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Is the UK Finally Standing Up for Hong Kong?

After Years of Weak Rhetoric, London Signals Firmer Policy Towards Beijing

Then-United Kingdom Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (L) meets with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the G20 Foreign Ministers meeting in Buenos Aires, May 2018. © 2018 AP

In recent weeks, the United Kingdom’s “golden relationship” with China has begun to lose its luster.

The UK has joined Australia, Germany, and other countries pushing Chinese authorities to allow an independent investigation into Covid-19’s origins. Enthusiasm for partnering with the tech giant Huawei is waning. British parliamentarians have joined a new international cross-party coalition concerned about the negative role of China. And the UK government has offered a lifeboat to Hong Kongers with British ties if Beijing imposes a draconian national security law on Hong Kong.

Does this mark a fundamental shift in UK policy on Hong Kong, which the UK handed to Chinese control in 1997 with a treaty promising autonomy, yet whose democratic institutions have been steadily eroded by Beijing in recent years?

Until recently, the UK’s main response to Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s freedoms has been weak rhetoric. In September 2019, when Hong Kong police used live fire on protesters, the UK foreign secretary called for dialogue. In April 2020, when Hong Kong authorities arrested some of the territory’s highest profile pro-democracy legislators and activists, the Foreign Office said that the UK was “concerned.” When Beijing arbitrarily declared the Sino-British Joint Declaration no longer valid in July 2019, the Foreign Office merely declared the position “unacceptable” without taking any further action.

It isn’t easy to stand up to China over Hong Kong, but the UK is not without options. The UK should convene like-minded allies to coordinate responses for the September elections in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council to deter further manipulations by Beijing to erode support for pro-democracy parties.

The UK’s decision on residence for some Hong Kong people is welcome, though it requires more detail. The government should also offer safe haven to people who face politicized prosecution in Hong Kong. Once the UK’s new mechanism for targeted human rights sanctions is operational, officials in Hong Kong and mainland China responsible for serious abuses should at the top of the agenda.

The UK government is currently conducting a major review of its approach to foreign policy – it should include a review of the failure of its Hong Kong policy and of Beijing to respect its autonomy.

Now that UK politicians are finally asking tough questions about the role of China’s government in global affairs, the future of Hong Kong and its people should be front and center of UK-China policy.

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