Sir Percy Cradock, the British diplomat who negotiated terms for returning Hong Kong to Chinese rule, has died at 86, his family said.

Cradock died on January 22 following a brief illness, the family announced in The Times newspaper on Thursday.

Cradock was first posted to Hong Kong in 1961, then moved to Beijing the following year. After a stint in London, he was posted to Beijing again from 1966-69, and was taken prisoner when the embassy was besieged by a mob during the Cultural Revolution.

He returned to Beijing as ambassador in 1978 as Britain began to deal with the looming return of most of the territory of the Hong Kong colony in 1997.

China had ceded the island of Hong Kong in perpetuity in the 19th century but Britain held only a 99-year lease on the New Territories, which represented 92 percent of the colony’s land area.

Given China’s overwhelming military advantage, and Hong Kong’s dependence on China for food and water, Cradock said “Britain had virtually no cards” to play in negotiations.

Giving up Hong Kong grated against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s instincts, and she was often suspicious of professional diplomats.

Cradock in turn was wary of politicians. “It’s not the other side you have to worry about, but your own, the inability to influence London on matters where you have special knowledge and interest,” he wrote in a 1994 memoir.

However, Thatcher relied on Cradock’s expertise, putting him in charge of negotiations on Hong Kong in 1983 and then appointing him as her security adviser the following year.

In 1984, Britain and China agreed on a “one nation, two systems” approach that preserved aspects of Hong Kong’s democratic and economic freedoms for 50 years.

Following the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, the agreement drew attacks from those who thought Britain had ceded too much to a brutal and oppressive regime.

Cradock responded that negotiators were under no illusion that Chinese leader Deng Xiaopeng was a European liberal.

“We signed that bloody agreement with him because he ruled China and because he could harm Hong Kong or could help it. We were absolutely cold realists about it,” he said.

Cradock retired from government in 1992, and later was sharply critical of the pugnacious approach of Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten toward the Chinese.

“If you want to score points in some virility contest with China and be applauded in the press in Britain and America, all well and good,” Cradock said. “But if you are concerned with the protection of Hong Kong, then we must recognize that no political institution will survive there unless underwritten by China.”

Cradock is survived by his wife, Birthe Dyrlund. A funeral service is scheduled at St. Mary’s Church in Twickenham, west of London, on February 3.

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