Monday , June 17 2024

Freedom & Democracy in Hong Kong – The Dragon on the Shore

As the twentieth anniversary of the British handover of Hong Kong to Chinese Rule approaches, its last British Governor has warned that the UK risks “selling its honour” over its relations with the territory. In an interview with the BBC Lord Patten stated that the UK has has abandoned “a generation” of Hong Kongers seeking democracy, referring to the lack of support for the Umbrella Protesters, who demanded greater electoral freedom.

Following Brexit, the UK clearly has been seeking new trade agreements.  While the government is trying to maintain close economic ties with the EU and avoid tariffs or quotas, it has also been looking further afield. Ex-Prime Minister David Cameron and his Chancellor George Osbourne had, before the EU Referendum, sought and worked towards better Sino-UK ties. These included investment for British infrastructure projects and many other deals, including the planned Hinkley Point nuclear power station. Therefore, when the UK voted to leave the EU, China was clearly a potential trade partner, that could offer major economic benefits to the UK. Some even suggested that new trade & investment arrangements with China could more than make up for any potential loss of European markets following the vote to leave the EU.

However, despite this somewhat short-sighted belief that a signing a Sino-UK trade agreement was merely a matter of time, there were concerns. These were primarily over the plans for Hinkley, but also concerning Hong Kong, as the ex-British colony that was in some respect still in limbo. China was clearly drawing Hong Kong closer into its fold and exercising its authority over dissident activity. It had put down the Umbrella Protest and extra-judiciously abducted five booksellers publishing articles critical of the Chinese Government, one of whom is still held today two years afterwards. The latter clearly broke the Sino-British Joint Declaration; the treaty signed between the UK and the PRC over Hong Kong’s status following the handover in 1997. Britain’s rely to both encroachments was notably muted, leaving the PRC thinking the UK did not care what happened to Hong Kong, and the pro-democracy protesters feeling betrayed.

Despite Mrs May’s new government’s apparent cooling of the eagerness for closer ties with the PRC, the UK has still not strongly decried China’s actions in Hong Kong. It was because of this that Lord Patten emphasised Britain’s responsibility to uphold their part of the handover treaty with China, and to protect the interests of the people of Hong Kong until 2047. He warned that of the key freedoms enshrined in the joint-declaration; freedom of press, assembly and to elect members of a legislative council were being undermined, while the British government turning a blind eye in the hope of gaining economically from agreements with the PRC.

The History of Hong Kong

In one of the darkest and most reprehensible chapters of British colonial history the UK’s relationship with China and Hong Kong starts around 1815, when Britain was the colonial world super-power and home of the industrial revolution. It was also the proponent for free trade and its factories and merchants were enriching the nation. Furthermore, there was a great domestic demand for Chinese goods and wares, but the Qing dynasty ruling China at the time accepted mostly silver as payment. Preferring to trade in goods, the British noted that there was a market to import one good into China: Opium. Understandably, the Chinese government tried to limit the flow of drugs into the nation, and in 1839, they destroyed 1,400 tons of stored British Opium. There were misunderstandings and miscomprehensions on the British part leading up to and following this event, and it snowballed into war. In 1841, the British Army and Royal Navy won numerous victories against the Imperial Chinese forces, who were forced to sign the Treaty of Nanjing – the first of the “Unequal Treaties”. A clause of the treaty granted Hong Kong Island to the UK. The Second Opium, or Arrow, War followed, and was in turn ended by the Beijing Convention in 1860, which granted to the UK the Peninsula of Kowloon.

From the trade of this deplorable opiate, the British Empire now included Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. The New Territories – the majority of Hong Kong were later leased from China in 1898 for 99 years in a later “Unequal Treaty” for free following China’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War.

Hong Kong remained under British control as a Crown Colony from then on to 1997, the only interruption being the Japanese occupation during the Second World War.

In the late 1990s, as the lease of the New Territories ended, the British government and the government of the PRC held negotiations as to the future of Hong Kong. Despite Kowloon Peninsula and Hong Kong Island grated in perpetuity, possibly because of tactical reasons, or possibly because Mrs Thatcher, the then PM, was loath to keep what many deemed to be ill-gotten gains, the UK handed all of Hong Kong back to China in 1997 as a ‘Special Administrative Region’.

However, there were conditions, and Article 5 of the Sino-British Joint Declaration states “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 Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.”

Doubtless some part of the decision was an attempt to pay the moral obligation to China for the immoral wars & opium trade; an honourable and laudable position. However, I would opine the moral obligation is not solely to the People’s Republic of China, but also to the people of China themselves. This viewpoint would explain the emphasis on ensuring freedoms and human rights for the Hong Kongers in the Joint Declaration.

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Nevertheless, the Declaration risks becoming aught but paper if its clauses do not carry weight and if either the PRC or UK breaks the agreement. It is the threat to the Joint Declaration that had led to Lord Patten of Barnes trying to make his point clear:“The argument that the only way you can do trade with China is by kowtowing to China on political issues is drivel – it’s complete nonsense.” He presented an open question to the nation, by asking what had happened to the its “sense of honour … [and] responsibility”.

Regrettably, the People’s Republic of China has become expansionist. Previously the nation had been oppressive – infamous for its 99.9% conviction rate and Tienanmen Square, but the limits of its international ambition seemed to be Tibet. Relatively recently, however, they have emphasised their ‘rights’ to the South China Sea, even when it conflicts with international laws and treaties, such as the UNCLOS 200 nautical mile Economic Exclusion Zone. They have also continued to threaten Taiwan, which has its independence de facto protected by the USA.

In Hong Kong’s recent history first there were the 2014 Umbrella Protests which were eventually put down. These protests, remarkable for their peacefulness and size, demanded that the Chief Executive be elected by all of the HK electorate, as opposed to the 1,200 strong Election Committee, who in turn are elected by approximately 6% of the HK Electorate. China responded by offering Hong Kong the ability to elect a Chief Executive from a handful of pre-checked and pre-vetted candidates approved by the PRC.

Understandably, a significant proportion of Hong Kongers decried both options and demanded free and open elections. This became known as the Umbrella Movement, because of the number of umbrellas used by the protestors to shield themselves from the large quantities of tear gas fired upon them by the police.

This was followed by the abduction His warnings are echoed by Mrs Anson Chan, a prominent Hong Kong civil servant who served as Chief Secretary and Lord Patten’s deputy, who warned of “midnight knock[s] on the door”, citing the abduction of the five publishers in 2015 who were selling items critical of Chinese control. They disappeared overnight and then later reappeared in custody in mainland China.

The Honourable Mrs Anson Chang, who also served as a HK’s top Civil Servant and also member of the Legislative Council (LegCo) lent her voice to the accusation that the UK was turning a blind eye to the “steady erosion” of rights, liberty and democracy, and “not caring” for the people of HK. She went on further to note that none of the publishers had broken Hong Kong Law, but if this was the state of affairs, the much mentioned ‘One Country Two Systems’ system existed “in name only”.

That concluded BBC Newsnight’s pair of interviews opening the 20th anniversary of the hand-over. However, I believe it would be unwise to simply view it as a Chinese problem and wash our national hands of the issue. For a start, that such a warning should come from two very high ranking administrators in the HK government raises serious doubts in regards to the future freedoms of the people of Hong Kong.

The un-democratisation process has continued. In 2016 the legal charade that was performed to keep Yau Wai-Ching and other pro-independence members out of the HK Legislative Council was deeply disturbing – and it made it clear that the Chinese Communist Party will not tolerate any discussion of independence, democracy or more self-rule.

Nevertheless, as Lord Patten pointed out, until 2047 the UK is partially responsible to ensure the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong in the Joint Declaration are not undermined.

Some Britons may wonder how Hong Kong affects us here in the UK, or what the UK can actually do. An opinion holds that the entire history of Hong Kong is too shameful for the nation and should be sealed and forgotten.

China has already shown that it will ignore UN & International Law when it suits them, and so they would also most likely ignore any British pressure. Indeed, at the height of the Umbrella Protests, the Chinese government announced that the Joint Declaration is now ‘void’.  (The announcement was triggered by the UK government’s protests that British MPs were not being allowed to visit Hong Kong with the interest of investigating the protests and demands. It was one of the few times the UK has protested to the PRC over its handing of Hong Kong affairs)

In regards to this extraordinary statement the South China Morning Post quoted Hong Kong Law Professor Simon Young Ngai-man on the validity ‘voiding’ of the joint-declaration: “”It’s wrong because paragraph 7 of the Joint Declaration states that the ‘government of the UK and the government of the PRC agree to implement the preceding declarations and the Annexes to this Joint Declaration”‘”.


Does Her Majesty’s Government really wish to sell out the people of Hong Kong for a potential trade agreement with a nation which blatantly ignores the treaties it signs, international rulings, and the Vienna Convention of the Law of Treaties? If China decides the Joint Declaration has somehow become ‘void’, what will prevent this from being the case later, with another treaty?

The current state of affairs in Hong Kong present a question to Mrs May and the Foreign Office: What sort of nation does the Post-Brexit UK want to be known as? There can be little doubt that Post-Brexit the UK does need trade arrangements. However, even if we would achieve a remarkably good trade treaty, are we willing to sell out the freedom of the people of Hong Kong to achieve one? Is it wise – in the interest of trade, economic development and stability and peace in the Far East – to turn blind eyes?

One might even argue that the UK is facing a similar question to that which was asked 160 year ago: How much are moral scruples actually worth, when compared to accessing the mass riches available in mainland China?

File:Map of Hong Kong 18 Districts en.svg

Articles & Authors Cited:

Lee, Danny, and Gary Cheung. “Beijing Tells Britain It Has No ‘Moral Responsibility’ for Hong Kong.” South China Morning Post, 12 Sept. 2015,

Vincent, Danny. “Chris Patten: UK Risks ‘Selling Its Honour’ on Hong Kong.” BBC News, BBC, 25 Jan. 2017,

Haas, Benjamin. “Hong Kong Human Rights Situation ‘Worst since Handover to China’.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 12 Jan. 2017,


“Opium Wars.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.,

About Ted Yarbrough

Ted is the co-founder and editor of the Daily Globe. He is a long-time blogger on British politics and has written a thesis on Thatcherism.

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