GRAY SERGEANT: PM's Visit to China - One conversation about Hong Kong is not enough to fulfil British obligations

Human rights advocates should welcome Theresa May’s promise to raise Hong Kong’s political situation with her Chinese counterparts but should not be complacent.

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Over the past few decades Britain has believed that trade with China would not only provide economic wins for both countries but also show Beijing the benefits of buying into the rules based international system. It was in this spirit that Theresa May promised to have “frank discussions” with Beijing during her three day trade tour. Upon arriving in China, she told the press that she would raise the issue of Hong Kong with President Xi Jinping himself.

In part, the media, human rights organisations and vocal politicians who have stood up for Hong Kong’s freedoms and democracy can take credit for this. In recent days Mrs May must have felt some domestic pressure to raise democracy in Hong Kong with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Now the pressure must continue. Discussions on Hong Kong cannot be raised and quickly swept to one side. This should not be another forum for Britain to raise a number of human rights concerns only to have them ignored or dismissed as matters of Beijing’s internal affairs. Such remarks, and the use of economic statistics to hide behind, are commonplace CCP tactics. Previously, the UK-China Human Rights Dialogues have been criticised for lacking results. Let’s hope leader to leader talks do not follow suit.

Of course, this is the problem with private talks, while they are useful diplomatically, it’s hard to hold politicians to account.  

We hope that the Prime Minister was brave while dining with Xi and that there was no backsliding or complacency.

Getting Beijing to acknowledge the relevance of the Joint Declaration should not be seen as a big win but rather as a bare minimum expectation. The treaty is legally binding and lodged at the United Nations not a historical piece of paper, as the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed last year.

Going forward it is important that Britain pressures Beijing to honour the spirit of the agreement and urges China to push forward with democratic reform in Hong Kong.

Recent events, including the disqualifications ahead of the March by-elections, shows why Britain speaking out is so important.

Yet this is only the start of it. May’s promise to raise Hong Kong should become the norm. No Prime Minister or Foreign Secretary should be able to travel to China without discussing the situation in the Special Administrative Region, either publically or privately. When there is progress, that should be a topic of celebration, and if there is further regression then that must be discussed. 

Let’s hope that in future years, when the British Prime Minister next visits China, that Hong Kong will be even higher up the UK government’s political agenda.

Gray Sergeant is a trustee of Hong Kong Watch