‘The fate of this generation may once again depend on Britain now’. As the situation in Hong Kong escalates, Donald reflects on the role and responsibilities of the British Government.

For more than half of 2019, the people of Hong Kong were fighting, often risking their future if not lives, for democracy and freedom. And now, in the midst of a global pandemic, they bravely soldier on.

The protests have hit global headlines for so long we almost get tired of them, but the Chinese and Hong Kong governments are showing no sign of even trying to have some regard for the people, and Hongkongers have pretty much exhausted every possible way of fighting.  If, as an international community, we still pride ourselves on embracing the ideals of democracy, human rights and liberty, then it is high time the British government actually honoured its obligations and stood up for Hong Kong.

The foreign ministry in Beijing is used to disciplining the rest of the world not to say anything about Hong Kong, which they say is to ‘interfere with China’s domestic affairs’.    Let alone the fact that what Hong Kong is undergoing is effectively a state-initiated humanitarian crisis, which in itself warrants nothing short of international effort to resolve, the extraordinary history of Hong Kong means at least the British government has a continuing role to play in the city.

Some 35 years ago, the British government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), without consulting at all the people of Hong Kong, signed a joint declaration: in 1997 the then British colony would be handed to CCP, which promised autonomy for the city and that the capitalist system and other human rights protections originally in place would stay for at least 50 years when democracy would also have been gradually achieved.

That did not happen. 

The proposed extradition bill that ignited the protests is one of the many instances where CCP has visibly extended its influence on the supposedly autonomous region.  Since 2014, we have seen dissidents being kidnapped on Hong Kong soil for trial in China, electoral candidates being disqualified for their political opinions, Chinese law enforcement stationing in Hong Kong city centre and, for good measure, CCP’s 2014 decision that any universal suffrage must be subject to its pre-screening. 

These blatant breaches of the promises were committed on Britain’s watch. 

As a co-signatory to the joint declaration, which is an international treaty duly registered at the UN with full legal force, Britain continues to have an interest in the matter.  For one thing, the promise that Hong Kong would be autonomous and democratic was, absurdly, one made to the British government rather than to the Hong Kong people—who were never included in the handover negotiations in the 1980s.  A British intervention into the situation (through diplomacy or, failing which, imposing sanctions for example), therefore, is not only justified but necessary.  We signed a treaty with someone, and they breached it.  Is it not only right that we stand up against them?  Is it not only right that we act and ask them to honour their promises? 

If it is, then how is it any different when it comes to demanding CCP to keep their word to let Hong Kong be free?

But perhaps the more fundamental reason why Britain should act, is her continuing obligations to the people of Hong Kong.  In the run-up to the handover, the government created the British Nationals (Overseas) (BN(O)) nationality for Hong Kong residents who were or would be born before the handover. BN(O) holders do not have full citizenship or the right of abode in the UK, but nonetheless enjoy rights like voting eligibility and consular protection.  In 2015, as many as 3.4m Hong Kong people are BN(O) holders.  In other words, at least 3.4m people in Hong Kong are British nationals.  They are part of the people whom British government is set out to serve, the very reason of the government’s existence at all.  Now these people, these British nationals, are facing problems so grave like police brutality that could actually amount to crimes against humanity — mass arrests of peaceful protesters or even citizens not on protest, plainly unwarranted lethal force by police, almost habitual firing of teargas canisters in residential areas and the like. 

The British government simply cannot turn a blind eye on the dire situation Hong Kong people, some of whom also her people, are facing- I doubt if any government that embraces global peace ever could.  And even for those who don’t hold BN(O), Britain decided their future and handed them to CCP.  Now that their very future is being threatened because of CCP, how has Britain not to be part of the resolution?

So, we know why the government should act.  One may then ask, how? 

Since 1997, the Foreign Secretary has made a report to Parliament on the Hong Kong situation every six months to detail incidents that have had an impact on the implementation of the joint declaration. Disappointingly though, not only have those reports refused to categorically point to violations of the joint declaration— which would appear to be the whole point of government preparing them at all — they serve little more than chronologies of events and occasional expression of concern. 

If anything can be done by the government, it would be first to ditch mere talking and start holding the CCP and individuals accountable for breaches of the joint declaration and of human rights in Hong Kong.  In November 2019, the US Congress passed into law the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and the PROTECT Hong Kong Act, which would allow economic and visa sanctions to be imposed on individuals responsible for human rights infringements in Hong Kong.

Similar discussions are being urged in Taiwan, Canada, Australia and many other places.  While the announcement to develop a ‘sanctions regime to directly address human rights abuse’ in the Queen’s Speech is most welcome, the government should expedite that process especially in relation to Hong Kong.  Also, as with previous discussion in the House of Lords, the government should consider reviewing BN(O) entitlements to truly reflect the heavy responsibilities she has and actually bears towards her people, here at home or overseas.

Lord Patten, last governor of Hong Kong, said that Britain ‘had let down the parents of this generation of democracy activists’ when she decided to leave Hong Kong to the hands of a communist autocracy. 

“I wonder,” he stated, “What has happened to our sense of honour and our sense of responsibility – particularly in Britain. 

“It’s above all a British question.”

Many in Hong Kong now would not disagree.  Thirty-five years after that decision the fate of this generation may once again depend on Britain now. 

Do we want to stand up boldly and champion the right cause, or do we want to once again let down — or perhaps even kill — this generation of Hongkongers with inaction?  And that, is the question Parliament and the government must now ask themselves, however politically and economically inconvenient the honest answer may be.