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.”
Read: Why these Hong Kong protests are different
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London’s concerns over the proposed extradition bill (which was suspended in response to the protests, though not withdrawn completely), it has stopped short of declaring the proposal a breach of the British-Chinese agreement—a charge that has only been made once, following the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.”