Johnny Patterson: In this critical hour for democracy we must stand with Hong Kong
I remember sitting in a cafe on Hong Kong Island with student journalists in 2018. Even back then they were saying that the political system was broken, and they felt they had no voice.
This April, in a Kowloon Pizza Express, a Student Union President of one of Hong Kong’s leading universities said to me that he wanted to ‘give up on politics’ – not because he did not care, but because he saw no hope: ‘young people feel disenfranchised.’
As Hong Kong’s young protesters have spray painted ‘we have nothing left to lose’ on the city’s walls in recent weeks, and protests are now taking place almost daily, my thoughts have gone back to that conversation.
On Monday, people stayed at home for the city’s first General Strike in over half a century. In recent weeks there have been marches of the city’s civil servants, airport staff, lawyers, nurses and doctors, bankers, students, elderly and mothers.
On June 16, almost two million people – roughly 30 per cent of the city’s population – gathered in 30 degree heat. Last week, they gathered during a typhoon. According to Hong Kong University polling data, trust in the government is at a record low.
While the original protests in Hong Kong were about proposals to allow residents to be extradited to mainland China, the protests now are about a deeper complaint: a collapse in trust in the government and the police force.
One of the key drivers of protest has been the failure of the Hong Kong Police Force. Videos show the police regularly using disproportionate violence against protestors.
A police press conference confirmed they had used more than 160 rubber bullets, 150 sponge bullets and 1,000 tear gas cannisters against protesters since early June.
Furthermore, the police have been criticised for failing to protect protesters from being beaten up by triad and ‘pro-Beijing’ gangsters, which happened in the Hong Kong suburb of Yuen Long on 21 July.
This should matter to us in the United Kingdom. Around the world, the values of freedom and democracy are under threat and Hong Kong’s people are putting their lives on the line for these values.
Since the Umbrella Movement of 2014, there has been a sharp deterioration in the human rights situation in Hong Kong.
Activists have faced disproportionate prison sentences, booksellers critical of mainland China have been abducted, a political party was banned, and legally elected lawmakers have been politically screened and barred from taking their seats in Hong Kong’s semi-democratic Legislative Council.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong faces a housing crisis which is at least partially of the government’s making.
The UK also has a historical duty to stand with people in Hong Kong.
When the United Kingdom handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997, the arrangement was made on the basis that the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong would remain unchanged until 2047.
The handover agreement, the Sino-British Joint Declaration, writes into international law a moral and legal obligation for the United Kingdom to stand up for the freedoms of the people of Hong Kong.
We must keep our word at this critical hour in Hong Kong’s politics. The roots of the trust crisis in Hong Kong has been the erosion of the rights and freedoms in the handover agreement.
The UK government should take every opportunity to publicly state its support for the maintenance of human rights in Hong Kong, and for the progression towards democracy that was promised at the handover.
As a co-signatory to the Joint Declaration, the UK is also considered a leader on this issue and should work with like-minded governments to defend Hong Kong’s freedoms, and encourage the Hong Kong government onto the path to reform.
Post-Brexit, any UK-Hong Kong free trade agreement should include a human rights clause. Hong Kongers have crowd-funded a national advertising campaign which makes this call in British newspapers, and tens of thousands of British citizens have signed multiple petitions calling for this.
People in Hong Kong neither feel that the government acts in the interests of the people, nor that it is meaningfully autonomous from mainland China.
They march because they do not have the normal democratic channels to make their voices heard, their rights are being eroded, and the government is deaf to their pleas. It is vital that we stand with them.
Johnny Patterson is the Director of Hong Kong Watch. The article was first published on Metro UK on 6 Aug 2019.