UK-China row escalates as Johnson pledges asylum for Hong Kongers

A Hong Kong demonstrator holding aloft the territory's British colonial flag, June 1, 2020.
A Hong Kong demonstrator holding aloft the territory's British colonial flag, June 1, 2020. © Tyrone Siu / Reuters

Britain will not walk away from the people of Hong Kong if China imposes a national security law that would conflict with its international obligations, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday – after pledging to give Hong Kong citizens asylum if need be. Intensifying the diplomatic spat between the two countries, China responded by saying the UK had “grossly interfered” in its territory.

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Johnson's remarks followed a warning to China on Tuesday to step back from the brink over the national security legislation for Hong Kong, saying it risked destroying one of the jewels of Asia's economy while ruining the reputation of China.

"Hong Kong succeeds because its people are free," Johnson wrote in The Times and the South China Morning Post. "If China proceeds, this would be in direct conflict with its obligations under the joint declaration, a legally binding treaty registered with the United Nations."

China’s legislature approved last week a decision to create laws for Hong Kong to curb sedition, secession, terrorism and foreign interference.

Mainland security and intelligence agents may, for the first time, be stationed in the city, a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

‘Way of life under threat’

The plan for the legislation follows months of often violent pro-democracy protests in last year that plunged Hong Kong into its biggest crisis since the handover.

"Many people in Hong Kong fear that their way of life — which China pledged to uphold — is under threat," Johnson said.

"If China proceeds to justify their fears, then Britain could not in good conscience shrug our shoulders and walk away; instead we will honour our obligations and provide an alternative."

Johnson repeated Britain's pledge to give British National Overseas passport-holders in Hong Kong a path to British citizenship, allowing them to settle in the United Kingdom.

There are about 350,000 holders of BNO passports in Hong Kong and another 2.5 million are eligible for them, Johnson said.

China's decision to impose the national security law on Hong Kong would "curtail its freedoms and dramatically erode its autonomy", Johnson wrote.

"Since the handover in 1997, the key has been the precious concept of 'one country, two systems', enshrined in Hong Kong's Basic Law and underpinned by the Joint Declaration signed by Britain and China," Johnson wrote.

The Basic law is Hong Kong's mini constitution while the Sino-British Joint Declaration set out the arrangements for Hong Kong's return to China.

Addressing the House of Commons on Tuesday, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said he had reached out to Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada about contingency plans if the law creates a deluge of Hong Kongers looking to leave.

"I raised it on the Five Eyes call yesterday — the possibility of burden sharing if we see a mass exodus from Hong Kong," Raab told MPs, referencing the intelligence-sharing alliance between the five powers.

Political liberalism

China said its decisions on national security in Hong Kong were its own affair.

"The UK's irresponsible remarks and accusations ... have grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs including Hong Kong affairs," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said. "We advise the UK side to step back from the brink."

"The UK said the legislation is authoritarian, but this word is the exact characterisation of the UK's former rule over HK," the spokesman said.

Under British rule democratic reforms were not introduced until Chris Patten’s tenure as governor in the 1990s. But colonial Hong Kong enjoyed political liberalism – with freedom of expression, the rule of law and an impartial justice system.

Protesters have frequently waved the flag of British Hong Kong at demonstrations, and even draped it over a podium in the territory’s Legislative Council on the 2019 anniversary of the handover to China, as a symbol of prized values.

In light of the impending expiration of Britain’s lease of the New Territories (the largest part of Hong Kong) in 1997, then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration with Chinese leader Deng Xiapeng in 1984.

Despite Britain’s relatively weak hand – with little ability to defend a territory located right next to mainland China – Thatcher secured China’s agreement to a “high degree of autonomy” for Hong Kong after the handover, with its “social and economic systems” remaining “unchanged” and its laws “basically unchanged”.

Under the Basic Law created by China in 1990, this continuity would remain in place until 2047.

Protests planned for Tiananmen anniversary

Johnson’s comments come after US President Donald Trump, responding to Beijing's plan to impose the security legislation, ordered his administration to begin the process of eliminating special US treatment for Hong Kong to punish China.

A survey of US businesses revealed deep fears for the future of their operations in Hong Kong, with 30% of respondents "moderately" concerned and 53.3% "very concerned" about it.

The survey, on June 1-2 for the American Chamber of Commerce (Amcham), drew responses from 180, or 15%, of its members.

About 60% thought the legislation would harm their business operations, while a third said they were considering moving capital, assets or operations out of the semi-autonomous city, with 38% personally considering moving out.

Contributing to simmering anti-government tension, Hong Kong lawmakers are set to resume debate on a bill that would criminalise disrespect of China's national anthem, following scuffles in the legislature in recent weeks.

Hong Kong activists plan to take their movement forward with demonstrations to mark the June 4, 1989 anniversary of Chinese troops opening fire on pro-democracy students in and around Tiananmen Square, even though for the first time, an annual vigil for the anniversary has been cancelled over coronavirus concerns.

Demonstrations are also planned for the June 9 anniversary of last year's million-strong march against a now-withdrawn bill to allow for the extradition of offenders to mainland China, and protests three days later that police tackled with tear gas and rubber bullets.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AP)

 

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