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China says not legally bound to 50 years of Hong Kong autonomy

US and UK counter the 1984 promise is an international obligation

A pro-democracy demonstrator waves the British colonial era flag during a protest against new national security legislation in Hong Kong.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- China's plans for new national security legislation in Hong Kong have sparked a massive debate about the mainland's obligations to the former British colony, including whether Beijing is beholden to a 1984 declaration promising 50 years of autonomy to the city.

China's National People's Congress voted May 28 to draft and impose national security legislation for Hong Kong, which would ban acts of subversion, secession and terrorism. Critics believe this legislation could be used to quash dissent in the city, such as the ongoing pro-democracy protests there.

The law is seen taking effect before Hong Kong's legislative election in September.

In the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, which laid out the terms for Hong Kong's handover in 1997, the Chinese government said the city would enjoy a "high degree of autonomy" -- a statement that lies at the very heart of the "one country, two systems" framework.

The document listed China's 12 basic policies regarding Hong Kong, including granting the Hong Kong government executive, legislative and independent judicial powers, which were to be stipulated in the Basic Law and stay in place for 50 years after the handover.

"The laws currently in force in Hong Kong will remain basically unchanged," the declaration said. The document was registered as a legally binding treaty at the United Nations.

The U.S. and the U.K. have strongly protested China's recent moves. "China's decision to impose a new national security law on Hong Kong lies in direct conflict with its international obligations under the principles of the legally-binding, UN-registered Sino-British Joint Declaration," they said in a joint statement issued with Australia and Canada on May 28.

U.S. President Donald Trump announced plans for additional sanctions on China the following day, saying the national security legislation is "a plain violation of Beijing's treaty obligations with the United Kingdom in the Declaration of 1984 and explicit provisions of Hong Kong's Basic Law."

"It would upend China's 'one country, two systems' paradigm, and it would be a clear violation of China's international obligations," British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab also said on June 2.

A Japanese government source agreed with their concerns. "The international community needs to treat this as a problem based on international law," the source said.

But China has pushed back. Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke with Raab over the phone on Monday, telling him that Hong Kong is a domestic Chinese issue and that outside interference would not be tolerated.

China also rejects that it is legally bound to uphold the Sino-British Declaration. "The basic policies regarding Hong Kong declared by China in the Joint Declaration are China's statement of policies, not commitment to the U.K. or an international obligation as some claim," Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in a news conference.

Some experts disagree. "It is true that China stated its own policies, but the U.K. agreed to them, so this is not a purely domestic issue," Hiroyuki Banzai, a professor at Tokyo's Waseda University, said.

Still, the Joint Declaration "does not explicitly say that Hong Kong's political system will remain unchanged," Banzai said. The U.S. and the U.K. so far have largely criticized China for its plans to force security legislation onto Hong Kong despite its supposed autonomy, which is spelled out in the declaration.

"If China successfully takes control of Hong Kong, it will target Taiwan next," said Toru Kurata, a professor at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. "There's still some room for Japan to urge China to reduce some of its legal authority to crack down in Hong Kong."

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