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How did the Declaration come about?

British rule over Hong Kong dates to the 19th century, when Hong Kong island was ceded to Great Britain by China after the first Opium War in 1842. Further territory was added after the second Opium War and in 1898, when Great Britain obtained the New Territories on a 99-year lease.

Preparations for Hong Kong’s return to China began in the 1980s. On 19 December 1984 the UK Government and the Government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) signed The Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong. On 1 July 1997 the UK transferred sovereignty over Hong Kong to the PRC. Hong Kong is now a Special Administrative Region of the PRC.

“One country, Two systems”: what does the Joint Declaration say?

The principle ‘One country, Two systems’ underpins the Declaration although the term is not explicitly used in the Declaration. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) will be directly under the authority of the People’s Republic of China but will enjoy a “high degree of autonomy” and its social and economic systems and lifestyle will remain unchanged for fifty years.

Is the declaration legally binding?

The agreement entered into force on 27 May 1985 and was registered at the United Nations by the Chinese and British Governments on 12 June 1985.

The UK Government is clear that “the Joint Declaration is a legally binding treaty, registered with the United Nations, which continues to remain in force. It remains as valid today as it did when it was signed over thirty years ago”.

The Foreign Secretary reaffirmed this on the 22nd anniversary of the handover when he declared the UK’s commitment to the Declaration as “unwavering”.

The UK Government also says the UK “has an obligation and a right to monitor its implementation closely, and we are strongly committed to doing so”. Since 1997 the Foreign Secretary has reported to Parliament at six-monthly intervals on the implementation of the Joint Declaration.

China challenges the status of the Joint Declaration

Chinese officials have, in recent years, challenged the status of the Joint Declaration.

The Foreign Affairs Committee noted comments by Chinese Foreign Ministry officials in 2017 suggesting the arrangements under the Joint Declaration are “now history” and described it as “ridiculous for the UK to pose itself as a supervisor… on Hong Kong affairs”.

This view was repeated more recently following UK Government concerns about the police response to protests in June-July 2019. Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Hong Kong’s affairs “are purely China’s internal affairs” and “we deplore and resolutely oppose certain countries’ flagrant interference in them”. The Chinese Ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, accused the UK of “interfering” in China’s affairs in Hong Kong and suggested the UK Government “should seriously reflect on the consequences of its words and deeds”.

Sir Alan Duncan, Foreign Minister for Europe and the Americas, addressed these statements when responding to an urgent question on Hong Kong on 2 July:

We reject the Chinese Government’s assertion that the joint declaration is an “historic document”, by which they mean that it is no longer valid, and that our rights and obligations under that treaty have ended. Our clear view is that the Sino-British joint declaration of 1984 obliges the Chinese Government to uphold Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, and its rights and freedoms, and we call on the Chinese Government to do so.

The treaty contains no enforcement or dispute provisions. The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, to which both the UK and China are States Parties, provides only for the suspension of the operation of a treaty in the event that it is breached.

The UK Government has assessed there has been one “serious breach” of the Joint Declaration. This was in 2015 and relates to the involuntary removal British citizen and Hong Kong bookseller Lee Po from Hong Kong to mainland China. This was reported in the FCO’s six monthly report for the period July to December 2015.

‘One country, one system?’: Concerns about Hong Kong’s autonomy

The protests against the extradition bill in June and July 2019 reflect fears that Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms are at risk.

These have been catelogued by the UK Government in its six-monhtly reports to Parliament. In 2017 the FCO reported “Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy is under increasing pressure“.

The Foreign Affairs Committee warned in 2019 “the Chinese government’s approach to Hong Kong is moving closer to ‘One country, One system’ than it is to maintaining its treaty commitments under the Joint Declaration”.

MPs have raised their concerns in a number of debates held since the protests began on 9 June.Emily Thornberry, the shadow Foreign Secretary, spoke of the “steady erosion over recent years of compliance with the joint UK-Sino declaration”. The Library looked at Parliament’s response to the protests in Hong Kong in an Insight on 14 June.

Commentators have also commented on the erosion of political and media liberties in Hong Kong.

The extradition law protests

On Sunday 9 June protestors took to the streets of Hong Kong to oppose a draft amendment to extradition laws. The law would allow the extradition of individuals from Hong Kong to mainland China. Critics fear the law would enable the Chinese government to pursue political opponents. 

Further demonstrations have taken place with an estimated 2 million marching on 16 June. The use of tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protests led Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, to call for a “robust, independent investigation“.

On 2 July protestors broke into the Parliamentary building, the LegCo, and draped a colonial-era Hong Kong flag on the podium. The Prime Minister, Theresa May, said “it is vital that Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and the rights and freedoms set down in the Sino-British joint declaration are respected”.

On 25 June the Foreign Secretary announced the UK will not issue any further export licenses for crowd control equipment to Hong Kong “unless we are satisfied that concerns raised about human rights and fundamental freedoms have been thoroughly addressed”. 

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