This Commons Library briefing paper examines the factors behind the unrest in Hong Kong in 2019 and the UK/China Joint Declaration.Jump to full report >>
Hong Kong has been shaken by months of protests in 2019. The first protests in April were triggered by a proposed new bill to allow the extradition of individuals from the region to mainland China. They have since morphed into a wider campaign to preserve Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms. The withdrawal of the extradition bill has not ended the protests and clashes between police and activists have become increasingly violent.
The UK has long had an interest in Hong Kong. It was a British colony from 1842 until the UK transferred sovereignty over Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, after which it became a Special Administrative Region of China. In preparation of the handover, in 1984 Great Britain and China agreed the Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong.
The Joint Declaration states that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) will be directly under the authority of the People’s Republic of China but will enjoy a “high degree of autonomy” and its social and economic systems and lifestyle will remain unchanged for fifty years.
However, in recent years there has been growing concern the principle ‘One Country, Two Systems’, in which Hong Kong is part of China but has separate legal and economic systems, is being steadily eroded. The UK Government has catalogued such fears in its six-monthly reports on Hong Kong, as has the Foreign Affairs Committee in reports on Hong Kong and China in 2015 and 2019.
The Joint Declaration is a legally binding treaty but it contains no enforcement provisions. The UK Government has said:
If at some stage in the future we were to take the view that China had breached its obligations under the Joint Declaration, this would, under international law, be a bilateral matter between us and China and we would pursue it accordingly.
Demonstrators first took to the streets in March 2019 to protest a proposed new law that would amend existing legislation to allow the extradition of individuals from Hong Kong to mainland China. Critics feared the law would enabe the Chinese government to pursue political opponents. The protests have since morphed into a wider campaign to preserve Hong Kong's autonomy and freedoms. which Hong Kong nationals say are at risk.
The number of people participating in protests swelled over the course of the year. The Hong Kong police has increasingly responded with tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets.
The UK Government has expressed serious concern about the situation in Hong Kong. Prime Minister Theresa May said in July "it is vital that Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy and the rights and freedoms set down in the Sino-British Joint Declaration are respected".
MPs have voiced their fears for the future of Hong Kong on a number of occasions in June, July and September.
The Foreign Affairs Committee reflected their fears in its report on China in April 2019:
[…] we fear that Hong Kong is in reality moving towards “One Country, One and a Half Systems”. We also believe that the Chinese government’s approach to Hong Kong is moving closer to “One Country, One System” than it is to maintaining its treaty commitments under the Joint Declaration.
Some MPs have also raised the status of BN(O) passport holders with the Government.
British national (overseas) status is a type of nationality granted to individuals who were a British overseas territories citizen by connection with Hong Kong prior to the 1997 handover.
A British National (Overseas) holds a British passport but is subject to immigration controls and does not have an automatic right to live or work in the UK. Neither are they considered a UK national by the European Union. There have been some calls to give BN(O) passport holders the right to abode in the UK and to provide consular assistance in Hong Kong. The Government has said it does not want to start unpicking the Joint Declaration at this time for fear of "it not being respected on the Chinese side".
British nationals (overseas) are entitled to UK consular assistance. However, because China consider British nationals (overseas) of Chinese ethnic origin as Chinese nationals, the UK cannot provide consular assistance to them in Hong Kong (or China and the Macao Special Administration Region).
Commons Briefing papers CBP-8661
Author: Louisa Brooke-Holland