The Guardian, May 7, 1997

Why Hong Kong Will Be Blair's First Foreign Test

By Martin C.M. Lee

Now that Labour Party champagne glasses have been emptied, Tony Blair and Robin Cook must confront the new government's foreign policy decisions.
Though much discussion in Britain is focusing on the European Union's Amsterdam summit in June, the new government's first foreign policy challenge will come from Hong Kong.
Fewer than two months remain before the transfer of Hong Kong's sovereignty to the People's Republic of China at midnight on June 30. Should things continue to go awry in Hong Kong, the world community will look to Britain -- and to Mr. Blair -- for leadership in defending Hong Kong's free society and people.
In 1984, China and Britain signed the Joint Declaration on Hong Kong and registered the agreement at the United Nations. Under the Joint Declaration, Hong Kong and its 6.5 million people will be returned to China under the "one country, two system" policy. This meant that Hong Kong people would "rule Hong Kong with a high degree of autonomy," and that -- except for defence and foreign affairs -- we would be masters of our own house.
In the Joint Declaration, Britain and China clearly promised Hong Kong an elected legislature, an independent judiciary, the rule of law, personal freedoms and a capitalist economy. These promises formed the basis for the British parliament's and the international community's support for the agreement.
Throughout the past decade, China has broken these promises with increasing frequency. Today China's policy toward Hong Kong can be summarised in a single word: control. Mr. Blair and his new government must urgently address the future of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Hong Kong.
With China already making profound changes to roll back civil liberties laws and elected institutions, what should the new Labour government do?
Defend Hong Kong's elected institutions. The most damaging blow to Hong Kong's future occurred in December 1996, when 400 members of a committee handpicked by China met to appoint a legislature. This illegal and illegitimate Provisional Legislature (which contains a number of members who were defeated in popular elections in 1991 and 1995) has been operating over the Chinese border since then. It will be passing new restrictive laws until the handover on July 1, when it will unseat the Legislative Council elected in 1995 by Hong Kong people to a four-year term.
The Labour government should treat the Provisional Legislature as the illegal, unconstitutional body it is and be prepared to go to the International Court of Justice to prove the point.
Listen to Hong Kong people. There is no doubt that the people of Hong Kong want democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Whenever Hong Kong people have had a chance to vote -- in six sets of elections since 1991 -- they have overwhelmingly elected members of my party and other democratic allies, even in the face of China's opposition.
Come to Hong Kong and investigate the effects of China's appointed legislature, the recent threats to roll back civil liberties and the intimidation of the press by talking to Hong Kong's elected leaders. Then decide for yourself whether the Foreign Office's long-standing policy of appeasing China has helped either Hong Kong or Britain.
Don't sacrifice Hong Kong for trade with China. Engagement with China is good as it should lead to enhanced understanding on Hong Kong. Increasing British trade with China is also fine. But there is no reason why expanded trade with China and closer economic co-operation should lead to the loss of our freedoms.
Lead on Hong Kong, don't follow. Hong Kong is in the predicament we are now facing because China has not been discouraged from eradicating elected institutions and rolling back freedoms. Indeed, China gave two years' notice that it would set up an appointed legislature and interpreted the world's silence as consent. In meetings last month, both President Clinton and the Canadian prime minister, Jean Chretien, assured me that they would support freedoms in Hong Kong. But North America and Europe will look to Britain as the Joint Declaration signatory to lead the way in defending Hong Kong. The new Labour government should make sure Hong Kong is high on priorities when talking to allies -- the G7 meeting in Denver this June and the IMF summit September are opportunities to keep the world spotlight on Hong Kong.
The UK's obligations to Hong Kong don't stop with the handover. The Joint Declaration promises Hong Kong's freedoms and way of life will continue unchanged for at least 50 years. But this year's British parliamentary report on Hong Kong shows China is already breaking the agreement. Labour's challenge is to bring China back to the course charted in 1984.
Labour should continue to support the Hong Kong government under Governor Chris Patten, and be aware that civil servants and the business community are under tremendous pressure to toe Beijing's line. Don't bow to economic blackmail or to the entirely predictable insistence of Beijing's leaders that Hong Kong is China's internal affair. Hong Kong is an international city and China, together with Britain, sought and obtained the international community's public support for the Joint Declaration in 1984, thereby making these countries the guarantors of the agreement. Shortly after signing the Joint Declaration, the then prime minister, Baroness Thatcher, said "the eyes of the world are on us." If things go badly wrong for Hong Kong, the eyes of the world will be on Mr. Blair. We in Hong Kong note Mr. Blair's post-election commitment to "noble causes, duty and decency." There cannot be a more noble cause, a greater duty, or a more decent thing than to preserve the freedoms of Hong Kong's 6.5 million people. With just over 50 days to make a difference, the new Labour government must indeed hit the ground running.

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