On Jan. 26, 1841, British soldiers landed on Hong Kong Island, and Britain started its colonial rule, turning a small village in southern China into an international financial centre before it returned the city to Chinese rule in 1997.
One hundred and seventy-four years after that first landing by British troops, one of the country’s ministers was denied a meeting with Hong Kong’s top leaders.
Beijing was clearly signaling its intention to keep the British government out of Hong Kong’s internal affairs, including the controversial issue of political reform.
The refusal of the request by British Foreign Office junior minister Hugo Swire to meet Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying or Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor during a visit to the city last month indicates the strange relationship between Britain and China.
Both sides are preparing for the state visit of President Xi Jinping to Britain later this year, after Premier Li Keqiang signed billions of dollars in trade deals during his visit in June last year.
There is a lot at stake in economic terms for Britain.
But its diplomats were fuming at the cold shoulder Swire received, as senior British officials had never been treated like this in the past.
Beijing loyalists may argue that since diplomacy is under the purview of the central government, it would not have been appropriate for Leung or Lam to meet Swire.
However, because Britain is a signatory to the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984 that decided the fate of Hong Kong, it would be quite normal for British officials to meet the city’s officials and politicians to find out about the latest developments on the road to democracy.
This is not the first time, however, that Beijing has shut the door to British politicians.
A British parliamentary delegation failed to secure approval from the Chinese government to visit Hong Kong late last year for its investigation into the implementation of “one country, two systems” in the city.
Some officials in Beijing even commented that the joint declaration expired in 1997 when Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule.
It seems that Beijing has identified Britain as one of the external forces that Leung has said have been meddling in Hong Kong’s internal affairs.
Pro-democracy politicians, including former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang and former Democratic Party chairman Martin Lee Chu-ming, did visit London to invite some politicians to pay attention to the development of democracy in Hong Kong.
Leung cited the fact that the Occupy campaign and some of its supporters received funds from bank accounts at a local branch of HSBC, a British bank, as evidence of foreign intervention in Hong Kong affairs, an allegation that seems ridiculous.
As an international financial city, Hong Kong is unavoidably under the global media spotlight.
Beijing can only use its huge domestic market as an incentive for foreign powers, including Britain, to keep their mouths shut on sensitive topics such as Hong Kong democracy and avoid hindering Beijing’s attempt to implement the plan it designed for the 2017 election for chief executive.
In fact, far from criticizing Beijing’s proposal, Swire expressed his support for it on his visit to Hong Kong.
Xi is a no-nonsense leader, so it’s no surprise that the central government is getting tough on Hong Kong issues.
China has no tolerance for any foreign powers showing “concern” about political reform in the city.
Beijing is now ruling Hong Kong, not London.
China’s tough stance toward British politicians is a warning to Hongkongers that they shouldn’t be bringing the issue of electoral reform to the international level or seeking Britain’s help in any capacity.
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