Chinese students studying abroad have repeatedly asked this question: Why didn’t Hong Kong people fight for democracy before 1997? Paradoxically, HK’s young radicals are saying the same thing in their attacks on traditional democrats, thus perpetuating Beijing’s party line that the struggle for democracy is a post-1997 phenomenon and so HK people should be grateful for whatever little democracy that Beijing is granting.
Hong Kong’s democracy movement was born in the midst of the Sino-British negotiations in the 1980s. See Timeline and background.
For most of HK history before 1997, China, the UK, and HK’s business elites thwarted democracy at every step. The British HK government first rejected the demand for direct elections to the Legislative Council (Legco) in 1988. See 民意彙集的政治：論兩次處理香港民意的缺失. It then rejected the Exco-Legco Consensus model (兩局共識方案) proposed after Tiananmen: 1/3 of the Legco seats to be directly elected in 1991, half in 1995, and fully elected by 2003. For a start, those who ask the above Q should comb Patten’s harsh words on London’s HK policies, in his memoir and numerous public interviews.
Young radicals have this perception that the traditional democrats tended to be leftist and supported HK’s return of sovereignty to China; as such, they didn’t fight for democracy in HK before 1997. In reality, first-generation democrats demanded the British govt to introduce full democracy in HK before the handover. Not surprisingly, Beijing saw the demands for democracy as “using democracy to resist China’s communism” ( 民主抗共) and pressured London to stall democratization in HK. This became even more so after HK people upheld the slogan “Today’s Tiananmen, tomorrow’s HK” in 1989. So the point about the democrats’ personal backgrounds —if that ever mattered before Tiananmen — was completely irrelevant afterwards.
On the British HK govt’s manipulation of public opinions to reject direct elections in 1988, see 民意彙集的政治：論兩次處理香港民意的缺失 http://hkupop.hku.hk/chinese/columns/columns34.html. Thus, the CY Leung govt.’s public consultation report in 2014 is hardly new.
A very informative series on key events from the 1980s to 1997 in Cantonese: 政壇回憶錄
The history of the struggle in one cartoon 尊子文 阿平圖:
Philip Bowring: Hong Kong’s Endless Road to Democracy
‘Any possibility of change was also opposed by Beijing. In 1958, at a time when de-colonization was proceeding apace, even in Africa a British interlocutor with Zhou Enlai passed on to prime minister Harold Macmillan Zhou’s concern that: “A plot, or conspiracy, was being hatched to make Hong Kong a self-governing Dominion like Singapore. This had the approval of several members of the British and Hong Kong Governments. He wished Mr Macmillan to know that China would regard any move to Dominion status as a very unfriendly act. China wished the present colonial status of Hong Kong to continue with no change whatever.” Zhou saw constitutional change in Hong Kong as an American plot. The status quo was useful to China and Britain should not upset that…
The Joint Declaration stated that the legislature would be constituted by elections and the executive accountable to the legislature. But when Youde tried to take steps to put this into practice he ran into a wall of opposition from both Beijing and a Hong Kong mercantile elite never reconciled to democratic ideas even when they might have helped protect other freedoms… (Hong Kong’s Endless Road to Democracy)
Philip Bowring: How Hong Kong’s business elite have thwarted democracy for 150 years– a look back over the past 150 years reveals how Hong Kong’s business elite have continually used their power to frustrate the public’s democratic ambitions. How Hong Kong’s business elite have thwarted democracy for 150 years
The now declassified note in the British files says Zhou [Enlai] wished to put forward “an important point … personally to (Harold Macmillan, British prime minister), or his deputy.
“A plot or conspiracy was being hatched to make Hong Kong a self-governing dominion like Singapore.
“This had the approval of several members of the British and Hong Kong governments.
“(Zhou) wished Mr Macmillan to know that China would regard any move towards dominion status as a very unfriendly act.
“China wished the present colonial status of Hong Kong to continue with no change whatever.”
In a further declassified file, on October 29, 1960, Liao Chengzhi, the director of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Commission, told a delegation of Hong Kong union representatives visiting Beijing: “Should the (self-government) proposal come from the British … we shall not hesitate to take positive action to have Hong Kong (island), Kowloon and the New Territories liberated.”
Hong Kong history between British history and Chinese history: Setting the Records Straight
An early reflection on self-determination inspired by decolonization in the 196s: “The Future of Hong Kong: Self-Determination and Independence” by Ma Man-fai.
See also the section on the UK here.