The British government has expressed “growing concern” about the extent of freedom of speech in Hong Kong, particularly with regards to the discussion of Hong Kong independence.

But the Chinese foreign ministry in Hong Kong hit back at the remarks, saying that discussion of Hong Kong independence was not within the scope of freedom of speech. The Hong Kong government said that freedom of speech was not absolute.

In the latest six-monthly report to the UK Parliament on Hong Kong, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he judged that “most provisions” of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration were being implemented faithfully, and that the “One Country, Two Systems” principle generally continues to function well. But he expressed concern about “continued pressure on Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and on the rights and freedoms” guaranteed by the Joint Declaration and enshrined in the Basic Law.

Jeremy Hunt
Jeremy Hunt. File photo: GovUK.

“The UK Government’s view on independence is well known – we believe that it is neither a realistic nor a desirable option for Hong Kong. However, the right of freedom of expression, freedom of speech and academic freedom are guaranteed by the Joint Declaration and enshrined in the Basic Law,” Hunt wrote.

Hunt stated that the Joint Declaration continues to be a legally binding treaty – registered with the United Nations – and the UK Government remains committed to monitoring its implementation.

The 20-page report mentioned incidents between January and June, including the three individuals barred from running in the March legislative by-election on the basis of their political beliefs; the prosecution of pro-democracy legislators and protesters; and the controversy over the legal basis for the joint checkpoint arrangement at the high-speed rail terminus.

In terms of freedom of expression, it mentioned the attacks on law professor Benny Tai’s speech in Taiwan, growing interference by Chinese authorities in press coverage of governance in Hong Kong and mainland China, the China Liaison Office’s ownership of major publishers and bookshops, and attacks on Hong Kong journalists in mainland China.

China Liaison Office
The China Liaison Office. File photo: Wikimedia Commons/Citizen News.

The report also mentioned the snatching of Hong Kong bookseller and Swedish citizen Gui Minhai from a train on the mainland. Gui was travelling with Swedish diplomats to seek medical treatment when he was detained.

‘Well-known fact’

In response to the report, the Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong said it was “a well-known fact” that Hong Kong residents enjoyed “more wide-ranged and full democratic rights and freedom compared to any time in history” after the Handover.

It said Hong Kong independence violated the Chinese Constitution, the Basic Law and relevant Hong Kong laws, harmed the security of the nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and was not within the scope of freedom of speech. “The central government will not tolerate Hong Kong independence,” it said.

It demanded that the British government stop publishing the regular report and meddling in Hong Kong’s affairs.

The Hong Kong government made a more lengthy response, saying that the full and successful implementation of the “One Country, Two Systems” principle had been widely recognised by the international community.

“Foreign governments should not interfere in any form in the internal affairs of the HKSAR,” it said.

Hong Kong Independence
Photo: Facebook/Hong Kong National Party.

It said Hong Kong’s independence was a blatant violation of the Basic Law and a “direct affront to the national sovereignty, security and territorial integrity” of China.

“The HKSAR Government attaches great importance to freedom of speech, which is also protected by the Basic Law. However, both the relevant international human rights convention and court cases clearly point out that freedom of speech is not absolute,” it said.

On the disqualification of election candidates, it said upholding the Basic Law was a legislator’s basic legal duty.

“If a person advocates or promotes ‘Hong Kong’s independence’, ‘self-determination’ or changing the HKSAR system by a referendum which includes the choice of independence, he/she cannot possibly uphold the Basic Law or fulfil his/her duties as a legislator,” it said.

The government spokesperson also said Hong Kong and the mainland had always agreed that the joint checkpoint arrangement must be consistent with “One Country, Two Systems” and must not contravene the Basic Law.

It said the matter was, by its nature, a livelihood issue to maximise convenience to passengers: “The HKSAR Government hopes that different sectors of the community can understand the co-location arrangement in an objective, pragmatic and all-round manner.”

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.