This was bound to happen. World over citizens have been betrayed by their governments, promises shattered by political leaders. Here in Britain messy politics and confused pledges have led to sheer historic instability with people increasingly distrusting their governments and mainstream political parties. If British politics has produced instability, it is surely worse in Sri [...]


Hong Kong betrayed, freedoms threatened


This was bound to happen. World over citizens have been betrayed by their governments, promises shattered by political leaders. Here in Britain messy politics and confused pledges have led to sheer historic instability with people increasingly distrusting their governments and mainstream political parties.

People walk past placards against a controversial extradition law proposal pasted on a wall near the Legislative Council Complex in Hong Kong on Friday. AFP

If British politics has produced instability, it is surely worse in Sri Lanka, where politics is even messier and dirtier. Those who run the country’s coalition government spend more of their time going for each other’s jugular than doing what they promised to do, if elected.

Vindictive politics has turned governance into a dirty word and despised by the people. Those who faithfully promised yahapalanaya or clean and good government have since then retreated into their fox holes and those who ruled before are gearing for a fight to return to power.

The country has come to a virtual standstill with the President spending his time abroad grabbing every opportunity to take flight generally at public expense. Or he leaves it to see how the other coalition partner manages the country in his absence, possibly hoping that it would make a mess of things for which it could be blamed.

If round the world people have been let down by their governments, Hong Kong, the former British colony, has been betrayed by two governments — its former colonial power and its new master, China.

Promises were made by the Chinese and British governments in the 1984 bilateral treaty called the Joint Declaration and the subsequent Basic Law, the territory’s mini ‘constitution’ that laid down how Hong Kong will be managed for the next 50 years.

Hong Kong was given a “high degree of autonomy” including executive, legislative and independent judicial power. It extended to the former colony certain rights and freedoms and pledged to uphold such freedoms as that of press, free speech and association. That is until the treaty expired in June 2047.

But since 1997 the sovereign power has gradually encroached on Hong Kong’s autonomy, eroding the rights and freedoms that China had promised to leave intact in the bilateral treaty.

To many Hong Kong people the promises made in the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law appeared spurious. They hardly believed that a one-party state that denied its own citizens any of the freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kong would last very long.

Their scepticism was fortified by the cruel suppression of the Chinese people’s massive protest at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. That protest by students which started in April 1989 and swelled into millions of demonstrators as claimed by some, ended on June 4 when Chinese troops crushed the protest killing several hundred protestors, according to some accounts.

I left Sri Lanka (that’s another story) when the Hong Kong Standard newspaper offered me a place, just 2 ½ months or less after the Tiananmen protest was crushed.

A politically apathetic Hong Kong was suddenly galvanised at the cruel treatment of their ‘cousins’ across the border by a government that would shortly be its sovereign. Hong-Kongers were shocked into action with apparently millions marching in support of the Tiananmen protestors, holding candle light vigils in the crowded city.

Hong Kong had not seen anything like it before, I was told. The newspaper gave me quite a lot of leeway, writing editorials, a regular column and as sketch writer covering the Legislative Council (Legco), Hong Kong’s apology for a parliament.

The more I read of the Sino-British negotiations over Hong Kong and how the treaty was imposed on the territory’s citizenry, the more it became clear that the two powers were jointly preparing to sell the Hong Kong people down the river.

In fact, it was the headline of a column I wrote in The Standard in December 1993, in which I quoted the then Constitutional Affairs Secretary Michael Sze, who admitted that if the Hong Kong people sought legal redress for any violation of the Joint Declaration, they would fail since they, as a matter of law, could not seek to enforce against the two governments.

What is perhaps worse is that even Britain did not have recourse to legal redress. So if China decided to do as it pleases, there is precious little the other party could do.

So the door was left ajar for either party to violate the treaty and neither Britain nor the Hong Kong people could do anything about it.

“So there you have it. All its pious hopes and platitudes about maintaining Hong Kong’s economic system and way of life can so easily be turned into pretentious prattle by a party that could, one day, decide to dispense with the rights and obligations cast upon by a burdensome treaty,” I wrote more than 25 years ago.

This is precisely what Beijing has been doing. As early as 1991 when Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal was being established, the Joint Declaration’s Annex 1, Section 3, which was considered inviolate, left the decision of inviting foreign judges entirely to the Hong Kong judiciary.

But what happened. The Joint Liaison Group (JLG) consisting of the Chinese, British and Hong Kong governments usurped the right of the court. The issue was not the number of foreign judges to be invited. If the three governments can steal the right of the judiciary and impose conditions on it, other pernicious violations are possible.

It is in the last decade or so that Beijing started to tighten the screws and gradually encroach on the rights and freedoms promised to Hong Kong. That is why one sees more protests and demonstration by the Hong Kong people in recent years.

The 2014 “Umbrella Revolution” during which Hong-Kongers, mainly university and college students, protested for months blocking streets in the Central district of the city, because China reneged on what was a promise that by 2017, its chief executive will be elected by universal franchise. But an ambiguity in the Basic Law led to heightened tensions as the expected democratisation appeared to be chimerical. The Basic Law states that the “ultimate aim” is to have Hong Kong’s leaders elected by popular vote but does not set a date for it.

In any event the Basic Law is interpreted by China and not by the Hong Kong judiciary. That is what angered Hong Kong’s youth to launch the “Umbrella Revolution” which threw up some young leaders but failed to win its demand.

The current protest is over a bill that tampers with the judicial system and makes it possible for Hong Kong people and others to be extradited to China to stand trial there under mainland China’s laws.

Nearly five years ago some Hong Kong booksellers were arrested for writing booklets and articles critical of China. At least one of them, a Swedish national living in Hong Kong, was taken to China where he was incarcerated for several months and released after eight months in June 2016.

These curbs on Hong Kong people’s rights and freedoms have scared them. Many young people — students as well as professionals — have left the former colony and sought to live elsewhere.

The fact is that despite laws and treaties promising rights, freedoms and democratic elections, Beijing sees all this as a contagion that must not be allowed to spread to China. A one-party state cannot afford to loosen its grip on the people.

The Tiananmen protests and the huge demonstrations in Hong Kong in recent years demanding that the promises held out in the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law be implemented have alarmed mainland China and Hong Kong, its Special Administrative Region (SAR).

But it is not China alone that is guilty of violating the Joint Declaration that adopted Deng Xiaoping’s doctrine of “One Country, Two Systems”. Britain, too, is guilty as hell. That is why its government remains silent, except for an occasional statement, which hardly reaches the British people and the world.

As far back as 1990, we wrote that Hong Kong’s free lifestyle and its freedoms and rights were in jeopardy. We were not wrong.

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