Hong Kong welcomes overseas government leaders, Chief Executive John Lee has said, as the city saw its first visit from a UK minister in five years.

While adding that he valued international cooperation, Lee said that “some countries, because of political reasons, make certain moves to satisfy their own political interests,” without specifying which countries he was talking about.

Chief Executive John Lee meets the press on May 9, 2023.
Chief Executive John Lee meets the press on May 9, 2023. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

Speaking at a weekly press conference on Tuesday, John Lee said he welcomed “any government officials to come to Hong Kong to promote business, trade and also people-to-people relationships.”

“Hong Kong has all along been an open society, and we have all along attached great importance to regional and international cooperation,” Lee said.

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Britain’s investment minister Dominic Johnson is currently on a three-day trip in the city. The last time senior UK government officials visited Hong Kong was in 2018, when leaders including the then-UK secretary of state for international trade Liam Fox and former first minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon came to the city.

In a tweet, Johnson said he was in Hong Kong to promote the UK as a “leading destination for investment and trade.” He met with Christopher Hui, Secretary for Financial Services and the Treasury, earlier to discuss UK-Hong Kong trade, according to his Twitter account.

Johnson also tweeted that he had met conglomerate CK Hutchinson’s chairperson and co-managing director Victor Li and Canning Fok, as well as toured start-up office complex Cyberport.

According to the Hong Kong government, the UK was the city’s 14th largest trading partner last year.

Autonomy ‘under untold pressure’

Johnson’s visit is also the first by a UK minister since Beijing passed the national security law in Hong Kong in 2020 following protests that began the summer before. Authorities have said the legislation – which criminalised secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign collusion – has restored stability to the city.

Under the law, pro-democracy activists have been arrested while civil society groups have disbanded in fear of being accused of breaching the legislation.

Dominic Johnson UK investment minister
Britain’s investment minister Dominic Johnson at Cyberport on May 8, 2023. Photo: Dominic Johnson, via Twitter.

In Johnson’s editorial, he said the “high degree of autonomy” that Hong Kong was promised under the Sino-British Joint Declaration – the document signed by China and the UK ahead of the 1997 Handover of the former British colony – was “under untold pressure.”

“Rights and freedoms, vital to any successful and prosperous economy, have been undermined,” Johnson wrote.

“The UK will continue to engage robustly and constructively with China and Hong Kong where our interests converge. We will also stand up for our values and be clear about our right to act when Beijing breaks its international commitments or abuses human rights,” he said, adding that the UK would “not look the other way on Hong Kong.”

Christopher Hui visit to UK
The Secretary for Financial Services and the Treasury Christopher Hui (left), met with the Minister of State in the Department for Business and Trade, Lord Dominic Johnson in London on April 18, 2023.. Photo: GovHK.

Last month, a UK visit by Hui to promote business ties was met with protests, with demonstrators saying Britain should not welcome “human rights violators.”

The Secretary for Education Christine Choi is currently in London for an education fair. Arriving last Sunday, she was slated to meet with education officials and Hong Kong students in the UK, according to a government press release. Choi will conclude her UK trip this Saturday.

After the enactment of the national security law, London launched an emigration scheme for holders of British National (Overseas) passport holders, travel documents issued to Hong Kong residents before the Handover.

The scheme allows BNO passport holders and their dependents to live and work in the UK for up to five years, thus providing them a pathway towards permanent residency and citizenship.

According to the UK government, some 144,500 people have left Hong Kong and moved to the UK over the past two years.

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Hillary has an interest in social issues and politics. Previously, she reported on Asia broadly - including on Hong Kong's 2019 protests - for TIME Magazine and covered local news at Coconuts Hong Kong.