It is 20 years since Hong Kong returned to China. Now as then, there is trepidation. In his first visit as Chinese leader, Xi Jinping has overseen a military parade – a reminder of Beijing’s might – and warned of “new challenges” to the “one country, two systems” framework which allows a high degree of autonomy for the region. On Friday, the foreign ministry described the Joint Declaration, the Sino-British treaty on those arrangements, as a historical document which no longer had practical significance.
Britain’s seizure of Hong Kong is a key part of China’s narrative of a century of humiliation by imperialist foreign powers, ended by the Communist party’s triumph. (Its belief that the west is determined to rain on its parade will be reinforced by the US announcements of sanctions on a Chinese bank linked to North Korea and arms sales to Taiwan just as Mr Xi arrived in the region for the anniversary celebrations.)
Britain acquired the colony in a war waged over the right to peddle drugs. As a paternalistic power it was not much interested in extending democracy to Hong Kong until the return to China loomed. But its last-minute push to grant residents more say was spurred by the mainland’s bloody crackdown on Tiananmen Square’s democracy protestors; and by then Hong Kong had already emerged as a place with rule of law, low tolerance of corruption, independent academic institutions and a strong media, with freedom of expression and protest. These institutions and practices are now under mounting threat.
The direst prognostications of life after the handover were too bleak. But optimistic expectations of Hong Kong liberalising the mainland were entirely wrong. China has indeed grown wealthier and its people enjoy more personal freedom, but it has set its face against any sort of political reform and is now in one of its most repressive periods for decades. Instead, China is changing Hong Kong – in clear breach of the agreement that its way of life would continue unaltered for half a century. Two years ago the sudden disappearance of booksellers – who then surfaced in mainland custody – sent a particular chill through the region. Activist Joshua Wong claims its current status is “one country, one-and-a-half systems”.
While pro-Beijingers celebrate the return to China with fireworks over Victoria harbour, and democracy campaigners protest against the mainland’s policies, most in Hong Kong simply want stability and prosperity. But every time Beijing clamps down, it alienates young Hong Kong residents in particular, as 2014’s pro-democracy “Umbrella” protests showed – and their reaction in turn brings a stronger one from the mainland.
The question is whether Beijing pauses or simply presses on. This weekend’s inauguration of a new chief executive could have allowed it to strike a new note. But Carrie Lam’s record as second-in-command does not suggest a change is coming and her predecessors have acted as the mainland’s representative in Hong Kong – rather than, as is needed, Hong Kong’s ambassador to Beijing. More tensions lie ahead: judgments are pending in the attempted disqualification of youthful pro-democracy lawmakers from the legislative council over their oath-taking. But Beijing’s approach to the Joint Declaration should be of interest beyond the region too: it sends a message about its approach to international agreements. If it dismisses this treaty lightly, why should it be expected to abide by others?
The UK’s relationship with Hong Kong was conceived shamefully. But the consequence is a special duty to its citizens – millions of whom hold British passports, albeit of a secondary order, and more of whom are now applying for them. And as the other party to the Joint Declaration, it is uniquely positioned to monitor its implementation and challenge infractions.
Britain’s overall approach to China is obsequious. The rush for renminbi, initiated by George Osborne is perpetuated by a government in desperate search of overseas opportunities as Brexit looms. Only this week, Foreign Office minister Mark Field praised a “constructive and open” bilateral human rights dialogue in Beijing, mentioning neither dying Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo nor the broader, sweeping mainland crackdown on lawyers, activists and dissidents.
On Friday, a Foreign Office spokesperson reiterated that the treaty is legally binding. But in general London’s remarks on Hong Kong are muffled – and even then Beijing attacks them. Lord Patten, Hong Kong’s last governor, calls the UK government “craven”. Martin Lee, the region’s “father of democracy”, describes its approach as “just awful”. Britain has a historic responsibility to Hong Kong. It should live up to it.