Hong Kong was for many years under British control. In handing back this possession to China the British Government did well to establish, in the 1984 Accord, guarantees of its continued democratic system being respected (at least for 50 years). It confirmed that ‘the Chinese authorities have agreed Hong Kong will maintain a high degree of local autonomy and keep power over its social, economic and legal systems’.(1) This was a deal which had to be done. We could not hold on to something which was, after all, only leased to us in the first place.(2) However, in light of the ongoing protests and the apparent attack on the democratic process which the Hong Kong citizens seem to value so much, do we here in Britain have any ‘special’ responsibility to intervene, more than in any other country that is striving for democracy such as we saw (and are still seeing) in the ‘Arab Spring’?
The fact that an international legal document exists between our two counties would seem to open a legal as well as a moral duty to act, and a legal right to do so.
This international legal document may be seen as imposing a special moral duty to intervene, and possible grants the British Government a route to do so that is not open to any other country. Does this add another dimension to our moral duty to act? What does this legal document actually say about the British Government’s right to intervene in Hong Kong, if it true that, as the Guardian reports, the Foreign Affairs Committee has stated that ‘China has breached the agreement’ but that there is ‘little the UK can do’ does that end the debate?(3)
This statement seems to be a statement of practicalities, the head of the foreign affairs committee Sir Richard Ottaway admitted that Britain is in a “fairly weak position” to punish China with sanctions.(4) This may be true, however, it does not prevent the British Government from making very strong statements supporting the protesters. It could also criticise the Chinese regime as well as the Hong Kong authorities for their heavy-handed response to what is a right to protest which is crystallised in the very agreement that seems to give Britain such little room to influence this event directly. In the end, international law is often not very good at forcing states to act against their wishes, it is better suited as an instrument for providing grounds for criticism.
It is also fair to say, that when British rule left Hong Kong on the Royal Yacht Britannia, the Hong Kong population was ‘a population with mixed feelings about the incoming regime’ and with the ‘Hong Kong’s Democratic Party already protesting against what it saw as the loss of democracy’.(5) As this is the case, along with the fact that a new ‘Provisional Legislative Council’, picked by Beijing, was sworn in almost ‘immediately after the handover, replacing the previous elected body'(6), this present move by the Chinese authorities should not be a surprise but seen as part of a process towards the total control of Hong Kong by mainland China. In fact, it is a surprise that it has taken this long for the citizens of Hong Kong to declare enough is enough.
Can we turn our backs on this democratic movement when we started it long ago by writing into the 1984 accord the protection of very rights that they are now fighting for? I say we must act, even if all we can do is openly support their plight and criticise the authorities in the most stark manner possible. If this is the extent of our options it should not be used as an excuse to do nothing at all but drive us to do all we can with the power and authority we have. We have a moral and legal duty to make explicit any breach of the terms of the agreement, you can be sure that if Britain attempted to influence the political life of Hong Kong outside of the agreements remit, the Chinese Government would not hold back from criticising (and possible more).
I am pleased to see that the Chinese ambassador to the UK has been ‘summoned for an urgent meeting with Nick Clegg to express “dismay and alarm” at the denial of universal suffrage to the former British colony’.(7) Even David Cameron has now been prepared to speak out stating that he was “very concerned” by the situation urging China to “honour the terms of the Joint Declaration”.(8)
Going on to state that “Universal suffrage really means not just being able to vote but having a proper choice”.(9) It is this choice which is key, but which also that makes the ‘Joint Declaration’ not so helpful. It sets out the requirement for full suffrage, which does not appear to be questioned or challenged by China, it is the free choice of candidate which is being attacked. Even though Cameron connects these two attributes of democracy, it is less clear that the 1984 agreement does so.
As with all things in international law as well as international relations, there are multiple points of view and differing interpretations, and no country’s view is superior to any other. What matters here, therefore, are principles, we must support the move for democratic rights where ever they are called for by the population, Agreement or none, Britain must support those citizens of Hong Kong in their defence of those rights we often take for granted.