The world has changed hugely since 1984. China of course has grown richer and more powerful. Since Xi Jinping was made Party and state leader in 2013 it has changed in more sinister ways. He has increased central control and waged a campaign to suppress dissent. Hong Kong’s special status under “One Country Two Systems” does not accord with his ethos. This alone is enough to guarantee friction between Beijing and Hong Kong.
Thirty-five years ago, the world was certainly a different place and no country has changed more since then than the People’s Republic of China. The world economy has grown and the balance of international power has shifted. It follows that rules and decisions made 35 years ago are bound to be outdated and should be reviewed and probably updated.
Back in the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping was in charge of China and had embarked on an ambitious program of economic reform and liberalisation. In this context he was anxious to take steps to achieve one of the Chinese Communist Party’s abiding goals: reunification with Taiwan, and to this end he proposed the formula of One Country Two Systems to unite the two societies. The thinking was that if the government and people of Taiwan were promised virtual self-government, they might concede Beijing’s claim to be the legitimate government of the mainland and its island province.
The territory of Hong Kong was ceded to Britain in 1898 on a 99-year lease under the terms of the Second Convention of Peking. By the 1980s it had developed rapidly and was profiting from business opportunities that were opening up in China, but long-term investments in Hong Kong such as a new power plant or a new airport were problematic because they required assurances from China that it would not grab back its lost territory with force come 1997. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visited Beijing and raised this issue with Deng. He then pulled out his Taiwan reunification plan and suggested it be applied to Hong Kong.
Complex negotiations ensued – and, in retrospect, were bungled, just as the recent Brexit talks have been, since it is always a mistake to set a deadline before settling on tactics and objectives, and the 1997 deadline was incontrovertible. A Joint Declaration on the terms of Hong Kong’s eventual transfer to Chinese sovereignty was signed in December 1984, having the status of a bilateral treaty between Britain and China. A Joint Liaison Group (wound up in 2000) was established to oversee the implementation of this Declaration, which covered governance issues as well as Hong Kong’s international status and the application of international conventions and treaties.
Article 3.5 of the Declaration states, “The current social and economic systems in Hong Kong will remain unchanged, and so will the life-style. Rights and freedoms, including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, of strike, of choice of occupation, of academic research and of religious belief will be ensured by law in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Private property, ownership of enterprises, legitimate right of inheritance and foreign investment will be protected by law.”
The provisions of the Joint Declaration were incorporated into Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which was enacted by the Chinese National People’s Congress in 1990 and came into effect on 1 July 1997. The interpretation of the Basic Law is the responsibility of Hong Kong courts and of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. Amendments can be made by the Hong Kong Government, by the National People’s Congress or by the State Council of the PRC. None have been made and the Basic Law remains in its original form.
Since the handover in 1997, Hong Kong, while still retaining most of the rights and freedoms guaranteed in the Joint Declaration, has seen a series of popular demonstrations, gathering pace since 2014. There is growing disconnect between the concerns of local citizens and the instructions from Beijing that guide the policies developed by successive Chief Executives. Current CE Carrie Lam (widely known as Curry Lamb but likely to end as toast) provoked the latest and largest demonstration in June by proposing amendments to Hong Kong’s extradition bill. This was the last straw to local people. It would have destroyed the firewall between the Chinese and Hong Kong legal systems and virtually created One Country One System. Since June, protests have escalated and demands on the Hong Kong government have expanded in scale and ferocity. There has been sporadic violence to which the police have responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. Many citizens despair that One Country Two Systems is a workable solution to the problems of the territory.
Sir Alan Duncan, Minister of State for the Foreign Office, told the UK Parliament on 2 July that Britain was “fully committed to upholding Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy.” China had asserted that the Joint Declaration was a historic document and the UK no longer had any rights or obligations relating to it. Sir Alan rejected this assertion and called on China to adhere to the 1984 agreement. I doubt he will be heard in Beijing. Unfortunately, the UK itself has lost much of its hard and soft power status since the days of Margaret Thatcher and is hardly in a position to call the shots any more.
Meanwhile, across the Strait in Taiwan, people are closely observing developments in Hong Kong. One Country Two Systems has been thoroughly discredited and can hardly be offered to Taiwan after this year’s events. The fate of Hong Kong will undoubtedly affect the outcome of next year’s presidential elections. At a meeting in Beijing in January this year marking the 40thanniversary of improved cross-Strait ties, Xi Jinping said that reunification remains a top priority for his government. He will have to come up with a fundamentally new proposal if he is to have any chance of achieving that peacefully.
Jocelyn Chey was Australian Consul General in Hong Kong 1992-1995.