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Hong Kong Handover and China’s Broken Promises – London Must Hold Beijing to Account

This blog is authored by Mark Sabah, UK and EU Director of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong (CFHK) Foundation.

Given China’s aggressive behaviour across the globe in the last few years, it’s easy to forget just how optimistic a time it was in the years following the Hong Kong handover in 1997. Of course, there was nervousness and indeed some fear of what China had in store for the former British colony, but for ten years or so after the handover, Hong Kong flourished. It was a truly wonderful place to be. Relations with China were good under CCP General Secretary Jiang Zemin and, later, Hu Jintao and Hong Kong truly became “Asia’s World City” – not just a slogan but a reality.


Of course there were democratic shortcomings, like no universal suffrage, but overall, it was an open, vibrant, freedom-loving city. There was free press, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom in academic learning, an open business environment, a trusted legal system with good checks and balances, and a fantastic civil service that worked in the interests of the population. Rule of law was the way of the land. China seemed serious about keeping the promises it made under the “one country, two systems” arrangement that guaranteed Hong Kong the right to run its own affairs.

Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997


But then, in 2012 Xi Jinping came to power in Beijing. At first there were no discernible changes to life in Hong Kong, but the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests demanding genuine universal suffrage highlighted growing frustration with China's influence over Hong Kong's political system and with Hong Kong politicians stalling on progress towards more democracy. The 2015 disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers, who later turned up in mainland Chinese custody, raised serious concerns about erosion of Hong Kong's autonomy. The 2019 extradition bill which would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, ignited fears of further erosion of Hong Kong's judicial independence and triggered massive protests.

The implementation of the national security law in 2020 is widely seen as effectively ending Hong Kong's autonomy and freedoms guaranteed under the "one country, two systems" principle. Shortly after that, the forced closure of Apple Daily and the arrest and detention of Jimmy Lai awoke the world to the extent of Hong Kong’s demise.

More than two decades after the handover, the promises made under the Sino-British Joint Declaration are more relevant than ever as Hong Kong’s autonomy hangs in the balance. It is a reminder of the importance of international agreements and the need for vigilance in upholding them.

The 2020 expansion of the BNO visa scheme, providing a path to UK citizenship for many Hong Kongers, was a fantastic step forward. Since then, the British Government seems to have washed its hands of Hong Kong, and the timid response to the arrest and sham trial of British citizen Jimmy Lai reflects poorly on the government’s commitment to stand up for its citizens. As Hong Kong navigates its future, the world watches closely, and Britain's role as a guarantor of its autonomy remains crucial.

Whichever political party takes power following the general election this year must keep the promises it made to Hong Kong and to Hong Kongers and must become braver and bolder in fighting back against China’s threats, intimidations, and coercive behaviour.

For some, all the above has tainted the memory of the 1997 handover. Hong Kongers under the age of 27 were not born when Britain surrendered perhaps its most successful colony ever, yet they are suffering the consequences of the UK’s lack of effort in defending it. This must change. And it must change fast. Britain’s reputation as a country that defends freedom depends on it.

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