Hong Kong: Historical irony lost on Swire

Hugo Swire

Hugo Swire

Since the National People’s Congress decided in 2007 to allow Hong Kong’s chief executive to be elected via universal suffrage in 2017, pro-democracy camps in the SAR have been excitedly debating how the process will work.

However, when the UK Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Hugo Swire, decided to enter the debate on Saturday, he clearly had no regard for historical irony.

“Supporting the strengthening of democratic institutions is at the core of Britain’s foreign policy”, he stated in a South China Morning Post article, professing his belief in democracy as a “universal right”.

Despite ruling Hong Kong from 1840 to 1997, the British never opted to introduce universal suffrage to the colony. Although it was seriously debated after world war two, the city’s governor at the time (1947-1958), Alexander Grantham, pushed the British Cabinet to abandon the plan. Steve Tsang, of Nottingham University (UK), describes this period in history as “democracy shelved”.

Universal suffrage” was not guaranteed until the Sino-British 1997 handover was formalised, with it being stated as an “ultimate aim” in Article 45 of The Basic Law.

With the recent adoption of the old British colonial flag as a symbol of protest at marches and rallies in the city, Swire may well feel that Britain still has a role to play in Hong Kong’s political development. Indeed, as a cousin of the Swire Hong Kong trading dynasty, Swire should know the SAR’s colonial history better than most.

However, this should not be interpreted as a desire to return to colonial rule. As Avery Ng of the League of Social Democrats party recalls, “during colonial times, there was no freedom and our rights were denied”

Ultimately, while Swire will feel that the UK is in some way obliged by the Sino-British joint declaration of 1984 to support political reform “in any way”, he should also bear in mind the UK’s historical legacy. Without this, he and others will be at constant risk of being accused of taking an unjustified moral high ground.

Categories: Politics & Law

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4 replies

  1. Ironic…indeed !!

    Hugo Swire is nostalgic of British colonial rule…one of the few diehards that refuse to accept that British colonial rule is long gone. Perhaps, he is thinking that by using the Democracy hype he hopes to re-impose British influence.


    • I don’t think he is. And if he knows his HK history he will know one of the reasons democracy was shelved in HK was as appeasement to Beijing. British HK only survived to 1997 because Beijing let it, they could have invaded at any moment. One thing Beijing did not want was a HK that would have a claim to be a separate city-state like Singapore to Malaysia, so it put pressure on Britain not to institute democratic reforms which couldn have led to a sense of HKers having a sense of identity as their own state. The reason democratic reforms came in when they did in the 1990s was simply because by that point HK’s return to China was a done deal so Beijing”s threat of invasion no longer mattered. So no Britain did not put in place democratic reforms, but as regards this the strings were being pulled by Beijing not by London.



  1. Hong Kong Riddled With British Spies, Reports Say | pundit from another planet
  2. An open letter to Chinese Communist Party regarding universal suffrage in Hong Kong (part I) | China Daily Mail

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