Thirty years ago this month, Britain and China signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong, under which London agreed to restore Hong Kong to China in 1997 and Beijing spelled out its policy of “one country, two systems” for the then British colony, which would “enjoy a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defense affairs which are the responsibilities of the Central People’s Government” for 50 years, that is, until 2047.

In July, the British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee announced that it would conduct an inquiry into the United Kingdom’s relations with Hong Kong. According to the committee, the inquiry will consider how the British government monitors the implementation of the Joint Declaration, as well as the U.K.’s relations with Hong Kong, including economic and cultural ties.

Last week the committee ran into a brick wall. China told the committee its members would be denied visas for Hong Kong.

On Dec. 2, in a rare emergency debate, the House of Commons heatedly discussed the Chinese ban. This, it turns out, is the first time that any country — including China — had banned British members of Parliament from conducting a visit as part of an inquiry.

But more is at stake than the pride of British MPs. According to Sir Richard Ottaway, the committee chairman, China’s deputy ambassador, Ni Jian, in announcing the ban, in effect asserted that the Joint Declaration “is now void and only covered the period from the signing in 1984 until the handover in 1997.”

If true, that is very troubling since the Joint Declaration made it clear that China’s commitment was to allow Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy until 2047. That is to say, the Joint Declaration, an international treaty lodged with the United Nations, will not lapse until then.

For China to declare that the treaty is now void is tantamount to unilaterally abrogating a treaty. It calls to mind words spoken by then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Hong Kong in 1982, after her meeting with paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in Beijing.

The Iron Lady said: “If a country will not stand by one treaty, it would not stand by another treaty.” Speaking about the U.K., she said, “We stick by our treaties.”

The Joint Declaration, signed by Thatcher and by then Premier Zhao Ziyang, was a treaty to replace the three “unequal treaties” imposed on China through gunboat diplomacy in the 19th century. The terms were certainly not dictated by Britain. If China now abrogates this treaty, its word in the international arena will be questioned, especially at a time when it is offering to sign a friendship treaty with the countries of Southeast Asia.

Was the deputy ambassador misunderstood? Sir Richard said that “for the purpose of greater accuracy, I invited the editor of Hansard to attend to ensure that there would be a verbatim record of the conversation.”

Releasing that verbatim record would certainly help to clarify the Chinese position. However, in the week that has elapsed since the emergency parliamentary meeting, China has not attempted to make any correction.

Instead, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has issued statements justifying its denial of visas for the British MPs and emphasizing that there is no role of any sort for Britain to play.

The day after the debate, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said: “Hong Kong has returned to China back in 1997, and is now a special administrative region of China. The Sino-British Joint Declaration makes distinctions about rights and obligations of China and the U.K. in terms of China’s resumption to exercise sovereignty over Hong Kong as well as relevant arrangements during the transitional period.

The U.K. has no sovereignty, jurisdiction or right of supervision over Hong Kong, and there is no such thing as moral obligation.”

Clearly, from Beijing’s standpoint, Britain has discharged its obligations by handing Hong Kong back to China. Now, it has no role to play whatsoever.

Actually, since Britain has discharged its obligations under the Joint Declaration, it is now China’s turn to discharge its obligations.

And isn’t it a British right to ensure that China abides by the Joint Declaration in the remaining years, just as Beijing keenly monitored British actions in Hong Kong in the 1984 to 1997 period?

In a bilateral treaty such as the Joint Declaration, surely each side’s obligations are to the other side, in addition, of course, to the people of Hong Kong.

And if China has obligations to Britain, why is Britain barred from ascertaining whether China is properly discharging its obligations?

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer who has covered developments in China for several decades. He opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in Beijing after the U.S. and China established diplomatic relations in 1979, becoming one of the first American reporters to be based in China since 1949.

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