CATHERINE WEST MP: Britain must continue to protect the rights and freedoms of Hong Kongers
In this blog Catherine West MP talks of the ongoing importance of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and Britain's ongoing obligation to Hong Kong. Catherine West is the Labour MP for Hornsey and Wood Green. She is a patron of Hong Kong Watch, and Deputy-Chair of the United Kingdom’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on China.
History is not the only link that forges the United Kingdom to Hong Kong. Our deep, strong and lasting connection spans culture, business, politics and society.
The UK’s investment in Hong Kong comprises nearly one third of total investment in Asia; educational links are close and growing closer still with more Hong Kongers attending British universities; both our islands share links as major financial hubs.
As much as anything, there are growing links between pro-democracy groups.
With China, too, the relationship is long and rich in history. While we enter the ‘Golden Age’ between our nations, our links far surpass booming trade and investment. Our partnership continues to grow across existential issues crossing including climate change and security..
And with this relationship, both China and the UK must strive to protect the Joint Declaration, which promises extensive autonomy and freedoms to the island, except in the area of foreign relations and military defence.
Political figures spanning Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair and Robin Cook have all pledged to uphold the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle, upon which democracy in Hong Kong relies. Chinese President Xi Jinping even emphasised the importance of the system in his 14 main principles, outlined at the 19th Communist Party congress.
When Hong Kong was transferred to China from the UK in 1997, it was done so under the proviso that the people of Hong Kong could preserve their way of life. The UK and China both have a responsibility to uphold the Joint Declaration; the Sino-British Joint Declaration is a legally binding treaty at the United Nations, placing responsibilities on the UK and China to protect these rights and freedoms.
Labour was in power for the first 13 years of Hong Kong’s new status as a Special Administrative Region. I lived in Nanjing as a teacher in 1996, a year before the island was transferred, and continue to believe in the “one country, two systems” principle, which underpins Hong Kong’s status, and believe the best way to safeguard Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity is for it to advance to a system of universal suffrage, as envisaged by the Basic Law.
That is why I was so concerned when Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in June that the Joint Declaration no longer has any “practical significance”.
“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 continued.
My concerns have not dissipated: this month China’s Parliament formally extended a law banning disrespect of the national anthem to cover Hong Kong, undermining the city’s freedoms. Hong Kong residents who boo the Chinese national anthem might soon face up to three years.
That itself is the latest in the creeping influence of China over Hong Kong. In the run up to the twentieth anniversary of the handover, the world witnessed pro-democracy activists being denied the right to stand in elections as well as elected lawmakers thrown out of the Legislative Council.
Indeed, earlier this year, Amnesty International warned 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 the trajectory is not set in stone. Some positive news emerged this month after a Hong Kong court allowed three jailed activists, who led the pro-democracy protests that became known as the Umbrella Revolution in 2014, a chance to appeal their sentences.
Joshua Wong, Alex Chow and Nathan Law were jailed in August, sparking fear that Beijing was again interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs. But now the trio will have a chance to appeal the case in January.
We stand at a crossroads and we will be watching in anticipation of which path is trodden.