Search Wednesday April 21, 2004

Philip Bowring: Britain should stick up for Hong Kong
Beijing's encroachment
By Philip Bowring (IHT)
Tuesday, April 13, 2004

HONG KONG: The contrast is striking and instructive. Britain boasts of its commitment to imposing liberty and democracy on the people of Iraq, a land for which its formal responsibility ended 72 years ago. But when it comes to Hong Kong, the government of Tony Blair is so concerned with imagined British commercial interests that it has conveniently almost forgotten its residual responsibilities for autonomy and representative government.

Seven years after the handover of Hong Kong, Britain has scant levers with which to influence Beijing. It has little to offer by way of commercial threats or strategic quid quo pros. But that does not absolve it of responsibility for speaking out forcefully, and explaining China's gross breaches of an international treaty - the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong, agreed in 1984 and formally signed the following year. The Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution, is supposed to conform with this document. Although Hong Kong's citizens had scant input into the Joint Declaration, it was supposed to represent Britain's best efforts to achieve meaningful autonomy for them under Deng Xiaoping's "one country, two systems" formula.

The Basic Law, finalized in the aftermath of Tiananmen, was always hedged with Beijing's anxieties about Hong Kong's special status. A 1992 international commission of jurists report noted that “the Basic Law is inconsistent in many important respects with the obligations accepted by the PRC in its ratification of the Joint Declaration.” But until now it had never sought to impose an overtly political interpretation of its own on the Basic Law.

China's annex to The Joint Declaration states clearly that Hong Kong legislation only has to be reported to Beijing, that its courts have power of final adjudication, that the executive authorities are accountable to the Hong Kong legislature and that internal security is a local responsibility. Hong Kong was promised a “high degree of autonomy except in foreign and defense affairs.”

Yet now Beijing's move to “interpret” the Basic Law not only amounts to the creation of major amendments to that law but has the effect of trashing China's commitments under the Joint Declaration. The National Peoples Congress has taken away all of Hong Kong's ability to initiate change within the Basic Law, in its internal procedures and handed to the chief executive, whom Beijing appoints, powers to determine whether any changes are necessary.

Beijing has made in very plain that it regards Hong Kong's degree of autonomy as being provided by its grace and favor and thus subject to its political priorities, not the letter of the law. As for the internationally recognized treaty known as the Joint Declaration, it might as well not exist as far as China is concerned. Beijing insists that Britain and other countries are not allowed to comment on such issues as they are internal affairs.

The British attitude is scarcely any different. The British Foreign Office put out a statement of “regret” at the Basic Law “interpretation” but it was couched in language so moderate as to have gone barely noticed in Hong Kong where the main English-language newspaper gave it less than a column on an inside page. In London, the expression of “regret” was left to a junior minister. Blair and Foreign Minister Jack Straw were far too busy re-enacting Iraq 1920 to bother with commitments to Hong Kong.

Blair's desire to go to war for democracy in Iraq but ignore Hong Kong fits with the dominant instincts in Britain's Foreign Office that has long harbored China “experts” arguing the futility of confronting China. In the years between the Joint Declaration and the 1997 handover, Foreign Office interests frustrated Hong Kong efforts to see that the autonomy promises of the declaration were enshrined in constitutional development. Senior diplomats actively - and quite improperly - campaigned to thwart the belated efforts of the last governor, Chris Patten, to push through democratic advances. It was to Prime Minister John Major's credit that he backed Patten and Hong Kong's own aspirations against diplomats and commercial interests.

Britain may have little direct leverage. But it retains the ability to present this as an international legal issue. It could bring the breaches of the Joint Declaration to the UN or ask that the issue be considered by the International Court. Of course, China will not agree to “interference” any more than in 1992 when it declined to meet with the International Commission of Jurists. But a China now playing a role in world affairs should at least be made to suffer embarrassment from its failure to fulfill its promises to Hong Kong.