A CITY CLEARED
It may come as a surprise, but the Hong Kong authorities had tried to clear the Walled City, or parts of it, several times before the successful plan for its demolition was finally implemented. The full story of these earlier attempts, and why they had failed, will be included in the new book, in an extended article written by the respected Hong Kong-based writer and journalist, Fionnuala McHugh.
You will have to wait for the book to come out, to read that part of the story, but here is an excerpt explaining how that plan for the final clearance and demolition actually came about. It is a story of secrecy and subtle diplomacy that is only now, 20 years later, beginning to come to light. It is explained here in some detail for the very first time.
“On 14 April 1986, Donald Tsang, who was then the Deputy Secretary in the General Duties Branch (and would, many years later, become the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’s second Chief Executive), organised a meeting with Gordon Jones [District Officer for Kowloon City] and Richard Margolis, the Deputy Political Adviser. He told the men that the Governor, Sir Edward Youde, wanted to clear the Walled City. There was now enough housing stock in the area to resettle the residents but, perhaps more to the point, there was concern that the appalling conditions there might provide convenient post-handover propaganda with which China could denigrate the British administration. Its continued existence also posed very serious risks of fire and to health that really needed to be resolved. So a paper was to be prepared on a potential clearance operation: Jones would look at the logistics side, Margolis at the political dimension. After analysis and tweaking in Hong Kong, it would be sent to Beijing for further discussion with the Chinese Government.
It was essential to maintain total secrecy, in the short term because they wanted no news of the operation leaking to the press before China had been consulted and, of course, in the longer term because this would have caused an influx of squatters into the Walled City hoping to claim rehousing benefits and compensation. Consequently, apart from Jones, the only other person in the Kowloon City District Office (KCDO) who knew what was happening was his personal secretary and, for their part at least, they ensured that any future communications between the KCDO and other parties in the Government on the subject would be done through correspondence classified as ‘Confidential’ rather than ‘Secret’, as the latter (an unusual classification for a KCDO matter) would only have raised suspicions that the documents must have something to do with the Walled City. As Jones had been told that China’s leader Deng Xiaoping had a particular interest in sanitary matters, he also instructed a young executive officer to take photographs of the Walled City’s lavatories, though he had no idea of his mission’s relevance.
Remarkably, considering the matter’s complexity and delicate nature (but also aware that time was of the essence), the paper was completed within a few days and the following week, on 21 April 1986, a meeting chaired by Sir Edward was held in Government House, where it was agreed that the clearance would proceed. To an outside observer with knowledge of the painful past, such intense preparation for an operation, which would certainly be costly and inconvenient, and might well be a well-publicised, violent failure, is baffling. “This might sound corny”, said Margolis, in an interview 26 years later, “but there was an extraordinary degree of pride in what the colonial administration had done here, and a very powerful desire to leave Hong Kong in good shape. The temptation to say, ‘Here’s an eyesore you [China] helped to perpetuate, so why don’t you deal with it?’ never really crossed anyone’s mind.”
Delicacy of touch was the keynote.“We had settled the 1997 issue but there was this tiny, little residual problem,” as Margolis put it. “We had to couch it fairly carefully because we didn’t want to go too far in inviting the Chinese government into decision-taking over all these people. What we were after was for China, in the event of the inhabitants protesting to them, to make it quite clear to them that this was a matter for the Hong Kong administration. Then people would get the message the game was up.”
China gave the nod. In a 2011 Chinese television documentary, Qiao Zonghuai – former vice-minister at China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and former deputy-manager of Xinhua’s Hong Kong branch – recalled his involvement in those negotiations. At an informal diplomatic banquet in 1985, a British government official had mentioned to him a pre-handover plan for the Walled City. “This is not a matter that you propose off the cuff,” said Qiao. “At first I was pretty surprised, I felt that it was rather sudden. You cannot imagine the sensitivity . . . In hindsight, making his proposals on such an occasion was partly calculation.”
Qiao was initially inclined to take a hard line but he also recognised that since the signing of the Sino-British agreement the old, knee-jerk response had altered. Now, it was diplomacy that kicked in. However arbitrarily the notion had been raised, British hints at demolition and relocation for urban improvement seemed reasonable. He reported the conversation to his superiors in both Xinhua and the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group, of which he was a member.
Two days later, Xinhua senior officials summoned Qiao to a late-night meeting in Hong Kong. As usual (“Our telephones were tapped”), he wasn’t told the agenda in advance. Only after he arrived was he asked to explain the situation to his colleagues. One of them, who’d been familiar with the Walled City since the 1950s, reacted with intense emotion. “Normally, he was a jovial fellow, he described himself as Boss of the Kowloon Walled City,” said Qiao. To this man, however, allowing the British to oversee anything in the City – even demolition – would bring into question Chinese rights of sovereignty and government. Why, he asked, couldn’t China wait until 1997?
Qiao’s answer was pragmatic. “If we made a mess of it,” he said, “the masses might have gone out on the streets and demonstrated and this could have led to local rioting.” Ever since the banquet, he’d been racking his brains to work out what the British were up to. He decided that what they wanted, each time they left their colonies, was a glorious withdrawal; and in order to make an imposing exit, no “grotty, dirty areas” could be left behind. In his reports, Qiao wrote that the British had always felt they had the right, and the ability, to rule over the Walled City but they’d never had the will to do so because of Chinese opposition. Now, it was to the benefit of both sides that this should change.”