Sino-British Joint Declaration

FACTS

Full Name: Joint Declaration of the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of the People's Republic of China on the Question of Hong Kong

Short Name: Sino-British Joint Declaration (the “JD”)

Date signed: 19 December 1984

Signed by: Zhao Ziyang, Premier Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister

Nature: International bilateral treaty (registered at the United Nations on 12 June 1985, registration no. 23391)

BACKGROUND

The Hong Kong Island was ceded to the United Kingdom (the “UK”) in perpetuity under the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842. The southern part of the Kowloon Peninsula as well as the Stonecutters Island were also ceded to the UK in perpetuity under the Convention of Beijing in 1860. In 1898, a 99-year lease of the New Territories of Hong Kong was signed between the UK and the Emperor of Qing Empire, with the lease to expire on 1 July 1997.

The Qing Empire was overthrown and replaced by successive regimes in the 20th century. By the 1970s, the People’s Republic of China (the “PRC”) emerged as the most widely recognised Chinese state. Despite not being a signatory to these treaties, it began to act on the sovereignty issues of Hong Kong.

In 1972, under Chinese pressure, Hong Kong (as well as Macau) was removed from the list of colonies officially recognised by the United Nations. Consequently, Hong Kong was not able to seek United Nations’ support for independence. Unlike other colonies around the world, Hong Kong’s future could only be subject to agreement between the UK and China.

Negotiations began in 1981 between the UK and the PRC on returning Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty. Ironically (and not surprisingly), Hong Kong representatives were not invited to participate in any of the meetings for the handover of their homeland.

The years-long negotiation saw the UK gradually losing ground. China rejected the British proposal of a “nominal transfer of sovereignty” which would have kept the UK in administrative control of Hong Kong, while pushing its own “One Country, Two Systems” governance model.

Eventually, the JD was signed on 19 December 1984 in Beijing. It is a legally-binding treaty agreed and signed by both countries. Among other items, the Declaration proclaimed that the UK would hand over Hong Kong to the PRC on 1 July 1997, while the PRC would not interfere with Hong Kong’s internal policies for 50 years.

The declaration was registered by both parties at the United Nations on 12 June 1985.

THE KEY POINTS

In short, The JD stated that the PRC would resume the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong from the UK on 1 July 1997, when Hong Kong would become a Special Administrative Region of China, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (the “HKSAR”). The JD is the basis for the famous “One Country, Two Systems” governance model and provides basic principles for the Basic Law of Hong Kong.

The JD consists of eight paragraphs and three annexes in total. Some of the relevant and more important details are listed below.

FIVE KEY POINTS IN THE JOINT DECLARATION

The HKSAR will be directly under the authority of the Central People's Government of the PRC and will enjoy a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign affairs and defence. (1) The HKSAR will be vested with executive, legislative and independent judicial power, including that of final adjudication. (2) The current social and economic systems in Hong Kong will remain unchanged, and so will the lifestyle. 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, of academic research and of religious belief will be ensured by law in the HKSAR. (3) Those basic policies will be stipulated in a Basic Law of the HKSAR in the PRC by the National People's Congress. (4) The Declaration protects private property and foreign investment and states the SAR will “retain the status of an international financial centre” with independent finances. (5)

WHY IS THE JD IMPORTANT TO THE UK?

Economy - Hong Kong remains the gateway for British businesses and for international financial interests to enter the sizeable Chinese market. JD ensures the stability and reliability required for business to flourish without fear of undue interference.

Diplomacy - The status of JD reflects the international image of the UK. If JD is enforced fully, the UK would retain, or even further establish her reputation as a strong advocate for human rights and democracy. It is a dent to the UK’s long-standing international prestige, however, if China’s unilateral breach of the treaty goes unchecked.

Security - Hong Kong is home to more than 35,000 British Citizens and 169,653 British National (Overseas), many of whom have chosen to stay in the city after the 1997 Handover. The JD guarantees that their way of living and freedom will not give way to the Chinese system. Forsaking the obligation to safeguard the JD will mean leaving the British community to China’s will.

A Timeline of The Declaration

From the British Colonial Era to The Present Day

MAR 1979: Hong Kong Governor Murray MacLehose raised the issue of Hong Kong with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping on his first official visit to China. Deng said China would reassert sovereignty over the “special region” after June 30, 1997.

19 DEC 1984: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Premier Zhao Ziyang signed the official JD in Beijing. In a visit to Hong Kong the same month, Thatcher assured the city’s political elite: “Britain has the right to raise any breaches with China after 1997. We would not hesitate to do so.”

JUN 1985: A 58-member Basic Law Drafting Committee was formed in Beijing to draw up Hong Kong’s new mini-constitution, the Basic Law of Hong Kong SAR. China’s National People’s Congress approved the final draft in April 1990.

18 JAN 1990: Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping met with Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing. He made a clear commitment that one country, two systems would remain unchanged for 50 years, and that there would be no need to change it after those 50 years had passed either.

1 JUL 1997: More than 4,000 troops from China’s People’s Liberation Army crossed the border into Hong Kong in the early hours of the morning. Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, and the Provisional Legislative Council, were sworn into office later on the same day.

INCIDENTS

JUL 2003: Although Hong Kong was guaranteed a high degree of autonomy, the electorate of the Chief Executive of Hong Kong was only made up of 1,200 members, the majority of which were pro-Beijing figures. In 2003, Hong Kong government proposed the National Security Bill (Article 23), which was a direct threat to freedom of expression and association. Its provisions were in breach of the Joint Declaration as they applied legal concepts from mainland China that were incompatible with the rights and freedoms in Hong Kong. The bill was withdrawn subsequent to huge public outcry and a historic protest.

JUN 2007: In a conference in Beijing in 2007, Wu Bangguo, the chairman of China’s National People's Congress Standing Committee, stated that "Hong Kong had considerable autonomy only because the central government had chosen to authorize that autonomy". (6)

DEC 2014: In 2014, against the backdrop of the Umbrella Movement, the British Foreign Affairs Select Committee was banned by China from entering Hong Kong on their planned visit in December as part of their inquiry into the progress of the implementation of the JD. In an emergency parliamentary debate on the unprecedented ban, Richard Ottaway, the chairman of the committee, revealed that Chinese officials stated that the JD was "now void and only covered the period from the signing in 1984 until the handover in 1997."

OCT 2015: In 2015, five book publishers of Causeway Bay Books, a bookstore that sold political books that were legal in Hong Kong but prohibited in China, were “vanished” one after another. Some were found to be unlawfully taken to and detained in China.

Philip Hammond, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, stated that the incident “constitutes a serious breach of the JD on Hong Kong and undermines the principle of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ which assures Hong Kong residents of the protection of the Hong Kong legal system.”

2016: Pro-independence activists such as Edward Leung, Andy Chan and Nakade Hitsujiko were barred from running in the Legislative Council elections. Youngspiration’s Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching, who both won seats in the legislature, were disqualified over the manner of their oath-taking. Four more pro-democracy lawmakers – Edward Yiu, Nathan Law, Lau Siu-lai and Leung Kwok-hung – were also unseated over their oaths in 2017. The specific manner of oath taking was stipulated only after they took the oath, as a retrospective legislation by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC).

JUN 2017: On 30 June 2017, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that the JD, which effected Hong Kong’s Handover in 1997, was merely a “historical document and does not have any practical significance”, adding “it also does not have any binding power on how the Chinese central government administers Hong Kong. Britain has no sovereignty, no governing power and no supervising power over Hong Kong. I hope the relevant parties will reckon with this reality.”

JUN 2019: In 2019, the Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her government proposed legal changes that would ease the transfer of criminal suspects between jurisdictions with which it lacks formal extradition agreements - including mainland China, known as the Extradition Bill. The proposed Bill would expose anyone within Hong Kong to the notoriously arbitrary and inhumane penal system of China, whose human rights track record is atrocious.

JUL 2019: Jeremy Hunt, the UK Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, stressed that the UK should support Hong Kong and its freedom (as promised in JD), also warned that China would face “serious consequences” if the Extradition Bill failed to honour the JD, to which the PRC expressed its dissatisfaction officially.

The controversial issue on the binding power of JD and whether it is void according to the PRC claims is once again on the table and under discussion.

TODAY: As of now, more than 200 so-called “smart lampposts” with surveillance cameras are being installed, for the purpose of collecting data and closely monitoring Hong Kong citizens. This potentially fulfills the scheme of China’s Social Credit System, which is already on its way to be in full effect throughout the cities in China. The implementation of “smart lampposts” shows China’s strong intention of extending its surveillance network and the Social Credit System to Hong Kong, further tightening the control of Hong Kong citizens.

Reference

  • Article 3(2) of the JD
  • Article 3(3) of the JD
  • Article 3(5) of the JD
  • Annex I, Elaboration by the Government of the People’s Republic of China of its Basic Policies Regarding Hong Kong, of the JD.
  • Articles 3(5) and 3(7) of the JD.
  • “Hong Kong: A Broken Promise?”, the Hearing before the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, One Hundred Thirteenth Congress, by Committee on Foreign Affairs, US House of Representatives, 2 December 2014, https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CHRG-113hhrg91662/html/CHRG-113hhrg91662.htm, last accessed on 19 July 2019.