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End ‘megaphone diplomacy’ between UK and Hong Kong, says British diplomat

Consul general calls for ‘constructive engagement’ with territory as Chinese vice-president says he will attend king’s coronation

By Amy Hawkins

May 4, 2023

Brian Davidson, the consul general to Hong Kong and Macau, said there had been ‘some difficult headwinds’ in recent years. Photograph:

Britain’s most senior diplomat for Hong Kong has called for an end to “megaphone diplomacy” between the UK and the Chinese territory, saying British and Hong Kong diplomats would make more progress with closed-door discussions.

Brian Davidson, the consul general to Hong Kong and Macau, said in an interview with the South China Morning Post that the UK-Hong Kong relationship had weathered “some difficult headwinds” over the past four or five years, but that “we are looking to lean back into a constructive engagement to see where we can collaborate”.

Last month, Hong Kong’s treasury secretary, Christopher Hui Ching-yu, travelled to the UK for the first official visit from the territory in three years. He met senior British ministers, despite protests from activists, and more bilateral visits are expected later this year.

On Thursday, China’s vice-president, Han Zheng, confirmed he would attend the coronation of King Charles III on 6 May. His invitation has been criticised by senior MPs as “outrageous”.

Davidson’s comments came two days after Hong Kong’s chief executive, John Lee, revealed plans to reduce the proportion of directly elected seats on local district councils from 90% to 20%.

Mark Sabah, the UK and EU director of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation, said Davidson’s comments “laid bare the actual position” of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, which he said “has become an offshoot of the department of trade and industry … It is a mockery.”

He added: “All we have heard so far is confused, topsy-turvy China strategy from the FCDO. The consul general in Hong Kong said what is the actual policy of the FCDO, which is openness and trade.”

Benedict Rogers, the chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, said Davidson’s remarks “reflect a troubling softening of approach towards China”.

In April, the all-party parliamentary group on Hong Kong published a report on media freedom in the former British colony, which said the suppression of freedom of speech was a “high priority” for repressive regimes. “Seldom has this been more apparent than the brutal repression of the people of Hong Kong by the Chinese Communist party and its puppet regime in Hong Kong,” it said.

Davidson said British businesses were committed to Hong Kong. He said he expected “growth in the number of British firms who choose to have this as either a local or regional base”.

Davidson also said the British national overseas (BNO) immigration route would stay in place until at least 2025. More than 100,000 Hongkongers have arrived in the UK via the BNO scheme, which was launched in 2021 in response to China’s crackdown on freedoms in the former British colony.

Davidson rejected the idea that this had contributed to a brain drain, saying: “It’s entirely in the hands of the Hong Kong government to create the opportunities and the attractions” to lure people back to the city.

Sabah said: “This is a British diplomat repeating lines from Beijing.”

An FCDO spokesperson said: “The foreign secretary was clear in his Mansion House speech that it is in Britain’s interests to engage with China – robustly and also constructively – and our engagement with Hong Kong is an important part of that.

“But as the foreign secretary has said, if China breaks its international obligations, we are entitled to say so, and we will act – as we did when we gave nearly 3 million of Hong Kong’s people a path to British citizenship, after China violated its own pledge and dismantled the freedoms of Hong Kong.”

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