Hong Kong’s last British governor Chris Patten on Wednesday condemned the roundup by police of 53 opposition figures and demanded the EU cancel its “miserable” investment pact with China.

The arrests in Hong Kong were the latest salvo in Beijing’s battle to stamp out opposition in the semi-autonomous business hub, which was controlled by Britain up to 1997.

Chris Patten. File Photo: Handout.

The arrests came after opposition groups tried last year to win a majority in the city’s legislature, whose partial democracy is a legacy of reforms by Patten in the closing years of British rule.

“Taking advantage of the political and pandemic distractions around the world, the Chinese Communist Party has further turned the screw in Hong Kong. It is now clearly to be regarded as illegal to support democracy,” Patten said in a statement.

“Liberal democracies around the world must continue to speak out against this brutal destruction of a free society, as well as about the ethnic genocide in Xinjiang,” he added.

There was no immediate comment on the arrests from the UK government, which is now fully out of the European Union.

At the end of last month, the EU and China approved in principle a major investment pact that Brussels hopes will open up lucrative opportunities, despite concerns about Beijing’s rights record.

Patten, who is also a former EU commissioner, said the deal “spits in the face of human rights and shows a delusional view of the Chinese Communist Party’s trustworthiness”.

“It is surely inconceivable that the European Parliament can support the miserable draft deal that the European Commission wants to sign with Beijing,” he said.

Patten added the deal was “a massive strategic blunder” with President-elect Joe Biden set to take over the White House this month and, in the ex-governor’s view, confront China’s “bullying loutish behaviour” in harness with other democracies.

The Hong Kong arrests sparked a rebuke from Antony Blinken, Biden’s pick for secretary of state, who said authorities were launching “an assault on those bravely advocating for universal rights”.

“The Biden-Harris administration will stand with the people of Hong Kong and against Beijing’s crackdown on democracy,” he said.

AFP is a global news agency delivering fast, in-depth coverage of the events shaping our world from wars and conflicts to politics, sports, entertainment and the latest breakthroughs in health, science and technology.