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Why the UK can’t walk away from Hong Kong The former colonial power has a legal and moral responsibility to help bring about a solution to the crisis

A protester in Hong Kong throws a tear gas canister back at police. (Photo by Ivan Shum - Clicks Images/Getty Images)

A protester in Hong Kong throws a tear gas canister back at police. (Photo by Ivan Shum - Clicks Images/Getty Images)

October 1, 2019   5 mins

The Hong Kong protests, which began in June sparked by concerns that a proposed law would have allowed extradition to mainland China, have evolved into a movement for political reform. In the build-up to today’s Chinese National Day they have also become increasingly violent: tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets have been used, an officer fired live ammunition on Sunday, and there have been attacks by pro-Beijing thugs; a small minority of protesters have escalated their actions in response.

Despite being the former colonial power, and therefore with unique historic, legal and moral responsibilities to Hong Kong, the UK has taken a notably more circumspect line on the ongoing protests than many of its allies, including the US, the EU, Canada and Australia.

Hong Kong’s Basic Law falls under Beijing’s authority, but it was established under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, to which Beijing and London are equal signatories. This treaty paved the way for the transfer of sovereignty from the UK to the People’s Republic of China in 1997. As one of the two guarantors, the UK has a legal stake in Hong Kong until 2047, when the provisions of the treaty cease.

Having arranged the transfer of sovereignty of more than six million Hong Kong residents to Communist China — in effect handing back a refugee people to a repressive and authoritarian regime from which they had fled — there is also a strong case that the UK has a moral obligation to ensure that the people are not mistreated. One Country, Two Systems, the central principle of the Joint Declaration, is meant to safeguard the core freedoms and way of life enjoyed by Hong Kong people. It is more than just a guarantee to the business community that the city’s economic system would run free from interference from Communist China. It is also, and more significantly, a guarantee to the Hong Kong people, who denied a say in their future, might still have faith in their future.

Hong Kong is the only former UK colony that has not been allowed to decolonise. Repeated attempts to democratise Hong Kong and to establish genuine self-government, once in the 1950s and twice in the 1960s, were thwarted by Beijing, which then, as now, will not contemplate the existence of a Chinese political system independent of the Chinese Communist Party. Not only did successive UK and colonial governments acquiesce, it is also alleged that UK foreign office officials aided the Chinese in promoting the party narrative, including the rigging of a 1987 public consultation to make it seem as if the people of Hong Kong didn’t care so much about democracy.

What’s more, before 1981, the people of Hong Kong had the right to live and work in the UK. Without consultation, the British Nationality Act ended this, transferring Hong Kong people to a second-tier British National (Overseas) status with neither residency nor working rights. Even worse, even this limited status cannot be passed on to children born after 1997.

In addition to its legal and moral responsibilities, the UK also has a responsibility to safeguard its significant and continuing interests in Hong Kong. There are more than 30,000 UK nationals living in the city, and more than 170,000 British Nationals (Overseas). In August a UK consular employee was detained on what were almost certainly political grounds; and UK businesses, both UK and Hong Kong based, have come under unprecedented political pressure.

Beijing has publicly demanded that Cathay Pacific — under threat of denying their flights into Chinese airspace — provide lists of employees who have privately supported the protests, and then forcing a change in senior management, including the replacing of the company’s chief exectuive, when the company attempted to stay neutral. The company has now sacked employees for expressing support for the protests, including pilots and the head of the cabin crew union.

Other blue-chip UK companies, including Swire and HSBC, have come under similar pressure. State-run media are making no secret that Hong Kong-based UK companies are being targeted. With the Hong Kong public and all levels of businesses in the city facing similar pressures, the capitulation of the UK’s remaining “Hongs” — companies symbolic of Hong Kong — helps foster an environment of fear.

Beijing has also repeatedly made unfounded accusations of the UK (and US) acting as a “black hand” behind the protests. It has publicly refuted the UK’s legal and diplomatic right, in line with international norms, to comment on the situation, and in private has repeatedly ignored requests for meetings. The Chinese Embassy has also threatened the UK with “serious consequences” should it speak out on Hong Kong.

China has changed fundamentally under President Xi. It is increasingly difficult to give China the benefit of doubt as it becomes more assertive, authoritarian and repressive. Beijing publicly acts against UK rights and interests, and attempts to hijack the narrative — the UK’s media regulator, Ofcom, is the latest in a line of regulators to investigate Chinese state-run media over reporting on Hong Kong. A campaign of public misinformation can only be countered publicly: the UK must act to frame public understanding on Hong Kong and present its perspective on UK-China relations.

As a long-time and central player in many international organisations, not least a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the UK has the diplomatic influence, connections and know-how to build and utilise international pressure. This was well demonstrated in the way the UK was able to first confront and then apply pressure to Russia following the Skripal poisonings.

Beijing has unilaterally declared the Joint Declaration, a legally binding international treaty, a “historic document” of no continuing significance, and Hong Kong to be a purely internal issue. It has actively sought to deny other countries from commenting on Hong Kong, and to silence the voices of Hong Kong people even when invited to speak by international bodies; Chinese diplomats routinely interrupt diplomatic proceedings. All of this represents a significant break from the international rules-based system, so a challenge to Beijing’s position on Hong Kong would be keenly resisted.

Domestically, the UK should consider reviewing the status of British Nationals (Overseas), to expand their rights, and the rights of their families. This need not mean residency, but could include a long-stay working visa to provide an option should the situation in Hong Kong continue to worsen. The BNO is more than a passport: it is a form of British national status, and should be an issue for the UK to decide.

The UK has a uniquely important connection to Hong Kong and its people. It is a connection in law, from a shared history and in moral responsibility. It is also a connection through the more than 200,000 British nationals, including BNOs, who continue to live and identify with Hong Kong. UK engagement with the Hong Kong question is not only in the UK’s interest, but is also in the interests of Hong Kong and China, both immediate and in the long term.

An increasingly debt-laden China needs access to international capital markets, and it knows that this is only possible with Hong Kong’s freedom of information and expression, and rule of law. It knows that these freedoms and institutions cannot just be set up or switched on elsewhere on the mainland — trust takes generations to build. And with trust increasingly breaking down in Hong Kong the longer these protests continue, neither the current situation nor a return to the status quo are a viable option any longer.

Evan Fowler writes for the South China Morning Post, China Daily, Asia Sentinel, Süddeutsche Zeitung, the Indo-Pacific Review and others. He is a columnist and co-director of Hong Kong Free Press.


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