Twenty years on from leaving Hong Kong, Britain risks selling its honour
This opinion piece was written by Benedict Rogers, Chairman of the Trustees at Hong Kong Watch, on 30/6/17 for Conservative Home.
Twenty years ago tomorrow, Britain relinquished sovereignty of Hong Kong, and the Chinese Communist Party took control. As the last governor, Chris Patten, and the Prince of Wales prepared to sail out on the Royal Yacht Britannia, Chinese troops arrived. And as the clock struck midnight on 1 July 1997, Hong Kong became part of China.
And yet although some feared the future, many believed that “one country, two systems”, agreed on by China and Britain, would protect Hong Kong’s way of life. Hong Kong’s constitution, the Basic Law, provides a high degree of autonomy, and the Sino-British Joint Declaration gives the United Kingdom a legal, and moral, responsibility to defend Hong Kong’s freedoms for fifty years.
Two months after the handover, I moved to Hong Kong to begin my first job after university. I lived there for five years, working as a journalist. I did see some early warning signs of the erosion of freedom, but they were more through self-censorship than by the Communist Party’s direct interference. My first job was as editor of an obscure, though respected, management journal, China Staff, published by Euromoney. I managed to get one edition banned in the mainland, by running an interview with Han Dongfang, the former Tiananmen dissident and labour rights activist, as a cover story. I then moved to a new English-language newspaper – a relaunch of the old Hong Kong Standard, as leader writer. The new publication, Hong Kong iMail, positioned itself as a defender of freedom. I wrote editorials critical of Beijing and the Hong Kong government, and for two years got away with it – but, in the end, the paper was bought by a tobacco tycoon keen to expand his interests in the mainland, and I was told I could no longer write anti-Beijing articles. I left.
To say that I saw the writing on the wall, though, is to put it too strongly. At the time of the handover, the founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, the barrister Martin Lee, predicted not an immediate crackdown but a slow erosion of freedoms – “salami tactics”, as he put it. I could see some of the slicing even in the first five years, but I would never have predicted Hong Kong would be in the perilous predicament it is in today. Nor would I have expected Britain to so completely abandon the people of Hong Kong in their hour of need.
Yet that is what has occurred. A year ago, the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission held an inquiry on human rights in China, and released a report – The Darkest Moment: The Crackdown on Human Rights in China 2013-2016 – which includes a chapter on Hong Kong. The former head of Hong Kong’s civil service, Anson Chan, together with Martin Lee, told the Commission that the concept of “one country, two systems” is being “progressively undermined”. Basic rights and freedoms, including freedom of the press, publication, academic thought, are, they said, “being chipped away, while our local government seems to turn a blind eye”.
The erosion has accelerated in the past four years. China’s decision to abandon its promise to allow genuine multi-party democracy and universal suffrage in elections for Chief Executive sparked the ‘Umbrella Movement’, which saw thousands of peaceful protesters take to the streets for 79 days in 2014. Some of the leaders of that movement, including the inspiring student activist Joshua Wong, now face criminal charges and potential prison sentences.
Towards the end of 2015, five Hong Kong booksellers who published books critical of China’s leaders disappeared, one of whom – Lee Po, a British national – was believed to have been abducted by Chinese agents from Hong Kong. Another, Gui Minhai, was kidnapped in Thailand and taken into mainland China. Gui, a Swedish national, is still in detention in China, and his daughter Angela continues to campaign for his release. The local government showed that it does not only turn not just a blind eye to such horrific crimes, but a bended knee to Beijing, as we saw last week when the Communist Party’s newly chosen Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, said it was not appropriate to challenge the central government over these abductions.
Last September, the pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong won 30 seats in Hong Kong’s 70-seat legislative council. Several activists from the Umbrella Movement were elected, including the youngest ever legislator in Hong Kong, 23 year-old Nathan Law. A breath of oxygen was given to Hong Kong’s democracy movement.
Yet, tragically, Beijing and their allies in Hong Kong found ways to snatch hope away within weeks. Two of the newly elected legislators, overcome with a sense of radicalism, failed to take their oaths properly and were stripped of their seats. Four others took their oaths in ways considered to be valid according to existing practices, but which were rendered invalid by the latest interpretation of the Basic Law by the National People’s Congress, which effectively and retrospectively amended a local ordinance, thus criminalising acts which were legal when they were carried out. The case against them is pending the court’s judgment. If the outrageous interpretation is affirmed by the courts, then every freedom or human right guaranteed by the Basic Law is threatened. Beijing is looking for any excuse to deny the pro-democracy movement any space.
Perhaps of most concern is the attack on the rule of law. In April 2016, Kemal Bokhary, a retired judge, said that his warning, made four years previously, of “a storm of unprecedented ferocity” facing the judiciary has now come about. “The things which were second nature to you and I may recede to the back row where judicial independence is eroded,” he added.
Journalists now face physical threats. Hong Kong has fallen to 73rd place in Reporters without Borders’ 2015 world press freedom index, from 18th in 2002. Edward Chin, a hedge fund manager and pro-democracy activist, claims the media is “under heavy attack” from Beijing. Academic freedom is curtailed too.
In all of this, where is Britain? As Patten says, the Joint Declaration gives the United Kingdom a specific responsibility to ensure that China’s promises are upheld. Britain has, he adds says, “a right and a moral obligation to continue to check on whether China is keeping its side of the bargain”. Yet apart from a six-monthly report to Parliament by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office – “a fairly neutral and … rather anodyne document,” in Lord Patten’s words – there is little sign of action, or even interest. The Foreign Office can’t even summon up the courage to meet Angela Gui, a student at Warwick University, to discuss her father Gui Minhai’s abduction. Patten was right when he told the BBC in January that Britain “risks selling its honour” on Hong Kong. We have already sold out the people of Hong Kong; now we’re in the process of selling our soul too.
The Joint Declaration was meant to guarantee that, in Anson Chan and Martin Lee’s words, “no Hong Kong resident would have to fear a midnight knock on the door”. With the abductions that have happened, they now conclude that “none of us is safe”. The time for Britain to defend Hong Kong is long overdue. “We need the UK to speak up forcefully in defence of the rights and freedoms that distinguish Hong Kong so sharply from the rest of China,” Chan and Lee say. “If it does not lead, then the future of ‘one country, two systems’ is at best troubled and at worst doomed.” Will Britain take a stand, belatedly, or will ‘betrayal’ once again be our legacy?