Why did Britain change stance on HK electoral reform?

January 20, 2015 12:13
Beijing's framework for Hong Kong elections may be imperfect but it is "better than nothing", British Foreign Office chief Hugo Swire said last week. Credit: wikimedia commons

Sixteen months ago, Hugo Swire, Minister of State for the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office, wrote an article calling for the people of Hong Kong to be given a genuine choice in the 2017 chief executive election, and offering British support for such efforts. He was immediately criticized by the Chinese foreign ministry.

The British government, it seemed at that time, was willing to stand up to China and demand genuine democracy for the former colony. But as things turned out, it was just a passing fancy.

Last week, the same Mr. Swire made a U-turn and asked Hong Kong's democrats to accept China's offer of an election system which he admitted was imperfect but said was "better than nothing".

What happened in those 16 months?

Plenty. When Swire wrote his essay, his boss, Prime Minister David Cameron, was in the doghouse. He had met with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, in May 2012 and was being boycotted by China.

Beijing canceled a visit to London by a senior Chinese official, it canceled a scheduled human rights dialogue and, most importantly, it informed Cameron that he was not welcome in China.

There were fears that China’s coolness towards the United Kingdom could result in the loss of billions of pounds in Chinese investment at a time when it was critical for Britain to attract overseas financing.

But that all started to change in October, the month after the Swire essay appeared. By then, 18 months had elapsed since the meeting with the Dalai Lama, and the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, was able to visit China with a business delegation.

In Beijing, Osborne publicly spoke of the importance for Britain to "respect" China’s ancient civilization and its different political system. He also made it clear that the prime minister had no plans to meet again with the Dalai Lama.

That December, Cameron was finally able to visit China, leading the largest ever British trade delegation. Accompanying him were other senior officials, including Swire.

Despite the Chinese media poking fun at Britain as "a small country" that was easily replaceable, fit only for tourists and students, Cameron offered China "a partnership for growth" that would help deliver prosperity to both countries.

"I see China's rise as an opportunity not just for the people of this country but for Britain and the world,” he said.

The Cameron party returned to London only to find a year later that it has to deal with a new crisis. Beijing, it turned out, had taken the unprecedented step of denying permission for members of the UK Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee to visit Hong Kong to look into how the former British colony was doing 30 years after the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and 17 years after the handover.

The committee chairman, Sir Richard Ottaway, angrily demanded that the Chinese ambassador be summoned to receive a diplomatic protest. Swire demurred.

In June last year, Premier Li Keqiang visited the United Kingdom. The Chinese ambassador, Liu Xiaoming, told the media that because of missed opportunities, the United Kingdom had slipped behind Germany and France in China’s eyes.

Chinese officials complained that the red carpet rolled out for Li wasn’t long enough. They asked for a meeting with the British monarch. Although Li was not a head of state and thus would not normally meet the queen, the British Government acquiesced.

Cameron and his government no doubt found such trials and tribulations worthwhile since they led to the signing of trade deals with China worth US$21 billion.

As it happened, 2014 marked the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Joint Declaration, and Cameron referred to it at a joint press conference, saying that the declaration "enshrined our two governments' commitment" to Hong Kong.

Early this month, Swire was in China again, accompanied by a business delegation, this time to open a new consulate in Wuhan. He stopped in Hong Kong on his way home to update himself on the political situation. Back in London, he attended a session of the Foreign Affairs Committee where he defended his decision not to summon the Chinese ambassador and urged Hong Kong to accept "what is on the table now".

He also disclosed that the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, would visit Britain later this year – a prize catch – following on the premier’s visit last year.

So, what happened between September 2013 and January 2015 was Cameron's successful bid to revive Britain's flagging trade relationship with China. China has put its money where Britain's mouth is and now pretty much determines that the words uttered are to its liking.

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