26 October 2016
The new British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, voiced concerns about the integrity of Hong Kong’s law enforcement. Photo: Reuters
The new British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, voiced concerns about the integrity of Hong Kong’s law enforcement. Photo: Reuters

Where foreign affairs are concerned, HK shouldn’t be a puppet

Last Tuesday, the British government issued its long-awaited six-monthly report on Hong Kong – something it has done regularly since the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, and which the UK government promised parliament that it would do for 50 years.

The chaos of Brexit and the change in prime minister may well have contributed to the delay in the report on the January-June 2016 period but the report, when it came, did not disappoint.

The new British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, instead of attempting to get rid of Hong Kong as an irritant in the UK’s attempt to expand economic relations with China, voiced concerns expressed by his predecessor, Philip Hammond, about the integrity of Hong Kong’s law enforcement, citing the case of the Hong Kong booksellers, who specialized in sensitive books on Chinese leaders.

Speaking of one of the five booksellers, Lee Bo, a British citizen, Johnson said: “Mr. Lee’s involuntary removal from Hong Kong to the mainland constituted a serious breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration by undermining the ‘one country, two systems’ principle.”

However, on the whole, the report took the view that the “one country, two systems” principle “has served Hong Kong well in the 19 years since the handover” and provides confidence that it is “fit to continue far into the future”.

As expected, the Chinese government condemned the report. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said it contained “unwarranted accusations against China”.

“No country has the right to interfere,” the spokesman said. “We require the British side to be discreet in word and deed and stop meddling in Hong Kong affairs.”

Actually, the Sino-British Joint Declaration, signed in 1984, says specifically that the United Kingdom and China “agree to implement” both the declaration and its annexes until 2047, seemingly giving Britain the right to speak up if things go wrong – or right – in Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong administration, too, issued a statement, insisting that all was well.

It asserted that Hong Kong was, indeed, exercising the high degree of autonomy it had been promised, and, as for the booksellers’ case, the Hong Kong police “have not discovered any evidence indicating there was ‘law enforcement across the boundary’”.

Of course, not being able to discover evidence doesn’t mean the abduction of a bookseller did not occur.

It would be more comforting for Hong Kong’s people if their government was to publicly remind the mainland authorities not to violate the Joint Declaration and Basic Law.

Instead, the Hong Kong government reinforced the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s warning to Britain by saying that foreign governments should not interfere in the internal affairs of Hong Kong.

It is odd that Hong Kong should ask well-meaning governments to shut up when they try to ensure that China keeps its promises about allowing a high degree of autonomy.

Clearly, this is being done at the bidding of Beijing.

Article 3(2) of the Joint Declaration says: “The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will enjoy a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs which are the responsibilities of the Central People’s Government.”

Similarly, Article 13 of the Basic Law says, “The Central People’s Government shall be responsible for the foreign affairs relating to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.”

Clearly, Beijing is responsible for foreign affairs, not Hong Kong.

Beijing, therefore, should not ask Hong Kong to publicly oppose countries that wish to ensure its autonomy and its welfare and Hong Kong should not acquiesce in such requests.

In recent years, the opposite has occurred. Increasingly, Beijing has used Hong Kong as its shield and, whenever it comes under criticism, the Hong Kong administration has been deployed to defend Beijing.

This is contrary to the word and spirit of both the Basic Law and the Joint Declaration.

As a result, the Hong Kong administration has been turned into an arm of the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

Hong Kong’s offices overseas – the Economic and Trade Offices – have undergone a similar transformation, writing letters to foreign governments and parliaments in defense of the Chinese government.

The Hong Kong government, when asked to perform functions that are outside its remit, should point out to the central authorities that it is their legal responsibility, not that of Hong Kong.

By agreeing to do Beijing’s work, the Hong Kong government is criticizing the very countries that have Hong Kong’s interests at heart.

And, to put it bluntly, this is likely to create the impression that the Hong Kong administration is little more than a puppet government.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

EJI Weekly Newsletter