19 October 2019
Hong Kong people feel let down by Britain’s failure to take a stronger stand on political reforms in the city. Photo: HKEJ
Hong Kong people feel let down by Britain’s failure to take a stronger stand on political reforms in the city. Photo: HKEJ

Will Britain go beyond platitudes on Hong Kong?

Many Hong Kong people harbor nostalgic feelings about British colonial rule and deem the former masters as having served the city well before handing over the reins to the Chinese 17 years ago.

There was a belief that even after the handover Britain would keep a benevolent eye on the territory and ensure the wellbeing of its citizens, standing up when necessary to Beijing.  

But recent developments have shaken that belief, and people are feeling let down. 

The weak response from London to China’s white paper on ‘one country, two systems’ and the failure to support the Hong Kong pro-democracy calls in a strong and clear manner have upset locals.

Hongkongers now realize that they have to stand on their own and not count on British government backing to help secure true democracy for the city. UK officials have mouthed platitudes on the need to preserve Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms but failed to confront Beijing.

The British government on Thursday unveiled its latest report on Hong Kong affairs, saying that Hongkongers should have a genuine choice in choosing their leader and that the public must feel that they have a stake in the system.

However, the report did not provide a clear expression of support for civic nomination for the chief executive election. Observers feel London may be toeing the line taken by Beijing on the controversial issue.

“The detail of the constitutional package is for the governments of Hong Kong and China and the people of Hong Kong to decide in line with the Basic Law and the decisions of the Standing Committee of the NPC. There is no perfect model,” it said.

Foreign secretary William Hague offered a mild conclusion, saying: “We urge all relevant parties to continue to work together to find solutions acceptable to all.”

The comments suggest that the British government is adopting a realistic approach toward Hong Kong’s 2017 chief executive election.

The current argument surrounding the public nominating rights of candidates, which is not listed in the Basic Law and the National People’s Congress interpretation, seems to be unrealistic to some extent as Beijing is not recognizing such mechanism, and instead using a nominating committee to verify candidates.

The latest report indicates that Britain will stand outside the field and monitor what China and Hong Kong governments do on political reform. 

Pan-democrats in Hong Kong, who have been labeled by Beijing as anti-China activists, have slammed Britain’s report on Hong Kong as “weak” and aimed at “avoiding embarrassing Beijing” after it did not express a view on Beijing’s white paper asserting its authority over the city.

But still, some observers insist that Britain should play a more proactive role in the debate. Former chief secretary Anson Chan and former Legislative Councilor Martin Lee will visit London Saturday to meet key politicians and scholars to update them on the latest developments in Hong Kong, as well as to urge them to voice out their support for Hong Kong people fighting for true democracy.

Ahead of the Chan-Lee trip, Chris Patten, the last colonial governor of Hong Kong, has spoken out, providing some relief to pro-democracy activists. Patten criticized Beijing’s intervention in Hong Kong affairs and said the city’s judicial system must remain independent, rather than heeding Beijing’s call that judges must be “patriotic”.

With the Hong Kong government preparing to submit a report to Beijing on the roadmap for the 2017 election, any comments by British authorities on political reforms would be helpful. China’s parliament is expected to announce in August a decision on the 2017 electoral reform proposal.

But would London be willing make any bold pronouncement and risk confrontation with Beijing?

The answer, most observers, say is “no”. Britain will continue to play word games to express support for Hong Kong, but in the end it is unlikely to bring about any change in Beijing’s decision.

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EJ Insight writer