Hong Kong | China and UK escalate their war of words

China’s ambassador to London, Liu Xiaoming

China and Britain’s war of words over Hong Kong escalated, with the two sides openly accusing each other of behaving inappropriately toward the former U.K. colony.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the U.K. is keeping its options open over its threat of “serious consequences” if China fails to honor the letter and spirit of an agreement that guarantees freedoms in Hong Kong.

“I’m not saying anything about what those consequences might be, that would not be the right thing for me to do as foreign secretary because of course you keep your options open,” Hunt told BBC radio yesterday.

China’s ambassador to London, Liu Xiaoming, gave a rare televised statement on Wednesday, accusing the British government of meddling. His comments came after Prime Minister Theresa May told Parliament that she was “shocked” by the scenes of violence when protesters stormed the Hong Kong Legislative Council on Monday.

“The U.K. government chose to stand on the wrong side, it has made inappropriate remarks, not only to interfere in the internal affairs of Hong Kong but also to back up the violent lawbreakers,” Liu said. He also said Britain has tried to “obstruct” Hong Kong authorities from “bringing the criminals to justice, which is utter interference in Hong Kong’s rule of law.”

Liu was in turn summoned to the U.K. Foreign Office to explain his comments. The row has sabotaged Britain’s attempts to improve relations with China as it prepares to leave the European Union and looks for trade deals around the world.

For all that it wants a good relationship with China, the U.K. feels an obligation toward the people of Hong Kong, which it handed over in 1997 after 156 years of British rule. That was under a “one country, two systems” agreement negotiated in 1984 by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, designed to guarantee freedoms for Hong Kong.

Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong frequently invoke that deal and call on the U.K. to intervene when they feel its terms are being ignored; demonstrators who entered the Legislative Council building unfurled a Union Jack-emblazoned colonial flag as part of their protests.

“The vast majority of the hundreds of thousands who marched did so peacefully and lawfully,” May told Parliament. “It is vital that Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and the rights and freedoms set down in the Sino-British joint declaration are respected,” she said, noting the anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China this week.

Yet May will only be prime minister for another few weeks and an election is under way among members of Britain’s ruling Conservative party to choose a successor. Outspoken former foreign secretary Boris Johnson is the favorite to win the party leadership and become the U.K.’s next prime minister.

Johnson said he supported the protesters, who were entitled to be skeptical about Chinese proposals for extradition to the mainland. “I do support them and I will happily speak up for them and back them every inch of the way,” he said in an interview with Reuters.

In a veiled warning to whoever succeeds May, China demanded the U.K. stay out of its affairs in Hong Kong. Its Foreign Ministry this week said the Sino-British agreement “no longer has any practical significance.” MDT/Bloomberg

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