Britain’s top diplomat in Hong Kong said he sees some similarities in the social environments in the UK and Hong Kong, as people in both places are engaged in heated debates on issues concerning their future.
“In Hong Kong, as in the UK, the political discourse is heated, opinions are split, and the courts have been under the spotlight with constitutional questions at the fore,” Andrew Heyn, British Consul General to Hong Kong and Macau, said on Thursday.
Addressing a gathering in Hong Kong, Heyn, who took over his current post in October last year, said the UK and Hong Kong share challenges such as deep divisions in society and the role of the judiciary in helping resolve the problems.
“The EU referendum saw opinions in the UK become more polarized… as seen in the harsh criticism by certain sections of the UK press of the judges involved in the case about Parliament’s role in the Brexit process,” he said.
“The PM talked on her first day about the need to address the concerns of people who are ‘only just managing’, and the need to reach out to bridge the divides that the EU referendum brought into sharp relief,” Heyn said, referring to Theresa May, who took over as Britain’s prime minister in July last year after the Brexit vote.
Speaking at a luncheon organized by the British Chamber of Commerce, Heyn drew comparisons between the situation in his home country and here in Hong Kong, which is preparing to elect a new leader.
“I have been struck by how the themes are mirrored in the messages of all the chief executive candidates who have been clear in their determination to address the issue of mending fences in society,” the British diplomat said.
Heyn reiterated London’s official stance that in general, “one country, two systems” has functioned well for Hong Kong in the past two decades.
But he suggested that things could be better if there is greater degree of universal suffrage under the framework of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.
Heyn revealed that he had a dialogue with Hong Kong’s Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen a few weeks ago after a British-born judge, David Dufton, angered the establishment camp and China’s state media by sentencing seven police officers to two years in jail for assaulting a protester.
“We both agreed that it’s absolutely right that people voice dissent with court decisions if they disagree with them. But to… indulge in personal attacks on the judges, to denounce them as enemies of the people, or to claim that the rule of law is broken because a judgment doesn’t go the way we think it should is worrisome,” Heyn said.
“Not least because what has struck me very forcefully since I arrived [here] has been just how many of the UK companies cite rule of law in Hong Kong as one of the principal reasons for their presence here. And just how many Hong Kong investors cite the same reason for their continued intention to invest in the UK.”
‘We do raise issues, in public or private’
In a roundtable with a small group of journalists, including a reporter from EJ Insight, after the luncheon, Heyn fielded questions about the “one country, two systems” that defines the relationship between Hong Kong and China.
“We are a co-signatory of the Joint Declaration and we produce our six-monthly report on Hong Kong. The UK starts from the position that ‘one country, two systems’ has been a success so far, it’s in general in good health… In the areas of disagreements over its implementation, we do raise issues and we do say we have a row,” he said.
“For me there are a number of different ways to approach issues, sometimes you talk in public, sometimes in private… There are various means available to a diplomat to try to address these. What we try to do is to use the influence in the most effective way. You have to judge when it’s best to speak out, when it’s better to speak in private.”
The comments came as Britain, Hong Kong’s former colonial ruler, has been criticized for being soft on Beijing when it comes to raising questions related to Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy.
Critics have slammed London for not standing up to Beijing on the issue of Hong Kong’s rights, accusing the European nation of being more interested in securing Chinese investments, rather than anything else.
Heyn insisted that Britain continues to take a lot of interest in Hong Kong and it bears in mind the commitments made to Hongkongers prior to the handover of the territory to China.
“The fact is, we get criticized on both sides, people will say you have no right to intervene, but others say we haven’t said enough. But we try to get the balance right. What I try to do here and what our colleagues back in London try to do, whatever intervention we make, is to support ‘one country, two systems’”, the envoy said.
Heyn also responded to questions in relation to the recent controversy in Hong Kong over the disqualification of some lawmakers who had angered Beijing in an oath-taking ceremony.
“As for the [Chinese National People’s Congress's] interpretation on the issue of oath-taking, we recognize the right of the Chinese authorities, but we did raise an issue, a question mark over timing. We’ve said that publicly.”
“Our reaction to [the abductions of Hong Kong booksellers] was pretty strong as well. We called it a breach of the Joint Declaration… in strong language,” Heyn said, referring to the abduction and detention by China of some Hongkongers who published books critical of the Chinese leadership.
Among other questions, Heyn faced questions about what he thought about the candidates running for Hong Kong’s top job.
Asked about his impression of Carrie Lam and John Tsang, the two main contenders in the chief executive election, Heyn said he has met both the former senior government officials before they resigned from their posts to join the CE race.
“I enjoyed the meetings and I’m very positive on both. But that’s as much as I’m gonna say about them.”
– Contact us at [email protected]