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Hong Kong: The British were party to the deception of its people (credit: Ángel Riesgo Martínez)

Aware of my Chinese past, Margaret Thatcher once asked me whom she should send as the new Governor of Hong Kong. A businessman, I said. Sinologues could be subject to cultural assimilation, and a politician risked promising the inhabitants of a colony existing on sufferance things he could not deliver. Thatcher appointed Sir Edward Youde, a sinologue, and in 1992 John Major sent Chris Patten.

Coming after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989,  our enforced retreat from the colony was a distressing affair. Our focus should have been on continuity, stability and the welfare of its people. Instead we focused on our own bella figura.

If there had to be retreat, by fighting for democracy till the end, we would do it in such grand moral style it would resemble a victory. We hadn't installed it during the 150 years of our ownership, but the Communists must promise to do it now. Why hadn't we done it ourselves? Inertia has its natural attractions for governments, yet the reason tentative thoughts had come to nothing was the likely Chinese reaction.

A viable democracy in Hong Kong would have depended on the toleration of the most pitiless totalitarian system in modern history. Anti-Communist political parties could not have been excluded; and the paranoid regime in Beijing would have seen the whole thing as a prelude to independence. The result would have been blood on the streets.

During the Cultural Revolution we had a taste of it. As assistant political adviser to the Governor I was involved in the 1967 emergency, when the colonial government shot a number of bombers and rioters and imprisoned hundreds more. About 50 people were killed and 800 injured. Why should this matter today? Because Hong Kong history does.

Let's go back further, to the Opium Wars by which we acquired the colony. On the morality of the opium business, James Matheson, partner in the British firm Jardine Matheson & Co. that dominated the illegal trade, wrote: "I can conscientiously declare that I have never seen a native in the least bestialised by opium smoking  . . . Much of the opium smoked used to be on convivial occasions of the upper classes, as in England champagne and costly wines." In Hong Kong, self-delusion began early.

For us the success of the colony, and its role as a refuge for escapees from Mao's "abattoir of a state", as Clive James has called it, has atoned for the iniquity of its seizure. Though not for Beijing. Meeting Deng Xiaoping with my boss Lord Carrington in 1981 in the first discussion of its reversion to China, his message seemed clear to me. This was Chinese territory, and they wanted it back. There could be negotiations but the British were in no position to dictate conditions.

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