United Kingdom Foreign Minister James Cleverly has revealed that he raised the case of jailed Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai with senior politicians in China and Hong Kong, as the UK again criticised Beijing’s crackdown on freedoms in the one-time British colony.
Cleverly revealed in the foreword to the UK’s latest six-monthly update on the situation in Hong Kong (PDF) that he had raised Lai’s case with Chinese Vice President Han Zheng earlier this month as well as at the “highest levels with the Hong Kong authorities”.
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Accusing the territory’s administration of “deliberately targeting prominent pro-democracy figures, journalists and politicians in an effort to silence and discredit them”, he added: “Detained British dual national Jimmy Lai is one such figure.”
Lai, the founder of the popular but now-closed Apple Daily, is the most prominent democracy campaigner to face trial under the Beijing-imposed security law. He was first arrested in 2020 and was due to stand trial under charges of “colluding with foreign forces” last December.
The UK report, which covers the six months until December 31, 2022, noted that in November, Hong Kong’s highest court ruled UK British barrister Timothy Owen could join Lai’s defence team.
Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee then appealed to Beijing and Lai’s trial was postponed pending the decision.
On December 30, China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) announced Beijing’s “first interpretation” of the security law, the report noted.
This month, Hong Kong passed a law giving its chief executive a veto of any foreign lawyers involved in national security cases. Lai’s trial is due to start in September.
“Actions taken by the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities continue to erode Hong Kong’s social, legal and judicial systems,” Cleverly said.
“Powers once vested in the judiciary have transferred to the Chief Executive. Those facing national security charges no longer have the right to challenge Government decisions in the courts.”
The UK report also noted the recent changes to electoral rules for local elections, which reduced the number of directly-elected seats,
The update drew an angry rebuke from China’s Commissioner’s Office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the commission accused the UK of “distorting and smearing” the Chinese government’s Hong Kong policy, “wantonly attacking” Hong Kong’s national security law and the territory’s electoral system as well as “slandering” Hong Kong’s human rights and rule of law.
“The report from the British side criticised China’s just actions to safeguard national security, made irresponsible remarks on the SAR government’s administration according to law, and made irresponsible comments on the fair trial of the SAR courts,” the statement said, referring to Hong Kong by its official title of Special Administrative Region. “It has been completely reduced to a tool for political performances and has no credibility at all!”
The UK report also said the use of sedition laws in Hong Kong continued to expand, with people arrested or convicted, mostly for non-violent free speech.
Freedom of the press also came under increasing pressure, it added, with journalists facing prosecution and some being held on remand ahead of their trials.
“The UK considered China to be in a state of ongoing non-compliance with the Sino-British Joint Declaration throughout this period,” the report said.
The joint declaration, a treaty registered with the United Nations, was signed by the two countries in 1984 and laid out the plan for the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule.
The spokesperson at the commission noted Hong Kong, which was returned to China in July 1997, was now governed under the Chinese Constitution and its own mini-constitution known as the Basic Law.
“The British side has no sovereignty, governance or supervision over Hong Kong after the return. The British side has repeatedly talked about the “Sino-British Joint Declaration” and talked about the so-called “historical responsibility”. This is pure nonsense that distorts history and legal principles!” the statement said.