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A faded empire strikes back

The cynical Tory-led campaign on Hong Kong and the neocolonial propaganda of the corporate media must be firmly pushed back, argues KENNY COYLE

US STATESMAN Dean Acheson famously remarked: “Great Britain had lost an empire and had yet to find a role.”

Apparently, though, Britain has managed to recover rights to Hong Kong and, according to multiple Tory politicians and even the “progressive” media, Britain has rediscovered a role as a guarantor of freedom and democracy there, just in time for the final round of the Tory leadership election.

Tory hopeful Jeremy Hunt told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We are a country that has championed democracy, the rule of law, civil rights across the world for much of our history. We see the situation as very worrying.

“And we’re just asking very simply for that agreement that we have with China, from 1984 to be honoured.”

Life is too short to respond to Hunt’s historical rewriting of the benevolence of British foreign policy. Instead we need to focus on the 1984 agreement, usually referred to as the Sino-British Joint Declaration, since it is repeatedly used to legitimise Britain’s interference in Hong Kong. Hunt has not ruled out the possibility of economic sanctions.

Similar statements on the 1984 declaration have been made by other Tories. Lord Patten, Hong Kong’s last British-imposed colonial governor, told the BBC Radio 4 programme Today: “We bang on about a golden age in relations with China even while the Chinese calmly say that the joint declaration doesn’t exist any more. We should take a much firmer line.”

Star readers can read the full English text of the 1984 declaration for themselves. It’s on the official Chinese government website at mstar.link/1984Declaration as well as the Hong Kong SAR government’s website at mstar.link/1984DeclarationHongKong.

China is not pretending that the agreement doesn’t exist, it is simply pointing out that its powers were limited to the final years of colonial rule and expired on the last day of the British administration.

The reference to a 50-year period is in Part 3 of the joint declaration, which outlined various Chinese policies for Hong Kong after the China resumed sovereignty on July 1 1997. 

Sub-clause 12 says: “The above-stated basic policies of the People’s Republic of China regarding Hong Kong and the elaboration of them in Annex 1 to this Joint Declaration will be stipulated, in a Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, by the National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China, and they will remain unchanged for 50 years.”

So the 50-year term began in 1997 not 1984 and it is Hong Kong’s own Basic Law that upholds these principles today, Britain is neither a guarantor nor a mediator.

Part 4 of the joint declaration is just as clear: “The Government of the United Kingdom and the Government of the People’s Republic of China declare that, during the transitional period between the date of the entry into force of this Joint Declaration and June 30 1997, the Government of the United Kingdom will be responsible for the administration of Hong Kong with the object of maintaining and preserving its economic prosperity and social stability; and that the Government of the People’s Republic of China will give its co-operation in this connection.”

The only reference to any form of British involvement after July 1 1997 was the work of the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group, which was “not an organ of power. It shall play no part in the administration of Hong Kong or the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Nor shall it have any supervisory role over that administration.”

The liaison group’s job was simply to identify potential technical wrinkles during this transitional period in the run-up to July 1 1997 and then tie up any loose ends in the aftermath. It had to finish its work, at the latest, by January 1 2000.

Despite this clear timeline, the Guardian’s assistant editor Simon Tisdall’s British stiff upper lip went all aquiver at the sheer caddishness of the Chinese.

“If China’s leaders had kept the solemn promises made to Margaret Thatcher, Hong Kong’s slow, chronic collapse of trust might not have occurred.” (The fight for democracy in Hong Kong is the defining struggle of our age, the Guardian, July 2)

Tisdall repeated the current Tory Foreign Office line that the Sino-British declaration has an extended shelf-life.

“But Beijing, having achieved its aim of regaining control, has grown increasingly complacent, even arrogant. It declared two years ago that the joint declaration, a UN-registered treaty intended to remain in force for 50 years, was a non-binding ‘historical document’ lacking ‘any practical significance.’ Its agreed guarantees were null and void.”

As an experienced foreign editor, Tisdall should surely know that all treaties, bilateral or multilateral, signed by UN member states are “UN-registered.”

It doesn’t give the treaties any special status, UN stamp of approval or longevity beyond the agreed text. It’s a standard archival process for diplomatic documents.

If Tisdall had bothered to check the UN Treaty Series Volume 1399, in which the Sino-British declaration appears, he would have seen it sit alongside an agreement signed between Todor Zhivkov’s People’s Republic of Bulgaria and Muammar Gadaffi’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. Two states that no longer even exist.

Their treaty is a perfect example of an historical document that lacks practical significance and is now null and void. Tisdall’s UN reference is yet another red herring.

There are some further clauses in the joint declaration which are deliberately overlooked by British interventionists. These include “the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will be directly under the authority of the Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will enjoy a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs which are the responsibilities of the Central People’s Government.” 

The declaration also acknowledged that while most laws would be “basically unchanged,” they could also “be subject to any amendment by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region legislature.” 

This is the HKSAR government’s stance on the now suspended amendments to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance (FOO). 

The last major amendments to the FOO were rushed through by Lord Patten just before the 1997 return to China. 

Patten updated the legislation to ensure that Britain could continue to request the extradition of wanted criminals from Hong Kong, but specifically denied any part of the People’s Republic of China similar rights. 

This anomaly therefore is the direct result of British colonial policy towards China.

Recently declassified documents from Britain’s National Archives show that Britain had no intention of allowing China to request extradition, despite the fact that in the run-up to the handover, Britain was still in a strong position to set any number of stringent pre-conditions and legal safeguards.

The South China Morning Post reported that “according to a memo of a discussion in the executive council on November 24 1992, the colonial government set up a working party in December 1991 to consider what arrangements should be put in place between Hong Kong and China before 1997 for legal and procedural cooperation in civil and commercial matters.”

The memo recommended raising the issue with the Chinese at the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group.

“Once discussions on this subject start, the Chinese may attempt to extend discussions into the criminal field (eg rendition of fugitive offenders) which we would prefer to take separately and later,” the memo read.

However, the Tory government had decided as early as 1991 to remove the incumbent governor, Sir David Wilson, a lifelong diplomat and replace him with a “political personality.” 

When Major’s close ally Chris Patten lost his Bath seat in the 1992 general election, he became the ideal candidate.

Patten has subsequently made clear that the exclusion of China from the FOO was quite deliberate.

Ironically the FOO represents a regression on Chinese extradition powers compared to even the infamous “unequal treaties” of the opium wars by which the British empire stole Hong Kong from China and created legal immunity for British subjects inside China. 

The 1858 Treaty of Tientsin (today’s Tianjin) stated that “if criminals, subjects of China, shall take refuge in Hong Kong or on board the British ships there, they shall, upon due requisition by the Chinese authorities, be searched for, and, on proof of their guilt, be delivered up.” 

By contrast: “British subjects who may commit any crime in China shall be tried and punished by the [British] Consul, or other public functionary authorised thereto, according to the laws of Great Britain.”

So much for Hunt’s lectures on the “rule of law.” It was Britain that first introduced the concept of “one country, two systems” to China, British colonial jurisdiction took precedence over the Chinese system not only in Hong Kong but in all other parts of China (including Taiwan). 

A later Hong Kong law, the Chinese Extradition Ordinance of 1899, reaffirmed the right of imperial China to request fugitive extraditions but, after the Republican revolution of 1911, Chinese authorities were reluctant to make humiliating petitions to a territory they regarded as rightfully theirs.

To summarise, the 1984 agreement did not grant continued joint British-Chinese custody over Hong Kong or permit any oversight or supervision over Hong Kong’s affairs after 1997. 

The 1984 agreement recognised that the HKSAR would become part of the People’s Republic of China, with considerable autonomy in many areas but not all. 

The siren calls in support of foreign intervention by the “pan-democrats” are a provocation designed to push the criminal extradition issue into the fields of defence and foreign policy, the central government’s sphere, and trigger direct central government intervention.

Tisdall, along with Western media reporters generally, play up the possibility of Beijing imposing direct rule, ending its commitment to One Country, Two Systems before the 2047 deadline (or if you are working to the Guardian’s timelines, 2034). 

This merely encourages the extremist fringe of the protesters to escalate their attempts to make Hong Kong ungovernable and discredit not only the HKSAR government but its judicial system and police force. 

It bears a strong resemblance to elements of the “strategy of tension,” methods designed not only to intensify social and political conflicts but also to fan psychological anxiety among the public. 

The outlandish conspiracy theories circulating in Hong Kong social media over the past month could fill a book.

Beijing meanwhile continues to restate its position that “maintenance of public order” is the responsibility of the HKSAR authorities.

The cynical Tory-led campaign on Hong Kong and the neocolonial propaganda of the corporate media must be firmly pushed back. 

Hong Kong’s crisis should be resolved within the territory itself, without the interference of either Washington or Whitehall.

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