Photographer: Justin Chin/Bloomberg

Hammond Urges China to Keep Hong Kong Autonomy `Way Into Future'

  • U.K. doesn't support independence push, foreign secretary says
  • Believes local bookseller taken to mainland `under duress'

China should ensure Hong Kong’s current level of autonomy for years to come, U.K. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said during a visit to the former British colony.

“We very much want to see Hong Kong continuing to succeed in the future and that means maintaining One Country, Two Systems in its current form way into the future,” Hammond told reporters Friday, in a reference to the capitalist political structure China guaranteed when the U.K. returned the city in 1997. Asked if the system should endure beyond 2047, when the agreement expires, Hammond replied, “far into the future.”

The visit was Hammond’s first as foreign secretary and his first since publishing a report describing the disappearance of five men who sold books critical of China’s ruling Communist Party as a "serious breach" of the handover deal. The booksellers’ case has provided a rallying point for local pro-democracy activists wary of growing communist influence, some of whom have urged independence from China.

Hammond said the U.K. doesn’t support calls for independence, which the Chinese government has dismissed as "radical separatism" and violation of Hong Kong law.

“We don’t believe that any aspiration to independence is a realistic plan for the future of Hong Kong,” Hammond said. “We believe One Country, Two Systems is the right future for Hong Kong.”

‘Under Duress’

After Hammond published his report in February, China’s foreign ministry called on the U.K. to stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs. On Friday, Hammond said the U.K. had an "obligation and a right" to monitor the commitments China agreed to before the city was returned.

The U.K. has evidence that bookseller Lee Bo had been removed from Hong Kong “under duress,” Hammond said, declining to give further details. Lee, whose name is also spelled Lee Po, is one of five men linked to a Hong Kong store that sells books critical of China’s Communist Party elite who went missing last year.

“There are people in the business community who are unnerved by this incident and we need everybody to make very clear that this is not going to happen again,” he said. Hammond promised to reiterate those concerns in Beijing on Saturday, when he’s expected to meet China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi.

Bo returned to Hong Kong last month and told police that friends helped him travel surreptitiously to mainland China to assist in an investigation and that he wasn’t abducted.

‘Rather Strange’

“Quite a lot of people find his comments rather strange,” Hammond said. “I want to see him here free of duress and constraints on his behavior.”

Hammond said Bo was a U.K. citizen with full access to British consular services, and hasn’t filed any papers renouncing his passport. Bo told a Hong Kong-based television network in February that he had decided to give up his U.K. travel document.

“What ever has happened around this case, it is very much in the interest of Hong Kong, and I would argue the interests of China, that we do not allow this incident to undermine confidence in the One Country, Two Systems approach,” Hammond said.

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