Britain concerned over challenges to Hong Kong’s ‘one country, two systems’ deal

Bi-annual report on former colony saying confidence in its systems is under threat comes after repeated interventions from Beijing

Pro-democracy supporters
Beijing has told Britain that Hong Kong is an internal matter that no country has a right to interfere in. Photograph: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

Developments in Hong Kong have affected confidence in the city’s autonomy, though its rule of law remained robust “despite challenges”, the British government has said.

Britain handed the former colony back to China in 1997 with guarantees it would retain extensive autonomy, an independent legal system and broad personal and commercial freedoms under a deal known as “one country, two systems”.

The international financial hub has seen tumultuous times over the past couple of years, with pro-democracy protests quelled in what many residents see as creeping interference by Beijing and the rise of a small but vocal movement pushing for independence.

Britain monitors developments in Hong Kong, as the agreement it struck with China for the territory’s return stipulated the continuation of its capitalist way of life for 50 years.

In its latest report to its parliament, covering the six months to the end of last year, the British government said the formula setting out how the city is ruled “continued to function well in the vast majority of areas“.

“Nevertheless, during the reporting period a number of developments caused concern in Hong Kong and internationally, affecting confidence in ‘one country, two systems,’” it said.

“We believe that, despite challenges, Hong Kong’s rule of law remains robust overall, thanks in large part to a world-class, independent judiciary,” it added.

Joshua Wong, the Hong Kong democracy activist, said on Twitter that the British appraisal of the situation in Hong Kong was “out of reality”.

Late last year thousands of lawyers marched through the heart of Hong Kong to condemn legal intervention by Beijing that effectively barred two elected pro-independence lawmakers from taking their seats in the city’s legislature.

The intervention fuelled concern about the independence of the city’s judiciary.

China rejects outright any talk of independence and Britain reaffirmed in its report that it did not see independence as an option for the city.

Britain urged both the Chinese and Hong Kong governments, as well as elected Hong Kong politicians, to take steps to maintain confidence in “one country, two systems”, which foreign secretary Boris Johnson called “the best system for Hong Kong’s long-term future”.

While the city’s capitalist ways are guaranteed for 50 years, no specific time frame has been agreed for the “one country, two systems” formula.

But Johnson said he was “encouraged” by indications from Hong Kong authorities that the arrangement would not cease in 2047.

Hong Kong’s government, which is close to Beijing, said the formula was implemented fully and successfully, and outsiders should stay out of Hong Kong’s affairs.

“Foreign governments should not interfere in any form,” it said.

China’s foreign ministry responded to the British report saying Hong Kong was an internal matter that no country had a right to interfere in, and that it opposed these regular reports from Britain.

“We demand the British side stop issuing these reports, and stop interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs,” it said in a statement late on Friday.

Britain also reiterated concern over the case of five Hong Kong booksellers who published material critical of Beijing and disappeared in late 2015 to re-emerge in Chinese custody months later. Four have been released but one remains in detention.

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