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Sir Richard Evans (left), the British ambassador to China, and Zhou Nan, chairman of the Chinese negotiating team, exchange documents after signing a draft of the joint declaration. Photo: P.Y. Tang

As Hong Kong marks 35 years since draft Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed, is universal suffrage as out of reach as ever?

  • Anniversary of first signing coincides with town hall dialogue between city’s leader Carrie Lam and community
  • But decades after election was promised in Basic Law, Hongkongers are no closer to having say in who leads them
Thursday is the 35th anniversary of the signing of a draft of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong’s future, and coincides with the city’s beleaguered leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s first town hall dialogue with the community.

While the uncertainty over whether the capitalist system and way of life would continue in the former British colony has been removed since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule, some issues not clearly addressed by the accord remain.

And whether the declaration, which was initialled by vice-minister of foreign affairs Zhou Nan and British ambassador to China Richard Evans on September 26, 1984, is still valid, remains a bone of contention.

Formally signed on December 19, 1984, in Beijing, by premier Zhao Ziyang and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the declaration said the central government would appoint the chief executive based on the results of “elections or consultations to be held locally”.

British prime minister Margaret Thatcher (left) and Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang sign the joint declaration as the late Deng Xiaoping (centre) looks on in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on December 19, 1984. Photo: Xinhua

Later in the Basic Law, universal suffrage was promised as the “ultimate aim” for electing the city’s leader, and mainland scholars argue this shows it was Beijing that initiated a wave of democratisation in the mid-1980s.

British government records, declassified from the National Archives in London in 2014, revealed then foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe proposed on September 6, 1984 that London should accept Beijing’s position that the chief executive could be chosen by “election or consultation”, in return for a statement in the joint declaration that the legislature should be elected.

Former Hong Kong governor David Wilson told the Post in an interview in 2014 that Beijing made a last-minute concession in 1984 to London’s proposal, that the Sino-British Joint Declaration would specify that the post-1997 legislature should be elected.

But those who expected greater democracy have been left disappointed, and universal suffrage still eludes the city.

The anniversary of the signing of the declaration also coincides with the fifth anniversary of student demonstrators storming a forecourt at the government’s headquarters in Admiralty.

That incident triggered the 2014 Occupy protests, which called for greater democracy and nearly brought the city to a standstill.

In June 2015, the Legislative Council rejected the Hong Kong government’s proposal to carry out the 2017 election of the chief executive based on Beijing’s restrictive framework, under which voters could only choose from two or three candidates endorsed by the majority of a 1,200-member nominating committee.

In a message posted on Facebook on September 18 this year, pro-independence group Studentlocalism said the Hong Kong government had “seriously violated” the joint declaration by having failed to implement universal suffrage for electing the chief executive, and the legislature, since the handover.

Beijing tells Britain it has no ‘moral responsibility’ for Hong Kong

The government issued a statement the following day rebutting the group’s claim, and said the accord did not have any paragraph setting out the implementation of “dual universal suffrage”.

In a message posted on his Facebook page on the same day, former chief executive Leung Chun-ying said the claim that “the absence of dual universal suffrage is a violation of the joint declaration” was misleading.

Leung urged the relevant government departments to clarify the fact to those misled by such a claim.

In November 2014, Ni Jian, China’s deputy ambassador to Britain, told Richard Ottaway, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the House of Commons, that the declaration was “now void and covered only the period from the signing in 1984, until the handover in 1997”.

A month later, Raymond Tam Chi-yuen, Hong Kong’s secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs at the time, said Britain had no right to monitor the implementation of the agreement after 1997.

Anti-government protesters rally inside the arrivals hall at Hong Kong International Airport in August. Photo: EPA-EFE

In July this year, then British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said the agreement remained in effect and was a legally binding one that must be honoured.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Beijing had made “stern representations” over the comments and said Hunt still harboured “colonial illusions”.

The Post’s editorial on September 27, 1984, a day after the draft declaration was signed, said: “Hong Kong people, after digesting the salient points of the draft agreement, will be better able to understand the Zen concept of the sound of one hand clapping. For the wish to applaud the Sino-British agreement is tempered by the uncertainty of whether it will all come to pass.

“One hand will want to clap, but will it make contact? Hongkong people can trust [then China’s paramount leader] Deng Xiaoping. Will his own generation and their successors accept his unique prescription? There is no answer to that question. We are left with but the sound of one hand clapping.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Joint declaration still bone of contention, 35 years on