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What can Britain learn from Hong Kong?

The Council on Geostrategy asks seven experts what Britain can learn from Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984

Simon Cheng, Hongkongers in Britain

It is crucial for Britain to recognise the inherent nature of the CCP and its disregard for international agreements. The breach of the Joint Declaration, which guaranteed Hong Kong’s autonomy and basic freedoms under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ framework, serves as a stark reminder that the CCP cannot be trusted to uphold its promises.

Britain should understand the importance of standing up for democratic values and human rights, even in the face of economic interests or geopolitical considerations. The Sino-British Joint Declaration was a symbol of the United Kingdom’s (UK) commitment to protecting the rights of the people of Hong Kong, and it is essential for Britain to maintain that stance.

The success story of Hong Kong as an international financial and business hub once relied upon the trusted relationship between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and free and open nations based on the Joint Declaration. The CCP’s breach, however, shatters the delicate ‘checks and balances’ previously in Hong Kong, and may herald an expansionist PRC more inclined to attempt to ‘reunify’ Taiwan with the mainland, a possibility that poses a threat to liberal-democracies the world over.

The breach of the Joint Declaration highlights the need for robust mechanisms to hold authoritarian regimes accountable. Britain should work closely with its international partners to establish effective mechanisms that ensure compliance with international agreements, thwart the aggression of autocratic powers, and safeguard the rights of individuals living under oppressive regimes.

Sam Goodman, China Strategic Risks Institute and Hong Kong Watch

The PRC’s breaches of the Joint Declaration are a clear demonstration that the CCP will dispense with adherence to international treaties it has willingly entered into when it is no longer in the party’s interest. Like Vladmir Putin’s war against Ukraine, the CCP’s leadership has demonstrated a willingness to prioritise ideological aims and state security over economic self-interest, including the benefits of maintaining Hong Kong as an international financial centre and a common law system with the rule of law.

The breaches reflect an assumption from the CCP that His Majesty’s (HM) Government is too weak to uphold its obligations under the Joint Declaration or that ministers will favour the narrow economic interests of a handful of elites over the UK’s historic, moral, and legal obligations to the people of Hong Kong. The current British response to these breaches, which prioritises immigration policies over holding Hong Kong and Chinese officials to account through sanctions, appears to have vindicated this judgement. Furthermore, Hong Kong’s continued collapse as an open, liberal, international city should serve as a cautionary tale for the CCP’s intentions when it comes to Taiwan. The destruction of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ model takes any peaceful reunification off the table, while the National Security Law (NSL) is being tested as a roadmap for forcibly rendering a population resistant to the CCP’s ideology compliant.

Carmen Lau, former Hong Kong District Councillor

The breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration highlights the critical importance of trust and reliance to international agreements, particularly when dealing with authoritarian regimes. It serves as a stark reminder that even legally binding agreements can be violated when parties prioritise their own interests over their commitments. Consequently, this breach raises significant questions about the delicate balance between economic interests and human rights considerations. Like many other countries, Britain faces the challenge of maintaining economic cooperation with the PRC while simultaneously addressing concerns about human rights violations and security risks.

To navigate this challenge, the UK should conduct careful evaluations of its economic engagement with the PRC, particularly in sectors and industries where there are well-founded concerns about human rights violations and security issues. For instance, the egregious human rights abuses in Xinjiang have caused deep alarm globally. Additionally, there are legitimate security concerns surrounding Chinese-owned tech enterprises.

Hongkongers’ have already demonstrated, at great personal cost, the dangers of placing trust in CCP’s promises or statements when it comes to diplomatic or economic interactions. Their struggle serves as a powerful reminder to the world. In light of this, Britain must approach its engagements with the PRC with the utmost caution, ensuring that economic cooperation aligns with its principles and values, and robustly addresses human rights concerns and security risks.

Luke de Pulford, Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China

Perhaps the most interesting lesson for the UK is the degree to which the CCP is willing to engage in diplomatic and economic self-harm in order to achieve its policy objectives – specifically around territorial sovereignty and control of people and information. 

For the international community, though, the destruction of the Joint Declaration marks a tipping point towards a kind of invincible impunity for Beijing. Despite having clearly and unrepentantly violated several instruments of international law over Hong Kong, nothing proportionate has been done to seek redress. 

Interestingly, the UK has sought to characterise the ‘lifeboat’ scheme for British Nationals (Overseas) as Britain ‘keeping its promises to Hong Kong people’. Yet the signatories to the Joint Declaration did not promise safe harbour for persecuted people. They promised to uphold Hong Kong’s autonomy and way of life. Though the violations are certainly Beijing’s and clearly unilateral, the UK has manifestly failed to secure the promises it made to the city, and ought to have pursued every possible step towards accountability. We did not do so, to our shame, due in part to concern within HM Government circles about the damage such action would do to the bilateral relationship with the PRC. Against that background 2020 represents a threshold which should fill those concerned about security across the Taiwan Strait with foreboding.

Milia Purppura, Council on Geostrategy

For those who may not yet comprehend the futility of trusting revolutionary socialists (whether of the national or internationalist subtype) to honour their words, the ‘handover’ betrayal is unlikely to open their eyes, either.

The Joint Declaration, an international treaty, bound the CCP to allow Hongkonger’s way of life – freedom of expression, a common law system, and free market economy – to remain unchanged until 2047. The CCP unilaterally voided the handover treaty as early as 2017 by declaring that the Joint Declaration was ‘a historical document’ that ‘no longer has any practical significance’.

British Hong Kong consisted of two parcels of land acquired from the Manchu Empire: Hong Kong Island and Kowloon peninsula, permanent British territory, alongside the New Territories, leased to the UK until 1997. Clearly, Hong Kong does not rightfully belong to the PRC.

The now void Joint Declaration is an ‘unequal treaty’. If we fail to recognise that Chinese imperialist fascism is the most significant and dangerous enemy of all human freedom, we will soon, if not yet, face a ‘century of humiliation’. Thousands of years of unbroken British history that has led billions of people not only out of poverty, but also into freedom, is at risk. 

What else will we hand over to the Chinese? Nuclear power plants? Information infrastructure? Cambridge University Press? The Telegraph? CCP ‘police stations’ in our cities? Whomever ‘Chinese diplomats’ happen to drag into the Embassy or Consulate to violently assault? 

Unequal treaties, bullying, and betrayal is all that the PRC is capable of. It will never share our value of human freedom.

Benedict Rogers, Hong Kong Watch

There are three key lessons which Britain can learn from the CCP’s breach of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration.

The CCP’s word can never be trusted. ‘One country, two systems’ is in tatters and the concept of ‘Hong Kong people running Hong Kong’ in ruins. The PRC has torn up a treaty, registered at the United Nations halfway through its lifespan. Beijing has proven that its promises are not worth the paper they are written on.

The UK should have done more, earlier, to embed democracy in Hong Kong. Under colonial rule, Hong Kong became an open society with the rule of law, judicial independence, a free press, freedom of expression and protest, civil society, but without universal suffrage. In his five years as Hong Kong’s last governor, Chris Patten valiantly sought to extend directly elected representation. But more should have been done years earlier.

Britain should have fought harder to ensure that the Joint Declaration came attached with an enforcement mechanism, to enable international judicial review in the event of a breach. We took Beijing at its word and failed to provide for the possibility that they might break it. Now, it seems we have no recourse to the International Court of Justice or other international bodies.

With hindsight, perhaps it is no coincidence that the Joint Declaration was agreed in 1984. Less than four decades later, Hong Kong has been transformed from an open society to an Orwellian police and surveillance state.

Gray Sergeant, Council on Geostrategy

The imposition of the Hong Kong NSL is a reminder of the paramount importance the CCP places on sovereignty and territorial integrity. It demonstrates that the PRC is willing to bear significant costs to maintain control within what it regards as its borders.

With the NSL, the PRC was prepared to risk rupturing relations with Britain, as it was with India when Chinese troops advanced in the Galwan Valley that same year. Decision-makers in Beijing were also willing to accept a hit to the country’s much-cultivated ‘soft power’. Clearly, international norms and bilateral agreements cannot ever truly constrain Beijing.

Sovereignty also trumped the economy. However, we should not extrapolate too much from this. This does not imply that Xi Jinping has an irrational, territory-at-all-costs mindset. While the NSL risked ‘killing the Hong Kong golden goose’ the costs here are nothing in comparison to the likely economic turmoil brought about by an attack on Taiwan.

The imposition of the NSL reaffirms what many critics of the CCP have long said. We should expect an increasingly assertive, more nationalistic PRC while Xi is in power. Yet if we truly wish to forecast Beijing’s behaviour, be that in the Himalayas or across the Taiwan Strait, parallels only take us so far.

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