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Legislative Council, Hong Kong (by Tksteven via Wikimedia Commons)

The government of the United Kingdom has expressed concern over the “continued pressure on Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and on rights and freedoms enshrined in the Basic Law”, according to a report released on September 6.

The British Foreign Secretary has reported to Parliament on the implementation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong since the former crown colony was handed over to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in July 1997.

The Sino-British Joint Declaration is a treaty signed by the governments of London and Beijing and registered at the United Nations. The document stipulated that after the handover Hong Kong would retain “a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs,” and that it would be “vested with executive, legislative, and independent judicial powers.”

On the basis of the Joint Declaration, the PRC established the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) in order to guarantee that the former British colony would maintain its way of life and its freedoms. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping created the formula of “one country, two systems”, which would allow Hong Kong and mainland China to be part of the same state, while retaining two different political, economic and social systems.

Crucially, the Declaration states that: “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.”

According to the UK government’s report, twenty-one years after the handover to China, “Hong Kong continues to be a prosperous and vibrant city, a global financial centre, a bridge between mainland China and the rest of the world.”

The report says that ‘One Country, Two Systems’ “generally continues to function well”, but that “the continued pressure on Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and on rights and freedoms enshrined in the Basic Law gives cause for concern.”

During the period between January and June 2018, various events have signalled a tightening grip on society on the part of the authorities, namely: “the barring of certain individuals from running for election on the basis of their political beliefs; the prosecution of pro-democracy legislators and protesters; and further controversy over the legal base for the establishment of a joint control point and the co-location of mainland officials on SAR territory.”

The report points at a deterioration of Hong Kong’s press freedom, citing the 2018 press freedom ranking by Reporters Without Borders. Due to growing interference by the Chinese authorities and business entities buying Hong Kong media like the South China Morning Post, as well as the increasing difficulty to “cover subjects involving governance in either Hong Kong and mainland China,” in 2018 Reporters Without Borders ranked Hong Kong 70th in the world for press freedom, down from 18th in 2002.

On 20 January, Hong Kong bookseller and Swedish citizen Gui Minhai was seized on board a train by plainclothes agents at Jinan West station in Shandong province. Gui is one of six Hong Kong booksellers abducted and detained by mainland Chinese authorities for their books critical of Chinese politicians.

In a statement on 6 February, China’s Foreign Ministry said “Gui Minhai broke Chinese law and has already been subjected to criminal coercive measures in accordance with the law by relevant Chinese authorities.” Later the Ministry of Public Security stated that Gui had been detained on suspicion of leaking state secrets abroad.

Not only press freedom, but also political freedom has come under attack.

“In January, Hong Kong election officials barred three prospective candidates from competing in by-elections scheduled for March to fill four of the six seats vacated by legislators elected in 2016 and subsequently disqualified. Their prospective candidacies were declared invalid on the basis that their political views called into question their intention to uphold the Basic Law,” the UK government’s report states.

Pro-democracy activists Agnes Chow, Ventus Lauwas and Nathan Law were barred from contesting elections. In a written explanation of Chow’s disqualification, the Returning Officer noted that Demosisto’s “doctrine of democratic self-determination” was inconsistent with the principle of ‘One Country, Two Systems’, despite the fact that Chow had signed the mandatory declaration pledging to uphold the Basic Law and the principle of ‘One Country, Two Systems’. On 8 May, Chow launched an appeal to have the ban overturned on the basis of the Bill of Rights.

On 14 February, the Hong Kong Bar Association issued a statement calling the rejection of Agnes Chow’s candidacy “equivalent to the introduction of a political screening process for any prospective candidate.”

The report also raises concern over the prosecution of pro-democracy activists involved in the 2014 Occupy Central movement demanding universal suffrage for the election of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive.

Three founders of the Occupy movement, Rev. Chu Yiu-ming, Prof. Benny Tai and Prof. Chan Kin-man, and six activists, Tanya Chan, Shiu Ka-chun, Tommy Cheung, Eason Chung, Raphael Wong and Lee Wing-tat, will be tried on 19 November on charges of incitement to public nuisance. Beijing declared its opposition to Occupy Central long before it started.

The co-location of mainland officials at West Kowloon rail terminus is another sign of the erosion of freedom in Hong Kong and of increasing mainland interference.

In December 2017 the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) approved plans to establish a joint Hong Kong–mainland checkpoint in the new High-speed Rail Link terminus in Hong Kong. On June 14, the Hong Kong government adopted the Guangzhou–Shenzhen–Hong Kong Express Rail Link (Co-location) Bill. The Bill de facto cedes a portion of Hong Kong’s territory inside the station to mainland authorities, where mainland laws apply.

The Bill was criticized by pro-democracy groups and the Hong Kong Bar Association, which stated that the Bill was not compliant with the Basic Law. “The legal arguments put forward centre on whether the ordinance contravenes Article 18 of the Basic Law, which states that national laws shall not be applied in Hong Kong, except those listed in Annex III,” the UK government’s report says.

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