The UK is guilty of a dereliction of its duty to Hong Kong and is “selling its honour” to secure trade deals with China, the territory’s former governor Chris Patten has warned.
He said Britain had let down pro-democracy activists who have been fighting to maintain freedoms guaranteed to Hong Kong as part of the deal to hand the territory back to China after more than a century of British rule.
Accusing the government of not having “manifestly stood up for Hong Kong”, Patten said: “I wonder what has happened to our sense of honour and our sense of responsibility – particularly in Britain. It’s above all a British question.
He said the agreement between London and Beijing committed the UK to protecting Hong Kong’s rights until 2047. “You don’t get much sense of the British government actually standing over those promises and obligations, and I think that’s a great pity,” Patten told the BBC’s Newsnight programme.
“It’s all for derisory, ludicrous reasons. The argument that the only way you can do trade with China is by kowtowing to China on political issues is drivel – it’s complete nonsense.
“I worry about how people are prepared to sell our honour for alleged trade deals which never actually happen. I think that that would be calamitous. And what do we represent to the world if that’s what happens?”
Activists in Hong Kong, which was transferred to Chinese rule in 1997, have been fighting against Beijing’s encroachment on the territory’s independence. Under the “one China, two systems” principle, it had been assured the freedom of its press, freedom of assembly and a measure of democratic representation.
Some have been detained by China, including a host of booksellers known for distributing works critical of Beijing . In June last year, one of their number described being blindfolded and kept in a cell by Chinese authorities. Pro-independence politicians have also been blocked from Hong Kong’s legislature.
In 2014, thousands of protesters went out on to Hong Kong’s streets to demonstrate against China’s infringement of their rights in what was termed the ‘umbrella revolution’ – although they failed to win concessions from Beijing.
“I feel very strongly that we let down the parents of this generation of democracy activists,” Patten said. “I think it would be a tragedy if we let down these kids as well.”
Anson Chan, the former Hong Kong chief secretary who worked as Patten’s deputy, echoed his concern. “Unfortunately, the rest of the world – particularly Great Britain – would rather pretend not to see what is going on,” she said. “If they continue to ignore this steady erosion, by the time they wake up to the fact that ‘one country, two systems’ exists only in name, it will be too late.”
A Foreign Office spokesperson told the BBC: “The UK takes our longstanding commitment under the Sino-British joint declaration very seriously.
“We believe that ‘one country, two systems’ continues to be the best arrangement for Hong Kong’s long term stability and prosperity, as it has been for nearly 20 years. We hope and expect that ‘one country, two systems’ will be respected and successful long into the future.
“We regularly discuss the importance of respect for ‘one country, two systems’ and Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy with the Chinese government. The foreign secretary [Boris Johnson] made this clear to his Chinese counterpart when they met in London in December.”