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Storm in a teacup over Sino-British Joint Declaration

The diplomatic fight over the treaty that saw Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty is really about whether Britain can keep up its pretences, having washed its hands of the city long ago

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 July, 2017, 2:48am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 July, 2017, 2:48am

A diplomatic row has again flared up over the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said it was a “historical document that no longer has any realistic meaning”. That was a rebuttal to statements by Britain and the United States on the binding effect of the 1984 treaty.

But surely what matters most is whether the two signatory nations have honoured their obligations towards Hong Kong. Whether the Joint Declaration remains an effective treaty is a separate – though related – issue.

Heated debate has usually conflated these two issues, putting China at an unnecessary diplomatic disadvantage and Britain on a high horse. But a strong case can be made that, void or not, Beijing has never breached the Joint Declaration, even though, at times, it has pushed interpretations of some of its conditions to their legal limits. However, Britain no longer sees itself as having any real obligations other than paying lip service; nor can it expect to influence political outcomes in its former colony even if it tried.

Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong ‘no longer has any realistic meaning’, Chinese Foreign Ministry says

Hong Kong’s democratic aspirations can only be met within the purview of the Basic Law. But the city’s constitutional development does not involve any third party other than Hong Kong and the mainland. The Joint Declaration makes no mention of democracy or universal suffrage, and provides no electoral mechanism for them. People can, of course, argue what “a high degree of autonomy” means in the Joint Declaration, but its deliberate vagueness means no definitive judgment can ever be rendered.

However, any independence movement can be said to be against the Joint Declaration, where the first statement acknowledges China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong.

The diplomatic fight over the Joint Declaration is really about whether Britain can keep up its pretences, having washed its hands of Hong Kong long ago. It also enables the US and European Union to give the appearance of taking a moral stance over the city. But contrary to their rhetoric, no Western countries have made Hong Kong a component of their foreign policy towards China.

What Beijing could have said, with full justification, is that it has always honoured the Joint Declaration. But that would mean playing along with Britain and giving it face. Why bother when Britain is seen as a declining country and also the former Western imperialist power that triggered China’s “century of humiliation”?