Date
16 January 2017
As Sino-British relations have improved following a meeting between Xi Jinping and David Cameron last year, London may be paying just lip-service to the issue of missing Hong Kong booksellers. Photos: HKEJ, AFP
As Sino-British relations have improved following a meeting between Xi Jinping and David Cameron last year, London may be paying just lip-service to the issue of missing Hong Kong booksellers. Photos: HKEJ, AFP

Britain’s words on Lee Bo are too few, too weak

With a resurgence of nostalgia for the “good old days”, it is not uncommon to see people in Hong Kong streets holding the British colonial flag or wearing T-shirts or carrying handbags bearing images of the Union Jack.

News items on the British Royal family, including the latest moves of Prince George as he attends nursery school, still generate a lot of “likes” from Hongkongers.

However, the pro-British sentiment seems to be an unrequited love. The UK government and politicians seem have almost forgotten Hong Kong, which had once been a pearl in the British crown.

London doesn’t seem to care about Hong Kong affairs. On issues such as political reform call and the 2014 Umbrella Movement, Britain’s reaction had lagged that of the United States, and even Japan.

British Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, who showed great interest in China’s markets and economic benefits, had arranged high-level meetings between the Queen and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Both sides said it is the beginning of a golden period in Sino-British relations.

While the relations between the two countries entered a new phase, the British government said in a six-monthly report on Hong Kong last week that the disappearance of five individuals associated with a Hong Kong bookstore and publishing house has raised questions in the former colony.

It criticized the Chinese government for a serious breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong, saying the incident undermines the principle of “One Country, Two Systems” which assures Hong Kong residents of the protection of the local legal system.

Such strong stance of the British government has never been seen after the 1997 handover. It appears that Britain has again dared to utter some words that China doesn’t like.

Although Britain has lost its mighty empire, it is still one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. It is also a country that signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

As Britain has criticized China in an official document for breach of the Joint Declaration, the implication is that Beijing has violated an international treaty.

If this had happened in the 19th century, British gunboats would have arrived in Tianjin, asking for an apology and compensation from Beijing.

While such a thing will not happen nowadays, Britain’s statement will nevertheless put some pressure on China.

If it provokes Xi and leads to slower Chinese investments in the United Kingdom, the latter’s economy will be negatively affected. Given this, one can argue that the British government had showed some moral backbone.

However, those who think Britain will speak up for Hong Kong should not be overjoyed as the British commitment is only in words, without any actual follow-up action.

We have not seen London issue any diplomatic note of protest or summon China’s ambassador to the UK for an explanation, leave alone request United Nations intervention or other stronger action.

Britain’s statement is only aimed to “set the record straight”. It should be seen as merely fulfilling a moral responsibility, rather than a move to protect the “One Country, Two Systems”.

In fact, Britain had to issue the statement because Lee Bo, one of the five missing Hong Kong booksellers, holds a British passport. It would have been considered a shame if London skipped the issue in the six-monthly report on Hong Kong.

We cannot rule out the possibility that even such minor gestures will not be repeated, given China’s growing power and influence.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 15.

[Chinese version中文版]

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JP/RC

A columnist at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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