Image Courtesy: Hong Kong Free Press
The 25th anniversary of the Handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China on 1st July 2022 was marked by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the Special Administrative Region (SAR). Despite accusations of Beijing’s divergence from its promise of freedom and autonomy for Hong Kong (HK) from the Governments of the United States of America (U.S.A), United Kingdom (UK), Canada; Xi reiterated Beijing’s support for the “one country, two systems” framework designating it as “universally recognised success”.
The “One Country Two Systems” framework traces back to the Sino-British Declaration of 1984 that conferred Hong Kong autonomy for fifty years following the handover of HK to the PRC in July 1997. The UK, party to the Sino-British Declaration has implored the PRC to uphold its promise in retaining HK’s high degree of autonomy, rights, and freedoms following the national security law and arrests of pro-democracy group members. The UK Government’s six-monthly report to the parliament on the affairs in HK reflects UK’s vested interest in its erstwhile colony and dependent territory of Hong Kong.
Great Britain’s historical linkage to the Island of Hong Kong dates to the first Opium War (1839) - the sparsely populated island was occupied by the British and was ceded by the Qing Dynasty temporarily with the Convention of Chuenpi in 1841. The Island was indefinitely ceded to the British empire with the end of the war in 1842 with the Treaty of Nanjing.
The second Opium war (1856) was fought by the British to gain more territory around the Island of HK due to its strategic location which allowed greater access to trade with China. This resulted in the British acquiring the Kowloon Peninsula south of the Boundary Street (Little 2023) through the Convention of Peking in 1860.
Furthermore, on 1 July 1898, under the second convention of Peking China leased mainland area adjacent to the boundary street and additional islands to Britain for 99 years forming the current boundary line between mainland China and Hong Kong.
Britain’s economic interests in East Asia and the need to expand its influence in the region increased the significance of Hong Kong. HK’s geographic location enabling the Island to act as a natural port for the Guangdong province in Southeast China and its role as a “commercial entrepot for China’s regional and global trade” (Schenk 2008) influenced the British to gain more territory. British interests necessitated HK to emerge as a sound capitalist economy and as such Britain’s increasing investments in Hong Kong enabled the Island to transform into a major export import center. With rapid decolonisation and deterioration of the British empire in the 1950s, the need for expanding the potential of HK enabled the British to rapidly industrialise HK and create more opportunities for increased investments and revenue. The incorporation of the financial sector into Hong Kong was a deliberate move by Britain to incorporate the manufacturing and financial services (insurance companies and 24-hour banks) catering to supporting international trade and foreign investments resulting in rapid increase in GDP and exponential economic growth. Britain’s approach in HK in the maximisation of economic opportunities as a “defense of ‘political liberty’ and encouraging an ‘equality of opportunity’ for all” (Whitlock 2019, 4-9) as ‘Consensus Capitalism’. This capitalist economic expansion of Britain in Hong Kong to benefit its economic interests and protect its interests in East Asia led to the rise of Hong Kong as a major financial hub.
With the lease set to end on 1 July 1997, the United Kingdom and the People’s Republic of China signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration on December 19, 1984 (GOV.UK 2023), resulting in the British Handover of Hong Kong to China.
SINO-BRITISH JOINT DECLARATION
The Sino-British Joint Declaration signed between the UK and the PRC culminated in the establishment of HK as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) under the direct authority of the Central People’s Government of the PRC. HK was also conferred with a high degree of autonomy except in foreign and defence affairs. The terms also delineated that the existing laws under which HK was governed to remain unchanged and the region was granted with “executive, legislative and independent judicial power, including that of final adjudication”.
The declaration specifies explicitly that the existing social and economic systems of the SAR including the rights, freedom and lifestyle are to remain unchanged for fifty years post the handover (till 2047). These rights include freedom of speech and expression, of press, of assembly, of strike, of movement among others. The Government of SAR is also vested with the responsibility to maintain public order.
This declaration came into force on 27 May 1985 and was registered at the United Nations by the Governments of China and the United Kingdom. The UK Government reiterates its commitment to the declaration as a valid legally binding treaty and as such believes to have “an obligation and a right to monitor its implementation closely” (Brooke-Holland 2019, 2-3). The treaty does not hold an enforcement or dispute resolution clause making it challenging for the Government of UK to resolve its differences with the Chinese Government on non-compliance of the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
The British involvement in Hong Kong ranging from a capitalist economy and freedom of speech and expression to the Joint Declaration distinctive from mainland China’s socialism with Chinese characteristics have effectuated in the people of Hong Kong protesting for their rights and freedom.
UK’s RESPONSE TO THE NATIONAL SECURITY LAW
Following the detention of Jimmy Lai, a pro-democracy politician, under the national security law the Government of the United Kingdom, has called upon Beijing and the Hong Kong authorities to remove the National Security Law in its six-monthly report on Hong Kong.
The UK Government has raised the issue of Hong Kong in the United Nations Human Rights Council in February 2022 regarding the use of the national security law to persecute pro-democracy individuals, politicians and journalists who disagree with the Government (Secretary of State for foreign 2023).
The July 2022 UN Human Rights Council report on the findings on Hong Kong expressed its concern over the National Security Law passed by the National People’s Congress of China without prior consultation with the people of Hong Kong. Upon stating the issues regarding the NSL the committee has “urged” Hong Kong to take action to repeal the National Security Law and in the meantime refrain from applying it” (United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commisioner 2022).
Whilst the Government of UK persistently declaring its commitment to the declaration as “unwavering” (Brooke-Holland 2019, 3), the Chinese Government authorities have repeatedly challenged the status of the joint declaration. The Chinese Foreign Ministry officials have remarked that the Joint Declaration arrangement was “history now”. As such Chinese officials have accused the UK of interfering in China’s affairs in Hong Kong which it considers as “purely China’s internal affairs” (Brooke-Holland 2019).
In light of these events, in 2021 the UK Government rolled out a 5-year residence visa program for Hong Kongers with a potential to citizenship. The Hong Kong British National (Overseas) route allows for (BN(O)) members and their dependents to reside in the UK and thereafter will be eligible to apply for British citizenship (GOV.UK 2023). This attracted around 103,900 applications 12 months after the visa program was announced (Gilchrist 2022).
Accounts of Hong Kongers who moved to the UK reveal that criminalisation of free speech under the new security law and fear that their children could be brainwashed as a result of changes made to the school curriculum to instill patriotism and support for the Chinese communist party (Langfitt 2021) have effectuated their decision to flee to the UK. The migrants from Hong Kong while focusing on their advantages and freedom are burdened by lesser pay and more uncertainty (Lin, Lindberg and Pham 2022).
Hong Kong, due to its strategic geographic location was a key colony for the British empire and remained to hold its significance as a financial hub under the United Kingdom. Britain’s role in Hong Kong during its 156 years of rule is crucial in comprehending the ongoing developments. Hong Kong and its people are conflicted between their distinctive Cantonese identity and the identity and lifestyle imposed by the PRC. The PRC’s move to move away from the “One Country Two System” principle has led to uprisings against the Government and Britain’s support in easing the lives of the people of Hong Kong extends to its constant reminder for the PRC to comply with the Sino-British Joint Declaration in the fight for the rights and freedom of its former dependant colony of Hong Kong.
Brooke-Holland, Louisa. 2019. Hong Kong: The Joint Declaration. House of Commons Library.
Gilchrist, Karen. 2022. "‘Hong Kong is not going to be under the rule of law’: More than 100,000 apply for new visa to Britain." CNBC, March 2.
GOV.UK. 2023. Hong Kong British National (Overseas) route (accessible). April 17. Accessed June 27, 2023. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/hong-kong-british-national-overseas-route/hong-kong-british-national-overseas-route-accessible#:~:text=What%20is%20the%20Hong%20Kong,providing%20they%20meet%20the%20requirements.
—. 2023. The National Archives. Accessed June 27, 2023. https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/hong-kong-and-the-opium-wars/.
Langfitt, Frank. 2021. "The U.K. is welcoming tens of thousands from Hong Kong on a new path to citizenship." NPR, October 26.
Lin, Miaojung, Kari Soo Lindberg, and Lisa Pham. 2022. "Hong Kong Migrants Find U.K. Is a World Turned Upside-Down." Bloomberg, March 18.
Little, Becky. 2023. How Hong Kong Came Under 'One Country, Two Systems' Rule. May 23. Accessed June 26, 2023. https://www.history.com/news/hong-kong-china-great-britain.
Schenk, Catherine R. 2008. “Economic History of Hong Kong.” EH.Net. https://eh.net/encyclopedia/economic-history-of-hong-kong/.
Secretary of State for foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs. 2023. "The Six-Montly Report on Hong Kong 1 July to 31 December 2022."
United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commisioner. 2022. UN Human Rights Committee issues findings on Hong Kong, Macao, Georgia, Ireland, Luxembourg and Uruguay. July 27. Accessed June 27, 2023. https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2022/07/un-human-rights-committee-issues-findings-hong-kong-macao-georgia-ireland.
Whitlock, Abby S. 2019. “Setting the Sun on the British Empire: British Economic Interests and the Decolonisation of Hong Kong.” James Blair Historical Review 9 (2): Article 3.chromeextension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://scholarworks.wm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1145&context=jbhr.
(Ms. Varshini S is a Research Intern at C3S. She is pursuing Master of Arts in International Relations from Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE). The views expressed in this review are those of the author and does not reflect the views of C3S.)