Britain’s Foreign Secretary — and potential future prime minister — upped the ante in a bitter feud with China over Hong Kong Thursday, warning that his government would not just “gulp and move on” if Beijing cracks down on pro-democracy protesters.
Speaking to the BBC, Jeremy Hunt said Beijing could face “serious consequences” if it responded to recent protests with repression, and repeatedly refused to rule out imposing sanctions and expelling diplomats.
“The way to deal with that violence is not by repression,” said Hunt, one of two candidates to replace outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May. “It is by understanding the root causes of the concerns of the demonstrators that freedoms that they have had for their whole life could be about to be undermined by this new extradition law,” he said.
Hunt called on China to honor the terms enshrined in the 1997 handover agreement, which guaranteed Hong Kongers an independent legislature and judiciary, and greater political freedoms than on the Mainland. Britain would put its principles ahead of its valuable trade relationship with China, Hunt claimed.
China and Britain have been locked in an escalating row over the semi-autonomous financial hub since a splinter group of hundreds of hardline protesters stormed the city’s halls of government Monday, following weeks of unrest over a controversial extradition law. Beijing was incensed by the unprecedented show of defiance, in which protesters raised the British colonial-era flag and spray-painted “HK is not China” inside the legislative chamber. China described the occupation as an “undisguised challenge” to its rule.
Expression of support for the protesters from Hunt and May only added to China’s fury, leading top officials to accuse Britain of holding a colonial mindset towards its former territory.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Wednesday that Hunt “seems to be fantasising in the faded glory of British colonialism.” The sentiment was reiterated by China’s ambassador to London, Liu Xiaoming. “In the minds of some people, they regard Hong Kong as still under British rule. They forget... that Hong Kong has now returned to the embrace of the motherland,” he said.
“I tell them: hands off Hong Kong and show respect.”
In recent weeks, Hong Kong has been rocked by mass demonstrations against a controversial bill that would allow the government to extradite individuals to China. Opponents fear the law would compromise the city’s judicial independence and could be abused by Beijing to persecute political dissidents.
While the city’s leader unexpectedly suspended the bill last month, protests have continued, with demonstrators calling for the law to be withdrawn completely, among other demands.
The ransacking of the Legislative Council on Monday has divided the protest movement, with many fearing the uncharacteristically hardline act will decrease public support for the protests. It has also left the city bracing for a stern response from Beijing.
Analysts predict Beijing will respond by tightening its grip on the city and cracking down on the protest movement.
“The elements who smashed their way into the Legislative Council have done significant damage, not just physical, but to the perception of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, and have now created a ready-made justification for a government crackdown,” said Steve Vickers, CEO of a risk consultancy firm, and former head of the Royal Hong Kong Police Criminal Intelligence Bureau.
“Their actions were ill-judged, naïve and almost guaranteed to incur a crackdown,” he told VICE News. “The stunt of showing a British colonial flag over the Hong Kong emblem, inside the Legislative Council, was calculated to enrage pro-Beijing forces.”
Cover: Protesters gather inside the meeting hall of the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, Monday, July 1, 2019. Protesters in Hong Kong took over the legislature's main building Friday night, tearing down portraits of legislative leaders and spray painting pro-democracy slogans on the walls of the main chamber.(AP Photo/Kin Cheung)