Judges wearing robes and horsehair wigs attend a ceremony to mark the opening of the legal year in Hong Kong on January 13, 2020. Photo: AFP/Philip Fong

Britain’s government has said it is considering reviewing a deal allowing its judges to sit on Hong Kong’s highest court over concerns China is trampling on the semi-autonomous city’s freedoms, drawing a sharp rebuke from Beijing Tuesday.

A sweeping national security law and the purge of pro-democracy lawmakers had raised “serious” questions over China’s pre-handover promise to let Hong Kong maintain certain freedoms and autonomy until 2047, foreign minister Dominic Raab said.

“This has been, and continues to be, the most concerning period in Hong Kong’s post-handover history,” Raab said on Monday in the UK parliament’s latest six-monthly report on the former British colony.

He added he had begun consultations “concerning when to review whether it continues to be appropriate for British judges to sit as non-permanent judges on the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal.”

Under a “One Country, Two Systems” deal, Hong Kong maintained its independent, common law judiciary – viewed as one of the bedrocks of the financial hub’s identity and economic success.

It is a key factor differentiating the city from mainland China, where the opaque legal system is controlled by the Communist Party.

Under the Basic Law – Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – senior judges from common law jurisdictions are able to sit as non-permanent members of the city’s Court of Final Appeal.

If Britain – which handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997 – were to pull its judges, it may add pressure to allies like Australia and Canada to do the same.

‘Colonial mindset’

Western countries say Beijing has prematurely shredded its pre-handover promises with its clampdown, including a broadly worded national security law that was imposed directly on the city in June. 

Beijing on Tuesday accused London of having a “colonial mindset” and “double standards.”

“The UK does not have any supervision powers or so-called moral responsibility towards Hong Kong affairs, and does not have the right to use the Sino-British Joint Declaration to interfere in Hong Kong affairs,” said Zhao Lijian, a foreign ministry spokesman.

“The UK never gave Hong Kong democracy under the colonial regime, today the UK also does not have the qualifications to judge,” he told reporters.

London has angered Beijing by offering Hong Kongers holding British National Overseas passports a route to UK citizenship by relaxing entry and residency requirements. 

It has also suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, one of a number of countries to do so.

China says the security law and prosecution of critics is needed to restore stability after last year’s huge and often violent protests.

Hong Kong’s government dismissed the report as “sweeping attacks and groundless accusations.”