Finding a credible position on Hong Kong and Sino-British relations will be a serious test of Boris Johnson’s foreign policy chops
While Covid-19 still dominates the agenda of Britain's government, trouble is emerging elsewhere too: A revolt within the ruling Conservative Party is prompting an abrupt realignment of the country's dealings with China. The threat to the semi-autonomy of Hong Kong, the UK's former colony, has delivered another blow to an already deteriorating relationship with Beijing.
The vaunted "golden era" of relations between the UK and China — stretching from the days of Margaret Thatcher to the premiership of David Cameron — is being reassessed as a "golden error." Beijing's increasingly aggressive stance means this is unavoidable, but that doesn't make the situation any easier for Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Finding a credible position on Sino-British relations will be a serious test of his foreign policy chops.
Johnson's domestic program will be affected too. He said this week that if China imposes its new national security law in the territory, Britain will allow Hong Kongers holding overseas British passports (about 350,000 people in the first instance, with more than 2.5 million eligible) to apply to come to the UK for at least a year. There was also a hint of future full citizenship. This is an honorable pledge that echoes a previous Tory government's welcome of thousands of Asians fleeing persecution in Uganda in 1972. But it jars with Johnson's rhetoric during the Brexit campaign, when he promised voters he would "take back control" of British immigration.
The prime minister doesn't have much choice other than to take a harder line on Beijing. Marching in rare lockstep against China are human rights activists, the Labour Party opposition under its effective new leader Keir Starmer and — most significantly — a growing body of influential opinion within the Conservatives.
Tory right-wingers, hankering for a return to the moral certainties of the American-led Cold War, see Beijing as the West's main rival today. China's imposition of emergency security legislation on Hong Kong has brought powerful center-right Conservatives on board — including the last British governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten. On Monday, seven former UK foreign secretaries demanded that Downing Street come to the defense of its former colony. Hong Kong can still get under the skin of London's politicians 23 years after the administrative handover to China.
Back then, even Thatcher bent the knee to China's leader Deng Xiaoping, when he demanded that Britain quit all of Hong Kong's territories according to a strict timetable. In recent years, pro-China voices from British business have been influential within the Conservative Party, dominating the direction of policy. Cameron and George Osborne, the leading figures in the post-Thatcher Tory generation, skewed heavily toward Beijing on the grounds that resistance was futile and unhelpful to British commerce. China's economic size and growth made it attractive to Johnson too.
As London mayor, he promoted Chinese investment in a major docks project, and he continued his friendly stance as prime minister — a striking contrast with US President Donald Trump. Johnson has a personal interest. His half-brother Max has pursued a career in China and Hong Kong, selling business services to the Chinese.
Beijing's proposed Hong Kong law, and allegations of a Chinese Covid-19 cover-up in Wuhan, have changed the UK's political calculations. Things were already headed in a more awkward direction before the coronavirus. There was a noisy backbench rebellion by Conservative MPs against the installation of Huawei Technologies Co.'s fifth-generation wireless technology in Britain's telecoms network. A new generation of Conservatives, including Tom Tugendhat, a forthright voice on foreign affairs, is far less keen to kowtow than its elders.
This all throws up more difficulties for Johnson than is suggested by his breezy commentary, including a promise in the Times newspaper "to uphold our profound ties of history and friendship" with the people of Hong Kong.
The hardest challenge is to get Beijing to exercise more restraint over Hong Kong without the UK sacrificing its own economic interests, especially as Britain looks at its trading relationships after Brexit. But this fight is a mismatch. Beyond the ability to relax visa regulations, London has few bargaining chips. Asia may have the best prospects for economic growth after the pandemic, so making an enemy of China will be a brave gambit.
And this ignores the domestic politics. Johnson admits his change to visa entitlements would be the UK's biggest shift on immigration in recent times. But he will argue that at least Britain is acting independently to choose which migrants it receives rather than being stuck with a European Union-wide model.
Hong Kong does have an abundance of natural entrepreneurs, who would help a depressed post-Covid economy. Nonetheless, if Beijing tightens its grip so hard that large numbers leave the territory, many will arrive in Britain who aren't keen young start-up types or the student lawyers who populate Oxbridge. Plenty of retired folk will make the same journey.
If this policy is enacted, there are predictions of fury in the former Labour seats in the north of England that delivered Johnson his election victory in December. These voters have hard views on immigration, which is part of the reason why they backed Johnson. Whether this becomes more than a grumble depends on the scale of arrivals — and how many seek citizenship.
Either way, the days of Johnson acting as a one-man band on the international stage are over. He wants to share out large numbers of the potential incomers with other western nations, including EU member states, which won't be inclined to do their ex-partner much of a favor. He'll need to win them around to his plan.
Few Britons have thought much about their responsibility for those at the sharp end of Chinese oppression. On this topic, Johnson cannot rely on his preferred route of following public opinion; he'll have to make an exceptional case for large-scale immigration. This is what leadership means.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg , and is published by special syndication arrangement