China has banned a senior parliamentary committee of MPs from entering Hong Kong in a move that will escalate diplomatic tensions between the two countries.
The unprecedented move to bar members of the Foreign Affairs Committee from Britain’s former colony was communicated to the chair of the committee, Sir Richard Ottaway, by China’s deputy ambassador.
He tonight accused the Chinese authorities of acting in an “overtly confrontational manner” in threatening to deport them if the group enters the country and described the move as a “very serious matter”. He said he would call on Monday for an emergency debate in Parliament.
The Foreign Office also said it had raised the issue at “the most senior levels” in Beijing and said banning the MPs was “not consistent” with the positive trend in UK-China relations.
This is the latest diplomatic clash between the UK and China after the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, summoned the ambassador to meet him over concerns about how the protests in Hong Kong were being handled.
The Chinese government has been attempting to suppress activists who are demanding free elections for the city’s next leader in 2017, not a vote between pre-screened candidates that Beijing has said it will allow.
On Sunday night, thousands of pro-democracy activists clashed with police as they tried to encircle government headquarters, defying orders to retreat after more than two months of demonstrations.
Scores of protesters with wooden shields and metal barricades charged police as officers warned them to retreat. Police, who have been accused of using excessive force, struck demonstrators with batons to push them back.
The clashes come at the end of a week in which Hong Kong authorities began a concerted push against the occupations, clearing the camp at Mong Kok, on the Kowloon peninsula. The clearance operation involved violent clashes and more than 150 arrests.
The British MPs were due to arrive in Hong Kong later this month to meet with pro-democracy activists as well as the Hong Kong Government. This was part of its investigation into UK’s relations with Hong Kong 30 years after the Joint Declaration was signed that handed the colony back to China.
Last week a visit by a cross-party group of parliamentarians to China, led by Peter Mandelson, was cancelled at the last minute after Beijing refused to grant a visa to a Conservative MP who had organised a debate on the pro-democracy protests.
Mr Ottaway said he first became aware of Chinese concerns about the visit in August when he was called to see the Chinese ambassador to London. “I expected it to be a civil conversation,” he said.
“But it was pretty abrasive and confrontational. He said we were meddling in the internal affairs of another country. He said we should cancel our inquiry and said we wouldn’t be welcome in Hong Kong.
“We considered it would be an abrogation of our responsibilities not to continue with the inquiry. We let it be known that we intended to visit in the third week in December and the rhetoric went up a gear.
“Last week they told us it would be perceived we would be siding with the protesters who occupy central and other illegal activities. Then on Friday afternoon the deputy ambassador came and told me we would not be allowed into Hong Kong. I told him they were making a mistake.” Mr Ottaway said the move raised questions about Beijing’s stance towards Hong Kong. “It is flagging up the direction of travel of China on these issues which may not be welcome to the rest of the world.”
He added: “I do question if they have the power to ban us as immigration is devolved to the Hong Kong authorities. That questions whether they are abandoning the one country two systems approach.”
In a statement, the Foreign Office said it was deeply concerned by the ban. “It is not consistent with the positive trend in UK-China relations over the past year, including the recognition during Premier Li’s visit to London in June that the UK and China have considerable shared interests in respect of Hong Kong,” said a spokeswoman.
“Nor is it in the spirit of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, concluded 30 years ago. The FCO signalled this position to the Chinese at the most senior levels.”
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