International Herald Tribune, 1996

Hong Kong Walks Alone


By Martin Lee

Today Members of the British Parliament will debate Hong Kong for what is likely to be the last time before Britainˇ¦s hands Hong Kong over to China at midnight 30 June 1997. Ironically, even as the democratically elected Members of the House of Commons take up the fate of Hong Kong, Chinese leaders are moving to eradicate our elected legislature and replace it with their own rubber stamp version.

As Chairman of the largest party in the current elected Legislative Council, I have travelled to London to alert Members of the House of Commons to the impending demise of democracy in Hong Kong and to tell them what devastating effects an appointed legislature, repressive laws and a restricted press will have on Hong Kong.

In December of this year, the Chinese government will set up its fully appointed so-called ˇ§provisionalˇ¨ legislature, to operate simultaneously with Hong Kongˇ¦s legitimate legislature ˇV elected in September 1995 to a four-year term. Chinaˇ¦s establishment of an appointed legislature will dash already fragile local and international confidence in Hong Kongˇ¦s future under China and is a blatant breach of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which guarantees our legislature ˇ§shall be constituted by elections.ˇ¨

Beijingˇ¦s new unelected legislature will unravel the fabric of freedom in Hong Kong and spell the end of the rule of law in Hong Kong as we know it. Hong Kong has been told by top Chinese leaders that Beijing will not only change our legislature but also our laws. China intends to use its appointed legislature to roll-back Hong Kongˇ¦s Bill of Rights. New laws on ˇ§subversionˇ¨ will be passed and draconian colonial laws restricting freedom of the press, assembly and of expression will be resurrected. And once these repressive laws are in place, no matter how independent our judges may continue to be, they will have to apply the law as they find it. Even Hong Kongˇ¦s judiciary may thus become an instrument of injustice.

Next month, Chinaˇ¦s new legislature is slated to be chosen by a 400-member ˇ§Selection Committee,ˇ¨ itself appointed by Beijing. Chinese leaders say the earliest elections will be held is the end of 1998, leaving Hong Kong with an appointed legislature for a period of approximately two years. And of course once Beijing is allowed to move the goalposts in such a fundamental way, there can be no guarantee that Hong Kong will ever have genuine elections again.

With barely 200 days until the transfer of sovereignty to China, it is worth looking back and asking what went wrong? Over the past decade Hong Kongˇ¦s 6.3 million people were repeatedly assured that an elected legislature would safeguard their freedoms and way of life after the handover. During the House of Commons debate on the Joint Declaration on 5 December 1984, the then Minister responsible for Hong Kong, Mr. Richard Luce, pledged that Hong Kong would have a democratic government to protect rights, declaring: ˇ§We all fully accept that we should build up a firmly-based democratic administration in Hong Kong in the years between now and 1997.ˇ¨

Twelve years later, in March of this year in Hong Kong, Prime Minister John Major asserted: ˇ§ˇKif there were any suggestion of a breach of the Joint Declaration, we would have a duty to pursue every legal and other avenue available to us.ˇ¨ The Prime Minister concluded: ˇ§Hong Kong will never have to walk alone.ˇ¨

But now that Britain is confronted with an outright violation of the Joint Declaration, the British government is conspicuously silent, perhaps wishing not to impair Britainˇ¦s important trade relationship with China.

Hong Kongˇ¦s British Governor Chris Patten will say only that an appointed legislature is ˇ§a hypothetical institutionˇ¨ ˇV a preposterous position in light of the fact that China is already in the process of setting it up. And although a second legislature violates Hong Kongˇ¦s present constitution, the British administration in Hong Kong is making no preparations to fight it in Hong Kongˇ¦s courts. In short, China is being given no disincentives whatsoever to do away with Hong Kongˇ¦s elected institutions.

What can be done to help Hong Kong now?

The Joint Declaration does not end on 1 July 1997 and Britain clearly has a great deal more leverage before the transfer of sovereignty than after. We believe Chinaˇ¦s bottom line on abolishing the sitting elected legislature can change ˇV but only if China is pushed to do so. And right now, few people are pushing.

It cannot continue to be British Government policy that no matter the degree to which China breaches the Joint Declaration or threatens Hong Kong people, that the British government will do and say nothing. For though some may see this to be in Britainˇ¦s interest, it is manifestly not in Hong Kongˇ¦s.

At the very least, the British Government has an obligation to warn China and tell the world ˇV before it is too late ˇV of the great damage that will be done to Hong Kong if Chinese leaders follow through with their plans. But if Britain continues not to do so, Beijing and the rest of the international community will certainly interpret this thunderous silence as tacit consent.

Hong Kong people know that this is our last ditch battle to save our elected institutions and protect our freedoms. I am hopeful that even if the British government refuses to warn Beijing not to sweep away our legislature in Hong Kong, individual British MPs will have the courage, conscience and conviction to do so in todayˇ¦s debate.

Hong Kong should not have to walk alone.

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