Beijing’s plan for future chief executive elections in Hong Kong is “better than nothing,” Britain’s Foreign Office Asia-Pacific director Stephen Lille told Parliament this week, according to the South China Morning Post. Another Foreign Office minister, Huge Swire, urged Hong Kong’s Legislative Council to consider passing the electoral reform plan, which would have candidates for the chief executive position nominated by a 1,200-member committee. Pan-democrats have said they would reject such a plan, as it would ensure only pro-Beijing candidates could run for Hong Kong’s highest position.
According to Lille, the British Foreign Office believes that “it is still possible to come up with arrangements” within the framework of the deal that would “allow up to three candidates to emerge from the nominating committee, who do not all look exactly the same with the same range of policies and the same political affiliation, from the pan-democrats to pro-Beijing parties.” In essence, London believes the current electoral plan could fulfill Britain’s hope that Hongkongers will have a “genuine choice” of candidates.
Huge Swire, Minister of State for the Foreign Office, added that he had urged Hong Kong legislators to seriously consider the proposal. “[I]f two-thirds [of the legislators] don’t agree… none of this is going to happen,” he warned, and Britain “very much want[s] to see this road to a purer form of democracy undertaken by 2017.” The current framework for electoral reform “may not be perfect,” Swire said, but “something is better than nothing.”
Swire’s remarks essentially echo the position of the Hong Kong government – Hongkongers should accept the current deal, however imperfect, because it’s an improvement over the current system. If pan-democrats veto the electoral reform plan, as they have threatened to do, then Hong Kong’s chief executive will not be elected by universal suffrage in 2017. In a meeting with student protestors in October of last year, Hong Kong Chief Secretary Carrie Lam warned that universal suffrage would not happen if Hongkongers hold out for a different nominating system. “You have to be pragmatic,” she told protest leaders. By coming to the same conclusion, London is likely to come under fire from human rights activists.
London has been between a rock and a hard place in dealing with the Hong Kong protests, given Hong Kong’s former identity as a British colony. Doing too little results in scathing critiques from human rights activists that the U.K. has abandoned Hong Kong’s people, but doing too much sparks anger from Beijing. In response, the British government has tried to walk a fine line on the issue that has left both sides dissatisfied.
On September 4 of last year, shortly after the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) in Beijing released its plan for Hong Kong’s electoral reform, the British Foreign Office issued a statement laying out its position. The U.K. in essence reserved judgment on the policy, holding out hope that future discussions within Hong Kong would allow for a compromise. “While we recognize that there is no perfect model, the important thing is that the people of Hong Kong have a genuine choice and a real stake in the outcome,” the statement said.
When the protests began in earnest in late September, the Foreign Office issued another statement saying “the British government is concerned about the situation in Hong Kong and is monitoring events carefully.” Hong Kong’s “freedoms are best guaranteed by the transition to universal suffrage,” the statement continued, encouraging “all parties to engage constructively in discussion” during the next consultation period (which began last week).
China, meanwhile, has consistently and firmly rejected any comments on the Hong Kong situation from foreign countries. “We have noticed remarks made by certain countries… Hong Kong affairs fully fall within China’s domestic affairs,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said on September 29. When Swire submitted a statement to Parliament on the situation in Hong Kong, China’s Foreign Ministry urged “the British side to be discreet with words and deeds, refrain from any form of interference in Hong Kong’s affairs and avoid sending out wrong signals.”
All the while, members of British Parliament as well as some analysts (including The Diplomat’s own Kerry Brown) were taking London to task for its impotence during the debate over Hong Kong’s elections. The issue came to a head in late November of last year, when a group of British MPs were told they would not be allowed to make a scheduled trip to Hong Kong. Sir Richard Ottoway, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, complained that “the Chinese government [is] acting in an overtly confrontational manner in refusing us access to do our job.”
MPs also slammed the British government for not doing enough to protest the travel ban, saying that the Foreign Office should have summoned China’s U.K. ambassador to lodge a formal protest. “How much more offensive does the Chinese government need to be before we say I think we need to summon them?” Ottoway asked this week while Swire was speaking to Parliament. Swire countered that he has raised the issue with China’s foreign minister during a trip to Beijing last week, and that summoning the ambassador “wouldn’t have served any purpose.”
Critics of the Cameron administration allege that he is only interested in keeping U.K.-China ties running smoothly so that Chinese money continues to flow. With Xi Jinping reportedly planning a trip to the U.K. this year, there’s even more incentive for London not to rock the boat by being overly vocal on Hong Kong. During Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to London last June, the two countries inked deals worth $23 billion, including a $20 billion deal for BP to supply liquefied natural gas China National Offshore Oil Corporation. A visit by President Xi could be equally lucrative – provided London plays ball. China-U.K. ties (including economic relations) turned icy in 2012 following a meeting between Prime Minister David Cameron and the Dalai Lama.
Swire denied claims that London was playing it safe to protect economic interests. “I would refute the suggestion that we have in any way kowtowed to the Chinese government,” he told Parliament, adding that he though the U.K. had achieved “the right balance” in its relationship with China.