My Take

Why the Sino-British Joint Declaration is outdated

In reality, pan-democrats and radical localists – not Beijing – have far better reason to repudiate the treaty

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 July, 2017, 1:32am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 July, 2017, 8:26am

Beijing has finally taken steps to correct a needless diplomatic faux pas by affirming that the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration is legally binding. Of course it is, though in what way it is still relevant is an entirely different matter.

The affirmation comes from Xu Hong, director general of the foreign ministry’s treaty and law department. He is clarifying a controversial statement made earlier by ministry spokesman Lu Kang, who said the Joint Declaration “no longer has any realistic meaning”.

However, Lu is actually not wrong. I write this not only from Beijing’s point of view, but that of pan-democrats and radical localists. If the Joint Declaration were written today, it would have infuriated them.

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

Why? Its first two articles acknowledge China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong after the 1997 handover from British colonial rule. Section 1 of Article 3 specifically spells out “upholding national unity and territorial integrity”. That would be a no-no to our localists. The whole document, including its annexes, makes no mention of democracy or universal suffrage and provides no electoral methods for them. That would be unacceptable to pan-democrats.

Based on the Joint Declaration, the chief executive didn’t even need to be elected (by an election committee or otherwise), but merely appointed by Beijing after “consultations held locally”, whatever that means. Britain has no say on democratic development in Hong Kong, as there are no such provisions in the treaty. But it would have a treaty obligation to speak out against radical localists of all stripes – whether they want a city state or an independent nation; whether now, 20 years from now, or after 2047.

Britain can, of course, speak out for Hong Kong’s guaranteed “high degree of autonomy” and 50 years of no changes to its social system and way of life. But to make a convincing case, it would have to look at the stipulations, spelled out in 14 sections in Annex 1, in their totality, and not just a few isolated cases. These include the constitution, legal and judicial systems, currency, education, right of abode, aviation and public service, etc.

And, if Britain has a treaty obligation to speak out for Hong Kong, then – contrary to the pan-dems – other countries that are not party to the treaty have no business in the matter.

In reality, pan-democrats and radical localists – not Beijing – have far better reason to repudiate the Joint Declaration.