China appeared to dramatically consign Britain’s responsibility to Hong Kong to history on Friday by saying a treaty signed by Margaret Thatcher which paved the way for the handover and guaranteed freedoms in the city had “no practical significance.”
The surprising remarks, which came on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the handover of the former British colony to China, relate to the 1984 joint declaration, which guarantees Hong Kong’s legal autonomy from the mainland.
The agreement established ‘one country, two systems’ for Hong Kong, giving the city freedoms and rights that are not enjoyed on the mainland for 50 years after the 1997 handover.
Britain says that as a signatory to the agreement it is legally bound to uphold those freedoms – a position that is often repeated in Hong Kong as concerns grow that Beijing’s grip is tightening.
But hours after Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, oversaw a defiant military parade during a visit to Hong Kong, an official in Beijing said that two decades after the city had returned to the “motherland’s embrace” the bilateral treaty had become redundant.
‘The Sino-British Joint Declaration, as a historical document, no longer has any practical significance,” foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said.
Beijing regularly responds to overseas criticism over its interference in Hong Kong legal autonomy by saying that it is the ‘internal’ affairs of China.
However, officials have not previously outright rejected the joint declaration.
A British Foreign office spokeswoman said on Friday: “It is a legally binding treaty, registered with the UN and continues to be in force. As a co-signatory, the UK government is committed to monitoring its implementation closely.”
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said on Thursday that Britain’s commitment to Hong Kong, enshrined in the “treaty”, was “just as strong today” as it was 20 years ago.
Phillip Hammond, Britain’s previous top diplomat, last year accused China of committing a “serious breach” of the treaty following the abduction of five booksellers from the city.
Anson Chan, who was Hong Kong’s most senior civil servant during the handover in 1997, previously told The Telegraph that Britain “has a moral and legal responsibly (to Hong Kong) as the co-signatory to the joint declaration.”
China’s apparent rejection of the treaty would heighten anxiety in Hong Kong, where President Xi continued his three-day visit on Thursday by inspecting the largest military parade to be held in the city since it was returned to Beijing’s rule.
That unmistakable statement of authority came as protesters prepared to take to the streets for the annual July 1 handover demonstrations.
Hong Kong was under a heavy security lockdown with more than 11,000 police deployed to “protect” Mr Xi and first lady Peng Liyuan, local media reported.
Among the measures taken by local officials is glueing bricks into the pavements to prevent them being used in potential clashes between protesters and police.