Britain has an "enduring moral responsibility" to ensure that Hong Kong is "democratic, stable and prosperous," and diplomats should do more to uphold the treaty that governed the former territory's return to China 18 years ago, a Parliament committee says.
But a new report issued Friday by the British Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee stops short of saying what will, or can, be done.
"The U.K. can and should take a clearer position on the overall pace and degree of democratic reform," the report says. "The specific details of constitutional reform are for the governments of China and Hong Kong to decide together with the people of Hong Kong."
The report is the conclusion of the panel's seven-month inquiry on the state of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the treaty under which Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule in 1997 under a framework known as "one country, two systems." That framework supposedly ensures the territory of 7 million a substantial degree of autonomy for 50 years from Communist rulers in Beijing.
Hong Kong is home to 250,000 British citizens and 3.4 million British (overseas) nationals, who have British passports but no right to work or reside permanently in Britain.
The committee's inquiry, which began in July, happened to coincide with the most tumultuous period in Hong Kong since the treaty was signed in 1984 and registered with the United Nations. Chinese authorities sought to obstruct the committee's work, even prohibiting its members from visiting Hong Kong during last year's massive pro-democracy street protests.
In August, the standing committee of China's legislature, the National People's Congress, set a framework for future elections for Hong Kong's chief executive, in effect limiting the choice of candidates to two or three approved by a nominating committee expected to be composed largely of people regarded as "pro-Beijing."
That framework touched off the unprecedented demonstrations that lasted 10 weeks and saw thousands of participants clogging major thoroughfares and surrounding government headquarters. The sit-ins ended in mid-December after police, acting on a court order, cleared the streets.
The British parliamentary committee reviewed testimony from nearly 700 people and civic groups in Hong Kong and concluded in its 70-page report that there are "real concerns" about Beijing eroding freedom of the press and of assembly in the territory.
Furthermore, the report says that Beijing's election framework doesn't "offer 'genuine choice' in any meaningful sense of the phrase, nor do we consider [it] consistent with the principle that Hong Kong should enjoy a high degree of autonomy."
Liberal representatives on Hong Kong's Legislative Council have vowed to veto the electoral package when it comes to a vote this year. But whether London can do anything more to support democracy advocates against Beijing's moves remains unclear.
Richard Ottaway, who heads the committee and protested when his members were barred from visiting Hong Kong to conduct the inquiry during the street demonstrations, conceded in an interview in London recently that Britain has no real power to enforce the treaty.
"Given there is no arbitration clause in the Joint Declaration, we can do no more than point out Beijing is in breach of the treaty, if indeed that becomes the case," he said.
There are some people – both in Beijing and in Hong Kong – who carp that the British never installed democratic institutions in Hong Kong before the 1997 transfer. At the end of World War II, a democracy plan was introduced by then-Hong Kong Gov. Mark Young, at a time when nearly all British colonies won independence. But it was never executed by his successors, largely due to political uncertainty in mainland China.
"Democracy is not a gift from the rulers – it has to be fought for from below. There wasn't enough momentum from below to fight for it," said Steve Tsang, a professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham, and author of "Democracy Shelved: Great Britain, China, and attempts at constitutional reform in Hong Kong 1945-1952." "But now there is enough momentum in Hong Kong for a democracy and to make it work."
Britain isn't the only Western democracy where lawmakers are seeking to find a way to put pressure on China over eroding freedom in Hong Kong. In November, a bipartisan bill was reintroduced in the U.S. Congress aimed at pressuring China to guarantee continued autonomy and human rights in Hong Kong.
Known as the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, the bill would update a 1992 law that has entitled Hong Kong to trade privileges and other economic benefits not extended to mainland China.
The proposed legislation would require annual certification by the secretary of State that Hong Kong is sufficiently autonomous to preserve the preferential treatment for Hong Kong.
It is co-sponsored by Republicans Dana Rohrabacher of Orange County and Chris Smith of New Jersey, along with Democrats Eliot L. Engel of New York and Dan Lipinski of Illinois.
"The special privileges the U.S. grants to Hong Kong can only endure if Beijing fulfills its longstanding obligation under international law to maintain Hong Kong's autonomy, guarantee human rights and allow free and fair elections in 2017 and beyond," Smith said in a statement issued by the bill's sponsors.
Possible intervention from Britain and U.S. notwithstanding, Stephen Ng, who emigrated from Hong Kong to London in the late 1980s and has been active in Labor Party politics, said he doesn't expect the Hong Kong issue to get on the national agenda during elections in May.
"The British are a very pragmatic people," he said. "A Labor government will only make more noise on this issue" but not take more drastic steps.
Ng took comfort from the 4,000 Hong Kong students who rallied outside the Chinese Embassy in London in solidarity with the Occupy movement last year. That was the largest such crowd he's seen since the protest against the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
"It's more important to keep the flames alive," said Ng.