June 1989 inevitably marked a major downturn in relations. Together
with its European Union (EU) partners, Britain introduced a series
of sanctions against China. High-level visits stopped, and many
other exchanges both public and private were temporarily halted.
Criticism of China's human rights record, hitherto muted, now became
widespread in Britain.
In Hong Kong, June 1989 provoked much uncertainty about the future.
Hong Kong's needs led Britain to an early resumption of official
contacts with the Chinese government. A Foreign Office Minister,
Francis Maude, reopened discussions in the summer of 1990; these
were continued in April 1991 when Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd
went to Beijing. Further problems developed over the new Hong Kong
airport, one of a series of prestigious projects in the territory
that the Chinese viewed with some concern. To allay these concerns,
Prime Minister John Major visited China in September 1991 and signed
a Memorandum of Understanding on the airport.
Chinese suspicions of Britain's intentions were fuelled by the
appointment in 1992 of the former Conservative politician, Chris
Patten, as the Governor of Hong Kong. Mr Patten decided that the
demands in Hong Kong for more representative government could not
be ignored. His reforms, however, received a hostile response from
the Chinese government. The Joint Liaison Group, formally established
to facilitate consultation between the two sides on Hong Kong continued
to function, but the years before the formal handover of Hong Kong
in July 1997 were marked by bickering and disagreement.
The handover itself, however, went smoothly, and two years on,
the return was felt by all sides to be a success. By then, Britain
had a new government, and each side saw opportunities for a fresh
beginning. Prime Minister Blair visited China in October 1998, and
announced the establishment of a UK-China Forum. President Jiang
Zemin's visit to Britain in October 1999 helped set the seal on
these improved relations.
Text by J E Hoare, Research Counsellor, Foreign & Commonwealth
Note: This is note is for information purposes only and does not
necessarily represent the policies of Her Majesty's Government