My article for the New Statesman.
When Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in June that the Sino-British Joint Declaration no longer has any “practical significance”, shivers were sent down the spines of those who want democracy to flourish in Hong Kong.
“It is not at all binding for the central government's management over Hong Kong. The UK has no sovereignty, no power to rule and no power to supervise Hong Kong after the handover,” he said.
Going by the British government's failure to respond firmly to the jailing of Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow for standing up for democracy, it appears the UK agrees.
The Sino-British Joint Declaration, signed in 1984, was committed to the “one country, two systems” principle, making Hong Kong a Special Administrative Region of China but ensuring a range of freedoms, which future British governments would ensure were upheld.
China’s creeping influence over Hong Kong’s legal affairs and freedom of speech are not new. Earlier this year, Amnesty International said the human rights situation in Hong Kong was at its worst since the handover in 1997. That assessment followed the disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers, later found to have been in the custody of the Chinese police, with one describing having been blindfolded and kept in a tiny cell. In other instances journalists have been attacked by police.
But in Hong Kong, resistance is on display in familiar scenes on the streets. Tens of thousands of people have marched through the financial and legal hub in protest at the jailing of the three pro-democracy activists for their role in the Umbrella Revolution in 2014 – a fundamentally peaceful movement.
It was a moment where people came out to fight for universal suffrage, which I continue to support as key to safeguarding the island’s stability and prosperity (and something Hong Kong’s Basic Law secures by stating that the chief executive should be selected by “by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures”).
For showing courage in fighting for universal suffrage, Wong has already served 80 hours of community service and Law 120 hours. Chow received a three-week suspended prison sentence a year ago. Yet now Wong has been jailed for six months, Chow for seven months and Law for eight months.
Wong was even summoned again to court today for an ongoing contempt charge related to the 2014 "Occupy" pro-democracy protests.
Perhaps more importantly, Wong is now not eligible to stand for the legislative council for five years due to his six-month jail sentence, while Law, who was a member of the council, was removed from office.
This all comes after a 2016 order from Beijing for Hong Kong’s government to dismiss officials thought lacking in their allegiance to China, which led to six legislators being banned from holding office.
Many, including Hong Kong’s last Governor, Chris Patten, have suggested Wong, Law and Chow's sentences were a deliberate attempt to prevent them from taking on these legislative positions.
Patten added that he hopes friends of Hong Kong will speak out, having previously written the UK is “selling its honour” to secure trade deals with China, letting down pro-democracy activists who have been trying to fight to maintain freedoms that were guaranteed during the deal that ended over 100 years of British rule.
The prising open of the case by the Hong Kong government to push for tougher punishments reinforces concerns about Beijing’s willingness to interfere in Hong Kong’s democracy. As Amnesty International stated, seeking jail terms was a “vindictive attack” on freedom of expression.
China’s enthusiasm for subverting democracy has recently been on show in its attempts to censor Cambridge University Press (CUP), which initially complied with a Chinese request to block access to more than 300 articles from the China Quarterly, a leading China studies journal, including articles on Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Following public pressure CUP have now reversed their position.
But while freedoms granted under the Joint Declaration may have contributed to Hong Kong becoming fertile ground for those supportive of democracy and critical of China, it does not free the United Kingdom from its responsibility to uphold the “one country, two systems” principle, which promises extensive autonomy and freedoms to the island, except in the area of foreign relations and military defence.
The Joint Declaration is a legally binding treaty. It is registered with the UN and is still in force. As the UK is a co-signatory, it should be doing all it can to make sure it is upheld.
Yet, in late June one of Hong Kong’s most respected democracy activists Martin Lee described the British government as "just awful. I’m afraid I cannot find any kind words to say about that.”
It is not for either China or the UK to unilaterally decide the Joint Declaration is null and void. The people of Hong Kong understand that and are standing up for democracy in the face of adversity. Our Government has a duty to stand by them.