UK 1984 Pledge to Back Hong Kong if China Breaks Joint Declaration Uncovered

December 29, 2014 Updated: December 30, 2014

The United Kingdom’s vows to call out China if it fails to stick to the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, recently declassified documents reveal.

Margaret Thatcher, then Britain’s Prime Minister, held a closed-door meeting with Hong Kong’s Executive and Legislative Council members a day after signing the Joint Declaration to assure them that Britain will be firm with Beijing should China break the treaty.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)’s notes on Dec. 20, 1984 showed Thatcher was to tell Hong Kong’s political elite that: “Britain has the right to raise any breaches with China after 1997. We would not hesitate to do so.”

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Thatcher was also counseled by the FCO to make a similar statement at her Dec. 21 press conference.

If questioned on Britain’s reaction to Beijing not observing the treaty, Thatcher was to reply that a “breach of a legally binding international agreement would be a most serious matter, in our eyes and no doubt in those of [the] international community as a whole.”

“We would of course make the strongest possible representations to the Chinese government in order to seek a remedy.”

At the actual press conference, however, Thatcher said: “If by any chance any question rose under the agreement, naturally a signatory to it would raise the matter with the Chinese government.”

Another declassified record reveals that Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang had assured Thatcher that the Chinese regime would be faithful to the Joint Declaration when they met to sign the treaty on Dec. 19.

“Zhao said China always lived up to her international commitments. The agreement reached on Hong Kong was such a good agreement that no one wanted to alter or change it,” the record said.

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Thatcher started talks for Britain’s handover of Hong Kong when visiting China in 1982. Then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping eventually agreed to let Hong Kong return to the mainland under a “one country, two systems” policy.

The 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration was a product of tricky negotiations and compromises. The treaty allowed Hong Kong to enjoy a “high degree of autonomy” from Beijing, and also allowed the southern Chinese city to retain its way of life, legal system, rights, and freedoms for a period of fifty years after 1997.

Treaty Breached?

The declassified documents have come to light at a crucial time in Sino-British relations.

Chinese and pro-Beijing Hong Kong officials have recently suggested that the Joint Declaration is no longer binding.

On Nov. 30, 2014, British members of parliament were told that they could not go to Hong Kong to conduct an inquiry into the implementation of the Joint Declaration.

Sir Richard Ottoway, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee leading the investigation, sought a reply from Ni Jian, China’s deputy ambassador to Britain.

Ottoway claims that Ni told him that Britain had no right to interfere in Hong Kong’s affairs because the Joint Declaration, “is now void and only covered the period from the signing in 1984 until the handover in 1997.”

Incumbent UK Prime Minister David Cameron condemned China’s ban on Dec. 1, calling it “counterproductive” and that it would only “amplify concerns about the situation in Hong Kong, rather than diminishing concerns.” By British “concerns,” Cameron was likely referring to the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

The Umbrella Movement demonstrations, which Hongkongers started because they were angry with the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress’s (NPCSC) refusal to grant “genuine universal suffrage” via an Aug. 31 ruling, had already gone on for two months before the British MP ban.

Ottoway, who feels that Beijing’s Hong Kong ban is the “clearest breach of the Joint Declaration,” insists that Britain was not going to Hong Kong to support the protesters because the Foreign Affairs Committee is independent from UK government. Also, because the inquiry started in July, two months before the protests broke out in September, China cannot accuse Britain of being a “foreign interference” in the Hong Kong protests.

Two days after the last protest site in Causeway Bay was cleared on Dec. 15, however, Raymond Tam, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland affairs, expressed a similar sentiment to Chinese diplomat Ni Jian.

Tam said in a legislature session that Britain no longer has any “moral obligation” to Hong Kong because the Joint Declaration has “fulfilled its historic mission” after 1997, and drew swift criticism for his reading of the treaty.

Michael Davis, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, said Tam’s statement is “nonsense” because it has “no basis in international law.”

Democratic Party chairperson Emily Lau called Tam’s assessment of the Joint Declaration “ridiculous,” and added in a radio broadcast on Dec. 28 that, “it is not for Beijing to unilaterally declare the Joint Declaration null and void.”

The UK Foreign Affairs Committee has since called a rare emergency session to discuss the China ban, and has requested that the UK government summon the Chinese ambassador to the Foreign Office to lodge a formal complaint. The Committee has also invited Hong Kong student protesters and lawmakers to London to give testament.