Defence & Foreign Policy Opinion Politics & Protest

The collapse of democracy in Hong Kong is the story of a very British betrayal

By Luke de Pulford

The 70th anniversary of Chinese Communism passed with all the militarised bravado anticipated. How tragically appropriate that the event will be remembered not for China’s muscle-flexing, but for the shooting in the chest of a Hong Kong protester at point-blank range. This is just the latest betrayal of millions of Chinese who 30 years ago saw a false dawn of freedom ended in the massacre of Tiananmen Square. But it’s not only Beijing who is guilty of betrayal.

“One country, two systems” is perishing. A close look at its decomposition reveals the anatomy of a very British betrayal. And like most betrayals, the effects of our sins are felt far beyond our own consciences. I write from Taipei where Britain’s abandonment of Hong Kong feels very real indeed.

1997 Handover

The 1997 handover. File photo: GovHK.

Hong Kong was not a latter-day acquisition for the Empire. The territory became a Crown Colony in 1842 while the Qing dynasty was still reigning. For context, this was the same year that Queen Victoria first used a train. That’s 177 years of relationship with only a short hiatus during the Japanese occupation. Who would have believed that 17 decades after the Treaty of Nanjing, the Union Jack would be hoisted in defiance of Beijing by protesters proclaiming “I am not Chinese” in full-throated unison?

Unarguably – and unlike so many other colonies – a profound cultural symbiosis between Britain and Hong Kong was realised. But, in their hour of need, what does Hong Kong have to show for it?

Sixteen successive weeks of mass protest have yielded very little indeed from Her Majesty’s Government. Ministers seem to believe that gesturing in the direction of the Sino British Joint Declaration will absolve us of our responsibilities. This in spite of the fact that senior Chinese officials consider the Declaration “void” and widely disregard it. Former Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt was strong in his condemnation, but our recent efforts to secure an insurance policy for the people of Hong Kong – backed by 171 peers and MPs – have been ignored. Meanwhile, the US, whose relationship to Hong Kong is wholly incomparable to ours, is fast-tracking the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act with bipartisan support.

uk british flag consulate

Protesters holding the British flags outside the British Consulate-General building on September 15. Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

The betrayal has had a long gestation. Prior to 1981, the people of Hong Kong had the right to live and work in the UK. The British Nationality Act crudely and cruelly put a stop to that, against the wishes of Hong Kongers and with no consultation, embedding resentment which has been seething ever since.

The much-vaunted “two systems” compromise was a feat of diplomacy, no doubt. But it wasn’t without controversy. Jonathan Dimbleby’s definitive work “The Last Governor” alleges that Foreign Office officials colluded with China to rig a 1987 public consultation to make it seem as if the people of Hong Kong didn’t care so much about democracy after all, thereby enabling ministers to wriggle out of their commitment to secure more representative government for the Special Administrative Region. Chris Patten was apparently unaware of this until after his departure. Martin Lee, the father of democracy in Hong Kong, called for a Parliamentary inquiry. Those calls were ignored.

It gets worse. Five long years ago, the then-chair of the Committee on Arms Export Controls, Sir John Stanley, wrote to Vince Cable to ask whether tear gas made in the UK was being used against peaceful demonstrators. The answer, of course, was yes, to the tune of 14,000 rounds at a cost of HK$13.8 million. Fast forward to 2019 and these are the very weapons being used to suffocate democracy in a campaign of indiscriminate and excessive force.

uk solidarity august 17 china extradition (1)

Photo: HKFP.

As if that wasn’t bad enough the UK Government allowed the export of spying equipment to Hong Kong authorities just weeks before they launched a crackdown against activists. Between January and March 2019 an export licence for £1.9m of “telecommunications interception equipment” to Hong Kong was approved. What guarantee did the UK seek that these tools would not be used against pro-democracy activists? Go whistle.

Far from sticking up for Hong Kong, far from honouring our own moral and legal obligations, the UK’s prioritisation of trade over human rights has resulted in our propping up efforts to subdue people who are fighting for values that we purport to share, many of whom are classed as British Nationals. We withdrew from them the lifeline of right of abode, we fiddled an agreement which left them exposed and which the people of Hong Kong always believed was doomed to failure, and now we supply the instruments of their oppression.

The UK has an opportunity to right these historic wrongs by securing second citizenship and abode for Hong Kong citizens, with the agreement of other nations if needs be. If we carry on the way we have, history will not merely show that we looked the other way as democracy and human rights were eroded in the fall of Hong Kong, but that we were complicit in it.


Luke de Pulford is Director of the Arise Foundation and sits on the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.

The collapse of democracy in Hong Kong is the story of a very British betrayal