Britain has a duty to stand up for Hong Kong

Twenty years ago, Hong Kong was handed over to China, on the understanding that its way of life, rule of law and basic freedoms would be protected. ‘One country, two systems’ was the concept designed to describe the unique combination of China’s sovereignty and Hong Kong’s autonomy. The Sino-British Joint Declaration gave Britain a responsibility to monitor the situation in Hong Kong for the first fifty years after the handover. And the prime minister at the time, Sir John Major, told Hong Kongers a year before the handover that “if there were any suggestion of a breach of the Joint Declaration, we would have a duty to pursue every legal and other avenue available to us.” Hong Kong, he promised, “will never have to walk alone”. 

Twenty years on, it is time to make good that promise. In the past few years, ‘one country, two systems’ has been increasingly eroded, Hong Kong’s freedoms threatened and the rule of law undermined. China says the Joint Declaration is an historical document of no relevance. So far, Britain’s response has been tepid. The Foreign Office’s six-monthly reports, which it is required to present to Parliament, have until recently been extraordinarily weak – described by the Governor of Hong Kong Lord Patten as “fairly neutral and … rather anodyne”. The most recent report was somewhat more robust, but that was starting from a rather low bar. The UK, argues Chris Patten, “risks selling its honour” over Hong Kong.

From the imprisonment of peaceful pro-democracy student leaders to the abduction by Chinese security agents of booksellers publishing critiques of China’s leaders, from threats to journalists to attacks on academic freedom, from the disqualification of elected pro-democracy legislators simply for failing to take their oaths properly to censorship of education curricula to remove references to politically sensitive episodes in Chinese history such as the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, all the signs are that Hong Kong’s freedoms are being strangled. A new report by the Henry Jackson Society details the rollback of civil, human and legal rights.

Just under a month ago, I experienced this first-hand when I was denied entry to Hong Kong, on the direct orders of the Chinese government, simply because I had been outspoken on human rights. To my astonishment, I was described as a serious threat to the “sovereignty, safety and interests of the nation”. The next day, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam refused to rule out the possibility that Chris Patten could be banned. On this occasion, the Foreign Secretary’s response was strong and the issue received attention in Parliament, drawing a much-needed spotlight on the threats to Hong Kong’s freedoms.

Two months after the handover, I moved to Hong Kong. I worked for the first five years of Chinese sovereignty as a journalist in the territory, and although I could see some subtle warnings of threats to come – particularly in terms of self-censorship by the media – by and large when I left in 2002 I was confident that 'one country, two systems' was intact. As a journalist, I didn’t expect Hong Kong to fall from 18th in the world in 2002 to 73rd in 2015 in Reporters Without Borders’ world press freedom index. And I certainly never anticipated that fifteen years after I left Hong Kong I would be denied entry to the place I had once called home.

In 2016, the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission held an inquiry into human rights in China, and published a report called The Darkest Moment: The Crackdown on Human Rights in China 2013-2016, in which we included a section on Hong Kong. We received submissions from various activists, academics and politicians in Hong Kong. They all had the same message. “Precious rights and freedoms guaranteed under ‘one country, two systems’, such as freedom of the press, of publication and of academic thought, are being chipped away,” Hong Kong’s former Chief Secretary Anson Chan and the founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party Martin Lee argued in their joint submission. Professor Victoria Tin-bor Hui, Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, agreed, concluding that “most pillars of freedom have been made increasingly hollowed.”

Increasing concerns about the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary have been highlighted. Last month twelve international lawyers, including the former Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer, Lord Carlile QC and the chair of the human rights committee of the Bar Council of England and Wales, Kirsty Brimelow QC, issued a public letter expressing their concerns about the imprisonment of pro-democracy student leaders Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow. They noted that the law under which they were charged, the Public Order Ordinance, has been criticized by the United Nations for “facilitat[ing] excessive restrictions” to basic rights, and argued that it “is incompatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which applies to Hong Kong”. They noted that Hong Kong’s retired Court of Final Appeal judge Kemal Bokhary warned of “storm clouds” over the judiciary five years ago and that in 2014, China issued a White Paper declaring that Beijing has “comprehensive jurisdiction over Hong Kong” – instead of “the high degree of autonomy” provided for in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitution. China also announced that Hong Kong’s judges are merely “administrators” who must love the country and be "subject to oversight by the central government”. In the conclusion of twelve eminent international lawyers, “the independence of the judiciary, a pillar of Hong Kong, risks becoming a charade, at the beck and call of the Chinese Communist Party. Hong Kong’s rule of law and basic freedoms, at the heart of the principle of ‘one country, two systems’, now face grave threats.”

Creeping erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms began slowly some years ago, but it is in the past three years that the situation has deteriorated dramatically. In 2014 China reneged on its promise to allow genuine multi-party democracy and universal suffrage in elections for Chief Executive of Hong Kong in 2017, a decision that sparked the ‘Umbrella Movement’ bringing thousands of protesters on the streets for 79 days. The police responded with teargas, beatings and arrests. Martin Lee described in The New York Times his own experience: “At 76 years old, I never expected to be tear-gassed in Hong Kong, my once peaceful home. Like many of the other tens of thousands of calm and non-violent protestors in the Hong Kong streets …, I was shocked when the pro-democracy crowd was met by throngs of police officers in full riot gear, carrying weapons and wantonly firing canisters of tear gas. After urging the crowd to remain calm under provocation, I got hit by a cloud of the burning fumes. The protesters persevered. They ran away when gassed, washed their faces and returned with raised hands. But the police continued to escalate the crisis. Their aggressive actions hardened the resolve of Hong Kongers, many of them too young to vote, to defend our freedoms. These include the long-promised right to elect our leader.”

The imprisonment of Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow brought the threats to Hong Kong’s freedoms to the world’s attention. Prior to the twelve international lawyers, a group of 25 eminent international politicians, diplomats, activists and religious figures issued an open letter in protest, calling the sentence “a death knell for the rule of law and human rights” in Hong Kong. The three activists’ release on bail earlier this month is a welcome move, and perhaps a sign that international advocacy works and that Hong Kong’s judicial independence is not completely lost. Nevertheless, when they were jailed their colleague Derek Lam said starkly: “In the past, when we chant ‘release political prisoners,’ we’re referring to [those in China] … but now it’s Hong Kong.” As Anson Chan and Martin Lee argue, the Joint Declaration and 'one country, two systems' was meant to guarantee that “no Hong Kong resident would have to fear a midnight knock on the door”. With the abductions and arrests that have happened, they now conclude that “none of us is safe”.

For all these reasons, a new organisation is being launched in London next month to be a voice for Hong Kong and to conduct research, provide briefings and carry out advocacy. With a cross-party group of Patrons including the former Conservative Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown, the former Labour Shadow Foreign Minister Catherine West MP, the cross-bencher Lord Alton and the former chief prosecutor of Slobodan Milosevic Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, the new organisation – to be called Hong Kong Watch – will work to better inform Parliamentarians, the media and the general public about the challenges Hong Kong faces. We believe it is time that Britain lived up to Sir John Major’s promise and to our responsibilities under the Joint Declaration. It is time for Britain to stand up for Hong Kong.

Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is co-founder and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, co-founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch, and served as a member of Bright Blue’s Human Rights Commission.