Why China’s Delegate to King Charles’ Coronation Is Causing Controversy

6 minute read

It was Charles, then the Prince of Wales, who flew to Hong Kong in 1997 to preside over the ceremony handing over the former British colony to China. “Britain is both proud and privileged to have been involved with this success story,” he said. “Proud of the rights and freedoms which Hong Kong people enjoy.” Charles vowed that the U.K. would maintain its interest in Hong Kong and the preservation of the city’s values throughout its 50-year transition into a China-governed territory.

Halfway through those five decades, Charles is set to be crowned King in London on Saturday, May 6. Meanwhile, Hong Kong has experienced a sharp crackdown on civil liberties as Beijing increasingly exerts control. And the man China is sending to attend Charles’ coronation, Vice President Han Zheng, has been a central figure in this decline.

Read More: King Charles’ Coronation Is a ‘Pointless Vanity Parade,’ Says Britain’s Leading Anti-Monarchist

It’s already causing a stir that threatens to overshadow the celebratory proceedings. The last governor of Hong Kong, Lord Chris Patten, told BBC Radio’s World at One on Thursday that Han’s presence at Charles’ coronation is a “stick in the eye” for the more than 160,000 Hong Kong natives living in exile in the U.K. Other British lawmakers have described Han’s expected appearance as “outrageous” and “an insult.” Mark Sabah of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation said to the Daily Mail that allowing Han to attend the King’s coronation is “like inviting your abuser into your own home.”

Who is Han Zheng?

Before being appointed as Xi Jinping’s deputy in early March, Han served as a standing committee member in the ruling Communist Party’s politburo, and he headed the Central Leading Group on Hong Kong and Macau Affairs. Under Han’s leadership, Beijing swiftly expanded its influence over Hong Kong, prompting intense protests in 2019. In response, Han pushed for the implementation of a national security law in 2020 that led to the arrests of activists and critics, an exodus of pro-democracy lawmakers, and a clampdown on the press.

Ryan Neelam, director of the Public Opinion and Foreign Policy Program at the Lowy Institute in Australia and a former diplomat in Hong Kong, said Han’s attendance to such a high-profile function in the U.K. is not unusual, especially given his current role in the Chinese government, for which representing the administration at events overseas is one of the primary duties. “I wouldn’t read too much into this,” Neelam tells TIME. “I think there will be some pressure from the British community and groups of ex-Hongkongers, people focused on Hong Kong and activists in Britain,” he says, but he thinks it’s ultimately unlikely to damage the British-Chinese relationship—though that may already be at a low.

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What’s the state of U.K.-China relations?

Calls for Han to be barred from the coronation are unlikely to be heeded. And he won’t be the only leader criticized for human rights abuses in attendance. Invitations to heads of state and other representatives of foreign nations didn’t come from Buckingham Palace but rather from Westminster, and the British Government has said it welcomes all with whom it has full diplomatic relations, only excluding a select few like Russia, Iran, Belarus, and Myanmar.

While the U.K. and China are important economic partners, ties between the two countries have deteriorated in recent years, particularly as the U.K. has increasingly made moves to align more closely with U.S. foreign policy that tends to view China’s role and influence in global politics with suspicion. Still, the two sides have committed to “engage constructively.”

Regarding Hong Kong, the U.K. government has not shied from emphatically chiding Chinese authorities about the erosion of civil liberties in the city. In a report released in January, Britain’s Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office said Beijing’s actions undermine the Chinese enclave’s autonomy and that “China is diminishing the way of life promised to Hong Kong 25 years ago.” And earlier this week, an inquiry by British parliamentarians denounced the “wholesale decline” of media freedom and the rule of law in Hong Kong since the declaration of the national security law. “The current situation in Hong Kong is a glaring violation of the [1984 treaty with China] that was meant to preserve human rights guarantees cherished by the UK Government,” the inquiry report states.

In response to criticism about Han’s invitation to the coronation this week, James Cleverly, Britain’s foreign minister, told BBC Radio that he hopes to use the occasion to meet with Han, promising to discuss “areas where we have points of criticism.” On Friday, Hong Kong advocacy groups jointly called on Cleverly to speak explicitly on behalf of Hongkongers—particularly those living in the U.K.—instead of focusing more on trade and investment. “The British government should make the UK’s national security and the security of its citizens a priority,” their statement reads.

But no matter how strongly representatives of the British government condemn China at various other times, having Han as a guest at the coronation leaves a sour taste that some can’t help but feel is an intentional move by Beijing. “I think it’s an indication of the fact that no matter how much you grovel to China, and however much you try to give them face, they don’t give a toss about giving us face,” Patten said. “There are, after all, 1.4 billion of them, and they chose to send the guy who’s responsible for breaking their word about Hong Kong.”

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