Britain’s response to China’s flagrant breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration has rightly been bold and generous. Bold, in that after too many years of kowtowing to Beijing, Britain has stood up for its values – and responsibilities. Generous, in that a “pathway to citizenship” has been offered to the three million Hong Kongers who hold British National Overseas (BNO) passports.
Although I have been calling on the UK to take a stronger response to the erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong for the past six years, and wish the Government had acted earlier, I welcome both the substance and the change of tone. Even if it is at the eleventh hour, it is better late than never and certainly better to respond at the moment of crisis than not at all. Delivering his statement in Parliament last week, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab sounded like a man reborn, freed from the shackles of his Foreign Office handlers, with a justifiable sense of righteous anger and urgency about him.
But as much as I applaud the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary for their courage, creativity and generosity at this time, the offer to BNOs is not enough. It is not enough because there is more that needs to be done to respond to China, more that needs to be done to safeguard our interests in this intensifying stand-off, and more to do in preparing to welcome those Hongkongers who do choose to come to our shores.
In terms of the immediate response, Britain needs to lead a co-ordinated global response to ensure that, even if the Chinese regime does not change its mind – which is unlikely – it pays the highest possible price for destroying Hong Kong’s promised autonomy and liberties less than halfway through the lifespan of the Joint Declaration, an international treaty lodged at the United Nations.
That response should have three dimensions: punitive, diplomatic and humanitarian. It requires targeted sanctions – not against the people of China or Hong Kong, but against the regime and its affiliated entities. The United States has started on this track and others must follow. It requires a global diplomatic response, including a UN envoy or rapporteur, as a growing number of international figures are suggesting. And it requires a humanitarian response that goes beyond BNOs – a lifeboat rescue scheme that offers those courageous Hong Kong political activists, many of whom are too young to qualify for BNO status, a place of sanctuary.
To coordinate all three actions we need an international contact group, as seven former foreign secretaries have proposed, to ensure that like-minded countries work together. A united response is more likely to hit the leaders in Beijing than a piecemeal approach.
But in addition to these headline, immediate, global strategies, there are some other steps which Britain should take which may appear secondary but are important. And these amount to the following: how to safeguard our freedoms here at home; how to defend our honour; and how to hold to account those who are complicit with the Chinese Communist Party’s assault on freedom.
There are many issues within these themes to address, but four in particular.
First, we must immediately revoke any and all extradition arrangements we have with Hong Kong. Article 38 of the new National Security Law applies, it says, to non-Hongkongers outside Hong Kong. For the past few days since the law came into force I, and many British activists and politicians, have been in daily breach of the law. No one seriously thinks we are in danger – but what about Hongkongers who are currently in the UK, and whom the Chinese embassy in London will be monitoring? Will there be demands for extraditions? The Government must move fast to cut off this avenue, as Canada has already done.
Second, pressure on our academic freedom. The Chinese ambassador in London has already told mainland Chinese students in this country that they are here to serve the “motherland”. In reality, that means the Chinese Communist Party – especially as Beijing has warned of “consequences” for Britain as a result of our BNO offer. And it means they will be under pressure to threaten critics, stifle debate and spread propaganda. Having myself been a target in a small way of such attempts at intimidation, I understand the need to act. But again, people like me can defend ourselves. It is Hongkongers – in our schools and universities – that I fear for.
And why has King’s College London not stripped Hong Kong’s ridiculous Justice Secretary, Teresa Cheng, of her honorary fellowship, despite her enthusiastic support for the national security law before even having read it, her failure to rule out the death penalty and her unhinged attack on Canada after it quite rightly ended its extradition agreement with Hong Kong? It is welcome and long overdue news that Cambridge’s Wolfson College is considering withdrawing Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s honorary fellowship, but more is needed. Anglia Ruskin University got it right when they rid themselves of pro-Beijing thug Junius Ho fairly rapidly – Wolfson and King’s need to do the same. Instead of tearing down the statues of those guilty of injustice in history, shouldn’t we be more worried about honours for contemporary tyrants?
Third, British police officers in Hong Kong should also be held accountable for implementing this unjust, absurd and cruel law? British-born police officers who have been in command positions in the past year who are guilty of systematic, widespread violations of human rights – indiscriminate, disproportionate and extreme violence? Shouldn’t their assets be seized? Shouldn’t they be prosecuted in British courts? Shouldn’t their citizenship be questioned, since they have called into question their loyalties?
Fourth and finally are the banks. HSBC and Standard Chartered have expressed support for Beijing’s new law in Hong Kong. Yet Dominic Raab is clear – as he says, “the rights and the freedoms and our responsibilities in this country to the people of Hong Kong should not be sacrificed on the altar of bankers’ bonuses”. He is right – so what will he do about it? Parliament should at a minimum ask questions of British banks, and consumers and shareholders may wish to take things further.
There’s a related question about whether British judges should continue to sit in Hong Kong’s highest courts, now that a national security law that undercuts judicial independence and cuts out foreign judges is in place. That is something the Chair of the UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee Tom Tugendhat MP and others are rightly asking.
Finally, and to return to the government’s BNO promise: it is generous, it is right, but it needs to be delivered for those who need it, when they do. That means us as a society coming together to prepare. It means the Home Office, other government departments, local authorities co-ordinating to ensure that if Hongkongers do move to the UK they receive a warm welcome. It means civil society also helping Hongkongers settle in, find accommodation, a job, a school, a doctor, trauma counselling and to give them a new start.
One thing I know having lived in Hong Kong and worked with Hongkongers for so many years is that they may need help initially, but they are people of such entrepreneurialism, initiative, dynamism and creativity that having found their feet, they will be a huge asset to our economy and society, not a burden. They will inject into our country the energy with which they built their amazing city into what has been, until now, one of the world’s greatest financial centres.
Great rhetoric and acts of solidarity matter. But detail is even more important. We must ensure that we act now, in concert with others, firstly to prevent a situation where large numbers of Hongkongers have to flee their homes – by pressuring the Chinese regime with such intensity that they think again or pay a high price, holding the guilty to account and offering a lifeline to those in need.
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