BEIJING (REUTERS, AFP) – British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt should not use China in his campaign to become the next prime minister by “speaking unduly” about the country, its Foreign Ministry said on Thursday, after he criticised China’s rights record.
China has attacked Hunt for his comments on protests in the former British colony of Hong Kong, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997, calling him “shameless” for warning of consequences if China neglected commitments to basic freedoms.
On Wednesday (July 10), Hunt told a conference on media freedom in London that countries that restrict media freedom must be made to pay a diplomatic price, as he warned about a deteriorating situation in China and elsewhere.
In Beijing, a foreign ministry spokesman said he was unaware of Hunt’s latest comments on China. “But I’ve noticed the competition for the leadership of the Conservative Party at the moment in Britain,” the spokesman, Geng Shuang, told a daily news briefing in Beijing.
“I know that many people are working for the leadership of the Conservative Party, and then become Britain’s new prime minister.” He added, “This an internal affair for Britain. But I hope that certain people in Britain, including Mr Hunt, during the election don’t speak unduly about China, hoping to use this to get votes for their election, or in service of it.”
Hunt, who is battling Boris Johnson to become Britain’s next leader, raised the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the jailing of activists in China and Vietnam and the murder of reporters in Mexico.
“If we act together we can shine a spotlight on abuses and impose a diplomatic price on those who would harm journalists or lock them up for doing their jobs,” he said, without elaborating on the measures that could be taken.
Britain and China have talked about a recent “golden era” in ties, but it has been clouded by arguments over the disputed South China Sea, through which Britain sailed a warship last year close to Chinese-occupied islands, and more recently, over protests in Hong Kong against a now-shelved extradition Bill.
His comments at the conference were echoed by Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, a British special envoy on media freedom.
She criticised world leaders for shrugging off the murder of Saudi journalist Khashoggi, and criticised US President Donald Trump.
“Today, the country of (former US president) James Madison has a leader who vilifies the media, making honest journalists all over the world more vulnerable to abuse,” she said.
Trump regularly mounts attacks on the news media and political opponents on Twitter. He says he can bypass what he labels unfair media coverage by speaking directly using social media.
Hunt also said he disagreed with Trump’s use of language towards journalists.
Clooney also noted that a US indictment against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is being held in British prison pending possible extradition, had “alarmed journalists at newspapers around the world”.
“As the editor of the Washington Post has put it, it criminalises common practices in journalism that have long served the public interest," she added.
The London conference, co-hosted with Canada, brings together 60 ministers and around 1,500 journalists, activists and academics from 100 different countries. The hosts are hoping for pledges about action to protect press freedom and cooperation between states on responding to specific cases.
Britain and Canada want to create a group of “like-minded countries to lobby in unison when media freedom comes under attack”, Hunt told a press conference.
“It’s easier to speak up when you’re not alone,” added Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland.
Britain has also pledged £3 million (S$5 million) to kickstart a global fund to provide legal advice and safety training to journalists, and a further £15 million to help independent media.
However, Hunt conceded that his own country itself must “do better”, after being ranked 33rd in the 2019 world press freedom index by campaign group Reporters Without Borders.
“Those of us that believe in open societies have to practice what we preach,” he said.