A new approach.Photographer: Lam Yik/Bloomberg

Boris Johnson Gets a Hong Kong Reality Check

Britain can no longer put business first in its dealings with Beijing. China’s new national security law for Hong Kong demands a broader response.


China’s new national security law for Hong Kong poses a major test of Britain’s foreign policy principles, and its mettle. The law bans subversion, secession and foreign interference. While Beijing has yet to specify exactly how the new powers will work, its objectives hardly need spelling out.

The measure effectively rips up the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration that enshrined the principle of “one country, two systems,” the basis on which the U.K. handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997. The territory’s autonomous status was supposed to last for 50 years. We aren’t even halfway through that period.

Under the cover of Covid-19, China’s timetable for achieving a “convergence” in Hong Kong — a euphemism for ending autonomy — has apparently been accelerated. It couldn’t come at a worse time for U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson. He is fighting to contain the coronavirus, revive Britain’s economy, negotiate a new trading relationship with the European Union, strike other trade deals and put out various domestic political fires. Britain’s China policy must adapt. The problem is finding an effective tool for challenging Beijing.

Some believe the best approach is multilateral, which might be awkward given Britain’s recent shift toward self-isolation. It says something that it was two former diplomats — Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, and Malcolm Rifkind, a former U.K. foreign secretary — who organized a letter of protest for Hong Kong Watch, now signed by 659 lawmakers from 33 countries. Both men are acutely aware of the limits of Britain acting alone and of just how distracted the country, and its leaders, are right now.

There’s an appreciation too that Hong Kong’s subjugation would have wider geopolitical consequences. As the letter says, “If the international community cannot trust Beijing to keep its word when it comes to Hong Kong, people will be reluctant to take its word on other matters.”

The British government did issue its own response. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, along with his U.S., Canadian and Australian counterparts, called on China to respect its international obligations and honor Hong Kong’s autonomy. But what will Raab and Johnson do if China refuses to back down?

Speaking to Rifkind this week, I asked what Johnson’s best options were. “The U.K. does have a special position, as we are the other signatory to the treaty,” he said. “But the actual reality is that if there’s to be an impact it has to come from the broader international community.”

He and others are calling for the issue to be taken up by the G7, which meets on June 10. Rifkind points out that while Britain is leaving the EU, it has still found itself more aligned with the bloc’s foreign policy positions — from Iran to trade and climate change — than with Donald Trump’s U.S. administration. “What we need now is a Europe plus one,” he adds. “I’ve had these conversations with the French and Germans and other European colleagues and nobody disagrees. France and the EU could make a statement on foreign policy, but if the U.K. is not included it doesn’t carry as much weight.” A robust response must include other Asian countries and ideally involve the Commonwealth nations.

It would be nice to agree that multilaterlism isn’t dead, after all. But Britain and the U.S. have been headed in the other direction for a while. And what if Europe, distracted with its own internal problems or unable to decide whether it values China’s trade or Hong Kong’s freedoms more, is unable to muster much of a reaction?

For Britain to register in Beijing’s thinking, it can't simply outsource its China policy to the business sector. Ever since the 1997 handover, the U.K.’s approach has been based on the unlikely notion that engagement would yield economic benefits and foster political change. This idea — that commercial ties were accomplishing a broader set of social aims — led directly to the quasi-privatization of foreign policy toward China, as Warwick University Professor Shaun Breslin described in a 2004 paper. 

By sheer dint of its size, China’s commercial importance can’t be ignored. But Britain’s decoupling of human rights issues from the business gains is no longer tenable if it means the end of Hong Kong’s autonomy.  

Yu Jie, a senior China research fellow at Chatham House, argues that Beijing’s central concern right now is managing the domestic economy. “This is about making the economy self-reliant,” she says. China is closing its own supply chain for China’s benefit, focusing more on the Greater Bay Area, which links Hong Kong and Macau with nine other Chinese cities. China has given up on trying to reconcile with the West, Yu adds. The new law is “a first step to show that China has become more self-reliant and less concerned about what the rest of the world thinks.” 

If so, the British must readjust. As London’s mayor, Johnson promoted ties with China. He’s aware that Chinese students at Britain’s schools and universities help subsidize their domestic counterparts. He’d hoped that “Global Britain” — the catch-all phrase for his post-Brexit trade policy — would include closer ties with China. That looks difficult now.

Last month, a group of lawmakers from Johnson’s ruling Conservative Party launched the China Research Group to campaign for a harder line. They’re pushing for restrictions on Huawei Technologies Co., the telecoms equipment maker that was given a limited role in Britain’s fifth-generation mobile network. Raab has threatened to extend the rights of holders of the British national overseas passport, which includes more than 300,000 Hong Kong citizens born before 1997, if China doesn’t back down.

Johnson’s other options are more provocative, but potentially more impactful if done with other nations. Ian Bond of the Center for European Reform suggests using so-called Magnitsky legislation, which authorizes governments to seize overseas assets and deny visas to officials involved in human rights violations.

Britain and others should also show greater support to Taiwan, a model democracy in the region. Rifkind thinks international opinion is moving in that direction. Johnson will also be watching the Americans closely, after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s declaration that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous. 

During a mid-April press conference, Raab said it would not be “business as usual after this crisis” between Britain and China. For once, that may not be a platitude.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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Therese Raphael at

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James Boxell at