The recent flurry of trade deals between China and the UK has drawn criticism on several fronts. Critics are concerned that Britain is in danger of making itself too reliant on one country at the expense of other relationships, and at the risk of compromising national security. They also accuse Britain for being silent on human rights in order to win Beijing’s favour.
One of the many political issues entangled in this debate is whether the British government has a responsibility to be more vocal about civil rights in Hong Kong. Last year, Chris Patten, who was the last governor of Hong Kong, claimed that Britain was wrongfully keeping quiet on Hong Kong for fear of damaging trade with China. And recently Joshua Wong, Hong Kong’s most well-known student leader, told British newspapers that the UK government ‘failed to keep its promise on democracy’.
But what exactly is this ‘promise’?
Britain’s responsibility towards Hong Kong is manifest in the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed in 1984, when the British government promised to safeguard against any potential Chinese breaches. In the Declaration, the Chinese government guaranteed certain ‘basic policies’ that would ‘remain unchanged for 50 years’. But since all these policies are very vague, it is difficult to say if Beijing has breached the Declaration in its involvement in the election process of Hong Kong’s leader (who is known as the ‘chief executive’).
The primary concern is that Beijing’s decision (in August last year) to place heavy restrictions on electoral reform may have breached the guarantee in Article 3(2) that Hong Kong ‘will enjoy a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs.’ But the words are vague enough for reasonable people to disagree on their meaning.
Similarly, Article 3(4) says that the ‘chief executive will be appointed … on the basis of the results of elections or consultations to be held locally’, but this does not explicitly prevent Beijing from indirectly controlling the process for the nomination of election candidates. Article 3(5) guarantees the rights ‘of the person’, but it is not obvious that these include equal rights to vote and stand for election.
“The problems Hong Kong faces go far beyond the struggle for democracy.”
I happen to think Beijing’s interference with Hong Kong elections runs contrary both to the Declaration and the Hong Kong Basic Law, but the issue is reasonably controversial and so it is not apt for Britain publicly to accuse China of violating the Declaration. Such accusations would only help Beijing to portray the struggle for democracy in Hong Kong as an exercise of foreign influence.
But nor is it right for China or Britain to dismiss the concerns raised. Precisely because the issue is controversial, Britain needs to be part of an ongoing discussion on the meaning of the Declaration and its implications on Hong Kong today. Importantly, the problems Hong Kong faces go far beyond the struggle for democracy.
Judicial independence, press freedom, and academic freedom are all explicitly guaranteed by the Declaration, but are all under threat. The Hong Kong Bar Association has expressed ‘deep concerns’ over a speech by a Beijing representative in which he claimed that the chief executive has ‘a special legal status that transcends the executive, legislature and the judiciary’. Press freedom is ranked by the Press Freedom Index at its worst since the ranking began in 2002. And in September this year, after pro-Beijing newspapers fiercely attacked a respected professor of constitutional law, the latter was denied a senior position at the University of Hong Kong even though he was chosen by a university search committee. The university council—which includes members appointed by the chief executive—gave no public explanation of their decision.
“The link between Britain and Hong Kong goes beyond a scrap of paper”
Hong Kong so far remains a partially autonomous city with a good legal system and a greater degree of freedom than its neighbours have in Mainland China, but this seems to be changing for the worse.
So what should Britain do?
Obviously, it should emphatically reject any claim that the Declaration is ‘now void’—a claim that was allegedly made by China’s deputy ambassador to Britain. The issue is Britain’s business; the question is just to what extent.
I might add that the link between Britain and Hong Kong goes beyond a scrap of paper. Hong Kong adopts the common law, and in fact many of its best lawyers are trained in Britain. Its post boxes bear the insignia of King George V, and its trademark skyline is on a harbour is named after Queen Victoria. Hardly anyone in Hong Kong cared about China’s recent military parade to mark the end of WWII, but a good number will observe Remembrance Day next week.
I will not begin to romanticise Hong Kong’s colonial history; the Opium Wars were no pretty sight. But for better or worse, the Britain’s and Hong Kong’s histories are intertwined with each other. So it would be silly if just because Hong Kong now ‘belongs’ to China, we pretended that Britain and Hong Kong have nothing to do with each other.
Because of this, Britain should do more than just to assert its right to be involved. The British government should also support and be a part of discussion of the relevance of the Declaration to particular current issues. Above all, official statements must draw attention to a multiplicity of concerns and issues, ranging from judicial independence to civil liberties to democracy.
The least Britain can do is to remind the world of the full scope of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the corresponding full scope of the threats Hong Kong faces.