Patten says cross-party support on Hong Kong a sign of new UK stance on China
London Letter: Former governor predicts other European countries will join Britain in scrutinising their relationship with Beijing
The last governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten. He claims the importance of Britain’s broader economic relationship with China is often overstated. Photograph: Getty Images
Politicians at Westminster are divided on everything from coronavirus and Brexit to whether they should be there at all rather than working remotely. But when MPs this week debated China’s threat to impose a national security law on Hong Kong, they were unanimous in their support for the British government’s response.
Boris Johnson has promised that if China goes ahead with the law up to 3 million Hong Kong citizens eligible for British National Overseas passports will be allowed to come to Britain. They would receive renewable 12-month visas offering a path to citizenship.
“This would amount to one of the biggest changes in our visa system in history. If it proves necessary the British government will take this step, and take it willingly,” Johnson wrote in the Times.
“Many people in Hong Kong fear that their way of life – which China pledged to uphold – is under threat. If China proceeds to justify their fears then Britain could not in good conscience shrug our shoulders and walk away; instead we will honour our obligations and provide an alternative.”
The proposal won praise from Labour, the Scottish Nationalists and the Liberal Democrats, but it found its warmest welcome among Conservatives who see it as part of a broader reappraisal of Britain’s relationship with China. The recently-formed China Research Group (CRG) of Conservative backbenchers, self-consciously modelled on the Eurosceptic European Research Group (ERG), has brought together members of both Tory tribes.
Chris Patten, who was the last British governor of Hong Kong before Britain returned the colony to China in 1997, welcomes the prime minister’s move as a step in the right direction.
“What we do in Hong Kong is only part of what I think we have to do in relation to China. And what we have to do in Hong Kong is, I think, to recognise our moral and political and legal obligations,” he told The Irish Times.
He argues that under Xi Jinping, China has shown that it is intent on protecting itself by “roughing up its neighbours” and seeking to bully trading partners and welch on its own commitments.
He predicts that other European countries will join Britain in scrutinising their relationships with China across the board.
“Where do we seem to be too dependent on Chinese supplies, for example, in pharmaceuticals, in technology? Where does the supply chain seem to place us too much in China’s hands? Where are there real issues which we have to confront by designing rather different policies?
“For example, in Britain we welcome Chinese students, but the funding model for our universities is highly dependent on attracting foreign students, and we can’t go on like that because eventually you put your research budgets in the hands of the number of Chinese students you can attract.
“So I think we have to take measures right across the board, and then try to share with others our own conclusions,” he said.
As chancellor of Oxford University, Patten knows well the extent to which British universities depend on Chinese students for income. But he claims the importance of Britain’s broader economic relationship with China is often overstated, and that much of the Chinese investment promised during David Cameron’s premiership never materialised.
He acknowledges that Britain’s exit from the EU has left it more vulnerable to the economic impact of a confrontation with China, and he wishes Britain still had a voice in Brussels to encourage the EU to take a more robust line towards Beijing. However, he points to the cross-party support for action in support of Hong Kong’s citizens this week as evidence that Britain is serious about a new approach to China.
“I think there’s a huge amount of sentiment out there that we actually have to redesign our relationship with China. Not in order to exclude China from everything, that would be crazy – it’s 1.4 billion people. But in order to send a message to a very nasty regime that they can’t simply do business with us on their own terms.
“This runs right across the political spectrum. It’s not a question of the Conservative Party replacing Euroscepticism, which was shooting ourselves in the foot, with a Chinese equivalent. It’s the whole of British politics, I think, waking up to the dangers of not having a rather more coherent, intelligent, robust, independent-minded line on China.”