Date
14 December 2017
It has been ages since Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher discussed Hong Kong's handover to China from Britain. Then, China was a poor country coming out of social and economic chaos. Now it's economy is four times that of Britain. Photo: NYT
It has been ages since Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher discussed Hong Kong's handover to China from Britain. Then, China was a poor country coming out of social and economic chaos. Now it's economy is four times that of Britain. Photo: NYT

How to count the cost of Beijing displeasure

China is warning Britain in no uncertain terms not to stick its nose into Hong Kong affairs, despite the fact that the two countries co-signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984 and registered it with the United Nations as an international treaty whose terms will last until 2047.

But 30 years is a long time. Thirty years ago, when the Joint Declaration was signed, Britain was a major international player while China was a poor country emerging from a decade of Cultural Revolution chaos.

In the late 1950s, when Chairman Mao Zedong launched the Great Leap Forward, his ambition was to catch up with British steel production in 15 years. Now, of course, China’s economy is four times that of the United Kingdom.

China always insists on its “principled” positions, but principles are subject to change. Thus, when China was weak, it argued for separating business from politics. Now, the shoe is on the other foot and China is quick to punish economically any country guilty of “interfering in its internal affairs” such as by meeting the Dalai Lama in London, Washington or South Africa.

China’s “internal affairs”, it seems, are so extensive they spill over into every corner of the world.

Beijing is not shy about flexing its economic muscle for political purposes and, on the Hong Kong issue, major British institutions are apparently falling in line.

Both HSBC and Standard Chartered Bank have reportedly, under Chinese pressure, pulled ads from Apple Daily, a newspaper that is a major thorn in the side of the Chinese government.

Fear has also been voiced that British banks in Hong Kong may in future cooperate with the Chinese government, say, in freezing the accounts of activists who incur the displeasure of Beijing.

China’s economic muscle is likely to get even stronger. The official Xinhua news agency reported on Sept. 8 that China will become the world’s largest economy in 2024, citing HIS Inc., a global industrial data and analysis company in London.

Actually, despite Chinese obsession with “foreign forces”, both Britain and the United States responded mildly to Beijing’s tough stance on universal suffrage in Hong Kong.

In fact, Britain seemed to hail the decision, with a spokesman saying, “We welcome the confirmation that China’s objective is for the election of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive through universal suffrage.” Former Chief Secretary Anson Chan considered the response insulting.

As for Washington, its initial reaction was simply to reiterate American support for universal suffrage in Hong Kong, “in accordance with the Basic Law and the aspirations of the Hong Kong people”.

Nonetheless, these may not be the final words. Certainly, on the British side, the Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) of the House of Commons, which announced in July that it would hold hearings into British relations with Hong Kong to mark the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, insists that it will go ahead despite Chinese displeasure.

As soon as the FAC decision was announced, the Chinese ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, wrote a letter warning that holding such an inquiry “will ultimately harm the interests of Britain”.

This was followed by another missive, this time from the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Chinese National People’s Congress.

Writing to its British counterpart, the committee asserted that Hong Kong’s “constitutional development and other affairs fall completely within China’s internal affairs and brook no interference … from the UK or any other external forces.”

It asked British parliamentarians to “act with caution” and “bear in mind the larger picture of China-UK relations”.

There was a third letter, this one sent from the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in London, presumably at Beijing’s direction.

Signed by Erica Ng, the director general, it too called on the foreign affairs committee not to hold the planned inquiry which involves “internal matters” of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

Increasingly, China is using Hong Kong as a shield, getting its administration to object whenever Beijing’s policy towards the former British colony comes under criticism.

Certainly, in normal circumstances, Britain would have no reason to hold hearings on what its former colonies, such as Singapore and Malaysia, are doing.

But Hong Kong is different in that Britain agreed to turn over the territory and its people over to China in 1997, which promised to adopt the policy of “one country, two systems” for 50 years.

It would seem legitimate for Britain – and other countries who heeded Chinese appeals 30 years ago to support the concept of “one country, two systems” – to see if China has delivered on its promises.

Related stories:

Britain backs real democracy for Hong Kong

Civic Party, Hong Kong 2020 blast UK for commending China 

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RA

Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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