Friday 18 October 2019

Hunt: UK can't just 'gulp and move on' over Hong Kong

Making a mark: British flags flutter next to protest placards placed by protesters outside the Central Government Office building in Hong Kong. Photo: Andy Wong/AP
Making a mark: British flags flutter next to protest placards placed by protesters outside the Central Government Office building in Hong Kong. Photo: Andy Wong/AP

Danielle Sheridan

The UK cannot just "gulp and move on" over Hong Kong protests, Jeremy Hunt has said as he refused to rule out sanctions or expelling diplomats.

The British foreign secretary said he should not have to "ever spell out what would happen" and that "strategic responsibility" was required.

His comments come after China's ambassador to the UK accused Britain of interfering over Hong Kong with a "colonial mindset" in a move that threatened to spark a major diplomatic crisis.

Mr Hunt has been plunged into the heart of the crisis at an awkward time during the Conservative Party leadership contest. The row is also unlikely to smooth current disagreements about Huawei, and may dampen hopes of the UK benefiting from increased trade with China after Brexit.

Mr Hunt would not be drawn on what the consequences of further overreach into Hong Kong by China might be.

"That would not be the right thing for me to do as foreign secretary, because, of course, you keep your options open," he said.

"But I am making the point that the United Kingdom views this situation very, very seriously."

While not revealing what any potential sanctions might be, Mr Hunt said "this isn't something that we'd just gulp and move on" from.

Despite taking a hard line, Mr Hunt said there was "no reason" why Britain could not continue to have good relations with China, despite the dispute over Hong Kong.

"I don't think it's a big surprise that China would react that way, but they need to understand that Britain is a country that honours its international obligations," he said.

"And what I was saying was something very uncontroversial, actually, which is that we signed an agreement in 1984 which lasts for 50 years and we would expect all sides to honour that agreement."

On Wednesday, Liu Xiaoming, Chinese ambassador to the UK, was summoned to the foreign office after his comments amid a spiralling war of words over the handling of protests in the former British colony.

On Tuesday, Mr Hunt warned China of "serious consequences" if it sought to use the disorder as a pretext for a mass crackdown on the protest movement.

Yesterday, China again blamed unrest in Hong Kong as being "hyped by Western forces", issuing yet another direct warning to the UK - specifically naming Mr Hunt - to stop commenting on its former colony.

"Hunt inflamed Hong Kong's situation, which only ruins his and the UK's image. He sabotaged China-UK relations for his personal political interests," warned an editorial in the 'Global Times', a Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece.

"Hunt is selfish and has poor logic. The UK's diplomacy toward China will pay for his behaviour."

Protesters have called on the UK to pressure China to uphold its end of the Sino- British Joint Declaration, an agreement that was meant to guarantee Hong Kong's freedoms and way of life for at least 50 years after being returned to Beijing.

"I miss the British colony; I like that time very much. Englishmen did a lot of things for us ­- rule of law, freedoms," said Alexandra Wong (63), a retiree and fixture at anti-Beijing protests, often with a Union Jack flag. "These are our core values, but after 1997, Chinese central government only damage our core values, always non-stop damage."

Police have made 13 arrests for alleged participation in massive protests on Monday that ran late into the night when a few hundred protesters stormed Hong Kong's city legislature, to vent their anger at a government that has failed to respond to their demands.

Their moves weren't indiscriminately destructive but rather more symbolic - spray-painting slogans on the walls and covering the city's official emblem, while leaving money in the cafeteria for drinks they took.

Some lawmakers worry that the arrests will lead to more violent demonstrations. "I am terribly worried that a massive kind of round-up of protesters could trigger very negative sentiment on the part of the young," said Claudia Mo, a pro-democratic member of the Legislative Council. "Things could get worse."

Clean-up efforts continued yesterday - dumpsters were hauled in to clear the debris and city workers brushed over slogans painted by protesters. A small group went on a hunger strike, while others offered free hugs to boost morale.

Irish Independent

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