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Hong Kong bookseller disappearances

UK Foreign Affairs committe considers probe on Sino-British ties: concerns about erosion of Hong Kong’s Basic Law

Hong Kong issues likely to come up, including the disappearance of Lee Bo and fears about the potential erosion of the city’s mini-constitution

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 January, 2016, 12:56am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 January, 2016, 6:48pm

A wide-ranging inquiry into the increasingly close economic relationship between Britain and China – and its implications for human rights – is being considered by an influential committee of Britain’s parliament.

In a move likely to raise the hackles of Beijing – and present a headache for British Prime Minister David Cameron – members of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) are expected to consider the proposal put forward by its chairman, Conservative MP Crispin Blunt.

Two years ago the same committee carried out a probe into UK-SAR relations 30 years after the signing of the Joint Declaration, which triggered an outcry in Beijing, and led to MPs being barred from entering the mainland and Hong Kong in an unprecedented row.

It also represents a possible ratcheting up of international focus on the case of bookseller Lee Bo, who is also a British citizen. Bo disappeared more than a week ago.

Analysts say the probe could span the two countries’ handling of trade and investment, human rights and Hong Kong affairs.

A Foreign Affairs Committee spokeswoman told the Sunday Morning Post: “The chairman – Crispin Blunt MP – is interested in proposing an inquiry to MPs which would look at the UK’s relations with China.

“Hong Kong, as a part of China with a unique British interest based on its history, establishment and key economic relationship, would form part of his proposal and would feature in the terms of reference of a wider inquiry into the relationship between the UK and China.”

Under the committee’s procedure Blunt’s proposal would be debated by fellow members who ultimately will decide the shape the scope and terms of the inquiry. A spokeswoman stressed the chair’s proposal did not carry greater weight than members in subjecting countries and events to public scrutiny.

If the committee gives the China inquiry gets the go-ahead, proceedings will start in the next parliamentary year.

Analysts expect the inquiry to examine the influence of trade, which has seen the UK sign up to the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the securing by China of a deal to build nuclear power stations for Britain, which has raised national security concerns.

The investigation could also focus on Britain’s invitation to Beijing to build a high-speed rail network.

Steve Tsang, head of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham, said it was “entirely appropriate” for Parliament to investigate, and “it should happen.”

He added: “We don’t know what the Chinese reaction will be because we don’t know what the terms of reference of the inquiry will be,” he said. “The Chinese government doesn’t object to sittings to hear about the relationship with China or UK-China policy… [it] has a problem if proceedings should be saying things they don’t like.”

Duncan Innes-Ker, China analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said the committee had a role in holding the government to account and explaining itself clearly even at the cost of some “embarrassment.”

“Given the recent developments in Hong Kong with Lee Bo, there are likely to be a number of additional concerns raised about the potential erosion of the Basic Law, and the UK government is likely to want to raise that at the parliamentary level,” the China analyst said.

However, the government’s priority was likely to remain the economic relationship, Innes-Ker said.

Overnight on Friday, the United States said it was disturbed by reports of Bo’s disappearance and four others who are linked to him.

This came after the British government and the European Union broke their silence on the issue and expressed the same concern over the mysterious disappearance of the five booksellers.

On Thursday, the EU issued a statement urging Hong Kong and Thailand to investigate and clarify the whereabouts of the booksellers.

Additional reporting by Christy Leung