Global Affairs Opinion UK

Has Britain Forgotten Hong Kong?

When did Hong Kong stop being our problem? I ask as, during a debate on a bill criminalising the “disrespect” of the Chinese national anthem last week, pro-democracy lawmakers were carried out of Hong Kong’s legislative chamber. You can watch the video here. In some ways, it could be almost comical – we’ve all been at Oxford long enough to have seen someone dragged kicking and screaming out of Fever or Park End. But it’s not a joke. It’s terrifying. 

This week, the Chinese Communist Party wants to go further by passing a law through its National People’s Congress that, justifying itself on the grounds of national security, will enable Beijing to base its security and intelligence operations in Hong Kong. This is something previously resisted by the Basic Law established when Britain transferred Hong Kong to China’s authority in 1997. Both of these events come as part of China’s ongoing attempts to throttle Hong Kong’s democracy, whether it be by locking up booksellers, disqualifying elected law-makers from office, or unleashing the People’s Liberation Army on pro-democracy protests last year. In a territory that was British less than three-decades ago, we are seeing the increasing abolition of freedoms that both China and Britain promised to protect. So I ask again: when did Hong Kong stop being our problem?  

1997 seems the obvious date. Once control of the island was handed over to China, there was little Britain could do to help except hope the CCP would stick to the policy of “one country, two systems” as it had promised to. Plainly, it hasn’t. Moves to criminalise what the CCP calls the “disrespect” of its anthem – in fact, largely the booing of it at Hong Kong football matches – and to base its security operations in the country are all parts of attempts to erode Hong Kong’s autonomy. It’s clear as day. Because of our long ties to Hong Kong and our supposed love of liberty (to the extent pro-democracy protestors have been known to wave the Union flag), you’d think Britain would be kicking up more of a fuss. But the sad truth is this country would much rather kowtow to China than criticise it. 

1997 was both the year we handed Hong Kong over to China and the year that Tony Blair and New Labour took office. Since then we have seen a bi-partisan consensus in Britain towards cosying up to China. Whether it’s David Cameron and Nick Clegg apologising for meeting the Dalai Lama in 2012, George Osborne heralding Chinese investment in HS2 and Hinkley Point in 2015, or Boris Johnson allowing Huawei’s involvement in our 5G infrastructure just this year, British governments have been far too willing to ignore China’s abuses both in Hong Kong and on the mainland in the interests of getting a share of her economic might.

Sure, the Foreign Office might put out a tweet or two in solidarity with the demands of Hong Kong’s protests, offering as mealy-mouthed a condemnation of China as it can get away with, but there’s been no willingness to try and decouple ourselves from Beijing. A ready comparison can be drawn with Australia. Our Antipodean cousins went from embracing an influx of Chinese capital to standing up to her after a series of shocking breaches of national security including Chinese-led cyber-attacks and efforts to buy political influence. Australia became the first major nation to bar China from its 5G infrastructure, and has led the way in calling for an inquiry of China’s role in the current crisis. From our government? A few promises to review Huawei’s 5G involvement, but otherwise precious little. 

Hopefully this current crisis can mark a turning point. When we all move on from Zoom pub quizzes and debating whether driving around Durham to test your eyesight is acceptable or not, we will need to hold China to account for its role in this pandemic. It must hold a large deal of responsibility. Leaving aside hypotheses of the virus being cooked up in Chinese laboratories or spreading from unhygienic Wuhan wet markets, it is undoubtedly the case that China repeatedly tried to hide information of the virus and then embarked on a vast PR offensive to muddy the picture of its role. We cannot let Beijing get away with this, especially as it exploits the crisis to tighten the screw on Hong Kong even more. 

What can we do? What is needed is a wholescale rethink of our relationship with Beijing. In the meantime there are various measures we can take to show China that she’s out of order. As well as cancelling Huawei’s involvement, we can call out China for its human rights abuses (especially against the Uyghurs) and seek to recognise Taiwanese independence. There have even been suggestions to grant UK citizenship to all those in Hong Kong born before the handover of power. The government’s recent choice to offer a pathway to UK citizenship for those from Hong Kong who possess a British passport (around 2.9 million) and spend 12 months in the country without a visa is certainly a step in the right direction.

But going further than this is, I fear, a pipe dream. As with all our China policy, the government will talk as tough as it dares, maybe cancel Huawei’s involvement, and then return to the meek and mild status quo. Growing scepticism of China in the Conservative Party shown by the recent formation of a China Research Group by Tory MPs is welcome, but this crisis has shown that far wider-reaching changes in policy are needed fast. Otherwise the story will remain the same. We’ll avert our gaze, take Beijing’s money and let Hong Kong be somebody’s else’s problem. It’s a national disgrace and one that we cannot let go on much longer.