Tea Leaf Nation

Does China Think the Sino-British Joint Declaration Is Void?

Recent statements suggest China pays little heed to the document governing Hong Kong's handover.


On Nov. 28, Ni Jian, China’s deputy ambassador to Britain, visited the British House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee to speak with its chairman, Sir Richard Ottaway. Ni brought a message: the delegation that hoped to visit Hong Kong as part of an investigation into Britain’s relations with its former colony would be denied entry. The meeting between Ottaway and Ni soon turned sour. What happened next is disputed, but Ottaway believes the Chinese side signaled that the Sino-British Joint Declaration, an agreement signed between the two countries to decide on the handover of the former crown colony, ceased to be effective after Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997. The news that China may have disavowed the document – and China’s subsequent refusals to deny the same – have deeply upset some in Hong Kong.

According to Ottaway, during the late November meeting, Ni “conveyed” the message that the “Joint Declaration signed by China and Britain is now void and only covered the period from the signing in 1984 until the handover in 1997.” In response to the putative disavowal and also to the delegation’s setback, the U.K. parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee held an emergency debate, a rare occasion for the House of Commons.

The Joint Declaration was negotiated in the 1980s between Britain and China — notably without the participation of Hong Kong citizens. The two ultimately agreed that Hong Kong would revert to Chinese rule, but only after a 50-year period where Hong Kong’s “current social and economic systems will remain unchanged” and the legal system would remain “basically unchanged” for 50 years. China’s paramount leader at the time, Deng Xiaoping, proposed the now-famous “one country, two systems” formula to govern Hong Kong. Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher signed the agreement in Beijing in December 1984, enshrining Deng’s concept.

China has not said explicitly that the international treaty is no longer effective. Hua Chunying, the spokeswoman of China’s Foreign Ministry, only said that Britain “has no sovereignty, jurisdiction, or right of supervision” and no “moral obligation” to Hong Kong. Chen Zuo’er, former deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, also did not directly answer whether the Joint Declaration is no longer in effect. “Britain no longer has a right to supervise China’s domestic matters. No clauses in the Joint Declaration stipulate this,” Chen said after a conference on December 14, although Chen also acknowledged the Joint Declaration still had “great life.” The ministry has not replied to an Foreign Policy email requesting comment.

For its part, the Hong Kong government has issued ambiguous rhetoric on the matter. On Dec. 17, Raymond Tam, the city’s Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs, told Hong Kong lawmakers that the “historical mission of the Joint Declaration has already been accomplished.” Tam added that the guarantee that Hong Kong remain unchanged for 50 years is a statement from the Chinese government, not the British government, which seemed to be an attempt to imply that walking away from the commitment is a Chinese prerogative.

Alex Chow, secretary-general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students and one leader of recent pro-democracy protests, disagreed. He told FP, “It is a breach of promise.” Chow argued that the Joint Declaration was the key to the handover, its promises being what allowed “an authoritarian regime to reclaim a semi-democratic Hong Kong.”

Apple Daily, a pro-democracy newspaper owned by media mogul Jimmy Lai, posted a link of the report on China’s claim that the Joint Declaration was no longer in force after 1997 on its Facebook page on Dec 3. The update has attracted more than 12,000 likes and been shared more than 4,000 times, sparking a vibrant discussion.

Many commentators on the thread expressed outrage, writing variously that the Communist Party “cannot be believed,” was “domineering and unreasonable,” and was “shameless.” Many others expressed nostalgia for colonial times and reasoned that if the Joint Declaration is in fact no longer in force, the city should return to British rule.

Pro-Beijing loyalists within Hong Kong have also picked up the argument. In a December 5 statement, Hong Kong barrister Alan Hoo, who also chairs the Basic Law Institute, a Beijing-backed research center, said the Joint Declaration was only effective until June 30, 1997.

While not all members of Hong Kong’s pro-establishment camp back the notion that the Joint Declaration is now void, many have insisted that Britain now merits no role in Hong Kong’s affairs. In a televised interview on December 5 with Hong Kong’s public broadcaster RTHK, Rita Fan, a former president of Hong Kong’s legislature and Hong Kong’s only representative to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, argued that because the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group, established to ensure a smooth transition post-handover, was disbanded in 2000, that meant that Britain’s supervisory responsibility had lapsed. She also emphasized that the Joint Declaration does not stipulate universal suffrage. On Dec. 8, group of pro-Beijing lawyers lodged a complaint letter with the United Nations, protesting against Britain for insisting on sending a delegation to meddle in China’s domestic affairs.

Mainland netizens on Chinese social media mostly seemed to agree. In a December 3 thread on the Joint Declaration on Tianya, a popular online forum, most of those participating wrote that Britain should mind its own business. One wrote, “Britain, send your gunboats and claim Hong Kong again. We are waiting for you!” On microblogging platform Weibo, one user wrote, “Britain thinks it is still the same as it was 100 years ago and is unwilling to awake from its dream.” Some Weibo users did push back. On Dec. 3, rights lawyer Gan Yuanchun wrote that the Joint Declaration gave both parties “the right to supervise its implementation,” calling breach of such an agreement “a challenge to international order” that “damages trust in government.”   

Besides a remark from the U.K. Prime Minister’s spokesman denouncing Beijing’s decision to refuse the delegation entry into Hong Kong as “counterproductive,” the Cameron administration has so far said little regarding the situation in Hong Kong. Many people in Hong Kong do not believe Britain would intervene in Hong Kong, even though Britain is a signatory of the Joint Declaration. “The Brits did not want to be involved with Hong Kong anymore. Hong Kong is [becoming] too much of an embarrassment to British trade with China and they want to wash their hands completely of Hong Kong,” veteran pro-democracy activist Martin Lee told FP in October.

Chow also agreed that Britain had not done enough to supervise the development of Hong Kong in accordance with the Joint Declaration. “If you are a signatory of the Joint Declaration, you bear the responsibility to supervise whether the clauses in the Joint Declaration have been applied in Hong Kong,” Chow said. “At the very least, Britain should show its stance on the Joint Declaration and cannot let China interpret the clauses alone.”


Grace Tsoi is a Hong Kong reporter based in Taipei. Her articles have been published in The New York Times and HK Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @gracehw.