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Hong Kong was a British colony from 1842 until the UK transferred sovereignty over Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, after which it became a Special Administrative Region of China. In preparation of the handover, in 1984 Great Britain and China agreed the Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong (Joint Declaration).

Joint Declaration

The Joint Declaration states that 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.

However, in recent years there has been growing concern the principle ‘One Country, Two Systems’, in which Hong Kong is part of China but has separate legal and economic systems, is being steadily eroded. The UK Government has catalogued such fears in its six-monthly reports on Hong Kong, as has the Foreign Affairs Committee in reports on Hong Kong and China in 2015 and 2019.

The Joint Declaration is a legally binding treaty but it contains no enforcement provisions.

National security law

In June 2020, the Chinese Government introduced a new national security law in Hong Kong. The legislation criminalises any act of:

  • secession – breaking away from the country;
  • subversion – undermining the power or authority of the central government;
  • terrorism – using violence or intimidation against people; and
  • collusion with foreign or external forces.

The UK Government has responded with three main actions since the National Security Law was passed in Hong Kong.

First, it suspended the UK’s extradition treaty with Hong Kong.

Second, it extended the embargo on certain military items already imposed on mainland China (in response to the 1989 Tiananmen Square repression), to Hong Kong. It had already in June 2019 restricted the sale of crowd control equipment to Hong Kong.

Third, it announced it was would open a new visa route to people from Hong Kong who have British National (Overseas) – ‘BN(O)’ – status and their close family members. The Hong Kong British National (Overseas) visa launched on 31 January 2021. At the end of May, the Home Office announced that it had received 34,000 applications for the visas in the two months it had been in operation.

Legislative elections

Elections to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council were due in September 2020 but were postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Some pro-democracy campaigners dismissed claims from the island’s authorities that the postponement were only due to public health concerns, and said pro-Beijing politicians were worried about their election prospects after the local election results. Hong Kong authorities had already announced it had disqualified 12 pro-democracy candidates from standing in the elections.

On 30 March 2021, China’s legislative body passed significant changes to Hong Kong’s electoral rules which could tighten its control over the city.

The number of directly elected seats in parliament will be cut almost by half, and prospective MPs will first be vetted by a “candidate qualification review committee” to ensure that only “patriotic” figures can run for positions of power.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam, in response to criticisms that democracy was being eroded said there is not a “one-size-fits-all” way of doing democracy. Ms Lam said the vetting committee will not screen people out based on their political views, but rather weed out any “non-patriots”. Adding that as long as the candidates can show allegiance to Hong Kong, uphold the Basic Law and pass national security checks, they will be permitted to run for election.

The Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab said the changes were the “latest step by Beijing to hollow out the space for democratic debate in Hong Kong, contrary to the promises made by China itself”. Mr Raab said further that “this can only further undermine confidence and trust in China living up to its international responsibilities and legal obligations”.

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