Britain has declared that China is now in “a state of ongoing non-compliance” with the 1984 Sino-British joint declaration, which was supposed to guarantee Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy after the territory returned to Beijing’s control in 1997.
Dominic Raab, foreign secretary, said radical changes planned by Beijing to restrict participation in Hong Kong elections represented a further clear breach of the legally binding declaration.
His comments came ahead of the publication next week of a UK foreign and defence policy, which will see Boris Johnson’s government set out its strategy for dealing with China.
While David Cameron’s government claimed that the UK and China were engaged in a new “golden age”, Johnson will set a strategy to make Britain less reliant on Chinese investment and technology.
Britain’s intention to increase its presence in the Pacific region was illustrated in January by its application to join 11 countries in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The UK is also sending its new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to East Asia this summer.
Raab said on Saturday that the legal reforms proposed by Beijing were “part of a pattern designed to harass and stifle all voices critical of China’s policies”.
“The Chinese authorities’ continued action means I must now report that the UK considers Beijing to be in a state of ongoing non-compliance with the Joint Declaration — a demonstration of the growing gulf between Beijing’s promises and its actions,” he said.
“The UK will continue to stand up for the people of Hong Kong. China must act in accordance with its legal obligations and respect fundamental rights and freedoms in Hong Kong.”
In the House of Commons last week Raab was urged by Tory MPs to impose sanctions on named Chinese officials under Britain’s so-called Magnitsky sanctions regime.
Johnson’s threat last year to break international law relating to the Northern Ireland protocol — part of the UK’s Brexit treaty with the EU — led to warnings from senior Tory figures that it would diminish the UK’s credibility when urging other countries to uphold treaty obligations.
Meanwhile, since at least 2017 Chinese officials have challenged the status of the declaration, calling it a historical document without practical significance.
The joint declaration was signed in 1984 by Zhao Ziyang, the Chinese Premier at the time, and the then UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher and was registered with the United Nations.
It came into force in 1997 when the UK’s lease over the New Territories, a piece of land located between Kowloon and mainland China, ended, and was guaranteed for 50 years.
The US and the UK have accused China of breaking these promises of autonomy when its parliament ratified an election law on Thursday that will dilute the proportion of democratically elected lawmakers in Hong Kong and subject all nominees to a new vetting process.
The passage of the law is part of a heightened tempo from Beijing of more direct interventions in the territory’s governance following the 2019 anti-government protests.
China’s parliament imposed a national security law on Hong Kong last year that paved the way for a crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in the city.
Analysts have said Beijing, caught out by the strength of the 2019 demonstrations, has made the electoral changes in order to gain more control of the city’s political landscape.
China blames the protests both on the failure of a loose network of local elites and elected officials who have traditionally represented Beijing’s interests, as well as their perception that western countries have swayed the city’s politics.
In the last clear survey of popular local sentiment — a council election in 2019 — pro-Beijing parties and politicians were resoundingly defeated at the ballot box.
Chinese state media said at the weekend that the new electoral laws would “cut off the channels and tools” used by the US and the UK “to intervene in Hong Kong’s affairs”.
Some western diplomats in Hong Kong are pessimistic that their statements, or even US sanctions, have had any impact on halting China’s political crackdown in Hong Kong. A number of nations released statements after China’s legislature passed the law, but one diplomat said that protecting democratic rights in Hong Kong may be a lost cause.