Hong Kong protests: Britain turns up heat on China but has weak hand

Protesters gather around the Golden Baihinia Square during an official flag raising ceremony to commemorate the Chinese National Day in Hong Kong, Oct 1, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Protesters gather around the Golden Baihinia Square during an official flag raising ceremony to commemorate the Chinese National Day in Hong Kong, Oct 1, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (AFP) - Britain may be first in line to put pressure on Beijing to show restraint over pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, but it must not overestimate its influence 17 years after handing over the territory, experts say.

London's reaction has intensified as the "umbrella revolution" - named after the implement pro-democracy supporters have used to shield themselves from tear gas - has grown.

The Foreign Office on Monday called for "constructive discussions", Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday said he was "deeply concerned" by developments and his deputy Nick Clegg announced his intention to summon China's ambassador to express "alarm and dismay".

But diplomatic pressure cannot hide one basic fact: "There is nothing that any country can do, let alone Britain, if they (Beijing) choose to repress their people," Richard Ottoway, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the British lower house of parliament, told AFP.

He told the BBC that there may be room for complaint if China does not honour its democratic promises when candidates are selected for the 2017 election to decide the province's chief executive.

"We can protest, we can ask them to change their minds, but at the end of the day that is all we can do," he added.

Rod Wye, Asia expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, also doubted Britain's ability to influence Beijing. "What the UK and indeed other governments have to rely on is the power of persuasion," he told AFP.

They must "support the aspirations of the Hong Kong people for more democracy... but the Chinese don't appear to be in any mood to accept that," he said. "They have said that Hong Kong is an internal matter for China and nobody else has the right to intervene. So what do you do? That is very problematic".

Even if chances of success are slim, London must still keep up the pressure, according to Athar Hussain, director of the Asian research centre at the London School of Economics (LSE).

"They (China) cannot use excessive force because there are repercussions on China's relationship with the rest of the world, and critically with Taiwan," he argued. "I think that Britain, European and other western countries expressing their disapproval will, at least from the Beijing side, make them (China) a bit more careful," said Hussain, ruling out any violent crackdown "in the near future".

This is even more likely "because there is, at the moment, no direct threat to the Chinese state and the Chinese leadership are comfortable in their position," explained Rod Wye.

"The second challenge is obviously the question of whether or not it is likely to have a spillover effect on the Chinese mainland," he said. "Obviously, if it did, then that would... be something threatening the Chinese leadership".

Britain's legal impotence

Deputy Prime Minister Clegg has said the population of the former British colony were "perfectly entitled" to demand "free, fair, open elections". According to him "Britain and China have solemn obligations to the people of Hong Kong to preserve their rights and freedoms, under the terms of the Joint Declaration signed in 1984 by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher."

Since its return to Chinese control, the former British colony has enjoyed broad autonomy under a regime of "one country, two systems." Its inhabitants are entitled to freedom of speech and to protest and a legal system inherited from English law. But protesters argue that Beijing has flouted measures set down in the handover agreement by deciding that the election for the chief executive in 2017 should take place under universal suffrage, but only with a shortlist of candidates selected for their "patriotism" to China.

The problem is that the Sino-British declaration which led to the adoption of a Chinese "basic law" is both vague and non-binding with regards to the execution of democracy in the province. There is no legal basis for appeal and in reality, the Chinese can argue that they have fulfilled their commitments.

"But what they have not given, and what people hoped they might have given, is the sort of universal suffrage" that the province has come to expect, concluded Wye.

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