Has UK gone far enough in charging China with HK treaty breach?

February 16, 2016 17:27
Despite some strong words in his office's latest report on Hong Kong, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has been accused by critics of not doing enough to criticize China. Photo: Reuters, HKEJ

Four months after Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to the United Kingdom was hailed by both countries as heralding a new "golden era", the British government unexpectedly accused Beijing of committing "a serious breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong", the first time such a charge has been made.

In the Foreign Office's latest six-monthly report on Hong Kong, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond commented on the widely publicized disappearance of five individuals associated with a Hong Kong bookstore and publishing house.

The report, which was submitted to the British parliament, notes that "current information" indicates that one of the booksellers, Lee Po, "was involuntarily removed to the mainland without any due process under Hong Kong SAR law".

This, Hammond wrote, "constitutes a serious breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong and undermines the principle of 'One Country, Two Systems', which assures Hong Kong residents of the protection of the Hong Kong legal system."

Hong Kong was a British colony for 156 years until July 1, 1997, when it was returned to China and became a Chinese special administrative region. The terms for Hong Kong's return to China were set out in the Joint Declaration, agreed in 1984.

In its response, China did not comment on the Lee Po -- who has also been referred to as "Lee Bo" in media reports  -- case.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei asserted that the UK, by issuing reports on Hong Kong, was interfering in China’s domestic affairs.

"We ask the British side to mind its words and actions and stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs," the Chinese official demanded. He asserted that the success of China’s policy in Hong Kong "is recognized by the world".

This is a far cry from the situation in 1984 when China called for acceptance of the untried notion of "one country, two systems".

Many countries – now being told to keep quiet about Hong Kong – responded positively to China’s appeal. Since then, Beijing has welcomed praise while rejecting criticism of the way it handles Hong Kong. This ill befits a country yearning to be a great power.

Besides Britain, other foreign entities, including the European Union, have called on China to clarify the circumstances behind the disappearance of Lee Po and four of his associates, one of whom, Swedish citizen Gui Minhai, disappeared while he was in Thailand. Neither Thailand nor Sweden have been told whether the publisher was "involuntarily removed" to China.

In the report, Hammond called for reassurance that law enforcement in Hong Kong "is exclusively the responsibility of the Hong Kong SAR authorities". Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has given that reassurance; the Chinese government has not.

The Foreign Office action contrasts with Britain’s recent efforts to win Chinese investment. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, for example, has said that the UK is "China's best partner in the West".

But some British officials evidently have a different view.

In 2014, China, in an unprecedented move, banned members of the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee from visiting Hong Kong to take stock of the situation 30 years after the Joint Declaration. Moreover, a Chinese diplomat asserted that the Joint Declaration itself was void, triggering great angst in Whitehall. This fact has not been disclosed in the six-monthly reports.

In fact, such reports had always tended to accentuate the positive. In reporting on the second half of 2014, during which time Beijing announced its decision to vet candidates for the Hong Kong chief executive election, sparking the Occupy Central protests, the six-monthly report observed: "During this reporting period, 'one country, two systems' had been put to perhaps the most serious test since the handover in 1997."

But, it concluded that the arrangement "overall... has continued to function well".

Six months later, after highly publicized reports of challenges to basic rights, including press freedom and academic freedom, the new report said: "It is our belief that 'one country, two systems' has continued to function well overall, but with some areas of increasing contention."

This time around, even with Hammond's allegation of a "serious breach" of the Joint Declaration, the six-monthly report managed to conclude: "We assess that during the reporting period 'one country, two systems' has in the vast majority of areas continued to function well, but that there are specific grounds for serious concern around rights and freedoms."

So, it seems even Britain believes that rights and freedoms concerns are but an exception to China’s generally successful policies in Hong Kong.

Now, we need to ask: Are rights and freedoms such a minor issue? If those are taken away, what’s left?

Well, Deng Xiaoping gave assurances that dancing and horse racing would continue. Is that what the preservation of rights and freedoms has come down to?

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