The UK’s reaction to protests in Hong Kong

Hong Kong is experiencing some of its largest protests in recent years. The protesters, who began demonstrating on Sunday 9 June, are opposed to a proposed bill that will allow the extradition of individuals from Hong Kong to mainland China. But the protests also reflect wider concerns that Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms are at risk. The UK Foreign Affairs Committee has suggested China is moving away from a ‘one country, two systems’ approach, towards ‘one country, one system’.

Here, we look at how MPs and the UK Government have responded.

What is the UK’s relationship with Hong Kong?

Hong Kong has a unique status. It is a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China but has its own legal system, judiciary and borders. Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, its ‘one country, two systems’ framework, was laid down in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong and preserved in the Basic Law. This Declaration is legally binding and remains in force. The Foreign Affairs Committee said in 2015:

“The preservation of both the letter and the spirit of the Joint Declaration is crucial to Hong Kong’s economic and business success, and the UK has both a legal right and a moral obligation to monitor the implementation of the principles established in the treaty.”

Is the proposed extradition law a breach of the Joint Declaration?

Helen Goodman MP suggests the proposed extradition law “constitute(s) not just an erosion but a fundamental breach,” of the Declaration and “threaten(s) the judiciary of Hong Kong.”

Foreign Office Minister Baroness Goldie said on 11 June: “We do not believe that the proposed legislative changes in themselves are a breach of the joint declaration.” However, the previous day the Minister for Asia and the Pacific, Mark Field, discussing wider concerns about the erosion of civil and political freedoms in Hong Kong, said: “It is clear that these events are becoming close to breaching not just the spirit but the letter of the joint declaration.” 

In 2016, the UK said the involuntary removal of British citizen Lee Po from Hong Kong, to mainland China constituted a ‘serious breach’ of the Declaration.

What does Parliament think?

The unrest has drawn considerable interest from MPs, with three focused debates taking place in the Commons in the week following the protests.

There is widespread concern, shared by the UK Government, that political and civic freedoms in Hong Kong are coming under strain and the ‘one country, two systems’ model is being gradually eroded in favour of China.

Catherine West MP asked an urgent question on Monday 10 June. Discussing the different legal systems used by China and Hong Kong, she warned: “The amendments to the extradition law would significantly compromise the firewall that separates the sharply different systems.” Fiona Bruce MP referenced Lord Patten’s comments (the last Governor of Hong Kong) that the decision to exclude any extradition agreement between Hong Kong and mainland China was a deliberate decision to protect the autonomy of Hong Kong.

Helen Goodman MP argued: “These laws constitute not just an erosion but a fundamental breach of the Sino-British declaration and the one country, two systems principle it enshrines. They threaten the judicial independence of Hong Kong.” Peter Grant MP asked the Government to ensure its voice would not be silenced in favour of a trade deal with China. Steve Double MP asked about the effect the proposed changes would have on British national (overseas) passport holders.

Later that evening Alistair Carmichael MP led an adjournment debate on UK policy towards China and Hong Kong. He described the People’s Republic of China riding “roughshod” over the Joint Declaration. Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP described the extradition Bill as “one of the worst threats” to Hong Kong’s legal system of any legislation introduced so far. Richard Graham MP discussed the potential impact on Hong Kong’s business community.

Emily Thornberry MP raised her concerns in response to the Minister’s oral statement on 13 June. The shadow Foreign Secretary cited the “steady erosion over recent years of compliance with the joint UK-Sino declaration.” She called on the Government to be firmer in their response to Chinese breaches of the Joint Declaration. Her words were echoed by Hannah Bardell MP, representing the SNP.

Members of the Lords also debated the extradition bill on 11 June.

The Foreign Affairs Committee cites concern that Hong Kong’s autonomy is at risk in an April 2019 report on China. The Committee had previously heard widespread concern about the gradual erosion of the autonomy, rights and freedoms guaranteed in the Joint Declaration and Basic Law for its 2015 report on the UK’s relations with Hong Kong.

What is the Government’s position?

The Government has previously expressed its concern over the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy on civil and political freedoms. The Foreign Office reports every six months to Parliament on the implementation of the Joint Declaration. The FCO’s most recent report discusses concerns about pressure from China to move Hong Kong towards a “mainland Chinese interpretation of civil and political freedoms.”

The Prime Minister told MPs: “It is vital that the extradition arrangements in Hong Kong are in line with the rights and freedoms that were set down in the Sino-British joint declaration.”

Mark Field MP said the Government has repeatedly raised its concerns about the proposed law with the Hong Kong Government and urged the latter to give “proper consideration” to alternative solutions, “as part of a comprehensive, ongoing consultation.” The Minister updated the House again on 13 June after reports police used tear gas and rubber bullets against protestors,  calling on the authorities to ensure any response to protests is “proportionate.”

The effect on UK citizens in Hong Kong was highlighted in a joint statement on the proposed bill issued by the UK and Canadian Governments on 30 May. They said:

“We are concerned about the potential effect of these proposals on the large number of UK and Canadian citizens in Hong Kong, on business confidence and on Hong Kong’s international reputation.”

Further reading

What are the Hong Kong protests about? The Guardian.

Hong Kong Handover: 20 Year Anniversary, House of Lords Library.

Hong Kong: The final stages, House of Commons Library (1996).

Louisa Brooke-Holland is a Senior Library Clerk in the House of Commons Library, specialising in international affairs and defence.

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