It’s the CCP That Thwarted Democracy in Hong Kong

Debunking Beijing's white paper on Hong Kong's democracy
December 29, 2021 Updated: December 30, 2021


The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) published a white paper on Dec. 20 that condemned the British government for not granting the Hong Kong people democratic election during its 150 years of colonial rule. The CCP then claimed that Hong Kong had to wait until its reversion back to Chinese sovereignty that its people could enjoy democracy.

The white paper, titled “Hong Kong Democratic Progress Under the Framework of One Country Two Systems,” stated: “The British government repeatedly rejected all calls for democratic reform in Hong Kong. People in Hong Kong made numerous demands for democracy, but the British government rejected or ignored all of them. … Over a prolonged period in Hong Kong, there were repeated calls to establish a municipal council, to provide elected seats in the Legislative Council, and to restructure the Legislative Council, as well as requests for local autonomy. All were rejected by the British government.”

This is the standard accusation the CCP levelled against the British for the lack of democracy in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, this accusation is well received not only by people in China, but also by many scholars abroad. Nothing could be more fallacious.

The fact is the CCP had threatened twice to take back Hong Kong once the British started some sort of democratic reform in its colony. Consequently, the British succumbed.

This unbeknown fact finally came to light in 2002 when the British government declassified a batch of “secret” documents, including a Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) file, numbered 40/327 (see exhibit 1).

The first historian who wrote about the discovery was Mao Laiyou. In a 2014 article published in VJ Media, Mao explained why there was no democracy in Hong Kong under British rule. He attached two exhibits of the original documents: one message from then-Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and another from Liao Chengzhi, Zhou’s right-hand man who was handling Hong Kong affairs at the time. Both documents were kept in the FCO.

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Exhibit 1: Screenshot of Mao Laiyou’s post showing the folder containing document FCO 40/327. (Screenshot via The Epoch Times)

According to Mao, these two documents were provided at the request of Sir Murray MacLehose, the then-governor-designate of Hong Kong. Before he formally took up the new office, on May 3, 1971, he had a dialogue with Kenneth Michael Wilford of the FCO about Hong Kong affairs. MacLehose said he had heard that China opposed any move by the British to democratize the colony. He wanted to know if there were any official records to verify the claim. Wilford then produced the two documents showing Beijing’s displeasure at the idea of democratizing Hong Kong.

Zhou Enlai’s message was relayed in a note from Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Cantlie to former British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan. It reads:

“With regard to Hong Kong there was an important point he (Zhou Enlai) wished to put forward personally to Mr. MacMillan or at least to his deputy. A plot, or conspiracy, was being hatched to make Hong Kong a self-governing Dominion like Singapore. This had the approval of several members of the British and Hongkong Governments. He wished Mr. MacMillan to know that China would regard any move towards Dominion status as a very unfriendly act. China wished the present colonial status of Hong Kong to continue with no change whatsoever.” See exhibit 2 below.

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Exhibit 2: Screenshot of Mao Laiyou’s post showing the document on Zhou Enlai’s warning. (Screenshot via The Epoch Times)

Kenneth Cantlie (1899–1986) was the son of Sir James Cantlie, the teacher of Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Republic of China. Sir James was instrumental in rescuing Sun when he was held captive in the Chinese Legation in London in 1896. Because of their close ties, Sir James asked Sun to be the godfather of Kenneth.

Kenneth was a prominent railway engineer who helped build railways in Argentina, India, and China. The British National Railway Museum kept a Kenneth Cantlie Archive. According to Leena Lindell, the archivist, “Official documents and correspondence found in the collection also shed light on the political relations of the two countries in a tumultuous cold war era. … Crucially, he [Kenneth Cantlie] acted as a go-between for Premier Zhou Enlai and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan delivering messages relating to sensitive political issues such as UN membership, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Sino-British trade embargo in the 1950s.”

The FCO 40/327 files contained another document that expressed similar misgivings toward the democratization of Hong Kong and even threatened to take back the city by force. This was a message delivered by Liao Chengzhi to a left-wing trade union group. Liao was the chief of the State Council’s Office of Overseas Chinese Affairs. At that time he was assisting Zhou in overseeing Hong Kong affairs. The document reads:

“American imperialism is our dreadful enemy and there is no doubt that the British do not like this proposal. … If the work in educating and bringing compatriots in the New Territories into unity were properly done, the American imperialists would never succeed. Should the proposal come from the British it would be a different matter. We shall not hesitate to take positive action to have Hong Kong, Kowloon and New Territories liberating as, up to this very moment, we have never recognized Hong Kong, Kowloon and New Territories as British territories. However, the present status of Hong Kong is to our benefit. Through Hong Kong we can trade and contact people of other countries and obtain materials we badly need. For this reason, we have hitherto made no demand for the return of Hong Kong. You are patriots. On return to Hong Kong, you should do what you ought to do. We want to get back Hong Kong in a good state and not in a state of ruin.” See exhibit 3 below.

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Exhibit 3: Screenshot of Mao Laiyou’s post showing Liao Chengzhi’s message. (Screenshot via The Epoch Times)

The document mentioned an American proposal on the New Territories, but this proposal was unclear. The colony of Hong Kong consisted of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula, which were perpetually ceded to Britain, and the New Territories, which was leased for 99 years. Given this fact, it could be deduced that the United States might have proposed to make the New Territories an autonomous area. Such a proposal would have undermined British rule.

According to Mao, Liao asked the left-wing trade unionists to pass this message to the British authority in Hong Kong.

The de-classification of these documents proved that the CCP from very early on frowned upon the democratization of Hong Kong and forced the British to give up such plans.

I can provide an anecdote that proved that it was the CCP that stopped all local efforts to democratize Hong Kong.

In the 1970s, I regularly attended the monthly function of the Marco Polo Club, founded by the late barrister Percy Chan (1901–1989) in 1959. This club (not the Cathay Pacific Airline’s VIP club bearing the same name) served as a united front outfit of the CCP through which China maintained unofficial contacts with the West at a time when it practiced self-imposed isolation.

Chan had been very active in the early post-war years fighting for democratic reform in Hong Kong. He set up the Hong Kong Chinese Reform Association (HKCRA) in 1949 along with Ma Man-fai (1905–1994), an ardent advocate of self-rule in the British colony. In July 1949, they held a colony-wide petition, asking the British government to give Hong Kong greater autonomy.

He told me personally that soon after the CCP gained power, the HKCRA became a pro-Beijing organization. The CCP advised him not to further pursue the quest for self-rule or democratization. Since then, the HKCRA no longer paid attention to democratic reform, but focused only on people’s livelihood issues.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Ching Cheong
Ching Cheong is a graduate of the University of Hong Kong. In his decades-long journalism career, he has specialized in political, military, and diplomatic news in Hong Kong, Beijing, Taipei, and Singapore.