The Foreign Office and its ministers have talked tough when it comes to the Sino-British Joint declaration.

Last summer, they quickly rebutted Beijing’s claims that this legally binding agreement was a mere historic piece of paper. What is more, in early January, the Minister for Asia Mark Field told British parliamentarians:

Please be assured that there is and must be no trade-off between human rights, whether in Hong Kong or in any other part of the world, and any Brexit-related trade matters. I know that there will be ongoing debates in the House, but please be assured that that is my position as Minister and that of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Yet the general expectation is that this is exactly what will happen. Brexit Britain needs trade deals and Beijing knows it. According to academics in the UK, China views the British Prime Minister as a “biddable leader” and a “paper tiger”.

While Britain may not want to be seen with a begging bowl May’s three-day trade delegation is essentially that, according to Kerry Brown, the director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London.

Theresa may
Theresa May. Photo: 10 Downing St.

May herself is keen to stress that the ‘golden era’ of relations between the two countries, started by her predecessor David Cameron, is set to continue.

So keen is she to support President Xi’s One-Belt-One-Road initiative that she has asked the former Prime Minister to take charge of a £750 million fund to improve ports, roads and rail networks between China and its trading partners.

However, this embrace has not gone unchallenged. Senior politicians in the UK are pressuring the government to uphold firmly its commitments to preserving Hong Kong’s way of life. Perhaps this is why May felt the need to promise “frank discussions” with China – although what that means exactly is unclear.

Chris Patten.
Chris Patten.

Since the 20th anniversary of the handover, Hong Kong has increasingly been in Britain’s political spotlight. Last summer, Lord Pattern warned that:

I don’t think that the outlook outside the European Union is one in which we are more likely to behave honourably towards Hong Kong than we have inside.”

Before Mrs May’s trip he also joined a fellow peer, Lord Ashdown, in the House of Lords to call on the government to step up efforts to protect Hong Kong’s autonomy, rights and freedoms. Both Lords also penned a letter to the Prime Minister in the hope she would:

“…be able to provide the people of Hong Kong with some assurance that our developing relationship with China, vital though it is, will not come at the cost of our obligations to them.

Similar calls were also made in the British parliament earlier this year when MPs debated democracy in Hong Kong.

Pro-democracy stalwarts like Catherine West and Fiona Bruce, who regularly table questions on Hong Kong, were given the time to highlight a number of cases of freedoms being undermined.

This long overdue debate was not flawless. Attempts by the SNP’s spokesperson to bring up Britain’s undemocratic colonial administration, while a legitimate criticism, merely deflected attention away from Beijing during the discussion.

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The debate also highlighted the problems of debating human rights and freedoms with the Beijing government, as they don’t believe in universal political and civil rights.

This is why when they are questioned about developments in Hong Kong since 1997 Chinese officials simply refer to the Special Administrative Region’s (SAR) GDP growth rate. Similarly the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) boasts about the fruitfulness of economic liberalisation since the 1980s, as it is the only way it can justify its undemocratic rule.

Unfortunately this narrative also creeps into the debate in the UK, where CCP rule is considered more legitimate compared with other forms of tyranny.

In the same Westminster debate the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for China, Richard Graham, focused his remarks on the success of the Hong Kong government’s environmental campaigns and social welfare policy, and the great trading opportunities the SAR offers Britain and the world.

All of which, to put it mildly, resulted in a speech with a disproportionate emphasis on trade and the successes of China’s Hong Kong rather than democracy or human rights.

No doubt economic freedoms and thriving businesses in the SAR are important. But focusing on them misses the point. These achievements are not disputed nor are they under threat. The future of democratic reform is, and that’s why Theresa May must focus on this when in Beijing.

She should not bow to China’s pressure. Reaffirming the relevance of the Joint Declaration is only the first step. Making it clear that Britain expects Beijing to uphold the spirit as well the letter of the agreement is the next stage.

Recent events, like the disqualification of Agnes Chow, show why this is so important.

When it comes to Hong Kong, the British government should be resolutely focused on promoting the freedoms and democratic reforms promised in the Joint Declaration.

Beijing and its lackeys in Hong Kong should not be able to hide behind economic statistics. Nor should they be able to silence the UK with lucrative trade deals.

The government’s promise that trade will not trump human rights post-Brexit and May’s promise of “frank discussions” should be welcomed. Whatever happens and whatever the British government does, this should be the bar which we judge them against.

Gray is a writer based in Taipei who regularly comments on Taiwanese, Chinese and Hong Kong politics. Previously he worked in human rights advocacy, and for many years was an activist for the UK Labour Party. Follow him on Twitter.