When push comes to shove, don't expect Britain to stand up for Hong Kong's rights

Alvin Cheung says while Britain was right to raise concerns about promises made to Hong Kong under international law, people here should also remember that, when it comes to the crunch, that concern only goes so far

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 March, 2015, 5:45pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 March, 2015, 5:45pm

More than 30 years after the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the governments in Beijing and Hong Kong would much rather that the world forget it had been signed in the first place. Last December, Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Raymond Tam Chi-yuen claimed that "[t]he provisions of the Joint Declaration have been fully implemented, and its purpose and objectives have also been fully fulfilled".

Similarly, Chen Zuoer , former deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, asserted that the "theme" of the Joint Declaration had been accomplished in 1997.

The report into the Joint Declaration by the UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, released this month, is a timely rebuke to that sentiment. It is a reminder that Hong Kong's handover was, and continues to be, the subject of Chinese commitments under international law. It is also a reminder that threats to Hongkongers' fundamental rights, and to Hong Kong's promised "high degree of autonomy", infringe these commitments.

The report covered areas as diverse as economic and trade relations, the work of the British Council, and visa-free travel for holders of British National (Overseas) passports. However, the bulk of it considered democratisation and the protection of fundamental rights in Hong Kong, as well as growing perceptions that these rights are being undermined.

Given the timing of the inquiry, it was inevitable that the report devoted considerable attention to Beijing's proposed electoral reforms for Hong Kong's chief executive election in 2017. The report declined to adopt the argument that the Joint Declaration requires elections to be conducted in a manner consistent with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Nonetheless, the committee roundly criticised the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for its "misleading" and "evasive" language in its response to the National People's Congress Standing Committee's August 31 decision.

The report concluded - rightly - that the decision did not offer a "genuine choice" to the Hong Kong electorate. Nor was it consistent, the committee declared, with the principle that Hong Kong should enjoy a "high degree of autonomy".

Further, the report critically examined Beijing's adherence to the express commitments in the Joint Declaration. The Joint Declaration explicitly guarantees numerous fundamental rights, including freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. Yet - as the committee observed - there have been widespread perceptions that these rights are under threat.

Even before the Umbrella Movement began, the Hong Kong Journalists Association declared 2014 the darkest year for press freedom in decades. The protests raised new concerns over violence against journalists, police obstruction and online attacks against media outlets. The committee's report - along with reports by the PEN American Centre and the International Federation of Journalists - reflects growing international alarm at threats to Hong Kong's press freedom, ostensibly guaranteed by the Joint Declaration.

The committee also noted with concern threats to freedom of assembly during the Umbrella Movement, including the numerous allegations of police brutality - in particular the widely condemned use of tear gas on September 28 last year - and the possibility of future governmental recriminations against protesters.

Although the Hong Kong government has consistently claimed to protect fundamental rights, the government's conduct suggests otherwise. The authorities' failure to investigate incidents of serious violence against journalists, as well as signs of an ongoing campaign of recriminations against participants in the Umbrella Movement, risk creating a "climate of impunity". In such circumstances, it is entirely proper for Britain to raise its concerns over rights that Hongkongers were promised under international law.

The report also noted growing public perceptions that Hong Kong's autonomy was under attack. The committee found the State Council's white paper of July 2014, as well as Beijing's August 31 decision, to be particularly notable evidence of that trend. Although the report concluded that Hongkongers remained vigilant in their protection of "two systems", it cautioned that the "depth of concern in Hong Kong … should not be dismissed".

Perhaps the most important lesson from the report, however, is that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office also deserves blame for its permissiveness. The committee rightly condemned the office for "bland" language and "lack of clarity" in its reports on Hong Kong. It also condemned the weak response to Beijing's obstruction of the committee's inquiry - including the unprecedented snub to Minister of State Hugo Swire when he visited Hong Kong.

Yet, oddly, it remained "satisfied" that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was committed to monitoring the Joint Declaration. This rather anodyne conclusion suggests that Hongkongers should be under no illusion as to Britain's willingness to speak for them. Ultimately, the burden falls on the people of Hong Kong to demand that Beijing make good on what it promised more than 30 years ago.

Alvin Y.H. Cheung is a visiting scholar at the US-Asia Law Institute at the New York University School of Law and a member of the Progressive Lawyers' Group. He gave written evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee as part of its inquiry