Sino-British Joint Declaration

The Sino-British Joint Declaration is a treaty between the governments of the United Kingdom and China signed in 1984 to settle the future governance of Hong Kong. In the agreement, the UK consented to transfer control of the territory to China, which stated that it would resume its sovereignty over Hong Kong on 1 July 1997.

Sino-British Joint Declaration
Joint Declaration of the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of the People's Republic of China on the Question of Hong Kong
Signed19 December 1984
LocationBeijing, People's Republic of China
Effective27 May 1985
ConditionExchange of ratifications
Sino–British Joint Declaration
Traditional Chinese中英聯合聲明
Simplified Chinese中英联合声明
Joint Declaration of the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of the People's Republic of China on the Question of Hong Kong
Traditional Chinese大不列顛及北愛爾蘭聯合王國政府和中華人民共和國政府關於香港問題的聯合聲明
Simplified Chinese大不列颠及北爱尔兰联合王国政府和中华人民共和国政府关于香港问题的联合声明

Hong Kong was a colony of the British Empire since 1842 after the First Opium War and had its territory expanded twice; first in 1860 with the addition of Kowloon Peninsula and Stonecutters Island, and again in 1898 when Britain obtained a 99-year lease for the New Territories. The date of the handover marked the end of this lease.

The Chinese government declared its basic policies for Hong Kong in the treaty. A special administrative region would be established in the territory that would be self-governing with a high degree of autonomy. Hong Kong would maintain its separate governing and economic systems from that of mainland China under the principle of "one country, two systems". This blueprint would be elaborated on in the Hong Kong Basic Law (the post-handover regional constitution) and the central government's policies for the territory were to remain unchanged for a period of 50 years after the transfer.

China has stated since 2014 that it considers the treaty to be spent with no further legal effect, while the United Kingdom maintains that the document remains binding in operation. Following a 2021 decision by the National People's Congress that approved a rework of local election laws to reduce the number of Legislative Council seats elected by the public and establish a screening committee to scrutinise the political loyalty of candidates for public office, the UK regards China as being in a "state of ongoing non-compliance" with the Joint Declaration.


Great Britain acquired Hong Kong Island in 1842, Kowloon Peninsula in 1860, and leased the New Territories in 1898 for 99 years.

Hong Kong became a British colony in 1842 after the Qing dynasty's defeat in the First Opium War. The territory initially consisted only of Hong Kong Island and was expanded to include Kowloon Peninsula and Stonecutters Island in 1860 after another Qing loss in the Second Opium War.[1] Britain negotiated a further expansion of the colony to include the New Territories in 1898, which were leased (rather than ceded) from Qing China for a period of 99 years.[2]

The prospect of Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule – by negotiation or by force – had been a concern throughout British rule. These concerns briefly subsided after 1967 as mainland China was thrown into disarray with the Cultural Revolution, while the corresponding Hong Kong 1967 leftist riots resulted in a loss of native Hong Kong support for returning to PRC rule, and brought international sympathy to the side of the British colonial government. By 1979, China had restored its political order and became more assertive in neighboring affairs, notably intervening in Vietnam in 1979. Throughout the early 1980s the territory and its business community grew concerned about the future of Hong Kong.[3] These concerns, regarding the status of property rights and contracts, were spurred by political uncertainty surrounding the scheduled reversion of the New Territories to the PRC.[4] In March 1979, the Governor of Hong Kong, Murray MacLehose, visited Beijing. During this visit, informal talks about the future of Hong Kong began. Upon his return, MacLehose attempted to allay investors' worries about the scheduled reversion, but reiterated that the PRC asserted its intention to regain sovereignty over Hong Kong.[4] The first formal negotiations began with chairman Deng Xiaoping of the Central Military Commission during the visit of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher, to China in September 1982.[4]

During the following discussions, where the Governor of Hong Kong took part in every round of formal talks as a member of the British delegation, it became clear that the continuation of British administration after 1997 would not be acceptable to China in any form.[5] The Chinese government has consistently taken the view that the whole of Hong Kong should be Chinese territory, due to them being acquired through the inequality of historical treaties.[6] As a result, the two sides discussed possible measures besides continued British administration, and came up with the concept of Hong Kong as a Special Administration Region of the PRC. In April 1984, the two sides concluded the initial discussion of these matters, and arranged that Hong Kong would retain a 'high' degree of autonomy under Chinese sovereignty with the preservation of the maintained lifestyle in Hong Kong.[5] By 18 September 1984, both sides had approved the English and Chinese texts of the documents and the associated Exchange of Memoranda.

The signing of the Joint Declaration caused some controversy in Britain because UK's Conservative Party Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was agreeing with the China's Communist government represented by Deng Xiaoping.[7] In the White Paper that contained the Joint Declaration, it was declared by Her Majesty's Government that "the alternative to acceptance of the present agreement is to have no agreement", a statement meant as a rebuttal to criticisms that the declaration had made too many concessions to China, and hinting at China's significant leverage during the negotiations.[7]

Some political analysts thought that there was an urgency to make an agreement because there were fears that without a treaty the economy in Hong Kong would collapse in the 1980s. Concerns about land ownership in the leased New Territories also added to the problem. Although discussions on the future of Hong Kong had started in the late 1970s, the final timing of the Joint Declaration was more affected by property and economic factors rather than geopolitical necessities.[7]


Joint DeclarationEdit

The Sino-British Joint Declaration consists of eight paragraphs, three Annexes about the Basic Policies regarding Hong Kong, the Sino–British Joint Liaison Group and the Land Leases as well as the two Memoranda of the two sides. Each part has the same status, and "The whole makes up a formal international agreement, legally binding in all its parts. An international agreement of this kind is the highest form of commitment between two sovereign states."[8] Within these declarations the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be directly under the authority of the Central People's Government of the PRC and shall enjoy a high degree of autonomy except for foreign and defence affairs. It shall be allowed to have executive, legislative and independent judicial power, including that of final adjudication. The Basic Law explains that in addition to Chinese, English may also be used in organs of government and that apart from the national flag and national emblem of the PRC the HKSAR may use a regional flag and emblem of its own. It shall maintain the capitalist economic and trade systems previously practised in Hong Kong. The third paragraph lists the PRC's basic policies regarding Hong Kong:

  • National unity and territorial integrity shall be upheld and a Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be established.[9]
  • "The [HKSAR] will be directly under the authority of the Central People's Government of the [PRC and] will enjoy a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs." "[10]
  • "The [HKSAR] will be vested with executive, legislative and independent judicial power, including that of final adjudication. The laws currently in force in Hong Kong will remain basically unchanged."[11]
  • "The Government of the [HKSAR] will be composed of local inhabitants. The chief executive will be appointed by the Central People's Government on the basis of the results of elections or consultations to be held locally. Principal officials will be nominated by the chief executive of the [HKSAR] for appointment by the Central People's Government. Chinese and foreign nationals previously working in the public and police services in the government departments of Hong Kong may remain in employment. British and other foreign nationals may also be employed to serve as advisers or hold certain public posts in government departments of the [HKSAR]."[12]
  • "The current social and economic systems in Hong Kong will remain unchanged, and so will the life-style. Rights and freedoms, including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, of strike, of choice of occupation, of academic research and of religious belief will be ensured by law in the [HKSAR]. Private property, ownership of enterprises, legitimate right of inheritance and foreign investment will be protected by law."[13]
  • "The [HKSAR] will retain the status of a free port and a separate customs territory. It can continue the free trade policy, including free movement of goods and capital."[14]
  • "The [HKSAR] will retain the status of an international financial centre" with free flow of capital and the Hong Kong dollar remaining freely convertible. The HKSAR may authorise designated banks to issue or continue to issue Hong Kong currency under statutory authority.[15]
  • It will have independent finances with its own budgets and final accounts, but reporting it to the Central People's Government. Additionally, "the Central People's Government will not levy taxes on [it]."[16]
  • "The HKSAR may establish mutually beneficial economic relations with the United Kingdom and other countries [...]"[17]
  • The name used for international relations will be 'Hong Kong, China'. In doing so it may maintain and develop economic and cultural relations and agreements with states, regions and relevant international organisations on its own and it may issue travel documents for Hong Kong. International agreements to which the PRC is not a party but Hong Kong is may remain implemented in the HKSAR.
  • The government of the HKSAR is responsible for the maintenance of public order. Military forces sent by the Central People's Government, stationed in HKSAR, for the purpose of defence shall not interfere in the internal affairs in the HKSAR.
  • Those basic policies will be stipulated in a Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in the PRC by the National People's Congress and will remain unchanged for 50 years.

The Government of the United Kingdom will be responsible for the administration of Hong Kong with the object of maintaining and preserving its economic prosperity and social stability until 30 June 1997 and the Government of the PRC will give its co-operation in this connection.

Furthermore, this declaration regulates the right of abode, those of passports and immigration. All Chinese nationals who were born or who have ordinarily resided in Hong Kong for a continuous period of seven years or more are qualified to obtain permanent identity cards. Those cardholders can also get a passport of the HKSAR, which is valid for all states and regions. But the entry into the HKSAR of persons from other parts of China shall continue to be regulated in accordance with the present practice.

PRC's basic policies regarding Hong Kong (Annex I)Edit

This annexe is called the Elaboration by the government of the People's Republic of China of its basic policies regarding Hong Kong. It is partly mentioned in the summary above and deals in detail with the way Hong Kong will work after 1 July 1997. The annexe consist of following sections:

(I) Constitutional arrangements and government structure;
(II) the laws;
(III) the judicial system;
(IV) the public service;
(V) the financial system;
(VI) the economic system and external economic relations;
(VII) the monetary system;
(VIII) shipping;
(IX) civil aviation;
(X) education;
(XI) foreign affairs;
(XII) defence, security and public order;
(XIII) basic rights and freedoms;
(XIV) right of abode, travel and immigration.

Sino-British Joint Liaison Group (Annex II)Edit

Annex II set up the Sino–British Joint Liaison Group. That group came into force at 1 July 1988 and continued its work until 1 January 2000. Its functions were

a) to conduct consultations on the implementation of the Joint Declaration
b) to discuss matters relating to the smooth transfer of government in 1997
c) to exchange information and conduct consultations on such subjects as may be agreed by the two sides.[18]

This Group was an organ for liaison and not of power, where each side could send up to 20 supporting staff members. It should meet at least once in each of the three locations (Beijing, London and Hong Kong) in each year. From 1 July 1988 onwards it was based in Hong Kong. It should also assist the HKSAR to maintain and develop economic and cultural relations and conclude agreements on these matters with states, regions and relevant international organisations and could therefore set up specialist sub-groups. Between 1985 and 2000 the Joint Liaison Group held 47 plenary meetings whereof 18 were held in Hong Kong, 15 in London and 14 in Beijing.

One of the main achievements had been to ensure the continuity of the independent judiciary in Hong Kong, including agreements in the areas of law of Merchant Shipping, Civil Aviation, Nuclear Material, Whale Fisheries, Submarine Telegraph, Outer Space and many others. Furthermore, it agreed to a network of bilateral agreements between Hong Kong and other countries. Within those agreements were reached on the continued application of about 200 international conventions to the HKSAR after 30 June 1997. Hong Kong should also continue to participate in various international organisations after the handover.

Land Leases (Annex III)Edit

According to the Land Leases annexe, all leased lands granted by the British Hong Kong Government which extend beyond 30 June 1997, and all rights in relation to such leases, shall continue to be recognised and protected under the law of the HKSAR for a period expiring not longer than 30 June 2047. Furthermore, a Land Commission shall be established with equal number of officials from the Government of the United Kingdom and the Government of the PRC which was dissolved on 30 June 1997. This commission was established in 1985 and met in Hong Kong for 35 formal meetings and agreed on 26 legal documents, within the granting of the land required for the new airport at Chek Lap Kok in 1994.

United Kingdom MemorandumEdit

In this memorandum the Government of the United Kingdom declared that all persons who hold British Dependent Territories citizenship (BDTCs) through an affiliation with Hong Kong would cease to be BDTCs on 1 July 1997. After the declaration, the Hong Kong Act 1985 and the Hong Kong (British Nationality) Order, 1986 created the category British National (Overseas). BDTCs were allowed to apply for British National (Overseas) status until July 1997, but this status does not in of itself grant the right of abode anywhere, including the United Kingdom and Hong Kong. After the handover, most former BDTCs became citizens of the People's Republic of China. Any who were ineligible for PRC citizenship and who had not applied for BN(O) status automatically became British Overseas citizens.

Chinese MemorandumEdit

"Under the National Law of the PRC, all Hong Kong Chinese compatriots, whether they are holders of the 'British Dependent Territories Citizens' Passport' or not, are Chinese nationals." Those people who use travel documents issued by the Government of the United Kingdom are permitted to use them for the purpose of travelling to other states and regions, but they will not be entitled to British consular protection in the HKSAR and other parts of the PRC.


Early yearsEdit

After signing of the declaration, the Sino–British Joint Liaison Group was set up according to the Annex II of the declaration.

The transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong (referred to as the "return" or "handover" by the Chinese and British press respectively) occurred as scheduled on 1 July 1997. Since the return just a few things changed, such as the flag of Hong Kong and the Prince of Wales Building being renamed the People's Liberation Army Building. Post boxes were repainted green, as per the practice in China. Street names have remained unchanged and the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club has kept its "Royal" prefix, although the Hong Kong Jockey Club and other institutions have given up this title.[19]

After the Asian financial crisis in 1997 the Hong Kong measures were taken with the full co-operation of the Central Chinese government. This did not mean that the Chinese government dictated what to do and therefore still followed the points of the declaration.[20]

Despite this autonomy, the government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region sometimes sought interference from the Central Chinese government. For example, in 1999 the government of the HKSAR asked China's State Council to seek an interpretation by the National People's Congress Standing Committee on a provision in the Basic Law. The original decision reached by the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal was seen as problematic by the HKSAR government as it would have allowed up to 1.6 million mainland immigrants to enter Hong Kong. The Chinese authorities obliged and the Hong Kong court's judgment was overturned, stopping the potential immigration.[21]

Pressures from the mainland government were also apparent, for example in 2000, after the election of pro-independence candidate Chen Shui-bian as Taiwan's president, a senior mainland official in Hong Kong warned journalists not to report the news. Another senior official advised businessmen not to do business with pro-independence Taiwanese.[21]

With this and other changes,[21] ten years after the return, in 2007, The Guardian wrote that on the one hand, "nothing has changed since the handover to China 10 years ago", but this was in comparison to the situation before the last governor Chris Patten had introduced democratic reforms three years before the handover. A chance for democracy had been lost as Hong Kong had just begun to develop three vital elements for a western-style democracy (the rule of law, official accountability and a political class outside the one-party system) but the Sino–British deal had prevented any of these changes to continue according to Jonathan Fenby of The Guardian.[22][opinion]

Wu Bangguo, the chairman of the National People's Congress Standing Committee stated in a conference in Beijing 2007, that "Hong Kong had considerable autonomy only because the central government had chosen to authorize that autonomy".[23]

Developments in the 2010sEdit

In 2014, against the backdrop of Umbrella Revolution, the British Foreign Affairs Select Committee was banned by China from entering Hong Kong on their planned visit in December as part of their inquiry into progress of the implementation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration. In an emergency parliamentary debate about the unprecedented ban, the chairman on the committee Richard Ottaway revealed that Chinese officials consider the Joint Declaration "now void and only covered the period from the signing in 1984 until the handover in 1997."[24]

In 2016, Caroline Wilson, who was the British Consul-General to Hong Kong and Macao, said the Causeway Bay Books disappearances was a violation of the Joint declaration.[25] Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond echoed the Counsul-General by stating the breach of Joint declaration in The Six-monthly Report on Hong Kong:[26]

In July 2017, when British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson urged democratic progress in Hong Kong,[27][28] China's foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the legally binding Hong Kong handover treaty with Britain 'as a historical document, no longer has any practical significance,' and that 'It is not at all binding for the central government's management over Hong Kong. The UK has no sovereignty, no power to rule and no power to supervise Hong Kong after the handover.'[29][30][31][32][33] In response the British Foreign office said: "It is a legally binding treaty, registered with the UN and continues to be in force. As a co-signatory, the UK government is committed to monitoring its implementation closely." Johnson restated Britain's commitment to Hong Kong is enshrined in the "treaty" that was "just as strong today" as it was 20 years ago.[30][33] However, Chinese officials have warned against foreign interference and have accused British officials of harboring a colonial mindset.[34][35][36]

2019–20 Hong Kong protestsEdit

In August 2019, US Vice-President Mike Pence urged China to respect Hong Kong laws amid Hong Kong protests and the China-US trade war. Chinese media CCTV responded that the treaty is "a historical document", and has been "invalid and expired" for a long time. It claims that it is "shameful" and "ridiculous" for the United States to "interfere with China's internal affairs" with such a document.[37]

One of five points agreed at the issue of the 45th G7 summit was that:[38]

The G7 reaffirms the existence and importance of the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 on Hong Kong and appeals for avoidance of violence.

On 27 August 2019, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) of the PRC officially asserted that no country or organization in the world has the right to interfere in China's internal affairs.[39]

On 3 September 2019, US Senator Marco Rubio wrote in an opinion piece[40] for the Washington Post:

Most obviously, the Chinese Communist Party is preventing the city’s government from acting with the autonomy that Beijing had promised it in a legally binding 1984 international treaty with Britain, under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, and in China’s diplomatic outreach to the United States and other nations.

In May and June 2020, the British expressed opposition to China implementing a Hong Kong national security law that would go against the terms of the Declaration[original research]. The British government announced that if the Chinese went ahead with it, the UK would extend the British National (Overseas) rights of 3 million Hong Kong residents (all those born before the transfer of sovereignty) and open a route for them to become British citizens. In response, China's foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told Britain to "step back ... otherwise there will be consequences" and said, "There is no single word or clause in the Sino-British joint declaration that entitles the UK to any responsibility for Hong Kong after its return."[41] After the law went into effect, the British government announced Beijing breached the Joint declaration.[42]

In June 2020, after the passing of the National Security Law, which introduced new legislature to Hong Kong, BBC and Reuters reported that certain crimes listed in the bill were seen by critics as curtailing freedom of expression[43] and a major violation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, without naming or providing any specific section or article from the laws themselves.[44] In response, the British Conservative Government proposed to extend to some Hong Kong residents rights as British nationals.[41]

On 14 October 2020, the United States Department of State released a report in which the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in consultation with the Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin, concluded that 10 individuals materially contributed to or attempted to materially contribute to the failure of the China to meet its obligations under the Sino–British Joint Declaration and Hong Kong's Basic Law, naming Xia Baolong, Zhang Xiaoming, Luo Huining, Carrie Lam, Teresa Cheng, Erick Tsang, Zheng Yanxiong, Eric Chan, John Lee, and Chris Tang.[45] Xia, Zhang, and Luo were specifically accused of "issuing statements asserting its authority to supervise Hong Kong’s internal affairs in contradiction to the Basic Law and the Sino-British Joint Declaration", in reference to the roles of their respective offices.[45] The Liaison Office of the Central People's Government and the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council expressed on 17 April 2020 and 21 April 2020, respectively, that the two offices, "representating the central government, have the authority to exercise supervision in major issues involving the relationship between the central government and the HKSAR, the correct implementation of the "One Country, Two System" principle and the Basic Law, the maintenance of normal operations of political systems, the overall interests of the society, etc."[46][47] The Joint Declaration states that the Hong Kong SAR will "be directly under the authority of the Central People's Government of the People's Republic of China" and "enjoy a high degree of autonomy except in foreign and defence affairs"; the text itself does not contain any language prohibiting supervision by Beijing.[48]

Status after transfer of sovereigntyEdit

Legal effect questionedEdit

Some Chinese authorities, including legal scholar Rao Geping, reject the continuing legal effect of the Joint Declaration upon the Basic Law.[49][failed verification] The difference affects the level of authority that the PRC has in making any changes to the Basic Law, and the extent of Britain's continuing oversight role.[original research] It is also essential in determining the Hong Kong courts' jurisdiction in issues related to PRC domestic legislation.[original research]

During the Umbrella Revolution in 2014, a campaign against the perceived infringements in the HKSAR by mainland China, the Joint Declaration is considered "void" by China, inferred for the first time by Chinese officials according to a British MP.[50] A senior Hong Kong legal scholar claimed this inference as "clearly wrong", and the British foreign secretary rejected this inference, noting that the document was "a legally binding agreement that must be honoured".[24][51] Rita Fan, then Hong Kong's only representative to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress in Beijing, asserted that Britain's supervisory responsibility had lapsed and, furthermore, that the Joint Declaration does not stipulate universal suffrage.[52]

Accusation of breachingEdit

The UK Foreign Office has repeatedly accused China of breaching the Joint Declaration since the handover of Hong Kong, two of which were described as "serious". According to London, China is now considered Beijing to be in a state of "ongoing non-compliance".[53]

On 11 February 2016, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond stated in the Six-Monthly Report on Hong Kong:[26]

The full facts of the case remain unclear, but our current information indicates that Mr Lee was involuntarily removed to the mainland without any due process under Hong Kong SAR law. This constitutes a serious breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong and undermines the principle of “One Country, Two Systems” which assures Hong Kong residents of the protection of the Hong Kong legal system.

After the Hong Kong national security law went into effect on 1 July 2020 following the 2019–20 Hong Kong protests, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced:[42]

So, Mr Speaker, today, I have the depressing but necessary duty to report to the House that the enactment of this legislation, imposed by the authorities in Beijing on the people of Hong Kong, constitutes a clear and serious breach of the Joint Declaration.

On 12 November 2020, Dominic Raab again accused Beijing of breaching the declaration after 4 pro-democracy MPs in the Hong Kong Legislative Council were disqualified when the NPCSC ruled that legislators "who promote or support Hong Kong independence, refuse to recognise China's sovereignty over Hong Kong, seek foreign countries to interfere in the affairs of Hong Kong, or endanger the national security of Hong Kong" would be in breach their Parliamentary oath:[54]

Beijing’s imposition of new rules to disqualify elected legislators in Hong Kong constitutes a clear breach of the legally binding Sino-British Joint Declaration.

The fourth accusation occurred on 13 March 2021 after the National People's Congress passed a resolution on Hong Kong electoral reform:[53]

Beijing’s decision to impose radical changes to restrict participation in Hong Kong’s electoral system constitutes a further clear breach of the legally binding Sino-British Joint Declaration.

See alsoEdit



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  2. ^ Carroll 2007, p. 67.
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Further readingEdit

  • Mark, Chi-kwan. "To 'educate' Deng Xiaoping in capitalism: Thatcher's visit to China and the future of Hong Kong in 1982." Cold War History (2015): 1–20.
  • Tang, James TH. "From empire defence to imperial retreat: Britain's postwar China policy and the decolonization of Hong Kong." Modern Asian Studies 28.02 (1994): 317–337.

External linksEdit