typified by figures like Sir Percy Cradock, a diplomat and advisor to Margaret Thatcher and then John Major. A group around him had enormous influence over the direction of the negotiations from the UK side and the desired outcome. Cradock wrote in one account published in the early 2000s that their greatest preoccupation was to preserve the structures, freedoms and unique assets of Hong Kong. We were the heroes in all of this, struggling for the rights of the Hong Kongese against the dastardly Mainlanders.

There are two reasons why Cradock’s attitude now seems so arrogant and narrow. The first is that we really have to wonder, with the uncertainty over the constitutional changes being discussed at the moment for the election of Chief Executive in Hong Kong, why, if the UK negotiators were so wonderful they left such a loose and ambiguous framework? In the light of how recent events have developed, it seems to me more and more that the whole objective for the UK negotiators was to tidily exit, leave something that worked in the short term, but not even start to address long term issues. If I were a native of Hong Kong sitting in Hong Kong now, I would feel that I had been short changed.

This second more powerful point about this group of negotiators, and the one that really demonstrates the limitations of their engagement and capacity, is more about mindsets. Reading much of the commentary by Cradock and others from this era, one is struck by an imperious arrogance. For them, they were trying to show to the Chinese and those in Hong Kong that despite the very complex history the UK had enjoyed in the territory, it still knew best, and that it had the moral right to lecture. This air has never really disappeared. The fatal conviction within much of the subtext of the material from this period now publicly available was that the UK was somehow saving China from itself. These days, this attitude seems hopelessly faded and simplistic.

Times have changed. That generation are now mostly deep into retirement, and Cradock passed away some years back. The British Foreign Office as it exists now is a more outward looking, accountable, less narrow entity, and its diplomats on the whole fare more professional and open minded. On the question of whether the UK got some big advantage in understanding the Chinese psyche from this period, I think the answer is no. It is regrettable, but in many ways the generation over the 1980s and into the 1990s never had much impact post 1997 largely because if they had experiences and insights that related only to a very narrow period and a very narrow set of circumstances. The UK did not enjoy immense benefits from insights from this group, in terms of attracting more investment and trade. The bottom line was the UK remained largely on a par with Germany and other similar sized countries with China. Experiences gained from the Hong Kong negotiations didn’t enter into it.

The only conclusion one can draw is that this generation believed, on the whole, in a particular kind of China and a particular mode of operation. They did not show any emotional connection with the country and any real intuitive link with it. Cradock certainly made his disdain for much about contemporary China clear. Adopting their negotiating tactics today would be impossible. They were doubtless sophisticated and intelligent people, but they were very much of their time. They lived in a world of comfortable moral boundaries, neat social and political hierarchies where their innate feeling of superiority was always well protected. They helped found the needless polarisation in UK discourse on China which haunts us to this day of people either being friends or foes of the Beijing political project. I think history will judge them harshly.

Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese Politics and Director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. Kerry is head of  the EU-funded Europe China Research and Advice Network and a CPI Blog Regular Contributor. He tweets @Bkerrychina