Hong Kong: UK must tell UN China reneging on obligations

Sino-British pact guarantees autonomy in all areas apart from defence and foreign affairs

Hong Kong police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at demonstrators who threw plastic bottles in running battles outside the city’s legislature. Video: Reuters


Before the return of Hong Kong in July 1997 to the People’s Republic of China, the latter signed an international agreement in 1984 known as the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

The autonomy of Hong Kong was guaranteed in all areas apart from defence and foreign affairs. Under it, Hong Kong’s laws and “common law” legal system would remain in place. The independence of its courts and their right to exercise the power of final adjudication were assured.

In doing this, both the UK and Chinese Governments had accepted the “one country, two systems” proposal based on the rule of law and which was to remain unaltered and in place until 2047.

The rule of law, therefore, is the cornerstone. However, over the last 22 years a number of attempts have been made by the Chinese government and its allies in the Hong Kong political system to undermine this fundamental principle and weaken Hong Kong’s autonomy. The latest has led to the current massive demonstrations.

However, this is not a new phenomenon. It had happened previously and is fuelled by two main factors.

The first is widespread frustration at the lack of progress towards the introduction of universal suffrage, despite commitments to introduce democratic reforms after 2007. The current political system falls far short of democratic accountability. The legislative council is only partially democratically elected.

In July 2003, an estimated 500, 000 Hong Kong people took to the streets

The top political post of chief executive is selected by an election committee which is structured to ensure that a pro-Beijing candidate will be chosen. The 32-strong executive council which includes the 16 “cabinet type” ministers is accountable to the chief executive and not the legislative council.

Second, several attempts to introduce security and legislative measures to suppress political freedoms, human rights and political dissent are perceived as an attempt to make the region become more like mainland China.

Shelved legislation

Back in 2002/2003 the Hong Kong government introduced an anti-subversion Bill under article 23 of the basic law and this led to a series of huge demonstrations. In July 2003, an estimated 500,000 Hong Kong people took to the streets. Although the Hong Kong government (HKSAR) was obliged to introduce anti-subversion legislation under article 23, it was felt that the legislation went beyond its original scope.

What was being proposed was the prohibition of any act of treason, secession, subversion against the Central Peoples Republic of China; the prohibition of foreign political organisations or bodies conducting political activities in Hong Kong; the prohibition of Hong Kong political organisations from establishing ties with foreign political organisations or bodies and the banning of political organisations which are banned in mainland China.

Significantly, in wake of the demonstrations, the legislation was shelved which is a point that will not be lost on leaders of the current protests although they should also take note of what happened in 2014.

Then, street protest in Hong Kong also became the focus of the international media. When the Chinese government published a White Paper declaring that Hong Kong does not enjoy full autonomy, it aroused fears that China was about to alter the “one country, two systems” policy.

And when China announced in proposed reforms to the electoral system that candidates for Hong Kong’s top political position had to be pre-screened by the Chinese Communist party, it sparked demonstrations by tens of thousands who demanded the introduction of universal suffrage as had been promised.

This protest was called the “umbrella protest”, because large numbers of those involved used umbrellas to protect themselves from police pepper sprays. Although the protests paralysed central areas of Hong Kong for 77 days it eventually petered out without achieving any concessions. Nine of its leaders were convicted in April of this year on public nuisance charges, some of them receiving sentences of 16 months.

Undermine autonomy

The latest controversial decision by chief executive Carrie Lam to introduce new extradition laws between Hong Kong and mainland China is directly responsible for what is happening at the moment.

Although claiming that the purpose behind it is to close loopholes in order to prevent Hong Kong being a safe haven for criminals, many civic leaders are concerned that it will undermine the region’s autonomy particularly its judicial system and expose its citizens to the deeply flawed Chinese justice system which is used more as a political tool to suppress dissent and human rights rather than uphold justice.

Powerful business leaders and the International Chamber of Commerce have also expressed concern

The opposition to it is widespread across all sections of Hong Kong society, Before the recent protests, 3,000 lawyers, prosecutors, academics and legal students held a silent vigil urging scrapping of the proposal. Powerful business leaders and the International Chamber of Commerce have also expressed concern that it will have a negative impact on foreign investment.

The most damning criticism has come from former legislator and pro-democracy leader Martin Lee QC who said:“All they need is a witness statement saying you committed some crime 20 years ago. That is enough, and then you’ll be tried according to Chinese law in a Chinese court. And who can trust that system?”

In addressing a crowd of thousands outside government headquarters he went on to say:“If we lose this one, it is not Hong Kong anymore. It is just another Chinese city.”

While I understand the frustration, the outbreak of violence at the demonstrations is regrettable and could be counterproductive. The international community has to step up, help defuse the situation and ensure that China does not overreact.

The US, UK, Canada and the EU have all criticised the extradition proposals, but given the fact that China often turns a deaf ear to international criticism the concerns should be taken to a new level.

China and the UK are joint signatories to the Sino- British Joint Declaration which guarantees Hong Kong freedoms. It is a legally binding bilateral treaty registered with the United Nations. The UK has a responsibility to forget Brexit for a moment and inform the UN that China is not honouring its obligations under the treaty and request them to take urgent action.

John Cushnahan is a former MEP and European Parliament rapporteur for Hong Kong 1997-2004

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