UK’s duty to Hong Kong ‘non-negotiable’ in post-Brexit trade talks with China, Paddy Ashdown says

British peer says nation ‘bears the responsibility’ for city’s democratic development, because former colonial rulers did not set course earlier

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 November, 2017, 2:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 November, 2017, 11:00pm

The UK government was called upon to fulfil its “very special duty” to Hong Kong, as a British political grandee said on Tuesday that the city’s interests are “non-negotiable” when London speaks to Beijing about post-Brexit trade deals.

Paddy Ashdown, in the city for a two-day fact-finding mission, added that it was important for China to respect the Sino-British Joint Declaration as well as to avoid a “repressive” attitude towards the city if President Xi Jinping wants the country to be seen as a global superpower.

Saying that Britain “bears the responsibility for the position in Hong Kong,” Ashdown, who sits in the UK’s House of Lords, argued that the former colonial power had failed to “set a direction of travel” for the city’s democratic development.

The British government is currently negotiating the terms of its withdrawal from the European Union, after voters narrowly backed a British exit – the so-called Brexit – in a referendum last year. Walking out of the free trade area heightens the importance of trade deals with other large nations, such as China.

“We are so obsessed with Brexit that we do almost anything for a decent trade deal,” Ashdown, who as an MP was leader of the Liberal Democrat party, said.

“Britain desperately needs international trade to replace the European Union and China will be very tempting. But it will be disgraceful, I think, if we sacrifice Hong Kong. And I don’t believe we will, in pursuit of a trade deal.

“There are deals to be done, but that would be done on a commercial basis. Our duty to Hong Kong is non-negotiable.”

He added: “Britain does need to understand that it has a very special duty to Hong Kong and it needs to fulfil that duty. We have a legal duty. We have a moral duty. We have a duty of friendship.”

The sovereignty of Hong Kong was transferred from Britain to China in 1997, with the two sides having guaranteed human rights and freedoms in the city with the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984.

Ashdown, who was also a high representative of the international community in Bosnia and Herzegovina, has joined Hong Kong Watch, a group founded by British conservative activist Benedict Rogers.

Rogers was denied entry to Hong Kong last month when he arrived at the airport, an outcome which Ashdown said brought forward his own trip to the city, where he lived during the 1960s.

He expressed concern about China’s approach to the city, which observers say has become sterner in the wake of Xi’s speech at last month’s party congress in Beijing.

Why colonial Hong Kong’s architecture owed more to Calcutta and Macau than Britain

“Is it really very good for a great superpower – a nation that has the ambition to be a superpower – to use that great power of the state on three or four or five or six young men who are enthusiastic democrats?” he asked, referring to the jailing of student leaders including Joshua Wong Chi-fung over a protest in 2014. Wong and his two co-convicted were first given non-custodial sentences, but the Hong Kong government successfully sought a review to have them replaced with jail time. The trio have since appealed that review, and are out on bail while they wait for the hearing.

Ashdown said he would meet student leaders, lawmakers and representatives from the legal sector during his trip.

“Repudiating an international treaty, I don’t think it’s in China’s interest. The joint declaration has a really important function to play, not just in Hong Kong,” Ashdown said. “It is valuable to China; I think it is valuable to the wider world as well.”

He questioned whether China could enhance its soft power globally if “they would seem to breach an international treaty and impose a will on Hong Kong”.

While he said the rule of law remained in good shape in Hong Kong, he said more could be done to further the city’s democratic development.

“There has been a lot of talk on the independence of the judiciary, is it under attack? I don’t think it is, to be honest,” he said, adding that “international judges” still enjoy independence.

The Court of Final Appeal, Hong Kong’s top court, requires that all cases be heard by panels that consist of overseas, non-permanent justices from other common law jurisdictions.

But on democracy, Ashdown highlighted the functional constituencies, calling the trade-based seats that make up nearly half of the 70-strong Legislative Council “ridiculous” and “the worst legacy” left behind by Britain. “It’s alright as a transition, I understand that,” he said, but added that the seats “should be gradually removed”.

From the 1997 handover to 2017: Hong Kong as seen in photos over 20 years

“I actually think Britain bears the responsibility for the position in Hong Kong,” he said. “[Britain] could have set a direction of travel earlier. And if we’d have done that, democracy here would be much more mature.”