Britain not ‘interfering’ in Hong Kong politics, top UK diplomat says, as he reaffirms country’s commitment to city’s special status
Strengthening trade ties and remaining true to handover agreement at heart of Britain’s approach to region, adviser to Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt says
London’s interest in Hong Kong should not be seen as a “threat or interference” in Chinese sovereignty, a top British diplomat has said.
Simon McDonald, Permanent Under-Secretary and Head of the Diplomatic Service of Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, said his country would continue to maintain its obligations to the city, while looking to strengthen trade ties with China.
McDonald also said it was “possible to square national security with freedom of expression”, when asked to comment on the Hong Kong government’s bid to ban the separatist Hong Kong National Party.
“Freedom of expression does not diminish our security,” he said, adding that Britain does not support independence for Hong Kong. “The Brits believe that freedom of speech is an aspect of a strong society. It is our practise in the UK.”
The diplomat, who is also the senior foreign policy adviser to Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, made the remarks in an exclusive interview with the Post on Friday. He visited the city and met commerce minister Edward Yau Tang-wah, legislators, as well as legal and business bodies after visitingJapan and South Korea last week.
In July, the FCO’s spokesman said it noted “with concern” the Hong Kong government’s plans to ban the HKNP, stating that civic liberties, including the freedom of speech, are enshrined in the city’s mini-constitution Basic Law.
In the latest six-month report to the British parliament released earlier this month, Hunt also warned of “growing concerns” over the issue of free speech in Hong Kong.
Both statements were dismissed by Beijing, and the Hong Kong government, as interference in domestic affairs, adding that independence was not part of free speech, but a violation of China’s constitution.
But, McDonald said London’s concern was neither “a threat nor interference in the sovereign rights of China”.
“I see it as implementing an obligation under a joint agreement,” he said. “They [China] shouldn’t be surprised, as we have set out in an agreement between the two countries the basis for our continued interest and involvement in Hong Kong.”
McDonald was referring to the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, under which London agreed to hand over Hong Kong to Beijing in 1997, while Beijing promised the former colony a high degree of autonomy – a core element in the “one country, two systems” principle.
McDonald said London would continue to commit to the principle, as it was “the basis of Hong Kong’s existence after the handover”.
“One feature of this system in Hong Kong is the rule of law. It makes Hong Kong a particularly attractive place for UK business and indeed other international business to trade and invest,” he said.
Beijing and London have been working together since 2015 to open markets, and build on their “golden era” in relations. For Hong Kong, Britain was its 13th largest trading partner in the world last year, and the city’s second largest trading partner in Europe.
However, uncertainties have been looming as Britain will leave the European Union in March, and the country remains torn between a hard Brexit – making a clean break with no deal with the EU – and a soft Brexit – maintaining selected links under Prime Minister Theresa May’s Chequers plan.
McDonald said “the chances are rising that [Britain and the EU] will avoid” the fate of a no deal, and there is no need to worry about trade ties between Britain and China after Brexit.
“We would intend to build on that post-Brexit,” he said. “We have [also] signalled already increased interest in the rest of the world.
“A logical place for us to start is with countries and territories where we have strong ties, and Hong Kong is a very good example of a traditional relationship that we can build on.”
McDonald revealed he had discussed with Yau on Friday “the options for a free-trade agreement”.
“There are some detailed provisions for professional services, which might be improved in a bilateral agreement, but, the trading environment between Hong Kong and the UK is already very good,” he said.