China’s decision to make its own ruling over the legislative council oath-taking controversy in Hong Kong is something that is of great concern to the United Kingdom. Beijing becoming involved in what has – until now – been purely a matter for Hong Kong is questionable and is far more likely to inflame matters than settle them. Now more than ever, the UK must take note of what is happening in the Special Administrative Region (SAR) and ensure that China upholds its side of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration.
The UK’s relationship with Hong Kong is one of the most important we have in Asia. The links with London date to the first opium war (1839-1842), and over the subsequent centuries they grew, primarily over shared values. Since 1997, our trade, education, and cultural bonds have only strengthened. Given this history, Britain should continue to support the 'One Country, Two Systems' principle which underpins Hong Kong’s status. The best way to safeguard Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity is for it to advance to a system of universal suffrage, as envisaged by the Basic Law.
Recent political unease in Hong Kong led to an unprecedented constitutional battle taking place in the legislature, culminating in the walk-out by pro-Beijing legislators on 19 October. At the heart of the issue is the belief – growing among Hong Kong’s students and academics – that Beijing’s commitment to the Joint Declaration or the 'One Country, Two Systems' is mere window dressing. Chapter five of that declaration says:
'Rights and freedoms, including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, of strike, of choice of occupation, and academic research and of religious belief will be ensured by law in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.'
Since 1997, some of these commitments have been contested. Recent developments have given rise to a number of concerns, not least over press freedom. There is evidence that China has eroded elements of Hong Kong’s once-irreverent press and illegally detained booksellers for publishing books on the communist leadership that are banned on the mainland.
The UK’s relationship with China is, of course, also long and rich in history. But as we continue to deepen our trade ties, it is vital that our partnership continues to grow in other areas. This must encompass tackling climate change (where China is ahead of many European nations, including the UK, in ratifying the Paris Agreement which seeks to combat climate change), working together on security issues, and improving workers’ rights. It must also ensure that the Joint Declaration is upheld and, with it, that the integrity of Hong Kong is protected.
Diplomacy is the art of soft power and persuasion; the discourse and interaction between civilised nations. The UK may be faced with an uncertain future, yet we have much to offer. Our economic linkages extend across the 'Anglosphere', a mark of our historic impact on the world, including to Hong Kong. Its economic growth may have been fuelled by Chinese economic wealth, but it is based on British cultural values. Any attempt by Beijing to roll back the Basic Law and integrate Hong Kong into mainland China would risk the very success of the thing they seek to capture.
The end of British sovereignty in Hong Kong should not mean the end of British commitment to Hong Kong. During these challenging times, Britain’s commitment and support for the stability, prosperity and democratic development of Hong Kong must remain as strong as ever. The governments in both Hong Kong and Beijing must act to ensure that steps are taken to preserve confidence in the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind served as Foreign Secretary between 1995 and 1997