PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 November, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 November, 2002, 12:00am

ONCE AGAIN, WE HEAR the shrill voice of Beijing warning foreign countries not to interfere in Hong Kong affairs.

'This is entirely the internal affairs of China and the SAR,' said a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry Commission in Hong Kong, in response to news that a British Member of Parliament will move an adjournment debate on Article 23 in Parliament today. 'It is not acceptable for any foreign countries, including Britain, to meddle in this.'

Britain, of course, signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong in 1984. According to that document, Hong Kong is to enjoy a high degree of autonomy for 50 years after July 1, 1997, under 'one country, two systems'.

Moreover, the Joint Declaration was deposited with the United Nations as an international treaty. This treaty is still in effect. As a signatory, Britain has a right and a responsibility to monitor the situation in Hong Kong.

China, almost as a matter of routine, accuses other countries of 'meddling' or of 'interference' whenever they make critical comments concerning Hong Kong. However, back in 1984, Chinese officials went out of their way to ask the international community to support the agreement. The Chinese foreign minister, Wu Xueqian, addressed the United Nations the day after the Joint Declaration was initialled and explained China's policies towards Hong Kong in an attempt to win support.

Delicate and complex issue

The reaction was very positive. The then United Nations secretary-general, Javier Perez de Cuellar, offered his congratulations to China and Britain for successfully resolving 'a very delicate and complex issue'.

George Shultz, who was US secretary of state, welcomed the agreement and pledged American co-operation. Support for the agreement also came from the European Community. 'This is an impressive achievement which augurs well for the future of Hong Kong as a prosperous and stable community,' said a statement issued by the foreign ministers of the EC's 10 member states.

Other countries, including Japan, Pakistan, Singapore, Thailand, Portugal and even North Korea, voiced support for the agreement. China, by saying now that countries that responded to its appeal in 1984 should not comment on Hong Kong affairs, is, to say the least, being ungracious. By asking for international support, China opened the door to international monitoring. It is entirely reasonable for the international community to see that China keeps these pledges.

Actually, by and large, the international response over the last five years has been very positive. Many countries have commended China for not interfering in Hong Kong's domestic affairs. It is interesting to note that, when countries comment positively on China and Hong Kong, the Chinese foreign ministry never accuses them of 'meddling'. It is only when foreign countries make critical comments that they are charged with interference in China's internal affairs.

Questions had been raised

This Chinese attitude was evident a few years ago when, during the same week, both the US and British consuls-general in Hong Kong gave public speeches. The American diplomat, Richard Boucher, addressed the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce on January 25, 1999. His British counterpart, Sir Andrew Burns, addressed the British Chamber of Commerce the following day.

The bulk of Mr Boucher's speech was on the economy, but he also said questions had been raised on whether Hong Kong may be 'compromising a bit' on its basic principles. He cited 'decisions in courts, decisions on who and who not to prosecute, intervention in the stock market, proposals to appoint members to revamped district councils and other changes in the election system'.

That same day, a foreign ministry spokesman in Hong Kong declared: 'It is inappropriate for a foreign consul-general in Hong Kong to make irresponsible and unwarranted remarks on such internal affairs of China.'

Sir Andrew, in his speech, stayed away from sensitive political topics and confined himself to economic issues. He said he was confident that Hong Kong's traditional strengths and robust fundamentals would reassert themselves.

Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, reported on his speech at length. And no Chinese foreign ministry spokesman stepped forth to denounce this 'meddling' in China's internal affairs. Only criticism, it seems, constitutes interference. Now, if China was really principled, it would denounce everyone who praises the way Hong Kong is run for interfering in China's internal affairs.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator