Balance freedom of debate with respect for law, says outgoing British consul general

Caroline Wilson, commenting on the Hong Kong government limiting independence talk in schools, says students should consider these aspects

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 August, 2016, 12:17am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 August, 2016, 2:15am

Young people should enjoy freedom of debate as long as it is done with respect for the law, the outgoing British consul general says, when she was asked to comment on the Hong Kong government warning against independence talk in schools.

But Caroline Wilson treads carefully on the disqualifications of some separatist candidates from running for the legislature, noting that the matter has entered a judicial process.

“I’m not going to comment on specifics – all I’ll say is freedom of expression, freedom of debate and also developing a questioning approach in people’s minds and, for young people, the need to learn how to differentiate different arguments” are very important, Wilson said in an interview with the South China Morning Post and two other media organisations. “Sometimes it’s really important to debate things, but all has to be done with respect for the law and the broader constitutional framework in Hong Kong.”

But the diplomat also reiterated that the British government had made it clear it did not support the city breaking away from China, and she felt the idea “doesn’t make any sense”.

Her comments came as Hong Kong officials have stated there was little room for discussing the city’s independence in schools, warning teachers who do not comply could risk losing their jobs and students could be kicked out.

Critics of the candidates’ disqualifications have pointed to the situation in Britain, where advocates for Scottish independence are represented in the legislature.

But Wilson said the situations in the two places were different, because Hong Kong had a written constitution that stated it was part of China. “As the representative of the country that signed the Joint Declaration, I support freedoms to be exercised in Hong Kong, but I also have to recognise ... Hong Kong’s constitutional structure.”

That structure should not and does not unduly restrict rights and freedoms, and “I just think it requires an intelligent approach”, she said, but did not elaborate.

Referring to the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, Wilson said “one country, two systems” had been an “unprecedented success”. China’s actions over the “involuntary” removal of bookseller Lee Po to the mainland for investigations was the one single “serious breach” of the treaty so far, as recognised by the UK Parliament, she noted. “Let’s hope that remains a one-off, unprecedented [breach].”

Turning to her work on promoting the rights of sexual minority, Wilson said the Hong Kong government had issued a note objecting to her holding same-sex marriage ceremonies within the consulate. There were concerns that a number of Hongkongers who hold British National (Overseas) passports might get married this way, circumventing the city’s legislation that disallows such unions, she noted.

Wilson will leave for her home country early next month and will be working on European Union issues back home.