In late 1984, China declared, in Article 1 of the Sino-British Joint Declaration (JD), that it would recover all of British Hong Kong with effect from July 1, 1997. In Article 2, the United Kingdom declared that it would restore Hong Kong to China on the same date.
Almost 33 years later, in March 2017, the US State Department published a fact sheet entitled “Dependencies and Areas of Special Sovereignty”, where Hong Kong is listed. A special footnote explains that: “Under a Sino-British declaration of September 1984, Hong Kong reverted to Chinese control on July 1, 1997. It is now a semi-autonomous entity that exists pursuant to international agreement and maintains its own government apart from the People’s Republic of China.”
Just 20 years after China recovered Hong Kong from the UK, Washington still speaks, in this note, of China as having “control” over a semi-autonomous Hong Kong, rather than sovereignty. Moreover, despite the fact that in the first two articles of the JD, both China and the UK each refer to making a declaration, the State Department claims that China’s control of Hong Kong arises from an agreement.
All Chinese governments since the 19th century have regarded the treaties governing Hong Kong (and other forced foreign concessions) as unequal and thus not valid at international law. This is a primary reason why the JD explicitly avoids the use of the term agreement. The JD signals a clear mutual understanding between London and Beijing that they shall each declare their position.
Oriol Caudevilla recently argued convincingly (China Daily Hong Kong Edition, on June 15, 2020, Don’t mistake Hong Kong for a foreign concession) that the HKSAR can never be regarded as some sort of foreign concession like the city of Tangier (now part of Morocco) was from 1923 to 1956. Yet this is a distinct impression which lingers when one reads this recent State Department fact sheet. Indeed, it sometimes feels like Washington still regards Hong Kong as a (manifestly successful) Far East version of Puerto Rico.
One product of the singular move by Beijing to prepare a new national security regime for Hong Kong is that it has demonstrated unambiguously that Hong Kong has stepped out of the colonial shadow
With the UK, it is worth remembering that, over 40 years ago, as London-Beijing negotiations on the future of Hong Kong began, Plan A, for the British, was that China should extend the New Territories Lease and that the UK would continue to exercise jurisdiction over Hong Kong. China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping said no. The British had no choice but to go along with Plan B — the recovery of Hong Kong by China. This was accepted but regarded as sub-optimal. Recent comments from the UK government, the former Hong Kong governor Lord Patten and others among the British establishment, indicate many still cleave to this view in Britain.
Consider how certain offshore powers still repeatedly presume the terrifying and costly political violence in Hong Kong in 2019 as an understandable component of heroic protesting aimed at securing political reform, despite the exceptional level of senseless wreckage and injuries they left in their wake. Next consider the swift expression of self-righteous hostility, from the same quarter, to a manifestly rational response by Beijing to this forbidding destruction in Hong Kong: the introduction of a robust new, HKSAR national security regime. When you combine these perspectives with the State Department view above, it is reasonable to draw the conclusion that in the eyes of too many, China still only enjoys a form of conditional control over Hong Kong, subject to a level of ongoing validation by the UK and US in particular.
A range of people in Hong Kong, including some expatriates living here, share similar views. We can see here, a manifestation of a certain colonial overhang. But it is also a measure of how so many from around the world living in Hong Kong want to continue to do so. They have strong views about what they want Hong Kong to be because they have developed the deepest attachment to this remarkable place. This makes sense: By any comparative measure Hong Kong remains, at its core, a fabulous city. For the place affords all the freedoms that they can find in the most developed democracies on top of being voted the freest economy in the world for decades. But whatever its political makeup, we must accept the fact that this is a place which is first and foremost, within the sovereignty of China.
The New Cold War, directed at China, was “announced”, according to US media, in a speech by US Vice President Mike Pence in October 2018. As it gains traction the US and some of its remaining eager allies seem to have taken the view that the West — led by the US — can only secure its global dominance through a win-lose approach: For the US to win, China needs to lose. This damaging strategy is grounded in the conditional-control vision noted above.
Path dependence theory explains how history has a strong influence on the present. Deep habits of thinking built up in the past can conspicuously define how current developments are perceived. It is not surprising that significant imperial powers, like the US and the UK, still display quasi-colonial elements in the framing of their relationship with the HKSAR, notwithstanding the transition from British Hong Kong to the HKSAR in July 1997.
US and UK views, shaped by colonial history, may be strongly held and they may support a certain level of denial. They cannot, however, displace political reality. One product of the singular move by Beijing to prepare a new national security regime for Hong Kong is that it has demonstrated unambiguously that Hong Kong has stepped out of the colonial shadow. There is some irony here: This far-reaching move by Beijing was a logical response to the continuous irrational violence of 2019, which Washington and London tried so hard to reframe as valiant protesting for democracy and human rights.
The author is a visiting professor in the Faculty of Law, the University of Hong Kong. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
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