14 November 2020

China has snuffed out Hong Kong’s freedom – so what next?


More nails were hammered into the coffin of Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy last week, when the Chinese Communist Party issued an edict to disqualify any member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council “if they support Hong Kong independence, refuse to acknowledge China’s sovereignty, ask foreign forces to interfere in the city’s affairs or in other ways threaten national security”. 

Immediately, four of the most moderate pro-democracy legislators were ejected from the legislature. None of them have ever advocated independence, all accept China’s sovereignty, none could ever be regarded by any rational person as a security threat. Their great transgression was to have talked in the past to foreign Parliamentarians, activists and media.

Not surprisingly, all the other pro-democracy legislators resigned en masse in protest and solidarity, removing any opposition from the Legislative Council and rendering the body nothing more than a rubber stamp and a puppet show. It is now simply a local branch of Beijing’s National People’s Congress.

Alvin Yeung, Dennis Kwok, Kenneth Leung and Kwok Ka-ki are far from being radicals. Two are lawyers, one is an accountant, one a doctor. Three of them represent the Civic Party, one of the most moderate pro-democracy groups, and one the Professionals Guild. They worked within the system, simply to defend what was promised to Hong Kong – autonomy, fundamental rights and freedoms and the rule of law. If Beijing can no longer tolerate even their presence in the legislature, then it is clear that Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedom is dead.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has declared Beijing’s move “a clear breach of the legally binding Sino-British Joint Declaration” – a reference to the treaty Margaret Thatcher signed with then Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang in 1984 to pave the way for Hong Kong’s handover. The treaty, lodged at the United Nations, is valid for at least 50 years from the handover – until 2047.

This is the third time Britain has declared a violation of the treaty. It follows the flagrant breach that resulted from the imposition by Beijing of a draconian national security law on Hong Kong in July, which itself tore apart Hong Kong’s civil liberties. This week’s events have killed off any lingering hopes of some democratic checks and balances in the legislature.

As the former British foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind said on Wednesday:

Xi Jinping has now signed the death warrant for ‘two systems in One Country’, which was the vision of his predecessor Deng Xiaoping. We salute the courage of the pro-democracy legislators who have resigned in protest. They are the giants. The Chinese Government are little more than bullies in comparison.”

The last Governor, Lord Patten of Barnes, described the disqualifications and Beijing’s new decree as “yet another example of the Chinese Communist Party trampling on what is left of democracy in Hong Kong”. Once again, he added, “Xi Jinping’s regime has demonstrated its total hostility to democratic accountability, and those who wish to stand up for it.” 

Next steps

But having rightly declared a treaty breach, what should the Foreign Secretary now do?

First, as members of both Houses urged in debates on Thursday, targeted sanctions should be imposed. Beijing and its apparatchiks in Hong Kong must not be allowed to get away with such a flagrant assault on the international rules-based order. Given the brazen way they have broken their promises to Hong Kong, how can anyone ever trust them to abide by any other treaty they have signed? 

The Government’s position is that it does not wish to “speculate” on whom it might apply sanctions to or where, for fear of giving the targets advance warning. There is a certain logic in this, but the element of surprise is long gone anyway, and a robust response from Britain could send a powerful message.

Second, the UK should forget about piecemeal initiatives and lead a co-ordinated global effort – a “coalition of the willing” perhaps, though not in a military sense – that could burst Beijing’s bubble. Western allies and friendly countries in the Asia-Pacific region, such as Japan and South Korea, should form an international contact group. Granted, not all members of such a group would adopt every measure, but they might all be persuaded to pull together a coordinated menu of actions.

Third, while the government’s offer of residency to British National Overseas (BNO) status holders in Hong Kong is extremely generous, we can do more. The UK and its allies should develop a ‘lifeboat’ scheme for younger Hongkongers who don’t have BNO status.

Finally, given that Britain has declared three breaches of the Joint Declaration, are there legal routes we could pursue?

Lawyers generally advise that because the Joint Declaration itself has no legal enforcement mechanism, international legal avenues are closed. But even if a case cannot be brought to the International Court of Justice, or another arbitration mechanism, on the Joint Declaration alone, perhaps a case could be filed for breaches of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. It may be a long shot, but it would be symbolically valuable. China will refuse to recognise or comply, but that throws the ball back into their court – and builds the case internationally that a persistent rule-breaker should not be respected as a rule-maker.

These are some of the options for Mr Raab to consider, several of which have been recommended in a letter to him by ten senior politicians, including two former Foreign Secretaries, three former Cabinet ministers, two frontbench opposition spokespeople and several senior Parliamentarians.

The message is clear. Statements alone, however strongly worded and very welcome, no longer cut it. We need a strategy – combining punitive, diplomatic, legal and humanitarian measures – to help Hongkongers and hold Xi Jinping’s regime accountable. Failure to act with anything more than words will simply embolden Beijing further – and damage Britain’s standing in the world.

Hong Kong was the frontline in the fight for freedom, but not the last frontier. Beijing’s sights are already moving to Taiwan, and encroaching on our own freedoms too. This is no longer a battle for the rights of 7 million Hong Kongers. It’s a fight for freedom itself.

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Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is the co-founder and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.