LONDON (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - China and Britain’s war of words over Hong Kong has escalated, with the two sides openly accusing each other of behaving inappropriately towards the former UK colony.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the UK is keeping its options open over its threat of “serious consequences” if China fails to honour the letter and spirit of an agreement that guarantees freedoms in Hong Kong.
“I’m not saying anything about what those consequences might be, that would not be the right thing for me to do as foreign secretary because of course you keep your options open,” Mr Hunt told BBC radio on Thursday (July 4).
“The UK views this situation very, very seriously, we are a country that has championed democracy, the rule of law and civil rights across the world for much of our history and we see this situation as very worrying.”
China’s ambassador to London, Mr Liu Xiaoming, gave a rare televised statement on Wednesday, accusing the British government of meddling.
His comments came after Prime Minister Theresa May told Parliament that she was “shocked” by the scenes of violence when protesters stormed the Hong Kong Legislative Council on Monday.
“The UK government chose to stand on the wrong side, it has made inappropriate remarks, not only to interfere in the internal affairs of Hong Kong but also to back up the violent lawbreakers,” Mr Liu said.
He also said Britain has tried to “obstruct” Hong Kong authorities from “bringing the criminals to justice, which is utter interference in Hong Kong’s rule of law".
Mr Liu was in turn summoned to the UK Foreign Office to explain his comments.
The row has sabotaged Britain’s attempts to improve relations with China as it prepares to leave the European Union and looks for trade deals around the world.
'PEACEFULLY AND LAWFULLY'
For all that it wants a good relationship with China, the UK feels an obligation toward the people of Hong Kong, which it handed over in 1997 after 156 years of British rule.
That was under a “one country, two systems” agreement negotiated in 1984 by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, designed to guarantee freedoms for Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong frequently invoke that deal and call on the UK to intervene when they feel its terms are being ignored; demonstrators who entered the Legislative Council building unfurled a Union Jack-emblazoned colonial flag as part of their protests.
“The vast majority of the hundreds of thousands who marched did so peacefully and lawfully,” Mrs May told Parliament. “It is vital that Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and the rights and freedoms set down in the Sino-British joint declaration are respected,” she said, noting the anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China this week.
Yet Mrs May will only be prime minister for another few weeks and an election is under way among members of Britain’s ruling Conservative party to choose a successor.
Outspoken former foreign secretary Boris Johnson is the favourite to win the party leadership and become the UK’s next prime minister.
Mr Johnson said he supported the protesters, who were entitled to be sceptical about Chinese proposals for extradition to the mainland.
“I do support them and I will happily speak up for them and back them every inch of the way,” he said in an interview with Reuters on Wednesday.
Mr Hunt, Mr Johnson’s rival in the Tory leadership race, said China has benefited “massively” from the rules-based international order and should honour the 1984 agreement.
“Hong Kong is part of China, we recognise that, we are simply saying we also have an agreement with the People’s Republic of China and we expect that to be honoured,” Mr Hunt told the BBC.
“The way to deal with that violence is not by repression, but by understanding the root causes of the concerns of the demonstrators that freedoms they’ve had for their whole lives could be about to be undermined.”
But Mr Hunt underlined that he had not backed the violent protests in Hong Kong after Chinese state media blamed interference by Western governments for unrest in the former British colony.
"Let me clear what I said. I said that I condemned, and we as the United Kingdom, condemn all violence and that people who supported the pro-democracy demonstrators would have been very dismayed by the scenes they saw," Mr Hunt told BBC radio.
He said the authorities had to deal with the root causes of the protests over the now-suspended extradition law in Hong Kong.
He also said there was no reason why good relations between Britain and China could not continue.
In a veiled warning to whoever succeeds Mrs May, China demanded the UK stay out of its affairs in Hong Kong.
Its Foreign Ministry this week said the Sino-British agreement “no longer has any practical significance".
“I would like to reiterate that Hong Kong is China’s special administrative region, it is not what it used to be under the British colonial rule,” Mr Liu said.