US, UK and European officials call for China to honour Hong Kong commitments on handover anniversary

·4 min read

American, British and European officials called on Beijing to honour its commitments to provide a "high degree of autonomy" to Hong Kong and uphold protected freedoms in the city on the 25th anniversary of its return to Chinese control.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said China had fallen short of its commitments under the "one country, two systems" arrangement agreed as part of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the British government would seek to hold it accountable.

"We simply cannot avoid the fact that, for some time now, Beijing has been failing to comply with its obligations," Johnson said in a video message posted on Thursday evening. "It's a state of affairs that threatens both the rights and freedoms of Hongkongers and the continued progress and prosperity of their home."

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The British government has said for several years that China is in noncompliance with the Joint Declaration, which guaranteed "a high degree of autonomy" for the city for 50 years, except when it comes to defence or foreign affairs.

Signed in 1984, the pact paved the way for the handover, with China agreeing the city's society, economic system and freedoms would remain unchanged until 2047. In recent years, Chinese officials have called the Joint Declaration a "historical document" that is no longer binding.

The British government, and its allies in Europe and the US, also have expressed concern over the adoption two years ago of a controversial national security law for Hong Kong and its usage to crack down on dissidents and media outlets.

"When Hong Kong rejoined China 25 years ago, after having been a British colony for a long time, this political experiment was accompanied by many hopes," said Reinhard Butikofer, chair of the European Parliament's China delegation. "Hong Kong was assured to be able to retain its lifestyle, its economic order, and its freedoms without restrictions for 50 years under Chinese sovereignty; it was even promised a democratic development.

"Today hopes are dead, liberties are eliminated. Any democratic future is blocked, whereas the economy is put at the service of the Chinese Communist Party," he added.

Frank Muller-Rosentritt, a member of the German Bundestag and a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said the Chinese government needed to be "held accountable".

"What is happening in Hong Kong represents a dangerous trend, for in the last two decades authoritarian rulers have far too often been allowed to have their crimes go unpunished," he said.

"Whether it was Vladimir Putin's expansionist fantasies with the annexation of Crimea in 2014 or the brutal government crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019, the world turned a blind eye while dictators trampled on international law and human rights. We must not repeat the same mistake now."

In Washington, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the upcoming anniversary had been envisioned as the "halfway point of 50 years of promised autonomy," as guaranteed under the Joint Declaration.

"Yet it is now evident that Hong Kong and Beijing authorities no longer view democratic participation, fundamental freedoms, and an independent media as part of this vision," said Blinken.

The national security law had "set the stage for an erosion of autonomy and dismantling of the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents," he said, citing the jailing of pro-democracy politicians, raids of independent media outlets, and disqualification of lawmakers, among other developments.

"We stand in solidarity with people in Hong Kong and reinforce their calls for their promised freedoms to be reinstated," said Blinken.

The response from US lawmakers was similarly forthright, with members of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China accusing Beijing of having "broken [the promise of autonomy] repeatedly over the past several years," including through its overhaul of Hong Kong's electoral system last year.

Senator Jeff Merkley and Representative Jim McGovern, the bipartisan panel's chairs, pledged to hold officials accountable for moves that undermined human rights and the rule of law in Hong Kong, partner with allies to urge the release of "political prisoners" there, and provide emigration pathways for Hongkongers seeking to the flee the city.

Additional reporting by Finbarr Bermingham and Owen Churchill

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.