China accuses UK of meddling as Hong Kong spat deepens

Sophia Yan
Hong Kong's pro-democracy legislators before a press conference at the Legislative Council - Vincent Yu/AP
Hong Kong's pro-democracy legislators before a press conference at the Legislative Council - Vincent Yu/AP

China blasted the UK for “irresponsible remarks” and “gross interference” after London said Beijing was in formal breach of an international treaty promising freedoms in Hong Kong. 

Beijing gave Hong Kong authorities the power to dismiss city lawmakers deemed a national security threat on Wednesday, prompting officials to immediately unseat four pro-democracy opposition legislators.

This amounted to a “clear breach” of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said on Thursday. The UN-registered treaty was aimed at preserving Hong Kong’s treasured liberties after the former British colony was returned to Beijing rule under the Communist Party.

China has vehemently defended its actions despite growing international criticism, saying removing the lawmakers was “the right medicine” for the territory and blasting foreign governments for “meddling” in its domestic issues.

“The UK has no right to interfere in Hong Kong affairs, and China’s internal affairs,” the foreign ministry in Beijing reiterated Friday. 

“The plain fact is that it is exactly these politicians who have arbitrarily meddled with China’s internal affairs,” it added. “It is these politicians who have breached their international obligations.” 

Britain on Friday summoned Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese ambassador over the row over the alleged breach of the declaration. A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “The Permanent Under-Secretary set out that China’s imposition of new rules to disqualify elected legislators in Hong Kong was a breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration. He called on China to uphold its international obligations."

Following the news he had been summoned, Mr Liu accused the UK of "double standards."

He tweeted: Not a single word or clause in the Sino-British Joint Declaration gives the UK or any other foreign countries the right to interfere in #HongKong affairs. It is time to stop distorting the truth and stop applying double standards."

Pandemonium erupted in Hong Kong’s parliament this week as 15 pro-democracy lawmakers resigned in protest after government officials dismissed four of their colleagues on alleged national security grounds, yet another step in a broader crackdown from Beijing to quash dissent. 

Many Western governments including the US, Germany, Australia, Canada and the entire EU bloc have condemned China for undermining freedoms in Hong Kong.

“Beijing has eliminated nearly all of Hong Kong’s promised autonomy, as it neuters democratic processes and legal traditions that have been the bedrock of Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity,” said US secretary of state Mike Pompeo.

“Once again, the [Chinese Communist Party’s] twisted vision of patriotism is a pretext to stifle freedom and the call for democracy.” 

China has long sought to wrest control of Hong Kong, where protest movements over eroding freedoms have erupted every few years since Beijing resumed control of the territory from Britain in 1997.

Discontent peaked last year when millions of Hong Kong people took to the streets, disrupting the city with mass protests that often ended in violence with police firing tear gas and rubber bullets. 

Demonstrations abated with the coronavirus pandemic, and after a sweeping national security law was imposed by Beijing this summer. The law criminalises acts authorities deem as secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign collusion, punishable by up to life in prison.

Experts say it’s important for foreign governments to continue calling China out on its failure to abide by its commitments in international agreements, such as the Joint Declaration, but there’s little the UK can do to hold Beijing to account. 

“The UK should raise this in all fora, but it is unlikely to sway the CCP,” said Charles Parton, a long-time British diplomat in greater China and now senior associate fellow at RUSI, a think tank. 

“It is difficult to see how the UK government can prevent the Communist Party’s intention to exercise control over Hong Kong’s legislature, the judicial system, education and the streets,” said Mr Parton.

“The CCP puts this task above any damage to its international reputation.”