“The statement will cause more offense in the minds of quite a number of people in Hong Kong than if the FCO has chosen to say nothing at all,” Anson Chan, the second-highest ranking official in the final colonial government, said today in a phone interview. She was referring to a statement yesterday from the U.K.’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in which it said details of electoral reforms are to be decided by the governments of Hong Kong and China.
The statement was the British government’s first official response to China’s Aug. 31 decision to insist on a mechanism to vet candidates for chief executive in the financial center’s first popular elections set for 2017. Pro-democracy activists have threatened to occupy the central business district to protest the decision for candidates to be chosen by a 1,200-member committee that is likely to be dominated by the city’s political and business elite, who are seen as deferential to China’s interests.
The British government said they “welcome the confirmation that China’s objective is for the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive through universal suffrage.”
The statement came two days after Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last governor under British rule, said the U.K. had a “moral and political obligation” to defend full democracy in the city.
The U.K.’s position has always been that the electoral system shall be decided by the governments of Hong Kong and China in line with the Basic Law, a type of constitution for the city adopted before the territory was returned to China in 1997.
“The whole thing is empty talk,” Lee said by phone. “They don’t even say whether they’re disappointed or not.”
The U.K. statement acknowledges that the conditions set by the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress for the 2017 chief executive election “will disappoint” people who want free elections. The U.K. urged all parties “to engage constructively” in the next period of consultation, saying it will lead to “a meaningful advance for democracy.”
The statement is “an attempt to exert influence on Hong Kong’s constitutional reform” and “obviously runs counter to” the British commitment to not interfere in the city’s domestic affairs, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said at at a press conference in Beijing today.
“China expresses strong dissatisfaction,” he said. “No foreign country has the right to make irresponsible remarks or interfere in any form.”
The second round of public consultation on China’s proposal for the election will be held before Hong Kong’s legislative council votes on the final approval next year.
“Given the rigidity, is there any purpose at all of this second stage of consultation the Hong Kong government is supposed to be carrying out?” Chan said.
Hong Kong’s pro-democratic parties have said they would vote against the proposals. Should the rules not be approved by two-thirds of the legislative council’s 70 members, the old system will remain in place. Under these rules, the chief executive is chosen by a 1,200-member committee, and not through a popular vote.
The U.K. acceptance for limited universal suffrage may be an effort to avoid angering China at a time of growing bilateral commerce between the two countries. China is the U.K.’s fourth-biggest international partner with bilateral trade reaching $72 billion last year.
“The British government policy in Hong Kong can be summarized in three words: More China trade,” said Lee.
The issue of democracy in Hong Kong is proving an annoyance for Prime Minister David Cameron’s government, Chan said.
“What’s happening in Hong Kong and the way Beijing is treating Hong Kong are inconvenient truths that the British government would rather ignore,” she said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Ting Shi in Hong Kong at firstname.lastname@example.org