Obituary of Lord Howe of Aberavon

Lord Howe of Aberavon (2)

Letter to the Telegraph

Your Obituary of Lord Howe of Aberavon (available online) was admirably comprehensive. But it gave far too little space to what was arguably Geoffrey Howe’s most outstanding foreign policy achievement, the 1984 Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong. It is fitting that the 30th Anniversary earlier this year of the Ratification of this Treaty is about to be marked by the State Visit of China’s President Xi Jinping.

The negotiation of the Joint Declaration, hard fought and tough, consumed much of Howe’s first two years as Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary. There were huge sensitivities on every side, in a China determined under Deng Xiaoping to expunge 150 years of humiliation, in a Hong Kong deeply worried about a transfer of sovereignty to an unpredictable communist government, and in a Britain led by Margaret Thatcher who had just emerged triumphant from regaining the Falklands and saw parallels in the Chinese demand to take over the whole of the colony in 1997. Howe led a small team of senior FCO officials who worked intensely hard over the two years 1982 to 1984 to fashion, with often suspicious and largely antagonistic Chinese officials, the texts of the agreement under which the concept, conceived by Deng Xiaoping, of “One Country, Two Systems” and “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong” could be realized.  He developed a close understanding of mutual regard with the then Chinese Foreign Minister, Wu Xueqian. Howe came up with the metaphor of Hong Kong as a “precious Ming Vase”, to be handled with the greatest care and handed over, as a baton in a relay race, from Britain to China without dropping or damaging it in any way.  It was a tribute to Howe’s personal chemistry, and his quiet persuasiveness, that he could carry Wu - and in turn the Premier Zhao Ziyang - to accept many of the British arguments and to achieve, in the Joint Declaration, arrangements for the future of Hong Kong that not only were accepted in the territory, but were widely seen as a model diplomatic achievement for the solution of territorial disputes between sovereign states.

Lord Howe of Aberavon (1)

After the Hong Kong agreement, Howe continued to take a close interest in China and Hong Kong, and maintained his personal and professional relationship with Wu Xueqian and other Chinese leaders.  As Foreign Secretary, he accompanied Her Majesty The Queen on her State Visit to China in October 1986, then seen as marking a high point in the bilateral relationship.  Three years later he was appalled by the June 1989 Tiananmen crackdown and showed his concern for Hong Kong by immediately paying a visit to the territory, traumatised by the event.  But shortly after, unrelated to these issues, his tenure at the FCO was abruptly terminated by Mrs Thatcher, as their rift over Europe began to emerge.  Meanwhile the fallout from Tiananmen had highlighted public and media concern about human rights in China.   As Prime Minister in 1992, John Major felt humiliated to be obliged to visit Beijing and shake the hand of Premier Li Peng who many blamed for the 1989 crackdown. There were constant demands for the Government to speak up over China’s human rights, but the Chinese strongly objected.  John Major, valuing Howe’s understanding of China and the strength of his personal relationships there, asked him to lead a delegation whose remit (carefully scripted to find a way through the impasse) was to:  “discuss matters of mutual concern, including human rights”. This was the beginning of a dialogue on human rights, which continues through regular official meetings to this day.

Howe’s final official visit to Hong Kong was appropriately as one of the VIP party to attend the June 1997 Handover Ceremony.  A few years earlier he had accepted the position of Honorary President of the Great Britain China Centre.  The GBCC, a Non Departmental Public Body under the FCO, works to improve good governance and the rule of law in China, and organizes annual political dialogues between British MPs and Chinese regional and national officials, exactly the sort of activities Howe had worked so hard to espouse. Howe was the GBCC’s President for 23 years, only standing down in July this year.  At the Farewell Reception held in the House of Lords, the warm tribute paid by Chinese Ambassador Liu Xiaoming, emphasized the extraordinary contribution that Howe had made over the past more than 30 years to UK-China relations. As President Xi Jinping steps off the plane in London next week, we should remember the massive input of Geoffrey Howe in laying foundations for today’s positive and constructive relationship between the UK and China.

Hugh Davies CMG

Hugh Davies is Convenor of the Great Britain China Centre Council of Advisors. He is a former member of HM Diplomatic Service, Commercial Counsellor in Beijing in 1984-86 (at the time of the signature of the Hong Kong agreement in 1984 and The Queen’s State Visit in 1986), and British Senior Representative (Ambassador) on the Sino British Joint Liaison Group in Hong Kong in 1993-97, managing all the details of the Handover and of the Handover Ceremony

Date posted: 05 November 2015

Categories: Board & Advisors