Political and constitutional developments in Hong Kong have been the subject of renewed UK media and parliamentary scrutiny since August 2014 – and look set to remain so over the years ahead.  

Recent developments in Hong Kong

On 31 August 2014, China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) approved a version of universal suffrage for the election in 2017 of the next Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Many felt strongly that these proposals fell short of full democracy. The key point of contention was the provisions made for candidates to be approved by a nominating committee with an in-built ‘pro-Beijing’ bias.  

The NPC’s decision triggered mass protests that lasted until December 2014, with parts of Hong Kong – including much of the central business district – being taken over by ordinary citizens, many of them young people. The occupations were coordinated by several groups, among them Occupy Central, Scholarism and the Hong Kong Federation of Students. Supporters called it the ‘umbrella revolution’.

The protesters said that they would not leave until the proposals were abandoned. But they were put under pressure and gradually worn down until eventually the authorities felt able to move in and re-take control of the streets. The Hong Kong Government, led by current Chief Executive CY Leung, then undertook a consultation process on the proposals. When it unveiled its final proposals on 22 April 2015, critics declared them to be fundamentally unaltered from those approved by the NPC last year.

The next step for the Hong Kong Government is to win the approval of the Legislative Council. A final vote is anticipated in June. The Hong Kong Government has warned that, if these final proposals are rejected by the Legislative Council, there will be a return to the method of election of the Chief Executive used in 2012, which did not involve universal suffrage at all. It has added that plans to move towards universal suffrage for the 2020 elections to the Legislative Council would also be put on ice.

Some protest leaders have said that there will be further unrest unless the final proposals are shelved, and pro-democracy members of the Legislative Council have made it clear that they remain implacably opposed to them. The wider protest movement has suffered some set-backs since the beginning of 2015. The Hong Kong Federation of Students has seen the student bodies of some member universities vote to leave the group. The left-wing League of Social Democrats has suffered a split. But it would be premature to write off the protest movement.

The UK response to these developments

The previous UK Government acknowledged that many Hong Kong citizens were disappointed by the proposals approved by the NPC in August 2014. However, it argued that “there remains space within them for a meaningful step forward for democracy.”

It also asserted that the UK has a “clear right to monitor and comment” on the implementation of the 1984 “Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong”, which has the force of an international treaty. The Joint Declaration states that, for at least 50 years following the handover, “current social and economic systems” in Hong Kong will remain unchanged and “rights and freedoms” will be “ensured by law”. With regard to the role of the Chief Executive, it says that they will be appointed “on the basis of the results of elections or consultations to be held locally.”

In response to developments in Hong Kong, the last Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) conducted an inquiry into the UK’s relations with the territory. However, its delegation was refused entry to the territory. On 2 December 2015, an emergency debate took place in the House of Commons in response to the ban, at which MP’s forcefully criticized this decision. During the debate, the then Minister of State at the FCO, Hugo Swire, said that the decision was “wholly unjustified, counter-productive and… unprecedented.”

In its March 2015 report, the FAC said that it remained “profoundly disappointed with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) response to this unprecedented act”. Describing the NPC’s proposals as not offering Hong Kong “genuine choice” and as “inconsistent with the principle that Hong Kong should enjoy a high degree of autonomy”, it complained that the “FCO has stopped some way short of expressing a clear view” on the “overall pace and degree of democratic reform” in Hong Kong.

While welcoming the FCO’s emphasis on “building a genuine partnership between the UK and China”, the FAC concluded that a “strong relationship should enable the UK and China to exchange views on Hong Kong’s political and constitutional development openly and in a spirit of cooperation, even where they may disagree. It added that, if the current proposals for the election of the next Chief Executive are implemented, the FCO should “press the authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing to lay out specific proposals and a timetable for further democratic reform after 2017 and 2020.”

The FAC also called on the FCO to improve the six-monthly reports on Hong Kong that it publishes, so that the UK’s “position on developments” there is expressed more clearly.

In its response to the FAC’s report, the previous UK Government denied that it had not taken a strong enough positions in response to recent developments. With regard to the refusal to allow the FAC to visit Hong Kong, it said:

“The Prime Minister’s Official Spokesperson said on 1 December 2014 that the Prime Minister believed the decision was mistaken and only served to amplify concerns about the situation in Hong Kong, rather than diminish them. The Committee has seen a list of the extensive number of representations that the Government made including at the highest level… The Chinese and Hong Kong Governments are in no doubt about the UK’s view on this matter.”

As yet there has been no official UK Government statement regarding the final proposals announced by the Hong Kong Government on 22 April for the election of the Chief Executive in 2017.

Is the UK muzzling itself on China?

Some believe that this is a danger. In March 2015, the last Government announced that the UK is to join the new Beijing-sponsored Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Responding to this news, an official of the US Administration said: “We are wary about a trend toward constant accommodation of China, which is not the best way to engage a rising power.” The new UK Government will likely deny claims of this kind.

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