Hong Kong since handover

This summer will mark 20 years since the handover of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China. The handover marked the end of 156 years of British rule. In that time, Hong Kong was transformed from a small town into one of the most prosperous cities in the world. Under British rule, Hong Kongers also enjoyed significantly greater human rights protections than their counterparts in mainland China.

Earlier this week, as part of its Conservatism and human rights project, Bright Blue met a delegation from Demosisto, a political party in Hong Kong, which has one MP in the Legislative Council of Hong Kong and includes Joshua Wong, a high-profile activist who has been detained in Thailand at the request of the Chinese Government. They talked at length about their views and experiences of human rights abuses in Hong Kong, which includes disqualifying pro-democracy MPs from the Legislative Council of Hong Kong, and restrictions on press, academic and religious freedom.

British officials were deeply concerned that the Chinese government, after the handover in 1997, would seek to erode many of the protections that Hong Kongers enjoyed. In an attempt to mitigate this risk, the UK and China signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration. The declaration established the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle, which required the Chinese government not to practise the socialism which existed on the mainland. Instead, Hong Kong would continue its capitalist system and way of life for 50 years after 1997. To ensure this was the case, the Chinese Government created the Hong Kong Basic Law - a series of constitutional protections.

However, in the past three years there have been two significant accusations that the Chinese Government is failing to abide by the conditions held in the Sino-British Joint Declaration: rendition, where Hong Kong citizens have been taken from the city and other locations without the permission of the Hong Kong government; and a Chinese Government white paper which seems to suggest reneging on the One Country, Two Systems principle.

Rendition

Between October and December 2015, five staff members of a bookstore in Hong Kong disappeared. The bookstore in question sells a number of political books that banned in mainland China. The store’s right to sell these books in Hong Kong is protected under Basic Law Article 27. The store is one of 100 independent bookstores in Hong Kong which cater predominantly for people interested in the political issues of Chinese mainland politics.

At the time of their disappearances, one of the staff members, Gui Minhai - a Swedish national - was believed to be writing a book about the personal history of Xi Jinping, the current General Secretary of the Communist Party of China. The book was named Xi and His Six Women. One of the bookstore workers disappeared while in Hong Kong. Minhai was taken from his home in Thailand, and the other three workers disappeared while in mainland China.

There was initially no information on the location of the workers. Chinese Government involvement was suspected since disappearances are commonplace in mainland China. Following significant international focus on the missing bookstore workers, two of the missing men appeared through letters and in a confessional video broadcast on national television. During the broadcast, they insisted that their return to mainland China was voluntary. These confessions were widely considered to be carefully stage-managed.

Chinese officials later confirmed that the five workers had been arrested in relation illegal book trading.. Article 22 states of Hong Kong Basic Law states that no department of the central, provincial, or municipal governments in mainland China can interfere in the affairs which the Hong Kong government is responsible for administering.  So this case was considered a significant violation of Hong Kong basic law. Hong Kong's Chief Executive, CY Leung, stated in a press conference - prior to Chinese confirmation that they had detained the staff - that if mainland Chinese law officials were operating in Hong Kong, it would be "unacceptable" and a breach of the Basic Law.

Four of the Hong Kong bookstore workers have been released. However, Gui Minhai remains in custody. The Chinese government has faced no sanctions for its violation of Hong Kong Basic Law.

One Country, Two Systems?

Under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, Beijing is committed to permitting Hong Kong “a high degree of autonomy except in foreign and defence affairs.” This has commonly been referred to as the One Country, Two Systems policy. However, in 2014, the Chinese Government published a white paper which appears to significantly compromise this principle.

The white paper asserts the Chinese Government’s "comprehensive jurisdiction" over Hong Kong. The paper argues that Hong Kong legislators must “love their country” (China), and warns against possible threats to Chinese rule in the city.

The publication of the white paper caused what the New York Times described as a “firestorm of criticism from many people in Hong Kong”. Critics argued that the Chinese Government was reneging on its pledges to abide by the One Country, Two Systems policy. In response, there was a significant demonstration in Hong Kong to protest against the publication of the white paper.

While the media in mainland China was supportive of the white paper, Hong Kong newspapers struck a different tone. The South China Morning Post pointed out that the white paper was published only two weeks before pro-democracy Occupy Central activists were due to hold an unofficial referendum on who should be the Chief Executive in the upcoming elections. The organiser of Occupy Central argued that the Chinese government was using the paper to "try to scare Hong Kongers into silence". The Ming Pao argued that the One Country, Two Systems concept has become an "empty shell" and Hong Kong is likely to turn into an "ordinary Chinese city".

Despite these criticisms, the Chinese government has not withdrawn any of the assertions held in the white paper.

Conclusion

Two cases over the last three years suggest that China is violating the Sino-British Joint Declaration and infringing on the Basic Law of Hong Kong. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s response to these accusations has been muted. Since the handover, the British Foreign Secretary has reported to Parliament at 6-monthly intervals on the implementation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in Hong Kong. The latest report, in February this year, argued that Hong Kong’s rule of law remains “robust”. However, the report also did admit that there are some challenges to the One Country, Two Systems policy.

In truth, the British Government only has limited power with which to enforce the Joint Declaration. Prior to handover, it was able to exact compromises from the Chinese government by slowing the handover process. Now few levers remain. And, as described to us by the delegation from Hong Kong earlier this week, the human rights situation in the city seems to be deteriorating.

James Dobson is a researcher at Bright Blue