UK-China row over Hong Kong escalates
A row between London and Beijing over China’s refusal to allow British MPs to visit Hong Kong escalated on Monday, with Downing Street describing the decision as “mistaken” and “counter-productive”.
Chinese embassy officials last week told Sir Richard Ottaway, the chairman of the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee, that his group would be refused entry to the territory for a visit to assess progress towards democracy.
Sir Richard called the decision “overtly confrontational”, and Downing Street came out in his support on Monday. A spokesman for David Cameron said: “It only serves to amplify concerns about the situation in Hong Kong rather than diminishing concerns.” Britain had “a legitimate . . . interest” in the way the 1984 joint Sino-British declaration on Hong Kong was implemented, the person added.
The Commons committee is investigating the operation of the “one country, two systems” agreement between Britain and China in 1984, which paved the way for the transfer of the former colony’s sovereignty to Beijing in 1997.
The Chinese foreign ministry hit back. “For those who are committed to and sincere about promoting China-UK friendship, China’s door is always open,” a spokesman said. “However, we do not welcome those who come to China to interfere in our internal affairs and will not allow them to do so.”
Long-running clashes between pro-democracy protesters and police in the territory have intensified in recent days, with some government offices being briefly shut down. The demonstrators want Beijing to allow a free vote for Hong Kong’s leaders in 2017, rather than being restricted to candidates chosen by the Chinese government.
The situation has caused concern in Britain, with some calling on the government to take a stronger public stance to defend the agreements it made in 1984 when it signed the agreement to hand over Hong Kong to the Chinese.
But Mr Cameron has also assiduously courted the Chinese leadership, hoping to attract billions of pounds’ worth of investment. The prime minister visited China last year, saying: “I’m not embarrassed that China is investing in British nuclear power, or has shares in Heathrow airport, or Thames Water, or Manchester airport.
“I think it’s a positive sign of economic strength that we are open and welcome to Chinese investment.”
Mr Cameron’s visit helped improve relations between the two countries after the Chinese authorities froze British officials out for more than a year in protest at the prime minister’s meeting with the Dalai Lama.
But they are under threat once more from the argument surrounding the situation in Hong Kong. While the British government has been reluctant to make outspoken criticisms of the Chinese authorities over the issue, Downing Street has become more assertive as the protests have continued.
Downing Street said on Monday that Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, had raised the specific issue of the select committee’s visit with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi during talks in Vienna last week on Iran’s nuclear programme.
While the MPs could visit the territory without express permission, they believe it would be impossible to carry out their inquiries under such a scenario.
Sir Richard said on Monday he intended to conduct interviews with people in Hong Kong over video by telephone link if necessary. He also intends to push for a parliamentary debate this week on the issue.