Britain has appointed a former top envoy to Hong Kong during the “umbrella movement” as its next ambassador to China, a move that comes as London hardens its stance on Beijing amid the row over its former colony.
The appointment of Caroline Wilson – who was consul general to Hong Kong and Macau between 2012 and 2016 – was announced by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) on Monday.
She is expected to take up her ambassadorial role in September, succeeding Barbara Woodward.
Wilson is currently the FCO’s Europe director, in charge of Britain's new diplomatic relationship with the continent in the wake of Brexit.
“It is an incredible opportunity to be asked to represent the UK in China at this critical time,” said Wilson, 49.
“As major economies and leading members of the global community, the UK and China must continue to work together to develop our partnership. I look forward to returning to China to take the relationship forward,” she added.
The relationship is more stormy than she paints, as the stance on China is taking a hard turn within the British Parliament and Downing Street over issues such as 5G technology, coronavirus and most recently the situation in Hong Kong.
“This is an important juncture in the UK’s relationship with China, with both opportunities and challenges,” Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said, praising Wilson as “an outstanding diplomat who will help us navigate the path ahead”.
While top envoy to Hong Kong Wilson reportedly suggested Hong Kong’s pan-democratic lawmakers accept the universal suffrage plan proposed by the Hong Kong and Beijing authorities. That plan, however, was vastly unpopular with the public, as it allowed Beijing to decide who could and could not run for the job of chief executive, despite giving all eligible voters a vote.
The proposal was ultimately voted down in the Hong Kong legislature, after 70-odd days of the Occupy Central movement, more commonly known as the umbrella movement.
At the time when Wilson was finishing her diplomatic posting in Hong Kong, she expressed optimism about “one country, two systems”.
“In any place, there are challenges,” she told an audience of Hongkongers in 2016. “I am absolutely confident that Hong Kong and China will overcome any small challenges and Hong Kong will continue to prosper and flourish.”
The China that Wilson will return to is different from the one she left four years ago, with Beijing expected to impose a national security law on Hong Kong.
Under a new British government visa plan – which will be put in place when Beijing formally enacts the law – all of the 3 million Hongkongers who qualify for a British National (Overseas) passport and their dependents can relocate to the United Kingdom to stay, work or study for extendable periods of 12 months, creating a path to citizenship.
“This would amount to one of the biggest changes in our visa system in British history,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said last month. “If it proves necessary, the British government will take this step and take it willingly.”