Britain and other Western countries have been naive in thinking they can tame China’s Communist leaders by “cozying up” to them, says Britain’s last governor of Hong Kong.
As protests rage in Hong Kong over a new security law, Christopher Patten says successive governments have fallen for a myth about China “that somehow at the end of all the kowtowing there’s this great pot of gold waiting for us.”
“We keep on kidding ourselves that unless we do everything that China wants we will somehow miss out on great trading opportunities. It’s drivel,” he told Britain’s The Times newspaper on Saturday.
In an excoriating interview, focused mainly on Hong Kong and the Chinese government’s decision this week to sidestep the island’s legislature and to force through a new draconian national security law that would allow Beijing to stifle political dissent in the enclave, Patten said,“ What we are seeing is a new Chinese dictatorship.”
Patten, who served in the Cabinets of British prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and is now chancellor of Oxford University, oversaw Britain’s handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997.
He was Britain’s lead negotiator in the talks that led to the Joint Declaration, an international treaty meant to guarantee political and economic freedoms in Hong Kong until 2047. The declaration established the principle of “one nation-two systems.”
His intervention came as clamor mounted in Britain’s parliament for a review of the country’s relationship with China.
British lawmakers accuse China of using the coronavirus pandemic, which they say spread globally as a result of Beijing’s efforts to cover up the initial outbreak, to extend its global reach.
A newly-formed Conservative group in the House of Commons called the China Research Group, is urging Prime Minister Boris Johnson to take a robust line with China’s communist leaders, saying that Beijing’s move to stamp out political opposition in Hong Kong should serve as a “final wake-up call.”
Last week British newspapers reported that Johnson had instructed officials to draft plans to end Britain’s reliance on China for vital medical supplies and other strategic imports in light of the coronavirus crisis.
According to a recent think tank report, Britain is strategically dependent on China for 71 critical goods categories. These include pharmaceutical ingredients and consumer electronics including mobile phones and laptops, according to trade data analyzed by the Henry Jackson Society, a foreign policy think tank based in London.
Prime Minister Johnson is also reportedly considering reversing a previous decision and to reduce the role of Chinese tech giant Huawei in the building of Britain’s future 5G phone network. U.S. officials have been urging London for months on security grounds to block Huawei from participating in the development of the network.
Patten welcomed the idea of possibly excluding Huawei’s involvement, saying,“ If people argue we should deal with Huawei because they’re just like any other multinational company, that is for the birds: if they come under pressure from the Communist government to do things which are thought to be in Beijing’s interest they will do it.”
“We need an urgent rethink of our approach,” says Neil O’Brien, a Conservative lawmaker and co-founder of the China Research Group. He and other like-minded MPs are now calling for the British government to offer political asylum to any citizens of Hong Kong who fear the loss of basic rights such as freedom of speech and to make it easier for Hong Kongers to live and work in Britain.
On Friday, Dominic Raab, Britain’s foreign secretary, issued a joint statement with his Canadian and Australian counterparts expressing “deep concern.” The foreign ministers said:“ Making such a law on Hong Kong’s behalf without the direct participation of its people, legislature or judiciary would clearly undermine the principle of ‘one country, two systems ’under which Hong Kong is guaranteed a high degree of autonomy.”
Their condemnation was echoed by Mike Pompeo, the U.S. secretary of state.
China has defended the new security law for Hong Kong, saying that pro-democracy agitation in Hong Kong poses a security risk to the whole of the country.
Analysts say while the world is distracted by the coronavirus pandemic, Beijing is becoming more expansionist.
Critics note that last week the National People’s Congress reaffirmed its traditional goal to “reunify” with Taiwan, but for the first time dropped the word “peaceful” in the text outlining the aim. The omission has rattled Taiwan. According to Chinese media reports, a war games exercise is being planned by the People’s Liberation Army in the coming weeks which will involve a simulated large-scale landing on Taiwanese territory.
“It’s not just Hong Kong,” says Patten. “We need to have a review across government and get real. China cheats, it tries to screw things in its own favor, and if you ever point this out these ‘wolf warrior ’diplomats try to bully and hector you into submission. It’s got to stop otherwise the world is going to be a much less safe place and liberal democracy around the world is going to be destabilized,” he warned.