So, back in the 80s, the Prime Minister of the UK, Margaret Thatcher, negotiated the "one country, two systems" agreement with the PRC regarding the return on Hong Kong to Chinese rule, as the treaty that allowed the UK to rule Hong Kong was expiring within a couple of decades.

However, the PRC was not the only legitimate successor government to the court of Imperial China, with whom the original agreement was made - there was also Taiwan, whose government was the successors of one of the losing sides of the Chinese civil war, who survived by fleeing to Taiwan from the Chinese mainland. Additionally, the Taiwanese government was much more democratic than the PRC has ever been, and who are strongly allied to the United States, who are in turn strong allies of the UK.

So, why did Thatcher decide to give Hong Kong back to the PRC, rather than giving it back to Taiwan, thereby removing the need to make a "one country, two systems" agreement in the first place? Surely this would have resulted in a better outcome for the people of Hong Kong, without compromising the democratic and capitalist ideals of the United Kingdom (and Margaret Thatcher's right-wing political party).

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    Bear in mind that Britain recognised the People's Republic as early as 1949 (or could have been 1950 - it was certainly the post-war Labour government anyway). France recognised them in the 1960s and the US in the 1970s. By 1997 no western country was going to put up a diplomatic wall against the PRC, (governing 25% of the world's population) by favouring Taiwan. And that's quite apart from the fact that no country (least of all Taiwan) had the capability of defending Hong Kong in any conventional war with China.
    – WS2
    Sep 1, 2019 at 18:48
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    "Additionally, the Taiwanese government was much more democratic than the PRC has ever been" [citation needed]. Just because the Taiwanese government came from the nationalist side of the civil war doesn't mean they were more democratic. They had a one-party system, and that only started to change at the end of the 80s (after a period of massive economic growth). Taiwan isn't even the member of United Nations (they've been replaced by PRC in 1971, again before the Hong Kong settlements). They're very different today, but in the 80s, not so much.
    – Luaan
    Sep 2, 2019 at 6:19
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    Comments deleted. This is not a place to discuss UK policy on other matters than Hong Kong or the ethnicity of the inhabitants of the Falkland islands. Please only use comments for the purposes stated in the help article about the commenting privilege.
    – Philipp
    Sep 2, 2019 at 14:45
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    @WS2 why is your comment a comment rather than an answer?
    – grovkin
    Sep 22, 2019 at 3:51
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    Thatcher's options were the following: she can give Hong Kong to China, or China can take Hong Kong from her.
    – klojj
    Sep 23, 2019 at 14:40

5 Answers 5


Other than the reasons of practicality mentioned, there is also the issue of international laws and treaties, specifically on the issue of "successor states." There definitely was some debate, as the situation in China is not considered a traditional succession of states scenario. But most legal scholars at the time agreed that the current "government in Beijing" (the PRC) is to be considered the legal successor to the original "government in Beijing" (The Qing dynasty) that Britain had signed the treaty with.

Although Britain never ratified The Vienna Convention on Succession of States in respect of Treaties, to go against the advice of the both their own legal scholars and against international convention norms would have weakened Britain's clout significantly. Not to mention how hypocritical it would appear as Britain was in the process of negotiating for the protection of the rule of law in Hong Kong.

There is also the consideration that in the early '80s when Thatcher's negotiations were taking place, Taiwan (ROC) would not have been considered a democratic, free country. It, like many of its Asian peers, and mainland China (PRC) itself, was under one-party rule at the time. Martial law, which had been in place for almost 40 years, wasn't lifted until 1987, and there was no opposition party until 1986. Although their societies have evolved along different political paths since, when Thatcher was holding negotiations, there certainly would have been reservations and no guarantees of how the rights of Hong Kong citizens would be treated by either the China (PRC) government or Taiwan (ROC) government.

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    To the point about successor states, I would also add that the PRC was eventually recognised both the "only lawful" and "only legitimate representative" of China to the UN in 71, kicking the ROC out in the process. Sep 2, 2019 at 7:55
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    @AmiralPatate, membership in the UN (or not), unfortunately, does not universally or specifically address the issue of successor states. As even the recognition of another state's sovereignty can be dependent on the individual member states, how each member recognize (or not) successor states is not a function that the UN can, or has, enforced. This is in part why other treaties specifically on this issue exist.
    – Gen Test
    Sep 3, 2019 at 8:06
  • I would add that the UK is one of the first western nations to break off relations with the ROC and formally recognize the PRC as the legitimate government in China (this happened on Jan 6, 1950), so the PRC would be considered the legitimate successor to Qing China according to official UK governmental policy.
    – xuq01
    Sep 8, 2021 at 22:08

Beyond the whole probably start a war (between PRC/China and ROC/Taiwan) and completely ignoring the realpolitik to avoid annoying a major economic power (even then), a major reason is quite simply geography. One of the reasons Hong Kong proper wasn't kept is a large part of the territory was leased mainland China. This not only means mainland China is the 'obvious' recipient, it also means that two states would share a land border, something not so easily ignored as an island not even so historically Chinese. This would make the whole 'start a war and annoy the PRC' a forgone conclusion

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    Would this have really started a war, when America was there to protect Taiwan from the aggression of mainland China?
    – nick012000
    Sep 1, 2019 at 22:45
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    @nick012000 US protection has always been orientated around preventing an attack on Taiwan, by putting US forces in the Taiwan Strait - there is little evidence that the US would be willing to also protect a mainland territory at the same time. The moment the UK made it obvious that the territory was going to be handed to the ROC is the moment the PRC would have moved troops into Hong Kong - forget an orderly handover in 1997, Hong Kong would have been forcibly taken back in the 1980s. The UK would almost certainly have done nothing other than withdraw its own troops from Hong Kong.
    – user16741
    Sep 2, 2019 at 1:39
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    @nick012000 no, but you are relying on th fact that China would take it lying down and the US to be it's usually overly aggressive self merely a decade after being trounced in Vietnam - there is no chance of the US getting involved in a mainland conflict with the Chinese in the 1980s, the public sentiment simply wasn't there.
    – user16741
    Sep 2, 2019 at 6:04
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    @nick012000: "The 80's" were the tail end of the Cold War, and you're talking about amphibious invasion of mainland China... for what reason, exactly? The US didn't exactly fare well in their first two outings in Asia, and those were proxy wars...
    – DevSolar
    Sep 2, 2019 at 7:18
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    Yes: the HK New Territories en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Territories is around 86% of territory; about half the population live there. That's the part whose lease expired in 1997. Strictly speaking, the Island and tip of Kowloon were outright owned by UK at the time. But neither could survive if PRC got tough: much of the water supply and fresh food comes from the Mainland. PRC wouldn't need to start a shooting war; just close the taps. To go against PRC would need something like the Berlin airlift.
    – AntC
    Sep 2, 2019 at 12:56

Thatcher surrendered all of Hong Kong -- not just the portions that were leased from China -- because the mainland Chinese had made it clear that Hong Kong was completely indefensible against an attack from the mainland. Taiwan would not be in any better of a position to defend Hong Kong.

The United States' commitment to defending Taiwan is not a blank check. In the past, there have been times that Chinese military "exercises" looked like preparations for invading Taiwan. The U.S. response was to move air carrier task forces to the region, capable of sinking (most of) any Chinese fleet that might attempt to land on Taiwan. Such a response would not be very useful against land-based forces attempting to conquer Hong Kong.

Furthermore, Hong Kong's value is as a peaceful location with low taxes, British commercial law, and access to cheap mainland Chinese labor, materials, and markets. Creating strife (such as trade barriers or war) between Hong Kong and mainland China would wreck the "peaceful" and "access" portions of the value proposition. Outright war might also undo the "low taxes" portion of the value proposition.

At the time that Britain surrendered Hong Kong, it did negotiate that Hong Kong would retain considerable autonomy. This was designed to reassure Hong Kong residents and foreign investors that the "low taxes" and "British commercial law" aspects of the value proposition were likely to continue.


The United Kingdom recognized the People's Republic of China on January 6, 1950. Therefore by the time of Thatcher's negotiations, she was obviously going to negotiate with the PRC instead of Taiwan.

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    But then the next question, is did they think about Hong-Kong when recognizing the state in 1950 ? If so why did they still recognize the PRC when they knew they would have to handle Hong-Kong back in 1997 to it, at a time where anti-communism was as virulent as it could possibly be in the west ?
    – Bregalad
    Sep 2, 2019 at 19:52
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    Maybe they were considerate og Hong Kong even then: not recognizing the PRC could have threatened Hong Kong. Also, Hong Kong back then was quite a small city. Maybe it was more feasible to hold it against land assault back then.
    – MauganRa
    Sep 3, 2019 at 18:39

The reason "on the table" was that the UK had recognized the PRC as the sole legitimate government of China since 1950, so they couldn't have returned Hong Kong to the ROC legally.

The practical concern was that China would likely just have taken Hong Kong by force in that case:

  1. Deng Xiaoping had threatened to do so in Sino-British talks;

  2. there was precedent (India's 1961 annexation of Goa);

  3. the UK could do little to defend Hong Kong (there was precedent again), unless it was willing to escalate the affair into nuclear warfare (against another nuclear state, which would have meant a lot of destruction).

Any option that risked military action was therefore not worth taking.

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