The Last Stand of Colonialism? The Unofficial Members of the Executive and Legislative Councils and the Sino-British Negotiations Over Hong Kong, 1982–1984
How could the wider context of decolonization and a comparative approach help understand the end of British rule in Hong Kong, which was often considered an anomaly in colonialism? Using recently declassified British documents, this article examines how the Unofficial Members of the Executive and Legislative Councils (UMELCO), a group of influential local leaders, participated in the Sino-British negotiations over Hong Kong’s future, as well as its broader significance. The negotiations were a seminal event defining Hong Kong’s developments since then. The article first shows that, despite the fond memories of some Hong Kong people, UMELCO’s hard line had limited influence on British policy. This does not mean, however, that their participation was insignificant. Comparing Hong Kong with similar cases like China’s Weihaiwei and India’s Pondicherry, the article argues that UMELCO belonged to the ‘loyalist’ elites, little explored in studies of decolonization or nationalist historiography, who preferred not independence but the alternatives. They defended colonial rule in an attempt to preserve their unique identity and economic prospects, especially when its alternative might have been worse. UMELCO’s influence was more limited than expected as London pressed the Governor Edward Youde to toe its lines more often than usual. This demonstrates that London successfully intervened at critical junctures in the late-colonial period rather than simply acquiesced to Hong Kong’s relative autonomy. Aiming to preserve the existing hierarchical system, UMELCO indirectly fueled the rise of the ‘Hong Konger’ identity and calls for democracy, which could weaken the system they valued. The way that their support for moderate reforms gave way to tougher demands has parallels in decolonizing movements elsewhere like India. Citing the concept of ‘imported state’, the article suggests that the colonial state was largely retained when Hong Kong became ‘postcolonial’ under a supposedly anti-colonial China, a phenomenon common in decolonization.
Journal title, volume/issue number, page range
The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 48:2, 370-394
0308-6534 (Print) 1743-9329 (Online)