Pointing Fingers: Should Britain Voice its Opinion on Civil Rights in Hong Kong?

by ZX


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.


The Poor Print

Established in 2013, The Poor Print is the student-run newspaper of Oriel College, Oxford. Written by members of the JCR, MCR, SCR and staff, new issues are published fortnightly during term. Our current Executive Editors are Siddiq Islam and Jerric Chong.

6 thoughts on “Pointing Fingers: Should Britain Voice its Opinion on Civil Rights in Hong Kong?

  1. Sir,
    I happen to disagree with your comments regarding the appointment of Johannes Chan. To me, his ‘pouring oil on the flames’ during the fierce debate over his appointment by intimating that some certain ‘political influences’ were being exerted to block his appointment have already voided any claims that he is a scholar and a gentleman–for it is his own promotion at stake–and thus have removed him, at least in my estimation, from consideration for that post.
    A recommendation from the university search committee, moreover, does not, at least in my understanding, guarantee him a post. The university committee has the power to appoint and dismiss at will, or at least on a vote.
    But that is just my opinion.
    Thank you.
    George F.A.W. St. C


    1. Dear George,

      Thanks for your comment on my article. I realize that this example is reasonably controversial, and obviously I could not justify my position at length in this article, but instead tried to direct the reader to relevant links. I emphasize this idea of reasonable or legitimate controversy because I think controversy must be discussed — that is one of the central themes of my article. In this theme, I would agree with you that Britain has insufficient grounds for accusing China of interfering with academic freedom in Hong Kong. But I hope you will also agree with me that there is a reasonable case to be made for saying that there was interference with academic freedom, and that this case cannot simply be ignored. Britain (and everyone else) ought to be concerned with these issues.

      Back to the specifics of the case. Importantly, I think that even if Johannes Chan acted inappropriately (and I do not think it is obvious that he did — he did not even confirm the rumours of his nomination until July this year, over half a year after the rumours began to spread in pro-Beijing media), there is still good evidence regardless that pro-Beijing forces were interfering in his nomination. In other words, I am not basing my claim simply on the idea that he should have been appointed and was not, and so even if you think he should not have been appointed anyway, you might still agree with me that pro-Beijing forces were interfering inappropriately. Someone leaked the information of Johannes Chan’s nomination to pro-Beijing newspapers. The reasons for delaying and ultimately rejecting the appointment were, in my opinion, ridiculous. There was no transparency to the issue, as council members hid behind arbitrary and mis-applied notions of confidentiality. And to quote the Reuters article:
      ‘A government think-tank has also been lobbying council members to vote against Chan, according to local media.
      ‘While Hong Kong universities are much more free than those in mainland China, the HKU’s president, Peter Mathieson, told Reuters before the vote that he believed pressure on him and others who back Chan’s appointment was being “orchestrated”.
      ‘He said his personal emails had been hacked and some had been published in pro-Beijing media. He added that he could not rule out the possibility Beijing was behind the episode.’
      I am aware that Mathieson was somewhat misrepresented in this article, but even taking that into account, these statements point to illegitimate interference in academia.*

      Now that is just my opinion, of course. I hope that discussions like these will lead us in the right direction.

      I will be happy to reply to any further comments.


      P.S. “A recommendation from the university search committee, moreover, does not, at least in my understanding, guarantee him a post. The university committee has the power to appoint and dismiss at will, or at least on a vote.” –> I agree in part. The part I disagree with is “at will”: their decision requires good justification. Although the recommendation of the search committee does not have to be followed, we should be particularly interested if it is not. And I do not see why a “vote” will be sufficient to lend the decision legitimacy, since the make-up of the council is in question. Government-appointed members of the council are not supposed to use their vote however they like; they are expected to vote in the interest of the university, for legitimate reasons, otherwise I question the reason why they are in the council at all.


  2. Sir, (and I do apologise if this is a ‘madam’ behind the screen: this was an intuitive decision on my part, and I regret any offence caused)

    Thank you for replying to my comment. I must confess that I don’t usually observe blog authors replying to their readers, so I did not actively check this page: forgive me for the tardiness in answering. I must, additionally, confess the only reason I am singling out this issue for reply is that the rest of your article has been sterling: a first-rate argument for Britain’s position towards Hong Kong. Moreover, as an expatriate living in Hong Kong most of the views I have pertain to the Johannes Chan incident (I’ve given up on active commentating on Hong Kong’s politics in general–too much name-calling and radicalism).

    I must firstly voice my agreement. The issue of whether or not there is a controversy present is quite a pressing question which you are right to address: and I believe your treatment of it is substantial. Academic freedom, moreover, is something that must be defended, and I am in no opposition whatsoever in this point.

    I am willing to agree that overwhelming evidence suggests that Pro-Beijing forces did attempt to quash his nomination, ultimately succeeding in doing so, and I admit that I did not get the gist of your argument regarding the incident, as I thought your comments were directed towards his ultimate appoint-ability.

    But I believe that there is also an opposing force concerned when you mention ‘academic freedom’. Have (or did) you consider those who were actively, in the days following revelations of Pro-Beijing interference, agitate most vigorously for his appointment? These members (I observed) were predominantly members of the pan-democrat camp, who resorted to (in one case, violent) radical means in order to get “one of their own” (I hope you will agree that his leanings were in that direction) instated to that post.

    While I am not trying to undermine your basic position, of course–interference in the sacred institutions of academia are most unforgivable, in my opinion: I am merely trying to ask this: would you be willing to condemn similar acts by opposing, i.e. “anti-Beijing” or “pan-democrat” parties? I ask because (and I hope you do not harbour such feelings) a great many undergraduates in Hong Kong seem to think that any actions of any group or cause they support can be excused, and actions to the contrary derided regardless.

    Would you, moreover, be willing to regard Mr. Chan’s attempt to rally support for himself a form of politically-motivated interference in academia, given, again, the ways he used to garner support (a recourse, I think, to the predominant anti-China sentiment in Hong Kong by emphasising the hand of Beijing in this event, hoping to provoke a reaction from a majority of Hong Kong citizens)?

    Regarding your postscript, I feel I must adjust my position: the composition of the council was obviously not in favour of Johannes Chan’s appointment.

    Again, only my opinion.
    Thank you.


    1. Dear George,

      Thank you for your reply and I am sorry that I only just saw this comment. I agree with you that some actions on the part of the so-called pan-democrat parties and pressure groups (which must not be conflated) in this incident were inappropriate, and in particular that the storming of the council meeting was wrong. I also definitely agree that a bit more humility and open-mindedness is called for on all sides of Hong Kong politics.

      Then again, politics is a messy business and it is all too easy for me to be critical from a moral high ground. Once academic freedom has been compromised, there is no easy remedy, and there is perhaps some truth to the idea that it is best to choose the lesser of two evils by countering political pressure with political pressure in order to preserve some sort of academic ‘neutrality’, given that ‘independence’ is gone. But I have no further comment on this.

      As I have repeatedly emphasised, more discussion and communication would be good. On my part, I have had conversations by email with the outspoken pro-Beijing academic Francis Lui on the Johannes Chan issue. My conversations with him have given me a better understanding and appreciation of his perspective.

      Once again, I agree with you that the Johannes Chan incident is very controversial. It is also not foremost on my mind right now — the incident of the missing bookstore owner and its potential implications are far more worrying.

      Thank you again for your interest in my article and your kind praise.

      Zixin (and yes, I am a ‘sir’)


      1. Sir,

        Of course. I must apologise if I implied they should be conflated. Pressure groups come from all walks of life, and I would be most mistaken if I were to place the responsibility for pressure groups solely on the shoulders of the pan-democrats.

        I am most impressed with your sound understanding of the situation–a soundness befitting a scholar of one of the most prestigious universities in the land. I look forward to reading more of your articles.

        And yes, the issue of the bookseller is quite distressing. We will keep a close eye on the situation–time will tell.

        I remain, etc.,


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