LEGAL – Topic 1: Issue Briefing Pack

Topic 1- The Question of Hong Kong: given the recent protests and the authorities’ response, what should the future legal status of Hong Kong be?

Background 

During the period of British colonialism, Hong Kong was taken as part of the British Empire during the Opium Wars. As the UK’s global power decreased following the loss of many colonies around the world during the 20th century, China began to demand the return of Hong Kong. China’s power grew, gaining ascension to the UN in 1971 and a seat on the Security Council. Consequently, in 1984, the UK and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the question of Hong Kong. This established that Hong Kong would become a Special Administrative Area with a high degree of autonomy on issues of economics and judiciary, among others. This was called the ‘One country, two systems’ policy. The agreement stipulated that this should last for 50 years. Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997 on June 30th at midnight. Approaching this date, many citizens of Hong Kong began to grow scared that their freedom would be quickly eroded by the central Chinese government. This led to many citizens attempting to gain British passports to enable them to flee to the UK if it became necessary. This distrust of the central Chinese government can be seen as the key reason for the conflict occurring to this day. Over time, some symbols of British occupation have remained, such as the teaching of English and the high level of press and political freedom. Nonetheless, China has begun to bring in more symbols of mainland China, such as the changing of the national anthem and the removal of titles linked to British royalty.

The current situation

At the present moment, there are violent protests occurring across Hong Kong due to a fundamental distrust in new legislation being brought in to give the mainland government more power. The Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters  Legislation (Amendments) Bill 2019, introduced by Secretary for Security, John Lee, proposed that Hong Kong should be able to extradite wanted criminals to face the Chinese mainland judicial system, which is openly influenced by the Communist Party. While China had denied using subtle tactics to undermine democracy, it has stated that it does not recognise the binding nature of the Treaty with the UK and does not approve of the current status quo. Many citizens saw this new legislation change as the final straw in increasing control from China, with the Hong Kong legislature accused of working on behalf of mainland China to curtail civil liberties. Since March, over 1/4 of the population have protested.

In August, the protests reached a peak, when the international airport was stormed by protesters. This act was condemned by President Xi Jing Ping’s government as ‘akin to terrorism.’ Police have increased levels of brutality in fighting back protesters, but have also faced aggression in return. Protesters have dressed in black shirts to denote their status as protesters. They have faced increased violence from men in white shirts, who are thought to be members of the Triad hired by the Chinese government to cull the protesters. The central government has also been accused of bringing in police from the mainland to aid in containing the situation, an allegation which the government denies. 

At the present moment, the controversial legislation has been suspended, but protests continue, as citizens still feel that their rights are being decreased by central government, as well as arguing that corruption is a key issue. As the decade comes to a close, who should define the legal status of Hong Kong with regards to legal sovereignty? What degree of legal autonomy should be granted to the citizens of Hong Kong and for how long should it last? The UN Legal Committee must consider the best solution to this complex issue.

Key Players

The Hong Kong government

Under the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the question of Hong Kong, Hong Kong was guaranteed its own legislature to legislate on local issues, including trade and the judiciary. It has recently come under fire for being too supportive of the Chinese central government. 

The Chinese central government

The Chinese government has, up to this point, tolerated the protests to a certain extent, allowing the Hong Kong police to deal with them. It has, however, expressed concern at the lack of peace in the region and has noted its wish to return Hong Kong to the control of the central government.

The UK

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab condemned the violence in Hong Kong on the 13th of August, advocating talks from both sides. The UK had control of Hong Kong prior to the handover in 1997 and signs of the UK’s previous control are evident in Hong Kong’s capitalist society.

Questions to consider when writing a resolution:

  • If you support the rights of the people of Hong Kong for self government, how can a deal be reached which ensures their freedom without violating Chinese sovereignty?
  • If you support China’s right to govern their land, how might the rights of individual citizens be ensured?
  • Who should have the right to choose how a country is government?
  • What is an acceptable use of force to control discontent caused by new legislation?
  • The potential consequences of other nations becoming involved in this internal matter.
  • The potential precedent which might be set for other regions seeking autonomy.
  • What the Legal Committee’s role is in settling legal status disputes in UN Member States. 

Further Reading:

https://www.un.org/en/ – The UN website

https://www.icj-cij.org/en/court -International Court of Justice

https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/CBP-8616 – UK Parliament description of the Sino-British Joint Declaration

https://www.legco.gov.hk/yr18-19/english/bills/b201903291.pdf – Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-48607723 – Reasons for the Hong Kong Protests.

https://www.basiclaw.gov.hk/en/basiclawtext/images/basiclaw_full_text_en.pdf – The Basic Law of Hong Kong (Constitution).