fine print

Why China can blithely ignore its Hong Kong treaty with the UK

August 13, 2014
August 13, 2014

Former public officials in Hong Kong have been lobbying the United Kingdom and the international community overall to stand up for the semi-autonomous Chinese territory, where students and activists are pressing Beijing for the right to elect their chief executive in 2017. But there’s little that the UK is likely or willing to do.

Thirty years ago, the British agreed to hand over Hong Kong, one of its last colonies, to Beijing under an international treaty known as the Joint Declaration. It “guaranteed Hong Kong’s way of life for 50 years” under the idea of “one country, two systems,” meaning that Hong Kongers would live under the rule of law, with freedom of speech, assembly, and worship, elections and a “high degree of autonomy.” Now, many feel that those freedoms are quickly being erased. Over the next month, Beijing is expected to release guidelines for elections that will allow it to influence Hong Kong’s slate of candidates, effectively limiting the right to full suffrage.

China insists that the debate over universal suffrage is an internal one, and denounces what it calls foreign meddling by outside governments. Even if the UK wanted to pressure Beijing, the options for legally requiring China to uphold its treaty are few, according to Lorenz Langer, a lecturer at the University of Zurich who researches constitutional development in Hong Kong. “The more powerful China gets, the less [the international community] can do,” Langer said. “The Joint Declaration may be binding but it’s not going to be enforced against China’s will by anyone right now.”

According to Langer, a binding UN resolution would be negated by the fact that China holds veto power as a permanent member of UN Security Council. A resolution condemning China in the UN General Assembly is also unlikely, given Beijing’s many economic ties to members.

Hong Kong democracy activist Anson Chan, formerly chief secretary under British rule, met with vice president Joe Biden, who said the US maintained its support for democracy in Hong Kong. But the US has even less say, Langer notes, given that Washington wasn’t involved in the handover or the Joint Declaration.

Economic sanctions on the UK’s part are also unlikely given Britain’s growing economic ties with China. British media have called on the government to stand up for Hong Kong (paywall), and the British parliament has launched an inquiry into the UK’s relationship with its former colony. But British prime minister David Cameron refused to meet with Chan when she visited the UK earlier this summer, and ordered senior officials not to meet with Chan or another activist, Martin Lee. (The two managed to arrange a meeting with Nick Clegg through other means, Chan said.)

“There’s little the UK could do and little the UK would want to do,” Langer said.

The treaty may have never been intended to be ironclad. China, which saw the handover as the return of its rightful territory, reluctantly signed the Joint Declaration. That could be why, unlike major international treaties, there are no provisions in case the treaty is breached. The terms “high degree of autonomy” and elections are also not clearly defined.

The lack of pressure Beijing is likely to face over Hong Kong underlines not only China’s growing clout in the international community but Beijing’s changing attitude toward that community. “It’s curious because, for many decades China has stressed the importance of international institutions. Now that it is in a position to have its way, we see a much more assertive approach,” Langer said. “That doesn’t bode well for international law.”

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