This week in 1989, the Chinese authorities massacred protestors in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. I was editing this paper. It struck me that the people of Hong Kong would suffer huge collateral damage. The Spectator should campaign for them, I thought, and draw attention to the dangers of trusting China to honour the 1984 Sino-British Agreement which Mrs Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping had made to provide for the handover to China in 1997. So we turned the leading article into a two-page affair (a thing unheard-of) and devoted the whole cover to a drawing by Nick Garland of Britannia and the British lion, both kowtowing. The headline was ‘Our Betrayal of Hong Kong’. The politics of this was to exploit the difference between the prime minister, who I knew had always been uneasy about the 1984 Agreement, and her foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, who loved it and always spoke of Hong Kong as a ‘Ming vase’ which neither Britain nor China should drop. The most politically controversial bit of our argument was that Britain should now ‘give right of abode to all United Kingdom passport holders in Hong Kong (about 3.25 million people)’. We added that ‘the paradoxical effect of having the right to leave will be that people will want to stay’. Although what she did fell far short of the full rights we called for, Mrs Thatcher did extend right of abode to about 200,000 ‘key personnel’. This helped restore some confidence. More than 30 years later, these arguments are now being repeated in uncannily similar form.
Although our cause was strongly supported by readers, there were some amusing personal reactions of dissent. The later-famed diarist Alan Clark said to me: ‘About every seven years people whom one otherwise respects get hold of a GMI [Great Moral Issue] and one just has to let it run its course.’