One of Hong Kong’s most senior finance officials is planning to visit the UK in April in the territory’s first ministerial-level trip to the country in three years and a sign of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s quiet reset of UK-China economic relations.
The proposed trip by financial services secretary Christopher Hui is the first since the UK accused China of violating the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the 1984 treaty under which Hong Kong was transferred to Chinese control, and since the UK offered Hongkongers a route to citizenship in the wake of Beijing’s crackdown on the territory.
The planned visit comes as Hong Kong conducts a global charm offensive to restore business ties after lifting pandemic restrictions that effectively severed the city from the rest of the world. The government is attempting to woo back tourists and skilled workers after the Covid-19 curbs and a political crackdown in response to pro-democracy protests in 2019 sparked an exodus of residents.
Hui is set to meet UK officials and business representatives in London, according to two people familiar with preparations for the trip. Hui’s office confirmed he would visit Europe this year but said details “will be announced in due course”.
Relations between the UK and China soured after Beijing imposed a national security law in Hong Kong in 2020 and overhauled how the city was governed to bring it further under central authorities’ control the following year.
In 2021, then-UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s government declared China was not complying with the joint declaration, which was supposed to guarantee Hong Kong “a high degree of autonomy” for 50 years after the territory returned to Beijing’s control in 1997.
China then criticised the UK after it introduced a new immigration route for nearly 3mn Hongkongers and their dependants under the British National Overseas visa scheme, which includes a pathway to citizenship.
UK business has become increasingly concerned about rhetoric from British politicians about China, fearing it will endanger trade ties.
This week, Sunak’s government defined China as an “an epoch-defining challenge” in an update of its foreign and defence policy, and cited China’s growing assertiveness as he finalised a defence pact with the US and Australia in San Diego.
But the language in the policy update was a step back from when Sunak had called China the UK’s “biggest-long term threat” during the Conservative party leadership campaign last year, analysts said.
“There’s a difference between someone not yet governing and now governing,” said Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese studies at King’s College London.
“Sunak is a technocrat trying to work out how to balance these interests with China . . . He’s much more flexible [than his predecessors].”
As chancellor, Sunak spoke in favour of trade ties with China and has suggested he would take an approach to Beijing defined by “robust pragmatism” as the UK faces a multitude of economic challenges.
Chinese authorities have also been attempting to lure back foreign businesses after the zero-Covid containment policy and geopolitical tensions prompted multinationals to consider moving supply chains out of the country.
From Sunday, the Chinese foreign ministry has organised a visit by foreign officials and business figures to four cities in the Greater Bay Area, a ring of mainland cities surrounding Hong Kong populated by more than 70mn people, to tout business opportunities, according to four people familiar with the matter.
Consular officials and business chambers including those representing the UK, Europe and Australia are expected to join a four-day visit to Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Guangzhou and Dongguan. US officials are not planning on attending, citing scheduling conflicts, one person familiar with the matter said.