Three months ago I tried to visit Hong Kong, to have tea with a few friends. I was refused entry, and despite repeated enquiries as to why, the Hong Kong government refuses to say why.
When the United Kingdom denies entry to foreigners – usually people suspected of involvement with terrorist or extremist activity, coming to preach hatred, engaging in organised crime or individuals seeking asylum on dubious grounds – the standard practice, according to the government’s own website, is that the authorities will inform you why you were refused entry. They will also state whether you can appeal, and when you will be removed from the UK.
Every country has the right to decide who can enter their borders. That’s a principle I accept. But ordinarily, the determination should be made against certain established criteria, which should be transparent and according to the rule of law.
I am a human rights activist, a former Parliamentary candidate, a former journalist and someone who has consistently and vigorously opposed terrorism or any form of extremist activity. Just read my many blogs and articles to know the values I stand for. Google me. You might not agree with my political or religious beliefs, but the charge of “threat to security” will surely strike you as somewhat bizarre?
Shortly after I was refused entry to Hong Kong on 11 October 2017, China’s state media claimed that “It is a common practice for a country to bar the entry of people who are considered a threat to its sovereignty, safety and interests.” In principle, I agree entirely with that statement. I just never imagined I would fit that category.
As has now been very widely reported, I was refused entry to Hong Kong on 11 October on the direct orders of Beijing, and without any explanation.
Here’s the background: I had lived and worked in Hong Kong as a journalist for five years, the first five years of Chinese sovereignty, from 1997-2002. I was just two years short of permanent residency. I have visited Hong Kong several times since leaving in 2002. I was intending to visit Hong Kong in October last year for the simple purpose of meeting old friends and new acquaintances. I was intending to have private breakfast, coffee, lunch, tea and dinner meetings with individuals, to listen to them and hear their perspectives on life in Hong Kong. Simple as that.
Yes, many (not all) of the people I was intending to meet were political actors of one kind or another. Sure, I had arranged to have dinner with my old friends Anson Chan, Martin Lee and Cardinal Zen, meetings with the Civic Party’s Alvin Yeung and the Democrats’ Ted Hui, and tea with new friends from Demosisto and Hong Kong Indigenous. But when the Chinese authorities discovered in advance about my intended visit, I gave them a genuine assurance that I would simply be meeting people privately and would not be delivering any speeches, addressing any protests, visiting any prisons or giving any media interviews. It was, I insisted, an entirely private visit, in a private capacity. I was coming to listen and learn, not to speak.
When I reached the immigration counter, my name was put into the computer and suddenly the computer said no. Officials hurried round, conferred, took me aside, and after a couple of hours, put me back on a plane. The immigration officers themselves behaved impeccably, treated me well and did their duty – and from their body language I knew they were fulfilling their responsibilities reluctantly and with sadness. But they refused, or claimed they were unable, to give me an explanation.
The prominent lawyer Albert Ho was on standby and came to the airport to try to assist me, but by the time he reached Chek Lap Kok I was being put on a flight out of Hong Kong. And so, after my denial of entry, Mr Ho offered to represent me in seeking an explanation from the Hong Kong authorities for this bizarre episode. But explanation came there none.
Albert Ho wrote to the Director of Immigration on 19 and 24 October. The immigration authorities responded with completely inadequate replies, on 23 October and 22 November, and then on 23 December issued a response saying that “we do not feel it necessary to deal with the specific assertions” and “will not comment on or disclose information relating to any individual case”. The full text of the letter is available here.
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam has acknowledged that the decision to deny me entry to Hong Kong was taken by Beijing, and she claims I represent a “foreign affairs” matter. Beijing claims I represent a serious threat to the security and stability of the nation. I simply ask: how does having tea with Alvin Yeung, coffee with Ted Hui, perhaps a beer with some Demosisto activists, and dinner with Anson Chan, Martin Lee, Cardinal Zen and Jimmy Lai amount to a threat to the state? I am owed an explanation.
But far more importantly, the people of Hong Kong – the very people who were denied a chance to meet with me and express their perspectives – deserve an explanation. The British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Minister of State Mark Field have demanded one, as is their right as co-signatories to the Sino-British Joint Declaration. So far all any of us has received is bureaucratic drivel, which further erodes confidence in Hong Kong’s autonomy, rule of law and basic freedoms.
I didn’t set myself up to be a test case of ‘one country, two systems’. I set myself up merely to have a cup of tea or coffee or lunch or dinner with people who could tell me how things were going. By denying me even that opportunity, and refusing to explain why, Beijing and the Hong Kong authorities have shown that Hong Kong’s autonomy is eroding and corroding by the day. I wasn’t trying to start a rebellion. I was just trying to have tea with my friends.