Britain puts pressure on Beijing over demonstrations in its former colony

By Denis Hiault, AFP

LONDON — Britain may be first in line to put pressure on Beijing to show restraint over pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, but the former power must not overestimate its influence, 17 years after handing over the territory. London’s reaction has intensified as the “umbrella revolution” — named after the implement pro-democracy supporters have used to shield themselves from tear gas — has grown. The British Foreign Office on Monday called for “constructive discussions,” Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday said he was “deeply concerned” by developments and his deputy Nick Clegg announced his intention to summon China’s ambassador to express “alarm and dismay.” But diplomatic pressure cannot hide one basic fact: “there is nothing that any country can do, let alone Britain, if they (Beijing) choose to repress their people,” Richard Ottoway, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the British lower house of parliament, told AFP. He earlier told the BBC that there may be room for complaint if China does not honor its democratic promises when candidates are selected for the 2017 election to decide the province’s chief executive.

“We can protest, we can ask them to change their minds, but at the end of the day that is all we can do,” he added. Rod Wye, Asia expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, also doubted Britain’s ability to influence Beijing. “What the UK and indeed other governments have to rely on is the power of persuasion,” he told AFP. They must “support the aspirations of the Hong Kong people for more democracy … but the Chinese don’t appear to be in any mood to accept that,” he said. “They have said that Hong Kong is an internal matter for China and nobody else has the right to intervene. So what do you do? That is very problematic.” Even if chances of success are slim, London must still keep up the pressure, according to Athar Hussain, director of the Asian research center at the London School of Economics (LSE).