How far should Britain go to ensure Joint Declaration promises are kept for Hong Kong?

City’s last two colonial leaders point out that there is still an obligation as, according to Chris Patten, ‘it’s not China’s declaration’

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 June, 2017, 1:03pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 June, 2017, 10:31pm

How far can Britain go to ensure that the promises made in the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong’s handover will be kept?

The answer depends on whom you ask.

According to Chris Patten, the last colonial governor before Hong Kong returned to China in 1997, Britain has a “legitimate interest” in asking China whether it is living up to its promise of ensuring that the city’s way of life and freedoms remain unchanged for 50 years until 2047 as provided by the agreement.

“It’s a joint declaration, not China’s declaration. I’m sometimes worried that Chinese officials talk as though the joint declaration was just a matter for them. It’s an international treaty,” he said in an exclusive interview with the Post at his London townhouse.

“The international lawyers have a phrase, pacta sunt servanda, which means it goes on for as long as it’s an agreement and proposed. So Britain has a legitimate interest in what is happening in Hong Kong and I think it should speak out for that interest.”

Patten’s predecessor, David Wilson, shared the view that as joint signatories, Britain did have an obligation to ensure that both sides delivered on the promises.

However, he added: “Nobody should pretend that there is a realistic way in which Britain can actually intervene in Hong Kong. Britain shouldn’t intervene in Hong Kong affairs.”

The two former governors were commenting on Hong Kong’s progress in the 20 years since it returned to China, which maintains that the British no longer have a role to play in Hong Kong affairs.

When the joint declaration was signed in 1984 by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Premier Zhao Ziyang, it was lauded as a bold experiment of “one country, two systems”. Under the pact, Hong Kong would return to China but continue to retain a high degree of autonomy as a capitalist society, with rights and freedoms preserved.

Looking back, Patten said that in the first few years after the handover, “Beijing by and large let Hong Kong get on with its own business”.

But the progress towards greater democracy has since slowed, with Beijing’s agents in the liaison office in Hong Kong seen by some as increasingly interfering with the local administration.

“I have a sense that things have started to change. And that is why a lot of people in Hong Kong are expressing anxieties and particularly are asking questions about what happens after the 50 years,” Patten said.

His observations were based on some recent issues in the city: alleged challenges to the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, the disappearance of five booksellers and a nagging feeling that free speech is under threat, among other things.

Patten also believed Beijing had used the phrase “one country, two systems” more often than it had tried to understand what it meant.

“I think the spirit of the joint declaration – as well as some of the [wording] of the declaration – have been lost,” he said.

Asked what exactly the British government had done to pursue Hong Kong’s interest post-handover, Patten said if people had the impression it had seemed detached, then it was a matter of concern.

Britain, he said, reserved an interest in looking at the status of “one country, two systems” and how it would be achieved until 2047, just like how Beijing asked Britain legitimate questions before 1997 about the city.

Taking a more circumspect view, Wilson said: “Britain should go on taking a very close interest in Hong Kong. But we should not be under any illusions about the fact Hong Kong is now a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China.”

He said Britain’s role was not an advisory one. Instead, he added: “It is to continue to take a great interest in Hong Kong. It can continue to be involved in Hong Kong in the way of British people living now, working now, trading with Hong Kong.

“But we are no longer the government of the Hong Kong area.”

Zuraidah Ibrahim and Stuart Lau are reporting from London