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The widening breach between Beijing and London

– Global Impact newsletter we look at the recent rapid deterioration in the historically complex China-UK relationship and what it portends for the future. In each issue we explore an emerging topic involving China that carries a significant impact on the rest of the world, connecting the dots and providing perspectives that show the influence of the topic. The decline in the once-promising Sino-British relationship China’s nearly two century old relationship with Britain has been – to put it charitably – difficult, no more so than today.

It started off badly, with the Qing emperor forced to grant concessions after being defeated by Britain in the First Opium War (1839-42) and by Britain and France in the Second Opium War (1856-60). The concessions after the First Opium War included handing over Hong Kong to the British, a decision that would become a source of significant conflict in the past several years. Fast forward to 1 July 1997, when Britain formally handed Hong Kong back to China, as outlined in this story.

The agreement to return the city to Chinese control came after contentious negotiations between Beijing and London, but resulted in a treaty that many believed would guarantee Hong Kong’s autonomy for the next 50 years. But the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the treaty governing the handover, would become yet another bone of contention between the two countries, with Beijing using it to push back against what it saw as lingering interference in the city’s affairs from the former colonial master. But, at the same time, questions began to arise about China’s commitment to the “one country, two systems” framework for governing Hong Kong. Those questions were answered decisively this year after China reacted to widespread protests, sometimes violent, against a proposed extradition bill and the Hong Kong government by imposing a new National Security Law on Hong Kong in July.

Britain, and other western countries, claim China violated the terms of the treaty that ensured Hong Kong’s autonomy, a charge Beijing and the current Hong Kong government reject. Relations between China and Britain have spiralled downward from there. After its call for Beijing not to impose the new security law failed, Britain formally suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong in protest, with the British government saying former British colonial citizens, almost 3 million of the city’s 7.5 million people, would be eligible to move to Britain from 2021. The Hong Kong government reacted furiously to the announcement. Hong Kong citizens born before the handover in 1997, and their immediate descendants, are eligible for a British National (Overseas), or BN(O) passport. Record numbers of Hongkongers applied for the passports in 2019 due to the protests in the city, with the trend continuing into this year.

Both the Chinese and Hong Kong governments have threatened not to recognise the BN(O) passports. Nor is it clear that Hong Kong refugees would be welcome in Britain, because of the pressure they will put on jobs and public services in major cities. Nevertheless, the British upped the ante in September by issuing a new class of visa for BN(O) passports that would allow Hong Kong citizens to live and work for five years and allow them to seek citizenship after that. And no limit was set on the number of Hong Kong BN(O) holders who can apply for the new visa.

Again, Beijing ratcheted up its anger, charging Britain with meddling in its internal affairs. While the status of Hong Kong is the biggest issue between Beijing and London, bilateral ill will has also invaded the tech space. Only two weeks after Hong Kong’s National Security Law took effect, the British government banned new Huawei equipment from its 5G telecoms network from the start of next year and ordered the dismantling of existing Huawei kit by 2027. Prime Minister Boris Johnson dismissed Beijing’s threat of “consequences” for the widely-telegraphed move, but some British politicians wanted a harder line against China. Making matters worse for Beijing and China’s telecoms champion, the decision emboldened other European countries to enact their own bans on Huawei. The upshot is that the “golden era” of Sino-British relations is over, likely dashing London’s hopes to create a stronger trading relationship with China after the Brexit transition period expires at the end of this year

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