In 1984, well before Britain handed control of Hong Kong to China, the two nations signed a joint declaration in which China promised to honor the “One Country, Two Systems” principle in regards to Hong Kong.
Hong Kong was to be allowed its own judiciary, and citizens were to have certain fundamental rights like press freedom, free elections, freedom of speech, and political freedom.
This past Saturday marked the 20th anniversary of the handover, and Chinese President Xi Jinping will spend three days in the city attending and leading celebrations. Among the events he will attend is the swearing-in of Beijing-favored candidate Carrie Lam as chief executive, the most powerful government post in Hong Kong.
“The moving occasion of Hong Kong’s return to the motherland…like a long-separated child coming back to the warm embrace of his mother, is still vivid in our memory,” said Xi.
The anniversary may be a moment of celebration for the Chinese president, but it is something entirely different for members of Hong Kong’s democracy movement who fear China is gradually stripping away Hong Kong’s freedoms and that Britain has done nothing to intervene. On top of that is the feeling they have been abandoned by western governments that fear to support Hong Kong would be to offend China, the world’s second largest economy.
A spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry confirmed these fears on Friday when he claimed that the joint declaration “no longer has any practical significance.”
“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.”
Britain’s Foreign Office responded to the comment by insisting that the Sino-British Joint Declaration is as valid today as it was when it was signed in 1984. “It is a legally binding treaty, registered with the UN and continues to be in force. As a co-signatory, the UK government is committed to monitoring its implementation closely.”
The US State Department also criticized China for the announcement, arguing that China must uphold “Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and the crucial idea of ‘One Country, Two Systems’” as outlined in the legally-binding declaration.
The real “news” here is the apparent shift in Chinese policy. Hong Kong has managed to survive as a bright spot in Asia despite its location inside authoritarian China, but its vibrancy is fading.
Hong Kong is slowly being squeezed to death by the short-sighted Chinese government, and the fight over its political future has paralyzed the city.
“Never ending disputes between the city’s Beijing-backed leadership and the pro-democracy opposition have crippled the government’s ability to make difficult decisions and complete important construction projects,” reports The New York Times.
Hong Kong is currently struggling with a troubled education system, a serious lack of affordable housing, and 10+ years of delays in important construction projects.
“We have this enormous giant at our doorstep,” says Anson Chan, a top official in the Hong Kong government. “And the rest of world does not seem to question whatever the enormous giant does.”
But the democracy movement is growing, especially among the younger generation. According to a recent poll, only 3% of Hong Kong residents between the ages of 18 and 29 consider themselves “Chinese.”
“The young people want democracy. They don’t want to be brainwashed,” says Martin Lee, a 79-year-old barrister who holds a top position in the city’s democracy movement.