Hong Kong pro-democracy activists are demanding the UK release files that are held by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and have yet to be transferred to the National Archives in London after years of delay.

Many of Hong Kong’s colonial-era files were moved back to the UK before the Handover on July 1, 1997. The UK made a plan in 2013 to release the entire collection of colonial administration files – which are stored in a separate high-security location in Buckinghamshire – within two years, but there is yet to be a clear timetable on the transfer of the files to the National Archives. Files on Hong Kong occupy 50 metres of shelf space at the facility.

“We would not accept yet another delay – Hong Kongers deserve the right to know as the political climate in Hong Kong is rapidly deteriorating – the clock is ticking,” said Joshua Wong, secretary-general of the Demosisto party. Wong is one of the activists working with the crowdfunded research group Liber Research Community to digitise records on Hong Kong stored around the world.

Joshua Wong
Joshua Wong. Photo: In-Media.

Activists cannot access files or seek early release of sensitive documents through the Freedom of Information Act before they are transferred to the archives.

The FCO has released its Hong Kong-related documents from 1989 or earlier at the National Archives. However, according to the activists, nearly half of the government records between 1980 and 1989 in the National Archives are locked for unknown reasons, even though they should be accessible after 20 years. This proportion is unusually high – higher than the normal of ten per cent – Liber said after consulting archivists.

A search by HKFP found that many files on specific topics have been locked until 2049. The locked files include those concerning the Basic Law, constitutional development, and the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group, among others.

Some files are also retained by the FCO. Many of them are related to the Royal Family’s visits to Hong Kong, and others include a document on the death of former Hong Kong governor Edward Youde in 1986.

UK National Archives
The UK National Archives. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

“We suspect the UK government may be reluctant to release the files as it may cause ’embarrassment’ to the relations between the UK and China, especially when the UK may lose the European Single Market after Brexit and is anxious to have a[n] amicable relation with China,” the activists said.

They said it was “certainly unacceptable to us that some files will be held until 2047.”

“After 2047, Hong Kong will have lost the guarantee promised in the Sino-British Joint Declaration,” they said.

“In the face of Chinese Government’s distortion of ‘One Country Two Systems’ and the Basic Law, ‘One Country Two Systems’ has become an empty promise. FCO records are weapons for us to confront Chinese propaganda and reveal the important part of Hong Kong’s history.”

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the foreign secretary until May 1997, and Lord Ashdown, both patrons of the watchdog group Hong Kong Watch, have called for the papers to be prioritised.

Hong Kong file declassified UK National Archives
Hong Kong secret-rated colonial administration files declassified and released at the UK National Archives. File Photo: HKFP.

In a reply to the Guardian, the FCO said the Hong Kong files are on microfiche and preparing them for transfer is “technically complex and time-consuming.” However, the office added that the documents could be digitised and that it is working to do so.

“It will be some time before we are in a position to estimate the amount of time this will take. A dedicated team is working on this project,” it told the newspaper.

“As with all of the FCO’s records, we are committed to compliance with the Public Records Act and to the release of these records to the National Archives, while respecting legal exemptions. We have committed significant resources in recent years to aid this process and are addressing the backlog.”

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.