Britain's watchful eye should look deeper

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 March, 2010, 12:00am

The British government, in its latest six-monthly report on Hong Kong - covering the second half of last year - told Parliament that the 'one country, two systems' principle of the Joint Declaration has worked well and that the rights and freedoms guaranteed in the Joint Declaration have been respected.

Because Hong Kong's handover was so controversial, the British government, to reassure the city and the world, said it would monitor the situation to see if Beijing was properly implementing the Sino-British Joint Declaration. The latest report is significant since it marks the end of the first quarter of Hong Kong's 50-year life as a special administrative region. Thankfully, so far, its rights and freedoms continue to be protected.

In this report, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said arrangements for 2017 and 2020 should 'meet accepted international standards of universal suffrage'.

It is good that Britain continues to report twice a year on Hong Kong, even though London tries hard not to provoke Beijing. As it happens, the Joint Declaration did not mention universal suffrage. It did include a vague provision that the legislature would be 'constituted by elections' and, where the chief executive was concerned, it allowed for the leader to be chosen not by election but 'through consultations held locally'.

It is the Basic Law, which is domestic Chinese legislation, that promises that universal suffrage elections will be held for both the chief executive and the entire legislature at some unspecified point in the future.

Since the reporting started 13 years ago, the standard conclusion has been that things were going well. There have been exceptions, such as in 2004 after Beijing reneged on promises that Hong Kong could on its own implement universal suffrage elections for the entire legislature.

At the time, Britain expressed concern and said Beijing's intervention 'seemed inconsistent with the high degree of autonomy guaranteed' to Hong Kong under the Joint Declaration. The British consul general at the time, Stephen Bradley, said the city was 'not very autonomous if you're told what you have to do and what you can't do'.

But pretty soon it was back to business as usual. The British six-monthly reports again concluded that the 'one country, two systems' principle was working well. However, the rules laid down by Beijing in 2004 in the form of interpretations and decisions by the National People's Congress Standing Committee continue in place. That is to say, the city has not regained the autonomy it lost in 2004.

That being the case, is it really acceptable to simply say that because nothing occurred in a six-month period, therefore the 'one country, two systems' principle is working well? Doesn't Beijing have to abolish the rules it imposed on Hong Kong first?

The big controversy in Hong Kong today is the question of functional constituencies. The British should recognise that they have a special responsibility in this area since they introduced them in Hong Kong rather than allow genuine elections.

Miliband now says the elections should meet 'international standards of universal suffrage'. But what if the Standing Committee should rule tomorrow that functional constituencies are fully consistent with genuine universal suffrage? Britain would certainly be critical in its next report. But in the one after that, if there were no new developments, it would conclude that 'one country, two systems' was working well.

These six-monthly reports cannot just be about six months. They must be about the overall situation and make clear to what extent Hong Kong is truly autonomous. And if autonomy is restricted, these restrictions must be pointed out every time, rather than be forgotten.

If Britain is really trying to hold Beijing to its promises, it cannot simply put blinkers on and look only at the past six months.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.