May meets Xi Jinping as China suggests ‘shelving’ Hong Kong row

British PM and Chinese president hold talks at G20, with Xi reportedly wanting to bury differences amid anger at Beijing implying handover pact no longer applies

Xi Jinping has told Theresa May that China and Britain should “shelve their differences” as the UK quietly rejected Beijing’s attempt to backtrack from commitments to Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy.

The Chinese president and the British prime minister held a 30-minute bilateral meeting at the G20 in Hamburg, Germany, on Friday, one week after a war of words broke out between London and Beijing over Hong Kong.

According to China’s official news agency, Xinhua, Xi told May that Britain and China should “respect each other’s core interests and major concerns” – of which Beijing considers the former British colony to be one.

“China and Britain need to seek common ground while shelving differences, and preserve the overall development of bilateral ties through concrete efforts to achieve more stable, rapid and sound development of bilateral relations,” Xi added.

A senior No 10 official said that during a “warm meeting” with Xi, May offered her congratulations for the recent 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China in July 1997.

According to the official, May highlighted the economic success Hong Kong was enjoying but also “stressed the continued commitment to the ‘one country, two systems’ regime,” under which its 7.3 million citizens enjoy greater freedoms than those of China’s authoritarian mainland.

Their meeting followed last weekend’s commemorations of the handover anniversary. On the eve of those celebrations Beijing thumbed its nose at Hong Kong’s former colonial master by dismissing the deal that sealed the territory’s return to China as “a historical document” that no longer had “any practical significance nor any binding force”.

The Sino-British joint declaration, unveiled in 1984, laid out a blueprint for the administration of post-handover Hong Kong and contained guarantees from one-party China that its freedoms and way of life would remain “unchanged” until 2047.

Pro-democracy campaigners accused China – which also attacked foreign secretary Boris Johnson’s “incorrect” and “sour” comments on Hong Kong – of “humiliating” the British government with its attempt to rubbish the treaty. Protest leader Joshua Wong claimed London had reacted “passively” to China’s erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms of refusal to grant the semi-autonomous city genuine democracy.

On Friday, the British government announced – without fanfare – that it rejected China’s dismissal of the joint declaration.

A brief Foreign Office statement emailed to journalists said the FCO minister Mark Field had told China’s ambassador to London, Liu Xiaoming, that Britain “did not accept the Chinese government’s position that this was purely an historical document”.

The statement said that during a meeting on 5 July “the minister made clear the UK government’s commitment to the joint declaration on Hong Kong, which is a formal treaty between China and the UK. This declaration, registered with the UN, remains in force until July 2047.”

It added: “Furthermore, as a guarantor of the joint declaration, the UK government also regards it as legitimate that it continues to issue a six-monthly report to parliament on Hong Kong affairs.”

Hong Kong’s last governor, Lord Patten, has accused the British government of not being vocal enough in its criticism of Beijing’s “outrageous” breaches of the joint declaration.

“It is astonishing that we have demeaned ourselves in the way we have,” he told the Guardian, predicting that British kowtowing would intensify as it scrambled to form new trade deals after Brexit. “I don’t think that the only way you can have a good and constructive relationship with China is by behaving in that sort of craven way.”

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Tom Phillips in Beijing

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