Creeping authoritarian Beijing control of the former British colony threatens hard-won diplomatic progress between China and the United Kingdom. In response Boris Johnson took an unprecedented step, outlining plans to grant citizenship to up to three million Hong Kong residents, including 350,000 UK passport holders. Who will blink first?
British prime minister Theresa May drinks next to Xi Jinping, China’s president, during a tea ceremony at the Diaoyutai state guesthouse in Beijing in 2018.
Relations between the US and China have been bordering on icy over the past couple of years, with a long-running trade war standoff defining the relationship between the two global superpowers (it remains to be seen whether an armistice can be achieved under the incoming Biden administration). In contrast, the UK’s relationship with China has become rather warmer.
Back in 2015 under the Cameron administration, then Chancellor George Osborne described the UK as China’s “best partner in the West”, hailing a golden era between the two nations as he signed off on trade deals worth billions. A visit to Cameron’s local watering hole to sip a pint of ale with counterpart Xi Jinping may have provided fertile ground for a photo opportunity amid the Chinese premier’s state visit, but the images were symbolic of a revitalised relationship.
China's President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister David Cameron drink a pint of beer during a visit to the the Plough pub on Oct. 22, 2015, in Princes Risborough
David Cameron is not the only UK leader to court China’s affections in recent years. Theresa May made an official state visit in February 2018, with a view to securing a post-Brexit trade deal. Her overtures appeared to meet with some success, with President Xi declaring his intentions to double down on the ‘golden era’ relationship.
Fast forward to 2020 however, and relations have soured significantly. The promised golden era has been significantly less lustrous than previously envisaged, tarnished by steely words and actions on both sides. There has been widespread concern regarding China’s initial response – or lack thereof – in the early days of the pandemic, with the Chinese state being accused in some quarters of a cover-up, while China sceptics found further ammunition courtesy of valid concerns over the country’s treatment of its Uighur ethnic minority population. Across the Atlantic, outgoing US President Donald Trump frequently railed against Chinese tech company Huawei, imposing hard-hitting sanctions against the firm based on national security concerns. The UK has followed the US’s lead and ordered the removal of all Huawei equipment from 5G networks by 2027, among other measures.
Hong Kong has also become something of a key battleground. The former British colony was returned to China in 1997, with the agreement stipulating a “one country, two systems” model of governance. Hong Kong’s capitalist system was upheld, while it also retained jurisdiction over its legal system and rights including press freedom. The agreement has a shelf life of 2047, but a new security law passed in June 2020 by China casts major doubts over the territory’s autonomy. The Chinese state claims that the security law is designed to “safeguard national security” in Hong Kong. Critics, however, view it as a sinister clampdown on rights including the freedom to protest, amid fears that the independence of Hong Kong’s legal system will also be compromised.
In response Boris Johnson took an unprecedented step, outlining plans to grant citizenship to up to three million Hong Kong residents, including 350,000 UK passport holders. Under the plans, which are expected to be in place in early 2021, residents of the territory will be afforded the right to live in the UK for a period of five years, after which they will be able to apply for settled status, and then citizenship. The UK followed up this move by suspending its extradition treaty with Hong Kong in July 2020. China’s response hardly dampened the incendiary situation, with the country’s spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Wang Wenbin, accusing the UK of “brutal” meddling in China’s affairs.
As for Hong Kong’s citizens, uncertainty – and a degree of fear – reign. Authorities wasted no time in enacting the new security law, with Hong Kong police making their first arrests under the legislation on 1 July, just hours after it was passed. Those convicted on charges of ‘secession’, ‘subversion’, ‘terrorism’, and ‘collusion with foreign forces’ face a minimum jail term of three years, with a maximum of life imprisonment. Booksellers, publishers and media agencies are among those anxious about the potential introduction of censorship, while activists have been deleting Twitter accounts that could be viewed as subversive. The June 4th Museum, which pays homage to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, is seeking to urgently digitalise its archives to ensure their survival.
The COVID-19 pandemic may have arrived at an opportune moment for the Chinese government, with social distancing requirements preventing what could have been months of ensuing discontent. As protestors have melted away, so too has foreign press coverage, and Hong Kong’s population has been left to ponder the erosion of its civil liberties.
It remains to be seen how many of the territory’s citizens will take up Boris Johnson’s residency offer, but the imposition of the controversial security law, and the UK’s response, is set to be a key bone of contention for bilateral relations in 2021.