This afternoon, the House of Commons will debate Hong Kong’s basic freedoms and autonomy. Initiated by Fiona Bruce MP, chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, it is the first debate on Hong Kong in almost two years, and will be followed tomorrow by an oral question in the House of Lords by former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown, who recently visited the territory.
The debate is timely, and long overdue. Timely because last week Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam attacked Paddy Ashdown, and the organisation of which he is a patron and I am a founder, Hong Kong Watch, for “foreign meddling”. Long overdue, because for the past twelve months Hong Kong’s freedoms, the rule of law and autonomy have come under unprecedented assault. It is surprising that last year, when we marked the twentieth anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong, there was no parliamentary debate.
Carrie Lam’s angry rejection of Hong Kong Watch’s report, described by both Lord Ashdown and the last Governor of Hong Kong Lord Patten as an “over-reaction”, highlights an alarming difference of opinion between London and Beijing. Under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, Britain and China have obligations to Hong Kong for the first fifty years after the handover. Britain’s responsibility is to monitor, and speak up for, Hong Kong’s way of life, to ensure that China lives up to its promises to protect “one country, two systems” and the freedoms, human rights and democracy guaranteed under Hong Kong’s Basic Law. And it is surely in China’s own self-interest to do so? Yet last summer China claimed that the Joint Declaration – an international treaty lodged at the United Nations – was an “historical document” which “no longer has any practical significance”.
Few people question China’s sovereignty. What we should question, given a growing pattern of worrying developments, is Hong Kong’s future and China’s reliability. And that raises profound questions – for if China disregards its promises under the Joint Declaration, how can China be trusted to honour its obligations under any other international treaty?
The catalogue of threats to Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy is ever-growing. The abduction of booksellers, including a British citizen, and the abduction, from a Hong Kong hotel, of Chinese billionaire Xiao Jianhua, provide the most shocking examples. Yesterday the New York Times reported that the one bookseller still held in China, Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen and Hong Kong resident, was dragged from a train by plain clothes police in front of Swedish diplomats, despite his supposed release from detention last October. In 2016 Hong Kong’s former Chief Secretary Anson Chan and the founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party Martin Lee said in a joint submission to the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission that the Joint Declaration was meant to guarantee that “no Hong Kong resident would have to fear a midnight knock on the door”. With the abductions, they now conclude that “none of us is safe”.
The decision by a court to disqualify six elected legislators, accused of failing to take their oaths properly, undermines Hong Kong’s limited democracy. Nathan Law, the youngest ever elected legislator in Hong Kong, took his oath perfectly properly and merely added some words from Mahatma Gandhi. To be disqualified for quoting Gandhi is extraordinary. To be required to repay salaries and expenses which they legitimately earned as legislators is absurd.
In August last year, an even greater injustice occurred when Joshua Wong, Alex Chow and Nathan Law, leaders of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, were jailed. Twenty-four hours after their sentencing, a letter signed by 25 international figures, including former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, was released. The signatories concluded that: “The decision by the courts in Hong Kong to sentence three courageous, principled young men to jail yesterday is an outrageous miscarriage of justice, a death knell for Hong Kong’s rule of law and basic human rights, and a severe blow to the principles of “one country, two systems”.”
Two months later, twelve international lawyers, including former Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer and six other Queen’s Counsels, wrote in a statement: “We regard the imprisonment of Joshua Wong, Alex Chow and Nathan Law in Hong Kong as a serious threat to the rule of law.” They argued that: “The law under which they were charged, the Public Order Ordinance, has been criticized by the United Nations for “facilitat[ing] excessive restrictions” to basic rights, and is incompatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which applies to Hong Kong. Human rights organisations have long urged Hong Kong to revise the ordinance.”
A few weeks later, Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow were released on bail and permitted to appeal, but last week Joshua was sent back to prison for three more months on a different charge. And they are far from alone. Writer Kong Tsung-gan believes that “at the heart of the government strategy to keep pro-democracy groups on the defensive and to intimidate ordinary people into not participating in the movement are the 39 legal cases (criminal and civil) it has brought against 26 pro-democracy leaders, as well as prosecutions of dozens of grassroots activists”.
In December the Legislative Council introduced procedural changes which remove legislators’ powers. A new law will criminalise disrespect of China’s national anthem, with a penalty of up to three years in prison. Journalists face physical threats. Hong Kong has fallen to 73rd place in Reporters without Borders’ 2017 world press freedom index, from 18th in 2002. Academic freedom is being curtailed too, as a new report released by Hong Kong Watch on Monday details.
On 11 October last year, I was denied entry to Hong Kong, on Beijing’s orders, in yet another erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy. The incident drew condemnation from the Foreign Secretary, was raised in Parliament, and sparked protests in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council chamber. The Foreign Office Minister Mark Field wrote to Carrie Lam demanding an explanation, and a lawyer, Albert Ho, made representations on my behalf, to no avail. China’s state media called me “a threat to its sovereignty, safety and interests.”
In what has been described by Hong Kong’s Bar Association as “the most retrograde step to date in the implementation of the Basic Law,” China plans to impose mainland law at the new high-speed rail terminus in Hong Kong. The National People’s Congress Standing Committee decided that this co-location arrangement is constitutional, thereby usurping the courts which, under the Basic Law, have exclusive rights to adjudicate cases. The Bar Association has said it is “appalled” by this decision, which “severely undermines public confidence in ‘one country, two systems’ and the rule of law” in Hong Kong.” The Law Society has also spoken out.
Earlier this month the former Secretary-General of the Hong Kong Christian Council, Po Kam-cheong, claimed that China was introducing ‘autocracy’ to Hong Kong and “gradually devouring ‘one country, two systems”. Most ominously, he added, “I never thought that everything in Hong Kong would get better under the Communist Party’s rule, but I couldn’t imagine either that 40 years after the death of Mao Zedong … the spectre of the Cultural Revolution would re-emerge.”
Britain has, as Chris Patten says, “a right and a moral obligation to continue to check on whether China is keeping its side of the bargain” – and risks “selling its honour” if it fails to do so. We must heed the plea from Anson Chan and Martin Lee, who said: “We need the UK to speak up forcefully in defence of the rights and freedoms that distinguish Hong Kong so sharply from the rest of China. If it does not lead, then the future of ‘one country, two systems’ is at best troubled and at worst doomed.” The United Kingdom’s most recent six-monthly report on Hong Kong was much more robust than previous reports, and the Consul-General’s promise this week that Britain will continue to defend “one country, two systems” is very welcome.
I hope that is an indication that we will step up to our responsibilities, speak up for Hong Kong and live up to the promises made by then Prime Minister Sir John Major two years before the handover, who said 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.” He promised that: “Hong Kong will never have to walk alone.”
This article originally appeared on Conservative Home.