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History of Sino-British Relations:
Tensions and Improvements, 1989-2000

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 Office, London.

Note: This is note is for information purposes only and does not necessarily represent the policies of Her Majesty's Government


Introduction to
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