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Last Friday, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) made global headlines with his remarks on how the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration was a “historical document” that “no longer has any practical significance” and that is “not at all binding for” the Chinese government’s management of Hong Kong. The remarks (translated by Reuters) suggested China no longer considers the Joint Declaration, which contains numerous guarantees for Hong Kong’s autonomy and individual rights, legally binding. But did China really declare the entire Joint Declaration is void? Some small translation differences between the official MFA translation and Reuters suggest otherwise.
Coming as they did the day before China celebrated the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997, the remarks drew widespread condemnation. The British government’s Foreign Office immediately shot back that the Joint Declaration “remains as valid today as it did when it was signed over thirty years ago.” Activists in Hong Kong accused the Chinese government of “humiliating” the UK government by “scrapping the handover deal.”
But in reviewing the English translation of the spokesman’s remarks, we all might be overreacting a little. As always, the best understanding of what he really meant may require taking into account tricky problems of translation. Here is the MFA’s official translation of the same remarks translated by Reuters above:
It's been 20 years now since Hong Kong's return to the motherland, and the arrangements during the transitional period prescribed in the Sino-British Joint Declaration are now history and of no practical significance, nor are they binding on the Chinese central government's administration of the Hong Kong SAR.
The key difference lies not so much in language as in grammar. In the Reuters translation, the phrase “not at all binding” refers to the “1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration.” But in the MFA translation, the phrase “nor are they binding” refers to the “arrangements during the transitional period prescribed in the Sino-British Joint Declaration” (emphasis added). The difference is small but significant. In the Reuters version, China is saying the entire Joint Declaration is not binding, but in the MFA version, China is saying that the “arrangements during the transitional period” in the Joint Declaration are not binding. The English translation’s use of the plural “nor are they binding” makes this difference clear. Under the MFA translation, China could be saying those “arrangements during the transitional period” are not binding, but that the rest of the Joint Declaration (whatever that is) remains in force.
To make matters more confusing, it is not clear to me which translation better conveys the meaning of the original Chinese.
The Reuters translation, in my view, quite accurately translates the second sentence (beginning with “现在香港…”). But the MFA translation quite plausibly connects the idea in the first sentence (beginning with “《中英联合声明》就…”) about the arrangements during the transitional period with the ideas in the second sentence. The first sentence seems uncomfortably pointless without this connection. Moreover, the MFA translation should obviously be treated as authoritative (or at least more authoritative).
The difference in grammar does not necessarily point up a meaningful distinction. It is not at all clear that there is a list of things in the Joint Declaration and Annexes that are merely “arrangements during the transitional period” and a list of things that will continue to bind China. Moreover, elements within the Chinese government have been arguing for years that the Joint Declaration’s legal force ended in 2000, when the Sino-UK joint liaison group created by the agreement dissolved. This is a deeply implausible reading of the Joint Declaration, but this hardline group may have won out. So perhaps all of my translation analysis means nothing.
But perhaps the MFA (or its translators) left China just a little wiggle room to say they aren’t really voiding the Joint Declaration completely. Rather, it is saying that some parts of the Joint Declaration dealing with the “transitional period” are no longer binding, but others may still be.
Some readers will accuse me of grasping at straws here. But I am still skeptical that the Chinese government has decided that it can spurn the entire Joint Declaration without even offering a plausible legal justification. Moreover, since the Joint Declaration has not proved much of an obstacle to Chinese domination of Hong Kong, it is unclear what China gains from publicly denouncing the agreement. If I am wrong about this, though, then this statement, like China’s rejection of the arbitral award last summer, may turn out to be another watershed moment signaling China’s willingness to turn its back on international law.