25 May 2020

In the face of Chinese repression, Britain must fulfil its duty to Hong Kong

By Alex Fraser and Benedict Rogers

This week China’s National People’s Congress will rubber stamp Hong Kong’s National Security Law, effectively ending the city’s special status within the communist state. In bypassing Hong Kong’s legislature and seeking to end the city’s unique freedoms it is a blatant assault on the ‘one country two systems’ principle guaranteed by international law. This power grab has rightly incensed Hong Kong citizens, with thousands attending protests on Sunday, undeterred by the sentencing of pro-democracy activists to four years in prison earlier on in the week.

International condemnation has been swift – an open statement led by former Governor of Hong Kong Lord Patten and former foreign secretary Sir Malcom Rifkind has rapidly gained over 200 signatures from parliamentarians and policymakers from 23 countries. While reports suggest Boris Johnson may be considering providing asylum for Hong Kongers seeking refuge in Britain, much clearer assurances are needed.

The Sino-British Joint Declaration gives Britain a unique role in guaranteeing Hong Kong’s freedoms since its handover to China in 1997. Abdicating this responsibility now would be a historic mistake and a real betrayal of our values and of our promises to the people of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s special status under the ‘one country, two systems’ principle means it enjoys freedoms not found in mainland China. Over the last six years these have been increasingly under threat from Beijing, with pro-democracy activists arrested for peaceful protests, press freedom under attack and pro-democracy legislators and candidates disqualified from the legislature. Pro-Beijing lawmakers are currently proposing criminalising mockery of the national anthem.

Yet even against this grim backdrop the proposed national security law is a drastic change for the worse. The legislation would include draconian punishments for “subversion”, “secession” and “colluding with foreign political forces”. Such categories are left deliberately vague to allow broad interpretation from Beijing’s party-controlled courts.

Under the law Hong Kong would increasingly resemble the mainland, where heavy surveillance means dissent is harshly repressed. Journalists would be under mounting pressure to curb criticism of the government, and the work of international NGOs such as Amnesty International in the city would be under threat. In these conditions one can only fear the worst for religious minorities, democrats and the many other groups who have historically found refuge in Hong Kong from China’s coercive state apparatus. As we saw with the arrest and silencing of doctors who first raised the alarm about the coronavirus, speaking out in China carries heavy consequences.

In choosing to impose this law through the National People’s Congress rather than Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, China is showing scant regard for the Basic Law, the city’s mini constitution. Though Article 23 of the Basic Law does require national security legislation to be introduced – as any responsible government should – it is clear that this should be activated by the Hong Kong government “on its own”, not from Beijing. As the last governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten says, it is “a comprehensive assault on the city’s autonomy, rule of law and fundamental freedoms”.

Britain has a legal and moral duty to act as guarantor for Hong Kong’s freedoms. The Sino-British Joint Declaration enshrined the Basic Law and set out that Hong Kong’s way of life should not be altered for 50 years after handover, until 2047. That both these aspects are being flagrantly disregarded should be cause for Britain to take the issue to the United Nations, where the treaty is lodged.

Perhaps international legal routes could be explored to address grave breaches of this international treaty? After all, Sir John Major promised as prime minister 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”. The Government cannot stand idly by while an international treaty to which Britain is a signatory is wholly ignored by the other side.

The Government also has a duty to act on behalf of the 100,000 holders of British National Overseas (BNO) passports living in Hong Kong. BNO passport holders do not currently have the right to reside in the UK, despite being British nationals. Extending the right of residency to BNO passport holders would provide a vital lifeline for thousands of Hong Kongers and force the Chinese Communist Party to reconsider its plans. This right should be extended to the families of BNO passport holders and younger generations who were unable to apply for this status before handover took place. 

As the crisis in Hong Kong escalates, Britain should also lead the formation of an international contact group of like-minded countries to co-ordinate a global response. A foundation for this is already in place with the joint statement by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and his Australian and Canadian counterparts last week. The invitation should be extended to the United States, European allies and democracies in the region such as Japan, Korea and Indonesia. So often Britain says it cannot do this alone, and other countries say they look to Britain to lead. A formalised international contact group would allow the UK and its allies to speak powerfully with one voice.

As we approach the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, we must think hard about how to prevent a similar atrocity in Hong Kong. The international community should assemble human rights and humanitarian monitors now, rather than waiting until there is blood on the streets.

Hong Kong has long been Asia’s shining example of the fruits of political and economic freedom. This could be soon gone forever. For too long Britain has been at best tepid in its response to the ever-increasing erosion of the city’s autonomy. It must finally recognise its unique responsibility and leverage in holding China to account on Hong Kong. Failure to do so will be a shameful betrayal of our deep ties with the city. Britain must not only act but also lead the international response to this attack on Hong Kong’s freedoms. 

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Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch. Alex Fraser is a researcher in Chinese and Hong Kong affairs.

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