Date
12 December 2017
A protester waves a colonial Hong Kong flag outside the Chinese liaison office in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP
A protester waves a colonial Hong Kong flag outside the Chinese liaison office in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP

Et tu, Britain, on ‘one country, two systems’?

It’s been nearly 30 years since the prime ministers of China and Britain put their names to the Sino-British Joint Declaration, outlining the conditions under which China would resume sovereignty of the then British colony.

The two countries agreed that the principle of “one country, two systems” would apply and Hong Kong would enjoy a high level of autonomy. But Beijing’s white paper on the issue last week is widely seen as undermining that autonomy, prompting many to look to Britain to uphold the deal.

Some Hong Kong residents have even started a petition called for an official response from London. But given Britain’s great economic interests with China, Hong Kong people could find their concerns lower down on Britain’s list of priorities.

Beijing warned Hong Kong last week that there were limits to the city’s freedom and that Hong Kong’s autonomy was determined by the central government rather than Hong Kong itself.

This comes as Beijing seeks to implement a mainland-style universal suffrage system in Hong Kong for the 2017 chief executive election that would filter out Beijing-unfriendly candidates for the city’s top job.

Some Hongkongers maintain that Britain should have voiced support for Hong Kong and put pressure on China over the issue.

Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office did say Sunday that Britain supports Hong Kong’s high level of autonomy and also welcomes China’s reiteration of the implementation of universal suffrage in 2017.

But the response reflected a desire not to get too involved in the details of universal suffrage, especially the screening and filtering mechanism for anti-communist candidates. It’s not hard to see why.

Premier Li Keqiang will make his first official visit to Britain this week, a signal of warming in ties since China suspended all dialogue with Britain over British Prime Minister David Cameron’s meeting with Tibet’s exiled leader, the Dalai Lama, in 2012.

Li will meet Cameron for a high-level trade summit as China pours more money into British infrastructure projects.

The Guardian reported Monday that Li’s three-day visit to Britain is expected to lead to nearly £18 billion (US$30.53 billion) in deals being signed, including more Chinese involvement in energy, nuclear power and other British infrastructure.

Accompanied by more than 200 Chinese businesspeople, Li will also announce investment plans that will promote London as a world centre for the yuan trade.

Britain will also make it easier for Chinese investment to flow into the European country. For example, the British government will relax its visa requirements for Chinese and encourage Chinese investors to invest in wide range of politically sensitive assets such as infrastructure, utilities and property development.

It all appears to be paying off for Britain. Official data shows annual exports to China grew to £12.4 billion last year from £7.6 billion in 2010 when Cameron took office.

On top of that, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said China and Britain could ink a statement on the fruitful results of the joint declaration, bringing Britain into line with China on the Hong Kong issue.

Improving Sino-British ties could be a wake-up call for some Hong Kong people who are preferred the years under British rule. The mutual economic interests between the two nations overshadow the Hong Kong issue and Britain, who felt China’s after the Dalai Lama meeting in 2012, could steer a less politically risky approach in Hong Kong affairs to avoid angering Beijing.

Ultimately, it may be up to the people of Hong Kong to uphold the high degree of autonomy under Beijing rule.

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SC/JP/SK

EJ Insight writer

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