Theresa May, in answer to a question from the audience following her final speech as British prime minister, stressed that the UK is committed to observing the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
The treaty, signed in 1984, governed Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty from British to Chinese rule in 1997. Both sides had promised to preserve the city’s autonomy and essential freedoms.
May touched on Brexit, the Iran nuclear deal, and other international diplomacy issues during her speech at the British foreign policy think tank Chatham House on July 17.
Following her comments, May took a question from a man who identified himself as being from China’s embassy in London. He asked if she had any advice for her successor, given the disputes between the countries on issues regarding Hong Kong and Chinese telecom giant Huawei.
May responded to the question by saying that the Sino-UK relationship is an important one, especially in the realm of bilateral trade and investments.
She then added: “There are issues at which we need to be very clear with China. And the continuation of the Joint Declaration in relation to Hong Kong is one of those. … And we would say to China that it needs to be abided by, it needs to be respected, and continue to be respected.”
In recent weeks, Chinese and UK officials have been at odds, after the latter expressed support for Hongkongers who have taken to the streets in protest of a controversial extradition bill that they consider a threat to the city’s autonomy.
The bill proposed that any country, including mainland China, would be able to seek extradition of suspects. It drew widespread opposition, as many Hongkongers fear that the bill would allow the Chinese Communist Party to punish dissidents and critics, while eroding the city’s rule of law.
Both former and current London officials have released statements expressing concern about the extradition bill in recent weeks, calling on Beijing to uphold its promises in the Joint Declaration and ensure Hong Kong’s autonomy.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt noted that the UK has an obligation to ensure the treaty is being honored, while his predecessor, Boris Johnson, said he supported Hongkongers “every inch of the way.”
Beijing has rebuked such comments by saying Britain no longer has any say over Hong Kong affairs.
In 2017, China’s foreign ministry said that the Joint Declaration was a historical document that no longer held significance.
Hunt and Johnson are both vying to become the next British prime minister. Public members of the Conservative Party will vote for the party leader in a national ballot, the results of which will be announced on July 23.
May’s farewell speech isn’t the first time that she’s commented on the Hong Kong protests. On June 17, she met with Chinese Vice Premier Hu Chunhua in London, and spoke with him about the need to respect Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms, in accordance with the Joint Declaration.
May didn’t respond on the Huawei issue. The U.S. government has urged the UK and other allies to ban the telecom firm from providing next-generation internet connection 5G equipment due to security concerns.
While London has yet to make an official decision about whether to ban Huawei from 5G networks, the company is already working with all four of Britain’s major mobile operators to build 5G infrastructure, according to The Guardian.