June 22 2020
In late 1984, China declared, in Article 1 of the Sino-British Joint Declaration (JD), that it would recover all of British Hong Kong with effect from July 1, 1997. In Article 2, the United Kingdom declared that it would restore Hong Kong to China on the same date.
Almost 33 years later, in March 2017, the US State Department published a fact sheet entitled “Dependencies and Areas of Special Sovereignty”, where Hong Kong is listed. A special footnote explains that: “Under a Sino-British declaration of September 1984, Hong Kong reverted to Chinese control on July 1, 1997. It is now a semi-autonomous entity that exists pursuant to international agreement and maintains its own government apart from the People’s Republic of China.”
Just 20 years after China recovered Hong Kong from the UK, Washington still speaks, in this note, of China as having “control” over a semi-autonomous Hong Kong, rather than sovereignty. Moreover, despite the fact that in the first two articles of the JD, both China and the UK each refer to making a declaration, the State Department claims that China’s control of Hong Kong arises from an agreement.
All Chinese governments since the 19th century have regarded the treaties governing Hong Kong (and other forced foreign concessions) as unequal and thus not valid at international law. This is a primary reason why the JD explicitly avoids the use of the term agreement. The JD signals a clear mutual understanding between London and Beijing that they shall each declare their position.
Oriol Caudevilla recently argued convincingly (China Daily Hong Kong Edition, on June 15, 2020, Don’t mistake Hong Kong for a foreign concession) that the HKSAR can never be regarded as some sort of foreign concession like the city of Tangier (now part of Morocco) was from 1923 to 1956. Yet this is a distinct impression which lingers when one reads this recent State Department fact sheet. Indeed, it sometimes feels like Washington still regards Hong Kong as a (manifestly successful) Far East version of Puerto Rico... Click here to read the full text.