6 January 2021

The EU should abandon its deal with China’s brutal regime


The arrest today of 53 Hong Kong democrats means only one thing: no one in Hong Kong now is safe.

In the largest single mass round-up of pro-democracy politicians and activists in Hong Kong, the targets were not radical protesters but moderate democrats, pollsters and civil society activists whose only crime – if you can even call it that – was to try to hold an election.

Last summer, in preparation for the Legislative Council elections that should have been held in September, the pro-democracy camp – which consisted of several parties and factions – decided to unite and hold a primary election to streamline the selection of their candidates. At least 600,000 Hong Kongers voted. For this simple democratic act, the organisers and candidates have been charged under the draconian new National Security Law imposed on Hong Kong by the Chinese Communist Party regime last July. 

Long gone is any pretense of the “one country, two systems” enshrined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1997. Beijing has torn up that treaty, and with it Hong Kong’s promised rights and autonomy.

While the arrests today are just the latest in a growing line in recent months, the scale of the crackdown is unprecedented. Not only have moderate pro-democracy former legislators been arrested, but also the likes of Indian Hongkonger Jeffrey Andrews, a social worker who stood as a candidate; law professor Benny Tai, who helped organise the exercise; and American lawyer John Clancey, who had the audacity to serve as treasurer for the organisation that ran the primaries. Six of the organisers of last year’s primary were charged with “organising subversion” and 47 candidates were charged with “participating in subversion”. They could now face years in prison. The message is clear: no matter who you are – radical or moderate, ex-pat, ethnic minority or Cantonese: dare to express an opinion divergent from Beijing’s wishes and the police will come knocking on your door.

Beijing’s puppet henchmen in Hong Kong gave a ludicrous explanation for the arrests. Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-Chiu accused those arrested of “trying to paralyse the government, via their plans to gain a majority of the seats in the legislature”. They dared, in other words, to have the ambition of winning an election, and that, in the new Hong Kong, is a crime.

Hong Kong’s legislature was already controlled by Beijing anyway. Only half the seats are directly elected, while the other half are held by so-called “functional constituencies” representing different professional sectors dominated by pro-Beijing vested interests. Even if the pro-democracy camp had succeeded in maintaining its unity, it would have been unlikely to threaten Beijing’s grip on government.

And in any case, the Legislative Council elections were postponed for a year, with the Covid-19 pandemic as the excuse, and pro-democracy legislators had already been disqualified. The entire pro-democracy camp had already resigned from the legislature. So arresting them now for a primary election that has no bearing on Beijing’s control only serves one purpose: to create not just a “chill” factor but a deep freeze for democracy and human rights in Hong Kong.

At the same time as it cracks down on Hong Kong, we also see the Chinese regime’s game of delay and obfuscation over an investigation into the origins of Covid-19. The World Health Organisation – which is in any case heavily compromised by the Chinese regime – was due to send a team to China to start a long overdue inquiry. Now that team of investigators has been blocked and has had to turn back. Does anyone now really believe that Beijing has nothing to hide?

Looking at the Chinese Communist Party’s behaviour in both these cases, even the most naive of people would realise that Beijing is not an honest broker and cannot be trusted.

And yet the European Union has just signed a major investment deal with these tyrants. Despite the overwhelming evidence of Uyghur forced labour, which arguably is a component of genocide, and despite a resolution from the European Parliament calling for access to the Uyghur concentration camps, sanctions and safeguards for labour rights. Ignoring those concerns, Germany and France rammed through the deal, seemingly with little regard for the EU’s self-proclaimed commitment to freedom and human rights.

The last Governor of Hong Kong, Lord Patten, himself a former EU Commissioner, was absolutely right to describe the deal as “a massive strategic blunder”, especially at a time when incoming US President Joe Biden is seeking to build an international alliance of democracies to confront the Chinese regime’s assault on the international rules-based order. Former European Council President Donald Tusk was also right to tweet today that “the EU and the UK should react together to the Chinese repressions in Hong Kong. Let us show that despite Brexit, we are still a community when it comes to universal rights.”

But for that show of unity to have any meaning, the EU must immediately abandon its shoddy deal with Xi Jinping’s brutal regime, and the British government must put its money where its mouth is and impose long overdue targeted sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong regime officials responsible for this all-out assault on freedom. Rhetoric, however robust, no longer cuts it. It is time to make the Chinese Communist Party leaders and their puppets in Hong Kong feel pain and pay for their crimes. 

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Benedict Rogers 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.