London: Britain is keeping its options open, including slapping sanctions on China over its treatment of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned Thursday, amidst the war of words between Beijing and London over the issue.
Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers have taken to the streets in recent weeks over a proposed extradition bill which China critics fear would be used by Beijing to go after political dissidents in Hong Kong, a former British colony.
On Monday, student protesters stormed and briefly occupied the city’s legislature, causing widespread damage to the building before retreating.
Beijing has hit out at the UK over accusations of “interference” in the domestic affairs of the semi-autonomous Chinese city, after British Foreign Secretary Hunt expressed support for Hong Kong protesters and said London would stand by the city in preserving its limited democratic freedoms.
Reaffirming his tough stand, Hunt on Thursday warned China that it could face “serious consequences” over its treatment of protesters in Hong Kong.
Hunt told the BBC that he was keeping his options open over how the UK could respond, and refused to rule out sanctions.
Hunt said he would not discuss any potential consequences “because you don’t want to provoke the very situation you are trying to avoid”.
“Of course you keep your options open,” he added, insisting the UK would not just “gulp and move on” if China cracks down on protesters in the former British colony.
Hunt said he “condemned all violence” but warned the Chinese government not to respond to the protests “by repression”.
Hong Kong was a British colony for more than 150 years, but it was returned to China in 1997 after a treaty was signed by the two countries.
The 1984 treaty guaranteed a level of economic autonomy and personal freedoms not permitted on the mainland.
Demonstrators argue that a piece of legislation introduced by the city’s pro-Beijing leader Carrie Lam would make it easier to transfer people to face trial in China.
Hunt reiterated that China must honour Hong Kong’s high level of autonomy from Beijing.
“The heart of people’s concerns has been that very precious thing that Hong Kong has had, which is an independent judicial system,” Hunt said.
“The United Kingdom views this situation very, very seriously,” he said.
Meanwhile, China’s ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming was summoned to the Foreign Office on Wednesday following “unacceptable and inaccurate” remarks.
Li said relations between China and the UK had been “damaged” by comments by Hunt and others backing the demonstrators’ actions.
He added that it was “hypocritical” of UK politicians to criticise the lack of democracy and civil rights in Hong Kong when, under British rule, there had been no elections nor right to protest.
In response to accusations he had sided with the protesters, Hunt said: “I was not supporting the violence, what I was saying is the way to deal with that violence is not by repression.”
“It is by understanding the root causes of the concerns of the demonstrators – that freedoms that they have had for their whole life could be about to be undermined by this new extradition law,” he added.
In 1984, the Joint Declaration, signed by the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the then Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang, set out how the rights of Hong Kong citizens should be protected in the territory’s Basic Law under Chinese rule.
Since 1997, Hong Kong has been run by China under the principle of “one country, two systems”.
Hunt said: “It is very important that the ‘one country, two systems’ approach is honoured.”
The British foreign secretary would not detail what consequences China might face if it did not honour the treaty, but said the UK had “always defended the values we believe in”.