Recently in London, I met with two editors at an international publication. Over lunch, while discussing the current situation in Hong Kong, I was told that a respected former civil servant had visited the publishers’ office a few days prior. Their guest was, to use their words, “distraught” and “in quite a state.”
Directly, and with unmistakably clarity and poignancy, they asserted that the Chinese Communist Party was now actively interfering in Hong Kong’s domestic affairs, in a clear and serious breach of the Joint Declaration.
It was also alleged that Chinese Communist Party cells had infiltrated every circle of influence, and – that since the 2014 pro-democracy protests – the screws had been tightened. The establishment and activities of these cells were well documented in Chirstine Loh’s 2010 book Underground Front, so the allegations hardly came as a surprise.
However, the crux of the message was that, in the opinion of many, the situation is deteriorating and Britain had so far failed to respond. Their guest was not someone known for hyperbole. It is also an opinion I happen to share.
The three of us each then expressed disappointment with the paucity of British government policy towards China. Given the weakness and general sense of mediocrity within the current administration, we did not expect this policy to change.
To their credit, few people are more critical of their government than the British. It is this criticism, both reasoned and active, that holds power to account and has made the British political system a model of considered moderation. It is a moderation our politics once shared.
Then I was confronted with an uncomfortable, if not exactly new, proposition. I was told that a retired Foreign Office official involved in the Sino-British negotiations had said, and I quote:“Do you really think the Foreign Office to be so naive [as] to think a country that has never in good faith honoured an international agreement would do so now?”
I asked for clarification, which I received. The implication, as we understood it, was that at least a significant and influential circle in the British delegation that negotiated and signed the Joint Declaration never expected the treaty to be honoured.
My hosts looked at me consolingly. I had clearly let my emotions show.
In my mind was an advert that ran for some time in Hong Kong during the debate in parliament on the issuing of full British nationality to Hong Kong residents. The advert had a picture of a cleanly turned out young boy, of Chinese ethnicity, standing in his school uniform. He wears a white shirt, school tie, jumper and blazer, and carries a school knapsack over one shoulder and a backpack. The advert states:
There is no point in being almost British.
The coins in his pocket bear the impression of the Queen.
On Saturday he plays football.
His school flies the British flag.
He doesn’t think about freedom because he takes it for granted.
He is being raised in the British tradition in a British colony.
He is one of the millions of people for whom Hong Kong is home. And who want to continue living here.
All they want is some form of insurance for the future. And the only form of insurance that means anything to them is the right of abode in Britain.
Otherwise being almost British is like being homeless.
At the time I had a British passport. I still do. And yet this advert touched me, even as a child. “Otherwise being almost British is like being homeless.” I went to school, as did all Hong Kong children, dressed in much the same way as the boy. I did not think about freedom because I took it for granted. And like the boy, I think, I was almost British.
Ad in South China Morning Post, July 1989, shared by Professor Simon Shen on Facebook
"There's no point in being almost British" pic.twitter.com/K6wGj4DotQ
— Kris Cheng (@krislc) December 9, 2016
It has always been galling to know that Britain, a country much of the world still looks up to – with reason – for setting a standard in ethics and behaviour, had secretly negotiated with Beijing the future of six million Hong Kong people.
To some in Hong Kong, this betrayal — this failure to involve Hong Kong people in deciding their own future — lost Britain the moral argument from the start. It is a position that the last governor, Chris Patten, a politician rather than a diplomat, also struggled with.
But to know that the British Foreign Office would sign a treaty handing over six million people to a regime many of them had fled, on guarantees of security and the preservation of their way of life that they had no expectation would be honoured, feels more than a betrayal.
It feels wrong, and it underlines exactly how weak Britain’s negotiating position must have been.
There are those who ask: What could Britain do? And more relevant now, those who also ask: What can Britain do for Hong Kong today?
This year alone, Beijing has issued a statement denying that the Joint Declaration has meaning anymore for Hong Kong; accused British officials and private individuals of interfering in China’s “internal affairs” for merely commenting on Hong Kong; and, just last week, officially asked the British government to end their semi-annual report on Hong Kong, as authorised by the Joint Declaration and in accordance with the Basic Law.
The British government, for its part, continues to at best deliberately underplay and at worst ignore what are serious breaches of the Basic Law. Hong Kong citizens have been abducted while abroad and within Hong Kong territory, and unofficially taken across the border to confess publicly to crimes that are political in nature.
A high profile Chinese tycoon was also kidnapped from the Four Seasons hotel.
The Hong Kong founder of what was the city’s largest online-newspaper – House News – disappeared for four days and then returns to shut down the site and ensure all online content is destroyed. These serious and very public breaches of Hong Kong’s guaranteed autonomy are sadly the tip of an iceberg of change — examples that have led many in Hong Kong to consider carefully the limits placed on their freedom.
Britain may be powerless to affect change directly, but what it can do is call China out. What the British government can do is represent the values of its people, and not just the perceived interests of a naive business lobby that continues to believe the only way to China’s heart is to kow-tow.
As Patten learnt as governor, and in his later relationship as EU Commissioner with Chinese Vice-Premier Zhu Rongji, it is being true to yourself that earns respect, even from those who oppose us.