LONDON (Reuters) - Britain is not putting enough pressure on China to stick to its side of an agreement on the transfer of Hong Kong’s sovereignty because it is worried about damaging trade links, former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten said on Tuesday.
China took back control of the former British colony in 1997 through a “one country, two systems” formula which allows wide-ranging autonomy and specifies universal suffrage as an eventual goal.
But Beijing said in August it would effectively screen candidates who want to run for city leader, a decision which has prompted weeks of street protests by pro-democracy activists who said it rendered the notion of democracy meaningless.
Last month, British Prime Minister David Cameron said it was important the people of Hong Kong were able to enjoy the freedoms promised to them, drawing criticism from China.
But Cameron has not directly criticized China publicly, however, and the Foreign Office has not escalated the matter.
“When China asserts that what is happening in Hong Kong is nothing to do with us we should make it absolutely clear publicly and privately that that is not the case,” Patten told a committee of British lawmakers who are holding an inquiry into Hong Kong’s progress towards democracy.
“There has always been quite a strong group in government and the business community which believes that you can only do business with China if you carefully avoid in all circumstances treading on China’s toes or saying anything the Chinese disagree with,” he said. “It encourages China to behave badly that we go on doing that.”
Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong before the 1997 handover, said such comments by Chinese officials were to “spit in the face” of the 1984 Joint Declaration on the conditions under which Hong Kong would be handed over.
“It is amazing that when they say that sort of thing the (British) Foreign Office doesn’t make a fuss because the joint declaration provides obligations on China to us for 50 years ... this is the joint declaration not the Chinese declaration,” he said.
In September, the committee of British lawmakers rejected demands by the Chinese ambassador to Britain and the National People’s Congress Foreign Affairs committee to shelve their inquiry.
Patten criticized the government for not summoning the Chinese ambassador to Britain over the situation and said the British government should have spoken up in June when China issued a “white paper” policy document on Hong Kong underscoring China’s sovereignty and ultimate authority over the city.
He said he believed China’s moves were in breach of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the basic law.
“Without throwing verbal hand grenades we could actually have made it plain that we thought what was happening in Hong Kong was, to put it blandly, extremely unwise,” he said. “In some ways we may have made it more difficult to resolve.”
Britain should now be doing more to help the governments of Hong Kong and China settle the situation, he said, calling on the Hong Kong’s leaders to offer more concessions to the protesters to encourage them to back down.
Reporting by Kylie MacLellan, Editing by Angus MacSwan