By Gray Sergeant
“When the facts change, I change my mind” the saying goes. Yet, here in Britain, this phrase does not appear to be part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) lexicon.
When it comes to Hong Kong the facts on the ground have changed. They have changed quite dramatically over the past couple of years. Yet despite such events, the UK rolls out the same old line committing itself to the policy of “One Country, Two Systems.”
This week the British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, published a statement to mark the 20th anniversary of the handover which did exactly this. This statement, like the FCO’s six-monthly reports, underestimates the threat posed to Hong Kong’s autonomy and does not offer a serious evaluation of Hong Kong’s political situation since 1997.
More shockingly, this fairly bland statement aroused the most outrageous response from Beijing when the foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang falsely claimed that the future of Hong Kong was a matter for Beijing alone.
Such a claim flies in the face of the Sino-British Joint Declaration which both the UK and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are legally bound to. This agreement means unequivocally that it is Britain’s right to monitor implementation until 2047 and by extension ensure the freedoms that many Hongkongers enjoy are maintained.
Beijing’s portrayal of this document as a historic scrap of paper which “no longer has any practical significance” is indicative of the Chinese Communist Party’s desire to start changing Hong Kong’s way of life before 2047.
Anyone who has observed Hong Kong politics or who has spoken to activists in the pro-democracy camp over the past few years would know this to be true.
Yet Britain has ignored the threatening posturing by the Communist Party for too long.
Even the disappearance of the Causeway Bay booksellers appears to have had little effect on the UK’s attitude towards China despite the incident being the most serious violation of the Joint Declaration since 1997. In an astonishing interview with Hong Kong Free Press the outgoing British consul said that it was a “remarkable achievement” that there had only been one breach of the “One Country, Two Systems” policy.
The idea that this incident should be dismissed as a red herring is alarming. The bookseller’s case has to be placed alongside the erosion of freedoms and the lack of democratic reform which have occurred over the past few years and which have also not received the attention they deserve from the UK government. Business between the UK and China has carried on as usual.
However, this week’s developments have been even more incendiary to the point where the UK government must now speak up. The brashness of Lu’s response to the British Foreign Secretary shows that Beijing has given up the pretence of honouring the “One Country, Two Systems” policy.
When the Communist Party has ditched its lip-service to the Joint Declaration and shown its true intentions, the British government cannot take it lying down. If the FCO’s meek response continues, Beijing will only become more emboldened.
The British Foreign Secretary, who may wish to use more diplomatic language, should take a leaf out of the last governor’s book. Lord Patten has been one of the few Westminster figures who has hit back at the Communist Party in any meaningful way during the anniversary.
Most notably he labelled the Chinese ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, a “bully” who “doesn’t know the difference between democracy and a wet haddock.” It’s a shame more voices in Parliament didn’t follow him.
Moreover, not only should the FCO have released a stronger rebuttal to Beijing’s claims but they should have summoned the Chinese Ambassador in London to make Britain’s position perfectly clear.
This sort of diplomatic move is not unheard of. The FCO has, on a number of occasions, summoned the Argentine Ambassador over disputes regarding the Falkland Islands and in recent years has summoned the ambassadors of Russia, Iran and Israel over humanitarian concerns.
Such a decision would have shown the world that the UK still cares about Hong Kong and would have demonstrated to China that it cannot simply rip up international treaties.
The anniversary of the handover could have marked a turning point in UK-China relations vis-à-vis Hong Kong. It could have been an opportunity for Britain to send a powerful message across the world that it was resolute in upholding its commitments to human rights and democracy. The UK government could have provided hope to those fighting for democracy and freedoms in Hong Kong. Instead, Britain has once again kowtowed and let Hongkongers down.
Gray Sergeant studied International Relations and History at LSE and since graduating has worked in and around Westminster. He regularly comments on UK-Hong Kong relations and can be found on Twitter at @GraySergeant.