UK suspends extradition treaty with Hong Kong; Beijing warns London to avoid 'wrong path'
Britain is one of a growing number of countries to have denounced the security law in Hong Kong, which was introduced after months of pro-democracy demonstrations
London: In an escalation of tensions with China, Britain on Monday suspended an extradition treaty with Hong Kong to protest a new security law that gives China sweeping powers and is seen by critics as imperiling basic freedoms in the former British colony.
The move, announced in Parliament by Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, was prompted directly by fears that anyone extradited to Hong Kong from Britain could be sent on to mainland China with ease.
Raab also announced an extension to Hong Kong of a long-standing arms embargo against China that has been in force since 1989.
Both measures underscore a hardening stance among British politicians — across the political spectrum — over China’s treatment of Hong Kong, a former colony that returned to Chinese control in 1997, and growing worries about more assertive behaviour by Beijing on the global stage.
The announcement came as Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain prepared to welcome Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, to London for a two-day visit. China is expected to be high on the agenda, and consensus on a tough posture looks likely.
Hours before Pompeo was scheduled to arrive in Britain, Raab told lawmakers that the extradition treaty would be suspended immediately and indefinitely, and would not be reintroduced “unless and until there are clear safeguards.”
“The UK is watching and the whole world is watching,” Raab added.
The extension to Hong Kong of the arms embargo, Raab said, would include the ban of potentially lethal weapons, their components or ammunition, or “any equipment — not already banned — which might be used for internal repression.”
Shackles, intercept equipment, firearms and smoke grenades would be covered by the embargo, Raab added, describing the British move as part of a proportionate response to China’s failure to observe its international obligations.
The measures were met with condemnation in China. Asked about the issue, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, Wang Wenbin, urged Britain to “stop going further down the wrong path.”
Britain is one of a growing number of countries to have denounced the security law in Hong Kong, which was introduced after months of pro-democracy demonstrations. It suddenly transformed the city by effectively criminalising an array of political activity, including many of the tactics used by protesters.
But Britain has special concerns and sees the new law as a breach of the terms of a joint declaration that set out the semi-autonomous status of Hong Kong after the colony was returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
In response, the government in London has offered a pathway to citizenship for many Hong Kong residents.
Under that measure, 350,000 people who hold British National (Overseas) passports — and an additional 2.5 million who are eligible for them — would be granted 12-month renewable visas that would allow them to work in Britain with the possibility of eventual citizenship.
Chinese anger over that move deepened last week when the British government reversed a decision to allow Huawei, a Chinese technology company, to play a limited role in establishing Britain’s 5G high-speed wireless network.
The US has pressured Britain to exclude Huawei and, through its own measures against the Chinese technology firm, forced the British government to reconsider its initial decision to allow Huawei to participate in the British 5G network.
Now British 5G providers will not be able to buy Huawei products after the end of the year, and will have to remove the company’s technology completely by 2027.
Raab’s statement on the extradition law and arms embargo was widely welcomed in Parliament, an indication of how far sentiment on China has shifted recently. It was also widely hailed across ideological divides, with a growing consensus on the need for toughness.
Lisa Nandy, who speaks for the Opposition Labour Party, called on the government to go further and apply sanctions against senior Chinese officials responsible for human rights abuses. That underscored the more hawkish stance of a Labour Party whose new leader, Keir Starmer, has tried to strike a very different tone from his left-wing predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn.
The transformation is just as striking within Johnson’s ruling Conservative Party. Under previous governments led by David Cameron, who was prime minister between 2010 and 2016, Britain pursued what a former chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, called a “golden era” in relations with China.
Chinese investment was courted, and China became a player in some sensitive sectors, including Britain’s nuclear power programme.
But discontent among Conservative lawmakers has been rumbling since Johnson’s initial decision in January to allow Huawei into Britain’s 5G network. Internal opposition was one reason for Johnson’s policy reversal on Huawei last week.
The discord has grown because of China’s increased pressure on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, its early response to the coronavirus , and its overall human rights record.
On Sunday, China’s ambassador to Britain, Liu Xiaoming, dismissed accusations of abuse against the country’s Uighur minority, despite being confronted in a BBC interview with images that appeared to show blindfolded Uighurs waiting to be loaded onto trains.
Xiaoming suggested that the video footage was “fake” and accused western nations of making repeated “false allegations” against China.
Few British politicians are convinced. In Parliament on Monday one Conservative lawmaker and former minister, Tobias Ellwood, questioned whether this might be a “turning point where we drop our pretence that China shares our values,” and called for a strategic overhaul of foreign policy in relation to China.
That hardened sentiment is reflected in the growing influence of a new caucus, the China Research Group, that draws support from a range of opinion within the Conservative Party.
Chris Patten, Britain’s last governor of Hong Kong and a former Conservative Party Cabinet minister, described Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, as a “dictator,” and said that China “under its communist leadership, can’t be trusted.”
“Right across the board China has been picking a fight with anybody who passes by,” said Patten, citing tensions between Beijing and countries ranging from India and Japan to Australia to Canada.
Xi had managed to unite in opposition both wings of a British Conservative Party that was divided over Brexit, just as he had done “across the board in American politics,” Patten said.
“They have gone out of their way to behave loutishly,” Patten added, “and I don’t think it is surprising that right across the board, politically, in this country politicians have seen the real nature of Chinese communism in the 21st Century.”
Stephen Castle c.2020 The New York Times Company
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