Negotiating Autonomy: The MacLehose Era (1971-1982) and the Nature of Colonial Rule

Project: Research

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The governorship of Murray MacLehose (1971-1982) is seen by many as a golden era of social reform in Hong Kong. Governor MacLehose’s ambitious reforms in public housing, education, and health services and his anti-corruption campaign helped lend a facade of benevolence to colonial rule. Conventional wisdom attributes the social progress achieved during this period to either the enlightened leadership of MacLehose or to the British government’s wise response to the Hong Kong population’s alienation and frustration in the aftermath of the 1967 riots. Such accounts, however, overlook a defining feature of colonial rule, that is, perpetual bargaining between the colonial administration and the sovereign power. Debates, altercations and even open conflict between officials in Hong Kong and London were a common feature of colonial rule in Hong Kong, central to which was a conflicting interpretation of British interests and the former’s quest for autonomy, which required a certain degree of rapport and collaboration with the local community. The MacLehose years constitute the perfect setting for elucidating the battle for autonomy inherent in colonial rule. It was an exceptional period in which London was highly motivated to involve itself in Hong Kong affairs owing to the political turbulence of the 1960s and pro-welfare philosophy of the Labour administration. At the same time, the political landscape of the colony was also undergoing seismic change, with the rise of social activism resulting from growing affluence confronted with a conservative backlash from the business sector. The proposed project will examine three major events in the 1970s: the Vietnamese Boat People crisis, limited attempts at constitutional reform and the proposed land lease extension beyond 1997. These events represent different degrees of interest amongst stakeholders, and thus imply contrasting patterns of engagement. The prospective findings will help to identify patterns of strategy, opportunity, leverage and interaction in the colony’s pursuit of autonomy in the MacLehose era. They will also contribute to an understanding of the logic and nature of colonial rule and of the post-1997 relationship under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ framework. Beijing’s perception of the central-local relationship under the Basic Law is unfortunately obscured by its misunderstanding of the real nature of British colonial rule and misguided preoccupation with the formal aspects of that rule, and Hong Kong society makes a similar mistake by overlooking the political subtlety and nuance of engagement with the new sovereign power. 


Project number9042302
Grant typeGRF
Effective start/end date1/01/1627/12/19

    Research areas

  • autonomy,colonial rule,state-business relationship,political participation,