Chinese and British leaders at the 1997 ceremony marking Britain's return of Hong Kong to ChinaJason Reed / Reuters

When millions of people took to the streets of Hong Kong in recent weeks to protest an extradition bill that would make it easier for people arrested in the city to face trial elsewhere, including mainland China, several countries, such as Canada and the U.S., as well as the European Union defended the protesters.

But for perhaps no country is this more personal than Britain. As Hong Kong’s former colonial power, Britain played a primary role in the city’s return to Chinese sovereignty more than two decades ago. It’s also a signatory to the agreement guaranteeing Hong Kong’s limited autonomy from Beijing—a status protesters fear is now under threat. But the political impasse over Brexit is dominating British political discourse, ensuring that issues like Hong Kong remain in the foreign-policy periphery.

Still, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt raised the topic in a statement marking the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China.

“It is imperative that Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, and the rights and freedoms of the Hong Kong people, are fully respected,” he said. “We have made our position on this clear to the Chinese Government, both publicly and in private, and will continue to do so.”

For the Chinese, however, what may have been acceptable in the 1990s, when Beijing was still a rising power, is no longer acceptable now. Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese ambassador to London, framed Hunt’s remarks as improper interference in China’s internal affairs.

“In the minds of some people, they regard Hong Kong as still under British rule,” he said in response, adding: “They forget … that Hong Kong has now returned to the embrace of the motherland.”

Britain’s connection to Hong Kong isn’t tenuous. Prior to its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the city was considered the last jewel of Britain’s colonial empire. When British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984, setting the terms of Hong Kong’s eventual transfer to Chinese control, both sides agreed that Hong Kong would retain for 50 years following the 1997 handover certain rights and freedoms not seen in mainland China. Under this “one country, two systems” arrangement, Hong Kong enjoys a degree of autonomy from Beijing, including an independent judiciary, and a separate financial and immigration system. Unlike residents of mainland China, for example, the people of Hong Kong have the right to freedom of expression and protest.

At the time, Britain envisioned that it would, if necessary, be able to help maintain Hong Kong’s autonomy. In briefing notes that have since been declassified by the British Foreign Office, Thatcher was advised to reaffirm that Britain would have the “right to raise any breaches with China after 1997” and that it “would not hesitate to do so.” Despite London’s concerns over the proposed extradition bill (which was suspended in response to the protests, though not withdrawn completely), it has stopped short of declaring the proposal a breach of the British-Chinese agreement—a charge that has only been made once, following the Chinese government’s crackdown on Hong Kong booksellers in 2016.

Some, such as Chris Patten, the last British governor to Hong Kong, have argued that the efforts to undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy are enough to warrant further British action.

“The proposed legislation was at the very least a breach in the spirit of the joint declaration,” Benedict Rogers, the founder of the British NGO Hong Kong Watch and the deputy chairman of the U.K. Conservative Party’s Human Rights Commission, told me, noting that a failure to act could be interpreted by China as a “green light to continue encroaching on Hong Kong’s freedom.”

Still, such action would likely be ignored by Beijing, which has already stated in recent years that the agreement, much like Britain’s hold on Hong Kong, is merely historical and no longer holds any “practical significance.”  

“There is nothing explicit in the joint declaration … no phrase that can be used to justify saying Britain has some legal responsibility to Hong Kong anymore,” Tim Summers, a former British diplomat and a Hong Kong–based senior consulting fellow at Chatham House, a British think tank, told me, explaining that even if Britain were to speak more forcefully on this issue, it lacks the leverage to change Beijing’s thinking. “More than what the U.K. says, Beijing is more sensitive to opinion and views in Hong Kong,” he said.

In any case, Britain’s responsibility to Hong Kong may be irrelevant. The country’s diminishing international presence—precipitated, in large part, by its political upheaval at home—hasn’t made its leverage any stronger. Its imminent exit from the EU, paired with its desire to strike bilateral trade deals around the world, has limited what Britain can (or is willing) to say to countries with whom it disagrees—so much so that the candidate tipped as most likely to become its next prime minister opted against defending Britain’s diplomat in Washington in order to please the American president.

“Britain would be in a stronger position if it can mobilize other countries to stand with it,” Rogers said. “What we can do alone is more limited than it used to be.”

But Patten, who has remained a strident critic of China’s influence in Hong Kong, as well as Britain’s response, or lack thereof, recently wrote that he subscribes to the “rather old-fashioned view that doing the right thing in foreign affairs is usually the right thing to do.”

“Britain may have lost some of its soft power recently. It would be nice to think, however, that it still understands how to behave with integrity,” he wrote in the Financial Times. “Our own ‘golden age’ with China should put more emphasis on honour and less on ‘fear and greed.’ That is where our national interest really lies.”  

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