Nestled at the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula and bordering Spain is the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar. As with Hong Kong, Gibraltar was ceded to Britain following a period of conflict, and the cessation of which became a geo-political anomaly as the borders of the British Empire began to recede like the hairline of a fatigued patriarch. Whilst the sovereignty to Hong Kong was transferred to China in 1997, Gibraltar remains under British sovereignty to this day. The timing of the political circumstances that beset the two territories respectively suggests that their differing denouements at the dusk of empire were hands dealt by fate.
During the War of the Spanish succession in 1704, an Anglo-Dutch fleet captured Gibraltar from the Spanish, who subsequently ceded Gibraltar to Britain in perpetuity under the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, Spain renewed its claim to sovereignty over Gibraltar in the 1950s, and began lobbying in 1963 for the handover of Gibraltar before the UN Special Committee on Decolonization. This culminated in the 1967 Gibraltar sovereignty referendum, in which 99.19% of Gibraltarians voted to remain under British sovereignty. In the years leading up to the referendum, the prospect of Gibraltar becoming Spanish would not have been the most appealing for Gibraltarians. For instance, economic liberalisation in 1959 which was brought on by Spain’s close brush with bankruptcy was not accompanied by political reform. Faced with the possibility of Gibraltar being transferred to Spain at the height of the Franco regime, the decision to conduct a referendum and the referendum’s result were rather unsurprising.
Like the Treaty of Utrecht was to Spain, the unequal treaties between Britain and China – which led to the cessation of Hong Kong after the Opium Wars – had always been a thorn in China’s side. Despite showing interest in the sovereignty of Hong Kong, China adopted a more diplomatic approach in contrast when the PRC obtained its seat in the UN in 1971. In a letter to the UN Decolonization Committee in March 1972, Chinese UN representative Huang Hua stated that it was within China’s sovereign right to settle the questions of Hong Kong (and Macau), which will “be settled in an appropriate way when conditions are ripe.” The 25 year diplomatic silent treatment between the US and China had only just ended in the month prior, when President Richard Nixon made his historic visit to Beijing. The end of the Cultural Revolution was not yet in sight, and the world was anxious to see how China would be re-introduced into the global community. Had China demanded the transfer of sovereignty to Hong Kong at that time, would Britain have held a similar referendum in Hong Kong? If so, what would have been the result of the referendum in light of the prevailing political conditions in Hong Kong and China? This hypothetical scenario provides provoking food for thought.
Back on the other side of the world, an interesting development after the 1967 Gibraltar sovereignty referendum was the passing of the Gibraltar Constitution Order in 1969. The order in its Preamble contains the assurance that “Her Majesty’s Government will never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against their freely and democratically expressed wishes.” In effect, the question of sovereignty to Gibraltar became one that only its people may answer. Indeed, this jurisdiction came into play when Gibraltarians voted against the idea of shared sovereignty between Britain and Spain in the 2002 referendum. This was never to be in the case of Hong Kong. It is arguable that this constitutional distinction between Gibraltar and Hong Kong was what formed the basis of their divergent experiences in the post-colonial era.
When Governor Murray MacLehose raised the question of Hong Kong’s status with Deng Xiaoping in 1979 as the end of the New Territories lease crept ever closer, that was the beginning of strictly binary negotiations between two governments. Neither parties were obligated to consult the views of any third party. Naturally, any suggestion for a referendum in Hong Kong before negotiations led to the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration was rejected. By then, however, the state of things was different. In 1979, US President Jimmy Carter granted China full diplomatic recognition and acknowledged the “One China” policy. As Britain and China exchanged diplomatic visits, diplomatic relations between the two countries looked promising. With the introduction of Deng’s socialist market economy and the promise of “one country, two systems”, it was foreseeable to a certain extent that Hong Kong would continue to prosper after 1997. The conditions seemed ripe. If a referendum was held in any event in the lead up to the Joint Declaration, what would the people of Hong Kong have decided?