Liz Truss to continue UK’s hawkish stance towards Hong Kong authorities, analysts say

New British Prime Minister Liz Truss is expected to maintain her country’s hawkish stance towards the Hong Kong government, political analysts have said, with a special UK citizenship path for migrants from the city likely to continue.

But scholars on Tuesday also predicted that London would not launch any new measures targeting Hong Kong or its ministers, as the leader would be focused on soaring energy prices and living costs at home. On the international front, Truss was also expected to prioritise support for Ukraine in its war against Russia, they said.

Ting Wang-leung, a political lecturer at the University of Reading, said such concerns would take up the new leader’s time rather than ones relating to mainland China or Hong Kong, adding she was unlikely to have the means to drum up support for further diplomatic actions against the city.

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“In the short or medium run, there just aren’t going to be a lot of changes in terms of [Britain’s] stance on China,” said Ting, who specialises in Hong Kong politics. “The priority on China is going to be low.”

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The prime minister’s victory speech on Monday did not mention Hong Kong or Beijing, and instead laid out policies on the domestic front.

But Malte Kaeding, a senior lecturer on international politics at University of Surrey, said the lack of references to Hong Kong and Beijing did not necessarily amount to an olive branch.

“Truss’ speech was not a masterclass in rhetoric. There were a lot of things that she did not mention, so not referring to Hong Kong or China in this speech should not be overinterpreted,” he said.

Meanwhile, Ting described the prime minister as an “opportunist” rather than being “naturally anti-China”, citing her shifting political views, having left the UK’s Liberal Democrat political party to join the Conservatives and switched from a “remain” viewpoint to a pro-Brexit one.

Her policy position was therefore likely to be determined by the general sentiments of her political party and country, which had been critical of China, he said.

The scholar added that it would be important to observe whether Truss appointed other hawkish politicians to her cabinet.

Given the general attitude towards China both nationally and among its allies, Kaeding said he expected the UK’s current position would be upheld by Truss’s government.

“I believe that the consensus of a more critical stance towards the Chinese and Hong Kong governments in the UK, European Union and US would mean that we are expecting more continuity than sea changes,” he said.

But Professor Lau Siu-kai, vice-president of the semi-official Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies think tank, said he believed relations between the city and the UK would take a turn for the worst, but not because of the country’s prime minister.

He explained that ties would be hamstrung by Britain’s alliance with the United States, with tensions between America and China simmering after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan.

UK-China relations unlikely to improve under new PM Liz Truss

“In terms of work collaborations [between Britain and Hong Kong], there may be smaller rooms than what people think,” he said.

But Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, convenor of the Executive Council, the government’s top advisory body, warned against hasty judgments over what Truss’ victory would mean for Hong Kong and Beijing.

“I think it is premature to draw any conclusion about Liz Truss’ stance on Hong Kong, China,” she said. “Whatever her rhetoric, investments and business exchanges will ultimately be driven by self-interest and business opportunities in our part of the world.”

Britain took a sympathetic view to protesters involved in Hong Kong’s anti-government demonstrations in 2019, later voicing its opposition to Beijing’s imposition of the national security law on June 30, 2020, which outlaws secession, subversion of state power, terrorism and foreign interference.

The British National (Overseas) pathway to citizenship scheme for Hongkongers could continue under Truss’ leadership. Photo: Bloomberg

Professor Wilson Chan Wai-shun, a political scholar at Chinese University, said he expected Truss would continue to run the British National (Overseas) citizenship scheme as a means of putting pressure on Beijing.

The new programme, which opened to applicants in January 2021, is expected to result in more than 320,000 Hongkongers taking up the offer within five years, according to UK officials.

“There is little room to further lower the application threshold. Continuity is likely to be her best approach,” Chan said. “By doing that, she would continue to flaunt her tough stances on China while her administration could spend time on resolving prominent domestic issues.”

While serving as foreign secretary as part of Boris Johnson’s cabinet, Truss adopted a critical stance towards China’s human rights record and expressed support for the rights of Hongkongers.

On the eve of Hong Kong’s 25th anniversary of its return to Chinese rule on July 1, Truss said the past two years had seen a “steady erosion” of the rights and freedoms agreed in the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

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Tim Summers, an assistant professor at Chinese University’s Centre for China Studies, said that while Truss had made clear that she would shift UK policy in a more hawkish direction, she had not given any clear idea what the benefits for London were.

Grenville Cross, a former director of public prosecutions, said Truss’ anti-China rhetoric could have delighted Conversative Party hawks but disappointed realists who appreciated the importance of strengthening economic ties with Beijing.

Among the city’s residents who moved to the UK, some said they hoped Truss’ leadership would produce practical solutions for the country’s cost-of-living crisis.

“Her vow to freeze energy bills is a piece of good news for all, but she has nothing substantial to tame the rising prices for essentials,” said Ivy Chan, who has lived in London for a year with her two sons.

Chan said the rocketing inflation in Britain had lead to the price of bread, milk and cheese soaring by more than 30 per cent in recent months.

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