Chris Patten urges PM to raise Hong Kong plight on China visit

In joint letter with Paddy Ashdown, last governor warns of threats to political freedoms

Hong Kong’s last British governor, Chris Patten, has called on Theresa May to challenge Beijing over its erosion of the former colony’s rights and freedoms when she travels to China this week on a three-day trade mission.

May’s arrival in China comes amid growing concern over the political situation in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory, which reverted to Beijing’s control in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” model, supposedly guaranteeing it greater freedoms than the more authoritarian mainland.

On Saturday, in the latest of a series of blows to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp, Agnes Chow, one of the most recognisable faces of its moderate “umbrella” protest movement was barred from running for political office as a result of her political views.

In a letter to the prime minister that was delivered on Monday, Lord Patten and his co-author, the former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown, called on May to raise Hong Kong’s plight with China’s Communist party leaders.

“In the past five years, Hong Kong has seen increasing threats to the basic freedoms, human rights and autonomy which the people were promised at the handover just over 20 years ago. These developments have been rightly criticised within Hong Kong and outside,” they wrote.

The letter cited the case of a British human rights activist Benedict Rogers. A vocal critic of China’s erosion of Hong Kong’s political freedoms, he was barred from entering the former colony in October. “I feel it is yet another example of, if not the death, then the death throes of ‘one country, two systems’,” Rogers told the Guardian at the time. In their letter, Patten and Lord Ashdown said Rogers had been blacklisted “on the orders of Beijing”.

The letter also accuses Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing chief executive, of undermining confidence in the former colony’s autonomy by accusing British MPs who spoke out on the situation there of “foreign meddling”. Britain had an obligation “to monitor the protection of Hong Kong’s freedoms, at least until 2047”, when the 50-year pre-handover deal expires, they argued.

Patten and Ashdown said they hoped that as May travelled to China she would “be able to provide the people of Hong Kong with some assurance that our developing relationship with China, vital though it is, will not come at the cost of our obligations to them”.

After the rain: what is happening to Hong Kong’s democracy?

In an interview with the Guardian last year, Patten aired his concerns about Britain’s stance on Hong Kong in more blunt terms, warning that Britain’s “kowtowing” to China on issues including human rights and Hong Kong’s quest for democracy would become increasingly craven following the UK’s departure from the European Union.

“Are we more likely … to take a firm line with China – on trade issues, on economic issues, on political issues – on our own than we would within the EU?” Patten asked. “I don’t think that the outlook outside the European Union is one in which we are more likely to behave honourably towards Hong Kong than we have inside.”

Speaking on Monday, Rogers, the barred activist, said it was vital for Britain to “live up to its promises to the people of Hong Kong”.

“I hope [the prime minister] will outline the range of examples of threats to Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy, including the most recent issue of the disqualification of Agnes Chow as a candidate for the legislature, and the dangers of China’s imposition of mainland law at the rail station in Hong Kong, and make it clear that although we want good relations with China, that cannot be at the cost of broken promises to Hong Kong,” he said.


Tom Phillips in Beijing

The GuardianTramp

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