The UK foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has stressed “UK support for Hong Kong and its freedoms” as protesters broke into the territory’s legislative chamber on the 22nd anniversary of the handover of sovereignty from Britain to China.
The dramatic scenes overshadowed a march of hundreds of thousands of people in opposition to a proposed law allowing for extradition of individuals for trial in mainland China, where the opaque court system is controlled by the Communist party.
“UK support for Hong Kong and its freedoms is unwavering on this anniversary day,” Hunt said. “No violence is acceptable but Hong Kong people must preserve the right to peaceful protest exercised within the law, as hundreds of thousands of brave people showed today.”
Diplomats will be concerned that the Hong Kong executive will use the violence as a reason to impose severe penalties on protesters, including possibly reintroducing the extradition law that was suspended after earlier protests. The UK had been privately pressing for the legislation to be dropped altogether.
Speaking before the anniversary protests turned violent, Hunt had said the previous protests made it “even more important to reiterate that the UK government’s commitment to the Sino-British joint declaration is unwavering. It is a legally binding treaty and remains as valid today as it did when it was signed and ratified over 30 years ago.”
Sensitive to criticism that the UK has not been forceful enough in defence of the rights of Hong Kong citizens in recent weeks, he said it was “imperative that Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, and the rights and freedoms of the Hong Kong people, are fully respected in line with the joint declaration and the Hong Kong basic law”.
Hunt last week announced he was calling for an independent investigation into police handling of the demonstrations. He also refused to grant any new export licences for crowd control equipment that could be used by Hong Kong police.
He said in his statement: “We strongly believe that upholding ‘one country, two systems’ is the best way to ensure Hong Kong continues to play a vital role for China, and to continue its role and reputation as a global financial and trading centre for the rest of the world.”
A Foreign Office spokeswoman denied claims by China that the UK was interfering in Hong Kong. “We are co-signatory to the joint declaration, a legally binding treaty deposited at the United Nations. By monitoring its implementation we are acting responsibly in line with our commitments, not interfering.
“Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms and high degree of autonomy underpin its success and prosperity. We will continue to stand up for these principles, including speaking out publicly and raising issues with the Chinese government when we have concerns.”