Hong Kong’s expulsion of a British journalist and banning of a pro-independence party has led the United Kingdom to issue a wary assessment of the city on Wednesday.

In the UK’s latest Six-Monthly Report on Hong Kong, which covers July 1 to December 31, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he was concerned that the former British colony’s high degree of autonomy was “being reduced” with regard to civil and political freedoms.

“I have… been concerned by the recent pressure being applied on Hong Kong to move towards a mainland Chinese interpretation of civil and political freedoms, under which certain subjects are effectively off-limits for discussion and debate,” he wrote.

Jeremy Hunt
Jeremy Hunt. File photo: GovUK.

Hunt was referring to the banning of the Hong Kong National Party (HKNP), the political screening of election candidates, and Hong Kong’s “seemingly politically motivated expulsion” of Financial Times Asia News Editor Victor Mallet, as revealed by HKFP last year.

All three incidents involved the Hong Kong government justifying its actions, in part, on the basis of their zero-tolerance policy towards separatism.

Hunt said London does not support Hong Kong independence, but believes that free speech should cover “constitutional matters.”

The latest report also marked a rare instance where the UK did not give a positive overall assessment on the functioning of One Country, Two Systems. Every preceding report since 2001 has offered a nearly identical assessment: that the constitutional arrangement “works well in practice.”

Instead, Hunt on Wednesday limited the positive appraisal to two aspects. “It is very welcome that in the areas of business and the independence of the judiciary, the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ model is working well,” he said.

He also said that “‘One Country, Two Systems’ has served Hong Kong and China extremely well in the past and can continue to do so in future.”

uk six monthly report
Photo: GovUK.

The 19-page report included a record of major constitution-related events, as well as subsections on political development, the judiciary, basic rights and freedoms, and bilateral relations between the UK and Hong Kong.

Hunt called for Hongkongers’ rights and freedoms to be “maintained, respected and remain undiminished” as they guarantee the city’s stability and prosperity.

The UK government will continue to commit to the “faithful implementation” of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, he concluded.

Benedict Rogers, chair of UK watchdog Hong Kong Watch, welcomed the report in a statement on Thursday: “This is the first time that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have publicly stated so clearly and strongly in a 6-monthly report that not all aspects of ‘one-country, two-systems’ are functioning well. This shift in message from the UK government reflects a serious deterioration of the situation on the ground.”

“It is positive to see such a strong reaffirmation of the UK’s commitment to Hong Kong in the report. I hope that the strong stance will also be noted by other international governments, and that like-minded countries will stand together to say that freedom in Hong Kong matters.”

‘Foreign governments should not interfere’

In a response statement, the Hong Kong government warned that foreign governments should not interfere in the city’s internal affairs.

It also reiterated its stance that Hong Kong independence is a “blatant violation of the Basic Law” and a “direct affront” to national interests.

hong kong independence fcc protest
Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Responding to the HKNP ban and Mallet’s visa denial, the Hong Kong government said that those cases had been handled strictly in accordance with the One Country, Two Systems principle, the Basic Law and the local laws.

It also disputed the UK’s concerns over political candidates being barred from elections.

“The HKSAR Government has a duty to implement and uphold the Basic Law and to ensure that all elections will be conducted in accordance with the Basic Law and relevant electoral laws. There is no question of ‘political screening’ as alleged by the report,” a spokesman said.

The One Country, Two Systems principle has been fully and successfully implemented since Hong Kong’s return to the Motherland, he added.

Meanwhile, China’s foreign ministry in Hong Kong also called on Britain to “stop interfering in China’s internal affairs,” according to the state-run Xinhua news wire.

The “so-called report… ignored and distorted the truth by deliberately confusing the legitimate and lawful measures taken” to fight pro-independence forces and protect national security, a spokesperson for the Beijing’s office in Hong Kong said, according to Xinhua.

The 1984 Joint Declaration, which gave rise to Hong Kong’s autonomy after 1997, was agreed between Britain and China. London has produced 44 half-yearly reports since the Handover.

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Holmes Chan is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. He covers local news with a focus on law, politics, and social movements. He studied law and literature at the University of Hong Kong.