Hong Kong's autonomy is being 'eroded' by China, say British MPs

LONDON (AFP) - Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy from China is being "eroded", an influential committee of British MPs warned on Friday, voicing concern about the former colony's "direction of travel".

In a report on Britain's relations with Hong Kong, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee warned the city could face a "crisis of governance" unless tensions over how it is ruled are resolved.

Last year saw weeks of protests after China announced that candidates to be the city's next leader in a 2017 vote would be vetted by a pro-Beijing committee. Members of Parliament (MPs) were barred from entering Hong Kong by China in December to research the report as the demonstrations continued, with Chinese officials accusing them of acting as a colonial power.

The committee's chairman Richard Ottaway said that, while it could not force China to change its behaviour, it could offer guidance. "It's almost advice to China from a country that's had a democracy for hundreds of years - that if you offer the people a bit of democracy, they're going to want the whole lot and that until they get a complete package of democracy, this is going to be a continuing problem for them," he told AFP.

Mr Ottaway said his committee's "real concern is that a high degree of autonomy is being eroded" - particularly over political reforms and press freedoms.

"This delicate balance has recently come under strain amidst debate over Hong Kong's political and constitutional future," the report said.

"This, in turn, fuels our concern about Hong Kong's overall direction of travel."

The committee's report also urged the British government to press China harder to ensure that "fundamental rights" are protected.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is making a state visit to Britain later this year and whoever is prime minister after May's general election should use the occasion to push the issue, the report said.

The state visit would be a good opportunity "to convey to the Chinese government that really, it's not in their interests to go on the way they are", Mr Ottaway said.

Hong Kong pro-democracy activists have been highly critical of Britain's failure to speak out against China's plans for the 2017 vote, accusing it of being focused on boosting economic ties with Beijing instead.

And the committee's report voiced concern that the Foreign Office's "lack of clarity" in expressing its views on the issue "may be damaging the UK's reputation" in Hong Kong.

"We agree with the UK government that the specific details of constitutional reform are for the governments of China and Hong Kong to decide together with the people of Hong Kong," it said.

"But we do not share its view that the current electoral proposals for 2017 offer 'genuine choice' to the people of Hong Kong.

"We also judge that the UK can and should take a clearer position on the overall pace and degree of democratic reform."

Under the Joint Declaration signed in 1984 which set out the terms of Britain's 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China, the city is governed under the principle of "one country, two systems".

This means that Hong Kong, a major international financial centre, has a string of political, social and economic freedoms not enjoyed on the Chinese mainland.

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