British Prime Minister David Cameron has come under fire for skirting the heated debate over Hong Kong’s autonomy by prioritising Britain’s economic ties with China during Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to London this week.
A joint statement released by both governments on Tuesday mentioned Hong Kong only briefly, making no reference to a controversial Chinese government policy paper from last week that detailed Beijing’s understanding of the “one country, two systems” principle laid down in the Basic Law, the city’s constitutional document.
The statement’s only reference to Hong Kong read: “Both sides agreed it is both in China and the UK’s interests to promote the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong in accordance with the ‘one country, two systems’ principle and the Basic Law.”
The white paper released last week emphasised Beijing’s “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong and said the city’s autonomy was subject to the central government’s authority.
That sparked concerns that the high degree of autonomy, guaranteed to Hong Kong in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 and the Basic Law, was at risk.
Democratic heavyweight Martin Lee Chu-ming, who helped draft the Basic Law, described Cameron as “very irresponsible” for not speaking up for Hongkongers or the Joint Declaration.
“The central government has redefined the country’s policies towards Hong Kong [in the white paper], which are different from what were stated in the Joint Declaration and Basic Law,” Lee said.
“Before, [Beijing] stated that the central government was only responsible for Hong Kong’s military and diplomatic affairs … but now they say they enjoy 'comprehensive jurisdiction' [over Hong Kong].”
Lee urged the UK to continue its role maintaining the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law, and not to give up that right in exchange for business with China.
“There were only two countries signing the Joint Declaration – China and UK,” he said, referring to the documents which set out the terms of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty on July 1, 1997.
”It is unacceptable for the UK not to speak up for Hongkongers,” Lee lamented. “This is very irresponsible and has disappointed the people in Hong Kong”.
While the statement made no mention of the white paper that the State Council released last week, it is unclear whether Cameron has raised the issue in his conversations with Premier Li so far.
For Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at Nottingham University, the wording reflects British sensitivity towards Chinese concerns over the former colonial power’s influence in the SAR.
“London is aware that Beijing sees a conspiracy behind any overt British ’interference’ in any aspect of development in Hong Kong, particularly if it is something disapproved of by Beijing,” he wrote in an email.
“This limits what the British government can say and do.”
The joint statement was released on the second day of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to the UK. In a visit focused on business cooperation, deals worth more than HK$230 billion have been signed according to the Chinese embassy in London.
And economic cooperation loomed large in Tuesday’s statement.
The reference to the former colony appeared below remarks on economic cooperation in nuclear and wind energy, railways and the issuing of yuan-dominated bonds in London.
Mandarin classes at British schools, the “the translation of each other’s contemporary litreary classics” as well as judicial cooperation and cultural exchange were also mentioned ahead of the one-time British colony handed back to Chinese rule 17 years ago.
The paragraph that referred to Hong Kong also reiterated Britain’s recognition of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet.
The white paper issued last week also argued that “it is necessary […] to repel the attempt made by a very small number of people who act in collusion with outside forces to interfere with the implementation of ‘one country, two systems’ in Hong Kong.”
A week earlier, Beijing’s top representative in Hong Kong, Song Zhe, called on the British Consul General to Hong Kong, Caroline Wilson, not to interfere in Hong Kong affairs.
Wilson had expressed concerns over electoral reform in a meeting with pan-democrat lawmakers.