The UK's relations with Hong Kong: 30 years after the Joint Declaration - Foreign Affairs Contents

7  The future of "one country, two systems"

Perceptions of the erosion of Hong Kong's autonomy

83. "One country, two systems" was an elegant compromise that has brought great success to Hong Kong SAR since 1997. However, there is clearly a strong feeling amongst some people in Hong Kong that "one country" is increasingly infringing on "two systems." Of the several hundred submissions we received in response to our call for evidence, the vast majority were from individuals in Hong Kong worried about the perceived erosion of the Special Administrative Region's autonomy. As leader of the Democratic Party Emily Lau told us, "people just think that things are not going in the right direction."[206]

84. Perceived clashes between the political structures and cultures of China and Hong Kong formed a major strand of these submissions. The restrictive terms of the SCNPC's decision on the method for electing the Chief Executive in 2017 were cited almost across the board as evidence that China was unwilling to grant Hong Kong the "high degree of autonomy" promised in the Joint Declaration and Basic Law. Some written submissions also alleged that the Chinese government and its liaison office in Hong Kong have been interfering directly in Hong Kong's affairs,[207] for example by lobbying members of the Election Committee during elections for Chief Executive.[208] Even where submissions stopped short of accusing China of direct intervention in Hong Kong, there was a general sense that Hong Kong's government was too willing to allow China to dictate policy. Human Rights Watch summarised this argument when it said that many people feel that Hong Kong's leadership "is adopting policies that reflect China's interests while ignoring the opinions, needs, and rights of ordinary Hong Kong people."[209] Alan Lung of the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation, however, cautioned that this view reflected, at least in part, a clash of political cultures. He suggested that a certain level of tension between China's system of government and the "very diehard liberalism" of Hong Kong is natural.[210] He added that in his view Hong Kong is "not totally faultless", because the average Hong Kong person "really does not understand the Chinese system" or Chinese aspirations.[211]

85. The other major concern raised in many submissions related to social and demographic changes thought to be making Hong Kong more "Chinese", thus threatening Hong Kong's cultural identity. These included concerns about the increasing use of Putonghua (Mandarin Chinese) as a medium of instruction in schools, rather than the Cantonese language native to Hong Kong.[212] Many submissions also argued that high rates of immigration and tourism from mainland China were changing or threatening Hong Kong's cultural identity and social fabric.[213] According to Dr Malte Kaeding, an academic expert on social movements and identity in Hong Kong, recent years have seen the emergence of a particular "Hong Kong identity" in reaction to this fear of the alleged "mainlandisation" of Hong Kong.[214] This identity, which Dr Kaeding says is especially prominent among young people, emphasises Hong Kong's distinctiveness from mainland Chinese people and culture.[215] Dr Kaeding's research indicated that this "social polarisation" was one factor contributing to the rise of new "pan-democratic" parties and movements advocating more radical and confrontational approaches to democratic reforms than established organisations like the Democratic Party.[216]

86. The depth of concern in Hong Kong about potential threats to its autonomy should not be dismissed. However, it can also be taken as an indication of the vigilance and robustness with which Hong Kong people continue to monitor and defend "one country, two systems". For example, Human Rights Watch cited the proposed introduction of a "national education" curriculum in schools, similar to "mainland educational propaganda", as evidence of a China-backed policy aimed at undermining Hong Kong's autonomy and identity.[217] Yet these proposals were shelved in 2012, after widespread public opposition and protests led by then 15-year-old student Joshua Wong. As Dr Tim Summers told us, this case could be perceived as showing "two systems" pushing back effectively against the expansion of the scope of "one country".[218] This view was echoed by the Foreign Secretary in his foreword to the six-monthly report covering July to December 2014, where he wrote: "the scrutiny and debate wherever [Hong Kong's] autonomy is perceived to be under threat is itself perhaps the greatest testament to the power and resilience" of the "one country, two systems" concept.[219]

87. The belief that China is eroding Hong Kong's autonomy is strongly held by many people in Hong Kong, reflecting an intertwined combination of legal and political developments and questions of changing identity, language and culture. These complex issues are key to understanding the context of developments in Hong Kong, and the FCO's reporting should reflect these nuances of public opinion more accurately as part of its overall assessment of the functioning of "one country, two systems" in the six-monthly reports.

Hong Kong's political and economic future

88. The increasing strain on "one country, two systems" has been most acutely demonstrated during recent and ongoing debates over political and constitutional reform. As polarisation deepens in the run-up to LegCo's consideration of the electoral package for 2017, concerns are mounting that Hong Kong is facing a potential crisis of governance. Without the public confidence conferred by a mandate from the electorate, Hong Kong's government may find it increasingly difficult to make and implement tough decisions needed to maintain Hong Kong's stability and prosperity.[220]

89. The demand for greater democracy in Hong Kong is more than an abstract concern: it reflects the understandable desire of Hong Kong's people to have an accountable government that responds to their needs and interests. The status quo is not sustainable in the long term, and if the current constitutional stalemate continues it could soon threaten the open business climate and stability that underpins Hong Kong's enviable prosperity and growth. In our view, this tension can only be resolved by meaningful progress toward democracy, guided by a transparent process in line with the Basic Law, in which both the Hong Kong people and the Chinese government can have confidence.

The UK Government's handling of UK-Hong Kong relations

90. 30 years after the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the UK retains an enduring commitment to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Hong Kong is one of the UK's most important partners in Asia, home to some 250,000 UK citizens and a further 3.4 million British nationals (overseas). It is clear to us that many people believe the UK has a special responsibility to defend the distinct legal, social and economic systems that constitute its legacy in Hong Kong. Although the governments of China and Hong Kong SAR may play down the UK's obligations toward Hong Kong, we are satisfied that the FCO has been firm in its commitment to monitor and uphold the Joint Declaration.[221]

91. We encountered a perception in some submissions and among witnesses that the UK Government is overly cautious in public statements on issues relating to Hong Kong, in order to avoid upsetting trade and investment relations with China.[222] This belief is clearly both pervasive and damaging to the UK's reputation in Hong Kong, which is in its own right an important partner for the UK Government and UK businesses. We consider that this perception has been exacerbated by the FCO's lack of clarity in stating its expectations for the constitutional reform process, and also by its decision not to summon the Chinese Ambassador to the UK after his government denied us entry into Hong Kong. The Minister of State assured us that the UK's relationship with China is "extremely good at the moment" and that the UK is a "genuine partner for China".[223]

92. We are concerned that the FCO's lack of clarity in expressing its views on political and constitutional developments in Hong Kong may be damaging the UK's reputation there. We welcome, however, the FCO's emphasis on building a genuine partnership between the UK and China. A strong relationship should enable the UK and China to exchange views on Hong Kong's political and constitutional development openly and in a spirit of cooperation, even where they may disagree. A democratic, stable and prosperous Hong Kong is good for the people of Hong Kong SAR, good for China, and good for the UK. Britain has an enduring moral responsibility to see that Hong Kong achieves this goal and to ensure that the principles, legal obligations and spirit of the Joint Declaration remain as respected today as they were in 1984 and 1997.

206   Q204 Back

207   Hong Kong 2020 (HNG 0490) para 1.1; Chan Sheung Man (HNG 0487) para 2 Back

208   Asia Public Affairs and Social Services Society, University of Manchester (HNG 0549) paras 4-6; Kyle Chan (and 78 others in similar petition) (HNG 0498) para 3 Back

209   Human Rights Watch (HNG 0741) para 13 Back

210   Q162 Back

211   Q162 Back

212   Qq121-122; Hin-wah Leung (HNG 0614) para 23; Chan Sheung Man (HNG 0487) para 2; Paul Phillips (HNG 0491) para II.d.7; Chan Sheung Man (HNG 0487) paras 14-15; Yiu Shing Ching (and 290 others in similar petition) (HNG 0296) para 38 Back

213   Mavis Lung (and 177 others in similar petition) (HNG 0075) para II.4; Yiu Shing Ching (and 290 others in similar petition) (HNG 0296) para 4; Kyle Chan (and 78 others in similar petition) (HNG 0498) para 1.b. Although immigration generally is a matter for Hong Kong's government under the Basic Law, migration from mainland China to Hong Kong is controlled and managed by Beijing. Back

214   Malte Kaeding (HNG 0707) para 3 Back

215   Malte Kaeding (HNG 0707) para 4, Q105 Back

216   Malte Kaeding (HNG 0707) para 2 Back

217   Human Rights Watch (HNG 0741) para 13 Back

218   Tim Summers (HNG 0607) para 17 Back

219   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, The Six-monthly Report on Hong Kong: 1 July to 31 December 2014, February 2015, p 3 Back

220   Q300 Back

221   Q337; Hong Kong Government News, "LCQ5: The Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong", Press Release, 17 December 2014 Back

222   Qq21, 84, 193, 206; Hong Kong 2020 (HNG 0490) para 4.15; Deryck Y K Chan (HNG 0473) para 23; Paul Phillips (HNG 0491) para IV.h Back

223   Q375 Back

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Prepared 6 March 2015