Two Decades After Hong Kong Handover, China Shrugs Off Treaty With UK

Protesters say President Xi is being kept in a bubble, where he won't be able to see any protests or hear any dissenting voices.

Hong Kong protesters call for freedom for China's political prisoners, June 30, 2017.

Two decades after the former British colony was handed over to China, Chinese president Xi Jinping reviewed People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops in Hong Kong, as officials in Beijing dismissed the handover treaty promising the city its freedoms as "a historical document."

In a stark contrast to U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson's description of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration as a treaty that is still binding in international law, Beijing's foreign ministry said the handover agreement "no long has any practical significance."

"Now that 20 years have passed since Hong Kong returned to the motherland's embrace, the Sino-British Joint Declaration, as a historical document, no longer has any practical significance," spokesman Lu Kang told a regular news briefing in Beijing.

"It is not at all binding for the central government's management of Hong Kong. The U.K. has no sovereignty, no power to rule, and no power to supervise Hong Kong after the handover," Lu said.

The joint declaration promised that Hong Kong would retain its traditional freedoms and way of life for "at least 50 years."

But as Xi visited Hong Kong to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the handover on Saturday, pro-independence and pro-democracy activists were prevented from demonstrating at key locations in the city.

Plans by the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party to hold a rally on Friday night at a colonial clock-tower to mark "the fall of Hong Kong 20 years ago," were scrapped after police denied the group a permit to hold a public assembly there.

The group tried to move the rally to a less prominent location, but was also prevented by police, who threatened its leader Andy Chan with arrest, government broadcaster RTHK reported.

Far from the people

Local residents said the Chinese leadership seems far more security-conscious than previous visiting heads of state.

"Our national leaders seem to be much more cautious," a Hong Kong resident surnamed Chu told RFA on Friday. "Several decades ago, when the Queen visited Hong Kong, she got much closer to ordinary people."

"Why can't today's leaders do that? It seems as if they're getting further and further away," she said.

A small group of around 30 pro-democracy protesters gathered on Friday to call for the release of Chinese political prisoner and Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, but wasn't kept "kettled" behind barriers two blocks from the hotel where Xi was staying.

"We want democracy and the rule of law, and yet our human rights have already been obliterated," a protester surnamed Wong told RFA. "We all want the best for the next generation of Hong Kong people, which means fully democratic elections, one person, one vote."

"We in Hong Kong also want to speak out on behalf of the democracy movement in mainland China. We should be standing up for them," she said.

A protester surnamed Hui said that protests would continue ahead of a major march planned for Saturday.

"We will definitely continue our struggle, firstly for human rights and secondly for the freedoms of association and expression, the freedom to demonstrate and protest," Hui said. "We also want fully democratic elections and universal suffrage."

"These are the basic requirements of the people, and Hong Kong people will continue to fight for them," he said.

Veteran democracy activist Lee Cheuk-yan said Xi appeared to be hiding from the people of Hong Kong, however, and was unlikely to be able to hear what they have to say.

"They are keeping Xi locked up in his car, in his own bubble, and away from everyone," Lee said. "He won't be able to hear the voices of the people."

Beijing's broken promises

Signed in 1984 by then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang, the joint declaration set out how Britain would end its century-and-a-half long rule over Hong Kong, and how China would govern the city using the "one country, two systems" principle.

But a string of legal interpretations by China's parliament of Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, as well as cross-border detentions of five Hong Kong booksellers, have left many fearing that the city's traditional freedoms of press and association, and its judicial independence, have been seriously eroded.

In an open letter this week, the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) hit out at Beijing's "rhetorical attacks on the 'one country, two systems' arrangement, repeated failures to honor pledges of democracy to Hong Kong, and interference in the territory’s press freedom and judicial independence."

It called on incoming chief executive Carrie Lam, who will be inaugurated by Xi on Saturday, to defend the city's autonomy more vigorously.

"Fears of a militarized Chinese encroachment on Hong Kong have not materialized, but that doesn’t mean key human rights aren’t at serious risk in the territory," HRW China director Sophie Richardson said in a statement.

"Carrie Lam and other Hong Kong political leaders must use their position and power to resist Beijing’s pressure on the legal system, the press, and diverse political views – while they still can," she said.

HRW also cited "increasing harassment" of opposition political parties by the Hong Kong government.

Dozens of pro-democracy activists were held overnight in police cells after they occupied the Golden Bauhinia statue symbolizing two decades of Chinese rule on Wednesday night.

Many applied for a "habeus corpus" process under Hong Kong law to determine if their detention for some 44 hours without questioning was legal, but were eventually released on bail.

Student leader Joshua Wong, who heads the Demosisto Party formed in the wake of the 2014 Occupy Central pro-democracy movement, said the detention was "unreasonable."

"If we didn’t apply for habeas corpus, we’d probably still be sitting in a cell at North Point police station," he told reporters.

Xi told journalists on Friday that he would work to promote "one country, two systems," however.

"To achieve greater success, Hong Kong compatriots should have three things," he said. "Belief in yourselves, belief in Hong Kong, and belief in your country."

"The motherland will always be Hong Kong's strongest supporter," he said.

Under house arrest

Across the internal immigration border in the neighboring province of Guangdong, activists said they are being placed under house arrest for fear that they will show solidarity with Hong Kong protesters on the anniversary of the handover.

Guangdong rights activist Fan Yiping said he has been under surveillance by state security police since Thursday.

"They came to my door yesterday, and starting today, I am [on vacation], only this time it's within Guangzhou city limits," Fan said. "It will continue until tomorrow evening, because of the major events in Hong Kong for July 1."

"They want to make sure it all goes smoothly. I had been planning to visit my father in Shenzhen, but they wouldn't let me go because it's too close to Hong Kong," he said.

Guangzhou-based activist Jia Pin said he had been told to leave the city by police on Wednesday ahead of the July 1 celebrations.

"I was forced to leave Guangzhou on June 28, because the stability maintenance system is very worried about this ... because Guangdong and Hong Kong are right next to each other," Jia said. "If they don't make sure everything is tightly controlled, they'll be in huge trouble from higher up."

"They set a huge amount of store by the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong on July 1," he said.

Reported by Hei Na for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Ding Wenqi and Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.