China has lashed out at the UK over its criticism of Beijing’s planned national security law for Hong Kong, warning it to “step back from the brink” and “abandon” its “cold war mentality”.
“Interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs” will “definitely backfire”, said China’s foreign ministry.
It added the UK should “recognise and respect the fact that Hong Kong has returned” to China.
UK-China relations have rapidly deteriorated over the past week, following Beijing’s move to implement the law against separatism and subversion of state power in Hong Kong. Although details of the law are yet to be settled, the Asian country has used similar legislation to silence human rights lawyers and journalists on the mainland.
Dominic Raab, UK foreign secretary, had previously angered Beijing by offering to “provide a pathway to future citizenship” to almost 3m Hong Kong residents who hold British Nationals (Overseas) status in the event the national security law is passed.
The row over Mr Raab’s offer comes as Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, faces pressure from his own MPs to take a tougher stance on China, following concerns that Beijing intentionally played down the initial scale of the coronavirus outbreak.
China’s foreign ministry last Friday struck back at Mr Raab’s offer, warning that if the “UK unilaterally changes its approach” on the matter of British overseas nationals, Beijing would “resolutely oppose” and “reserve the right to use appropriate countermeasures”. China does not recognise dual nationality.
Mr Johnson published an opinion piece late on Tuesday reiterating Mr Raab’s offer, saying that if the national security legislation was passed, “Britain could not in good conscience shrug our shoulders and walk away; instead we will honour our obligations and provide an alternative”.
Mr Raab had earlier criticised the new law in the House of Commons, saying “there is time for China to reconsider, there is a moment for China to step back from the brink and respect Hong Kong’s autonomy”.
After Hong Kong was handed back to China from British rule in 1997, Beijing promised the UK that it would implement a “one country, two systems” framework and allow the region a “high degree of autonomy”.
However, Zhao Lijian, spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry, on Wednesday said the Sino-UK Joint Declaration had been a “unilateral policy announcement by China, not a promise from China to the UK, even less so a so-called international commitment”.
In an interview with Sky News on Wednesday, Mr Raab responded: “We’ve got a deal with China. It's called the Joint Declaration. It's registered with the United Nations, the global organisation which we're both members of, and it says very clearly that China should respect the autonomy of the people of Hong Kong and that it should respect the freedoms they enjoy.”
“With the decision that [China’s] made — for a national security piece of law imposed by Beijing, cutting across all of those freedoms — it is itself in breach of responsibilities it has freely undertaken,” he added.
Speaking on Wednesday afternoon, Mr Johnson insisted he is a “Sinophile” and wants to have a “clear-eyed working relationship with China”, in spite of tensions over the new security law, which he described as a “potential infringement” of the Joint Declaration.
He described the offer of potential UK citizenship of British National Overseas passport holders as an extension of “the hand of friendship” to people in the former colony.
BNO passport holders can currently stay in the UK for six months at a time. The passports were issued to Hong Kong residents born before the handover of the territory.
China’s foreign ministry alleged Mr Raab’s offer broke the terms of a memorandum offered by the UK to China in 1997, in which the UK said it would not grant right of abode to BNO passport holders.
Additional reporting by Laura Hughes and George Parker in London
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