DIPLOMACY

British diplomats fuming over Hong Kong's snub of Hugo Swire

Foreign Office minister was denied meetings to discuss political reform with the city's top two leaders during a visit earlier this month

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 January, 2015, 2:13am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 January, 2015, 2:13am

British diplomats have expressed outrage and frustration over a snub delivered to their most senior official on Hong Kong during a visit to the city earlier this month for key discussions over political reform.

It has emerged that British Foreign Office minister Hugo Swire - the UK's top official on Hong Kong and China affairs - was denied meetings with Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, in a protocol breach that has left diplomats of the former colonial power fuming.

It is believed to be the first time since 1997 that London's top representative on Hong Kong has not met with the city's most senior officials while visiting, and comes amid strained relations after British parliamentarians were denied entry to probe political developments in the city.

It also comes days after it was announced President Xi Jinping would make his first official visit to Britain later this year.

"It was outrageous. For a minister of this rank not to get meetings with any government figures is unheard of," said one source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Another source, in London, spoke of the "frustration" felt by the British as they attempt to support the government on political reform in Hong Kong.

On his return to Britain Swire told a UK parliamentary committee that Beijing feared his visit could spark renewed pro-democracy protests.

During the visit Swire, a descendant of the founder of the Swire Group, met with Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li and pro-Beijing and pan-Democrat lawmakers and British business people.

In response to questions to the offices of both Leung and Lam, asking why they did not meet with Swire, a government spokesman said: "Senior officials from time to time would meet with visiting overseas officials when schedule and circumstances permit."

The snub came just days after Swire met with senior Beijing officials on the mainland, including foreign minister Wang Yi.

A British consulate spokesperson said the purpose of the visit - which happened a day after the Hong Kong government launched the second round of its political reform consultation on Jan 7 - was to "support British business and deepen the overall relationship between our two countries, as well as to talk to a range of political contacts".

Following the trip, Swire told the parliamentary committee in London that he had insisted on coming to Hong Kong as he would not have a chance to return later in the year due the upcoming British general election.

"From the Chinese point of view, they regard this as a particularly sensitive time. They regarded it as a very sensitive time for me to go" to Hong Kong, Swire told MPs on January 13.