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As Hong Kong’s freedoms fade, expect ‘business as usual’ from Britain’s new envoy Jeremy Hunt

Mr Hunt went to China and little has changed.

When it came to Hong Kong, the new Foreign Secretary claimed to have had ‘extensive’ and ‘frank’ discussions about the implementation of One Country Two Systems. Such talk is welcome providing serious issues such as the banning of the Hong Kong National Party and the misuse of Public Ordinance Orders were wholeheartedly condemned. However, if it was part of a human rights box-ticking exercise then the British Foreign Secretary’s words are even more meaningless than they already appear to be.

Jeremy Hunt

Jeremy Hunt. File photo: GovUK.

Naturally, trade was the focus, as Britain prepares to leave the European Union, which suggests that – once again – human rights has taken a backseat. The pursuit of strong relations between the UK and the Peoples Republic of China remains the goal, even if the rhetoric of ‘a golden era’ has been toned down.

Business as usual – just as Foreign Office mandarins like it. It was the late Robin Cook, who on becoming Britain’s Foreign Secretary in 1997, said: ‘… after my first fortnight I wasn’t quite clear if I had a Rolls Royce of support staff who were looking after me exceptionally well or whether I had been kidnapped and taken into custody’.

For all we know this new minister is the Foreign Office’s new mouthpiece. It would not be a surprise to anyone who has followed Jeremy Hunt’s career. He lacks the ego and untrustworthiness which his predecessor, Boris Johnson, has in abundance. After all, you do not become the longest serving Health Secretary by needlessly rocking the boat and Hunt managed to keep his head below the parapet despite the unpopularity of his reforms.

If the new Foreign Secretary does have some agency, and if he plans to shape the direction of British foreign policy, this may not bode well for those advocating a tougher line against the Beijing’s human rights abuses. Despite the new minister meeting in Beijing this week with the families of political prisoners, Mr Hunt’s history suggests we will see even more cosying up with the Chinese Communist Party dictatorship in Beijing.

Wang Yu Xu Yan Barbara Woodward Jeremy Hunt Li Wenzu Wang Qiaoling

From left: Wang Yu, Xu Yan, Barbara Woodward, Jeremy Hunt, Li Wenzu, Wang Qiaoling. Photo: Handout.

Outside government duties, Jeremy Hunt has been the long-serving patron of Conservative Friends of Chinese a group which: ‘strongly advocates for closer relations between China and Britain’.

As a member of the British Labour Party, I do not attend this group’s events. Instead, I follow the work of Chinese for Labour which has among its ranks some very decent human rights activists. The Conservative Group, I am reliably informed from a right-leaning friend, has a more ‘corporate view’.

He is being diplomatic I suspect. Journalist Anne Applebaum, on the other hand, has been more forthright and lumps the group alongside Conservative Friends of Russia as organisations which: ‘lobby openly on behalf of those countries inside the U.K. political system’.

While there are plenty of photos of Communist Party dignitaries on their website and talk of trade, there is no mention of human rights. This appears to be a none issue for the group.

conservatives chinese

Conservative Friends of the Chinese. Photo: CFC, via Facebook.

Meanwhile, in government, prior to his promotion to the Foreign Commonwealth Office, Mr Hunt has served since 2012 as the key representative in the UK-China High-Level People to People Dialogues. The scheme looks good on paper (who would object to more cultural and educational exchanges?), but is actually less benign, given it was part of David Cameron and George Osborne’s ‘Golden Era’ project.

According to the SCMP’s Stuart Lau, last October Mr Hunt spoke highly of China-Britain relations during a meeting with the Chinese ambassador in London. According to the embassy, he was ‘honoured to witness and experience the golden era of China-Britain ties’.

At best, you could make the case that the new Foreign Secretary holds the naive view that engagement will liberalise the ruling Communist Party in Beijing. At worst, it can be suggested he has little regard for universal human rights in China. Aside from his recent meeting with the political prisoners’ families, there is little evidence out there for public viewing which would suggest that Mr Hunt does want to push freedom in China and Hong Kong to the top of the agenda.

However, what should not factor into the debate on whether Jeremy Hunt will take a harder or softer line on Chinese human rights abuses is the fact his wife, Lucia Hunt, was born in China. In recent weeks this has been mentioned rather innocuously by newspapers. Perhaps just as an interesting fact or to bolster the new Foreign Secretaries credentials. As if marrying someone from abroad somehow increases your diplomatic abilities.

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Of course, this little-known fact is a little more public now following Mr Hunt’s gaffe during his visit to China. Perhaps he is not so different from his predecessor after all.

Joking aside, more sinisterly, on social media and in the dreaded comment section below news articles, it has been argued that this relationship gives Mr Hunt dual loyalties and that his wife is some sort of government agent. This is a slur with no evidence to back it up.

Lucia Hunt’s views on the Chinese government are not public knowledge. Like may Chinese citizens I’ve met here in the UK and the USA she may have a negative view of the CCP and Xi Jinping. Yet even if she does not, and she supports the continuation of communist party rule, it cannot be proved she influences her husband’s decision making. Many western politicians embrace the PRC in the name of economic prosperity and great power stability without the influence of a spouse.

Despite the claims, absurdity it needs a rebuttal. This narrative plays into Beijing’s agenda, which sees Chinese citizenship and ethnicity as the same as party property. This blurring of the lines fails to make the distinction between the communist regime in China and the Chinese people.

Chinese citizens abroad or British people of Chinese descent are not automatically tools of Beijing. Where evidence is found, whether that be on American campuses or in New Zealand politics, such individuals and groups should be called out.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May in China

UK Prime Minister Theresa May meets Xi Jinping. Photo: 10 Downing Street, via Flickr.

But to assert that somebody has dual loyalties or is an agent of a foreign government simply because of where they were born, without any significant evidence, risks creating a hostile environment whereby members of the Chinese community are viewed with suspicion. That is why any suggestion that UK foreign policy is being driven in a certain direction because of the citizenship of the foreign secretary’s wife is not only absurd but dangerous.

Hopefully, this slur will not enter mainstream discourse. There are many reasons why Jeremy Hunt’s approach to Beijing is problematic. His past work on China within the Conservative Party and as part of the government suggests that it will be business as usual for UK-PRC relations. This is not good enough given Hong Kong’s deteriorating freedoms despite the promise of One Country Two Systems. However, those who care about Hong Kong’s freedom should criticise Mr Hunt’s rather stale performance in Beijing this week without resorting to the personal.

As Hong Kong's freedoms fade, expect 'business as usual' from Britain's new envoy Jeremy Hunt