REVIEW: Article

Why World Diplomats Should Defend Hong Kong’s Core Values

In late August, China’s National People’s Congress set off a firestorm in Hong Kong when it confirmed that Beijing intends to control who can stand for an election to lead Hong Kong. Diplomats familiar with China’s hard-line tactics may be unsurprised at China’s effort to control Hong Kong and surprised at the thousands of Hong Kong protesters in the streets.

2017 was the year Hong Kong’s patient population was at last to be able to elect our chief executive by “universal suffrage.” Support for reforms to Hong Kong’s undemocratic system is strong: In June 2014, more than 800,000 ordinary citizens in our small but still free part of China defied the largest cyber-attacks in the history of the Internet to vote in a referendum that overwhelmingly demanded fair elections where voters could chose from candidates not pre-approved by Beijing. Many thousands also marched to demand greater democracy on July 1, the anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong by Britain in 1997.

Why has this political crisis taken hold in Hong Kong now?

Hong Kong people have waited for decades for the implementation of the solemn promise of “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong” with a “high degree of autonomy” under Deng Xiaoping’s formula of “one country, two systems.” Those words were encapsulated in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, an international treaty registered at the United Nations—and applauded by the world when it was announced. China’s determination to screen candidates in the election of Hong Kong’s next chief executive is a clear breach of the Joint Declaration and should not stand.

After 150 years as a British colony, Hong Kong and our seven million citizens were returned to mainland China in 1997 with the promise that we would continue to enjoy civil liberties that are denied to people on the mainland, and that we would gradually progress towards the ultimate aim of universal suffrage under the Basic Law which is our constitution. This arrangement has protected free political speech in the city and kept alive hopes for genuine democracy that was never seen under British rule.

China Over-Stepping its Role

China’s recently announced dictate for how the city’s next leader will be elected blocks any chance for an elected leader who is not controlled by Beijing, and denies Hong Kong people a true vote. The “two or three” candidates allowed to stand in the election will be required to gain at least 50 percent approval from a nomination committee domi­nated by Beijing supporters, which will lock out any candidates China doesn’t want.

That is not an election but a selection, and makes a mockery of China’s interna­tional treaty obligations. Yes, Hong Kong people will have “one person, one vote,” but with Beijing vetting the contenders, there is little hope for a candidate who will defend our rights and freedoms from escalating encroachment by China. This sort of fake election will fundamentally undermine Hong Kong values, and that is why people are taking to the streets in large numbers.

Hong Kong people are not challenging Beijing. We are merely asking that China uphold clear international obligations and fulfill the promise of universal suffrage by letting us choose our own leaders without interference so to exercise the “high degree of autonomy” promised in the Joint Declaration as a condition of the handover of Hong Kong.  

After a delay of ten years, and as we are finally going to have one person, one vote, Chinese government officials are moving the goal posts by demanding that all candidates must “love the country.” The Decision of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress is a particular flashpoint because a chief executive who is elected by the people of Hong Kong from two or three candidates effectively handpicked by Beijing cannot be expected to protect the rule of law or our core values and freedoms.

The Decision of the Standing Committee and China’s “White Paper” published by the State Council in June 2014 should be seen by the international community for what they are: clear efforts to undermine Hong Kong’s central pillars—our core values.

Core Values under Siege

What are those core values? They are transparency, a level playing field, clean government, and the protection of basic human rights and freedoms that Hong Kong people have long enjoyed and will fight to defend. 

In particular, we are concerned about the rule of law. It sets us apart from China’s mainland where the Communist Party and officials are above the law. The White Paper rewrites the Joint Declaration. Instead of reserving only defense and foreign affairs to the Central government, Beijing now claims to have “comprehensive jurisdiction” over all of our affairs. The White Paper caused alarm in Hong Kong because among other things, it claims that even our judges should be “patriotic,” meaning loyal to the Communist Party. This would destroy the long-standing independence of our judicial system.

No one in Hong Kong wants to see cronyism and corruption like the kind that is rampant on the mainland overtake our generally merit-based system.

Press freedom is also under siege, with escalating censorship, self-censorship and obstruction of coverage. A free flow of information is absolutely essential to Hong Kong remaining a credible international financial center. This year, there have been several vicious attacks on journalists, including a near-fatal attack on former Ming Pao editor Kevin Lau. There are regular reports of self-censorship in the media. In China, reporters are often jailed for critical reporting, and we don’t want to see that here.

China’s Central Liaison office in Hong Kong has gone from being a representative office to issuing orders that undermine the integrity of our system, such as ordering banks, including HSBC and Standard Chartered, to stop advertising in one of Hong Kong’s most popular newspapers, Apple Daily. News media depend on advertisements for survival, and this appears to be an effort to silence critical reporting.

As China grows economically stronger, it is flexing political muscles as well, including pressuring governments and companies not to support democracy in Hong Kong, and to look the other way as China breaks international agreements. 

Some in the diplomatic corps may argue that trade with China—and presumably, good relations—can be obtained only by not mentioning China’s broken promises over Hong Kong. But this is an incorrect approach. At a time when the world is wondering if China will be a responsible member of the global community, it sends entirely the wrong message to Beijing to stand by silently as China flouts a clearly worded international agreement. 

As the co-signer of the Joint Declaration, Britain not only has the right but also the obligation to defend the treaty. It cannot pretend that all is well and going according to plan in Hong Kong when it is not. The United States and all governments who backed the treaty have a duty to closely monitor events and speak up as the Joint Declaration is being violated. 

We are Chinese and want to see a strong China—a strong China not just in economic terms but a China that is confident enough to tolerate different points of view, to embrace and uphold universal values, including respect for human dignity and freedom, and above all, to allow the people of Hong Kong to have genuine democracy as promised, so that we can be masters of our own house.

We will continue our fight in Hong Kong to preserve our values and way of life for future generations. But the international community has a key role to play, and it is time for the world to find its voice and defend Hong Kong.


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Founding Chairman of the Democratic Party of Hong Kong