Hong Kong’s last governor Chris Patten warned Britain that ignoring creeping authoritarianism in its former colony while pursuing trade deals with the People’s Republic of China risked the country losing its honour. It is a question I pondered in my first piece for the Hong Kong Free Press just under three years ago.
In my piece, I praised a few exceptional British parliamentarians who regularly spoke out about freedoms in Hong Kong. One was Labour’s then Shadow Minister Catherine West, although I could have easily named the Conservative’s Fiona Bruce and others. Either way, the point was that these were lone voices on the green benches. I bemoaned the scant attention paid to developments in the city by Fleet Street and the general disinterest amongst the British public outside of the country’s Hong Kong diaspora.
A particular bugbear of mine was the lack of All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG). While not critical for getting things done in Westminster these groups are often a useful forum. How was it that the Isle of Man, with a population of roughly eighty-four thousand, had its own APPG while an economic powerhouse like Hong Kong did not. Well get out the tickertape, Hong Kong has its own APPG. At last!
Unfortunately, the group barely had a chance to get together as the UK was thrown into another General Election the day it launched. Yet the prospects of it providing a valuable forum to discuss Hong Kong and coordinate parliamentary action to support the city’s freedoms looks promising. The most encouraging aspect of this new endeavour is the fresh faces it has attracted to the cause. At its helm is the former Green Party leader Baroness Bennett and Alistair Carmichael from the Liberal Democrats while its ranks include the likes of Bob Seely, Steve Double, and Geraint Davies. In addition, Hong Kong, and more specifically the rights of British Nationals Overseas (BNO) who reside there, has been vocally championed by the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee Tom Tugendhat. On the Labour benches Sarah Champion and Helen Goodman have forensically questioned ministers about the city’s protests. None of them who could be dubbed a usual suspect.
Establishing a new generation of Hong Kong enthusiasts within Britain’s political-class is essential. Westminster has been blessed with passion and expertise from those who lived and worked in Hong Kong under British rule. Yet if these figures are not replaced, as they inevitably step back from public life after years of service, then parliament will be all the poorer for it. The Umbrella movement, and this year’s anti-extradition protests helped replenish these stocks. Now interest must be maintained.
Undoubtedly, there will be a lull. I remember not so long ago UK-based activists reminiscing about the huge crowds which gathered back in 2014 to show solidarity with the city’s unfolding occupations. This was at a time when a typical protest consisted of five guys, a few yellow umbrellas and a boombox with Beyond’s Under A Vast Sky on loop. Admirable stuff, but as I stood waiting for Chief Executive Carrie Lam to enter the Queen Elizabeth II Centre (we never did see her, she must have taken the back door) on a chilly September evening, 2017, I couldn’t suppress the feeling I had missed out on something special three years before. More frustrating still, due to my re-location to Taipei, this year I missed out on the similarly spectacular solidarity protests which broke out across my home country.
From what I saw from social media turnout at these rallies across the length and breathe of the UK were impressive. This momentum must be sustained and fortunately, now, there are the groups to do it. Since the Umbrella movement a number of groups have popped up on the UK scene including Democracy for Hong Kong (D4HK), Hong Kong Watch (HKW) and most recently Stand With Hong Kong (SWHK). (Here I should add a small disclaimer. I am a co-founder and patron of HKW although, as with all my writings, I speak for myself in this article). These groups will keep activists engaged and the media interested. While ensuring the British government and the Foreign Office cannot sell its honour. A steady stream of questioning and reporting will ensure Hongkongers will never have to walk alone (to steal a phrase from the former-Prime Minister John Major, who I presume nicked it himself off Liverpool Football Club). More importantly, Beijing will know that the eyes of the international community are watching them too.
This includes the good old British public who, thanks to polling commissioned by HKW and Friends of Hong Kong, we know care about developments in their country’s former colony. Nearly half of those surveyed believe “the UK has a moral duty of care towards the people of Hong Kong” compared to 17% who disagreed. More than half responded that they were “concerned about China trying to undermine Hong Kong’s self-rule”. While 40% believed the UK should be doing more to preserve self-rule and freedoms. A figure which was more than double than those who said they did not. This is welcome news.
Although a better question may have linked Britain speaking up to doing less trade with China. As doing the right thing is not always a win-win. With this, you might have got some more honest answers. After all, it is all too easy to say yes to standing up for freedoms if you are not considering the costs. Back in 2017 Free Tibet (again another disclaimer: I used to work for this organisation too) asked the British public if: “it is more important for the UK to help protect human rights in other countries, even if this damages the UK economy”. Unsurprisingly, here we see a less idealistic picture of the public with only 26% agreeing, half the number of those who believed in putting trade first.
However, the recent polls on Hong Kong by ComRes do throw up a few surprising finds which may give you cause for cheer. As many readers may be aware the UK is currently Brexitting, and one of the main reason which spurred on a Leave vote on 23 June 2016 was concerns about immigration. Yet, when asked about “offering political asylum to those from Hong Kong who request it” and “extending the right to live in the UK to any British National (Overseas) passport holder from Hong Kong”, 48% and 46% of respondents supported these measures respectively. While those opposing these acts of altruism were much lower.
These are just two practical measures which are, according to reports, being hotly debated about between the Home Office and the Foreign Office. Britain should do the right thing and take advantage of the goodwill amongst the British public – both steps would go a long way to ensuring the country maintain its honour.