Britain strangely silent over China's promises on autonomy

Frank Ching says the latest British report on Hong Kong conspicuously avoids any comment on China's promises of autonomy

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 July, 2013, 4:23am

Similar to American mail carriers, who are deterred by "neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night", the British Foreign Office labours to produce a report on Hong Kong every six months, as it just has once again.

Such reports sometimes incur Beijing's wrath as foreign "interference" in Chinese internal affairs but, more often than not, they simply disappear like a stone dropped into a bottomless well, with not even a faint splash to mark its arrival.

The latest report, the 33rd in the series, appears to have been ignored entirely by the Hong Kong media, though the Macau Post Daily carried a news item, which was picked up by Bloomberg.

The latest report points out that the Joint Declaration "guarantees the autonomy, rights and freedoms that make Hong Kong the stable and prosperous society it is today". But it is silent on the erosion of the promised autonomy.

Nine years ago, a report issued in July 2004 noted that the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress issued an "interpretation" of the Basic Law, followed by a "decision" which set limits on constitutional developments in Hong Kong. Bill Rammell, the then Foreign Office minister for Hong Kong and China, said the decision appeared to be "inconsistent with the high degree of autonomy which Hong Kong is guaranteed", and expressed concern over the new requirements added to the procedure set out in the Basic Law annexes.

But the latest British report no longer questions the consistency of China's actions with the Joint Declaration. It accepts without question the propriety of the steps set up by the NPC Standing Committee.

It says, "under the prescribed 'five-step' procedure for constitutional reform, the National People's Congress Standing Committee is required to approve a request from the chief executive for an amendment to the Basic Law on the methods for selecting the chief executive or Legislative Council; and to approve or record such amendments once they have been endorsed by two-thirds of the Legislative Council and the chief executive".

Not surprisingly, the report focuses on the discussion of the next election for chief executive. Foreign Secretary William Hague writes that universal suffrage in Hong Kong should give the people a "genuine choice" and a "real stake" in the outcome.

It concludes, as do most such reports, by saying: "We consider that, overall, 'one country, two systems' continues to work well in practice, and that the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Joint Declaration continue to be upheld."

While saying rights and freedoms continue to be upheld, the report, significantly, is silent on the promise of autonomy.

Of course, London has no say over how Hong Kong is governed. But Britain and China are the signatories of the Joint Declaration, an international treaty that doesn't expire until 2047.

If Britain keeps silent, how will the rest of the world know if China is keeping its promises on autonomy?

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. Follow him on Twitter:@FrankChing1