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The UK Has Failed to Stand by Hong Kong

On the 25th anniversary of the UK’s handover of Hong Kong to China, it’s worth reflecting how consecutive UK governments failed the people of the territory, and failed to hold Beijing to account for its violations of treat commitments.

Betrayal: a protester waves a UK flag at the entrance of the LegCo complex in Hong Kong in 2019. Image: SOPA Images / Alamy

A political mentor once told me that ‘the essence of activism is overstatement’. Since then, I’ve winced inwardly whenever I have been called a human rights activist, as if the title implies a lack of credibility or the pursuit of some half-way disreputable profession.

And so to a piece I wrote for The Telegraph in October 2019 – a lifetime ago in the history of its subject: ‘The collapse of democracy in Hong Kong reveals the anatomy of a British Betrayal’. I was criticised at the time by some of my more dove-ish colleagues for lacking nuance. ‘Hardly our fault China’s breaking a treaty’, they argued.

Naturally this was cause for some reflection. Had I overstated the case and fallen foul of my mentor’s withering description of activism? Could the UK really be described as having betrayed Hong Kong?

Betrayal is a strong word, no doubt. Merriam Webster defines betrayal as ‘violation of a person’s trust or confidence, of a moral standard’.

I’d be struggling to think of a more apt description for the way the UK has conducted itself towards Hong Kong. A brief sweep of recent history reveals an ugly litany of perfidies.

Rewind to 1987. According to Jonathan Dimbleby, Foreign Office officials rigged a public consultation to make it seem as if Hong Kong had little desire for democracy. This helped the UK in its negotiations with China, as ministers were able to dress up their failure to secure a truly democratic system as representative of public opinion in the city. It wasn’t true, of course, but the truth would have been inconvenient. Hong Kong’s ‘Father of Democracy’ Martin Lee called for an inquiry at the time. His calls were ignored.

Fast forward to 1995, two years before the handover. Chris Patten’s recently published diaries contain numerous other pieces of evidence to add to the picture. One particularly egregious entry:

  • There was clearly an agreement that we wouldn’t increase the number of directly elected legislators in 1995, but there were also some ambiguous exchanges about the composition of the election committee. It’s all a bit like the Court of Final Appeal – done behind Hong Kong’s back.

‘Behind Hong Kong’s back’. Sounds a lot like betrayal to me. There are many more examples blighting our diplomatic record. Actions like these laid the ground for what is happening now. We told the world that the Sino-British Joint Declaration was a diplomatic feat, and so it seemed. Yet a closer look reveals that the settlement we achieved for Hong Kong was far from what it really wanted. Worse, it was extremely precarious, as its premature death shows.

The correct response to a treaty breach is to seek redress, not merely to admit defeat and open one’s borders to those suffering from the breach, however human this may appear

We weaned the people of Hong Kong on the intoxicating milk of freedom, set running a 50-year time bomb, and ran for the hills.

This wouldn’t be so bad if the demise of the Joint Declaration had passed with some pushback. It was, after all, a treaty with all the force of international law, lodged at the UN. But the UK has done nothing – and I mean nothing – to hold China to account, barring some concerned tweeting and a couple of characteristically restrained lines from the Despatch Box.

But what about the British National (Overseas) scheme, which allows millions of Hong Kongers to come and work in the UK for years and then eventually apply for permanent residence and full UK citizenship? It is certainly generous, and deserves the acclaim it has received.

But the visa scheme is not a substitute for accountability. Beijing broke a treaty. The correct response to a treaty breach is to seek redress, not merely to admit defeat and open one’s borders to those suffering from the breach, however human this may appear.

Normally, when a country unilaterally breaks a treaty, the other party attempts to lodge an objection under the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. The UK has not done this. Given the Joint Declaration was lodged at the UN, the UK could have sought redress through UN mechanisms, however remote the possibility of success. The UK has not done this either.

Aside from these more symbolic actions, economic steps could have been taken. The US, for example, which has nothing like our historical connection with Hong Kong, has sanctioned key officials, downgraded the special economic status of the city, and imposed investment screening and export controls. The UK has not taken any of these steps.

The typical retort here is that the UK isn’t what it used to be, and is powerless to do much. What possible value might there be in the UK pursuing redress through international institutions when it will almost certainly fail? It would damage the bilateral relationship pointlessly. In a similar vein, our economy is too weak to attempt unilateral sanctions, which would hurt us more than Beijing.

It is one thing to have failed to achieve a settlement worthy of the city, and quite another to fail to even attempt to hold Beijing accountable for utterly destroying that settlement

These arguments seem like they have force, until you consider the alternative: impunity. Worse than impunity, in fact. Far from holding Beijing to account for its various violations, we have rewarded them by seeking to increase bilateral trade. This sends the signal that our values aren’t worth defending – that authoritarians can break our laws knowing very well that nothing will be done, and that they might even receive a trade dividend.

This isn’t idealism. The international rules which govern trade and rights – upon which we all depend – are coming under serious pressure. Beijing breaks the rules because it knows it can. And talking down the UK’s influence to justify our hunger for trade is the ugliest of the dove-ish tropes.

The reality, of course, is that the UK has more than enough geopolitical clout to galvanise international partners to hold China to account, as has been demonstrated in abundance during the Ukraine crisis.

China was not the only party to make promises under the ill-fated treaty. We also promised to uphold the way of life and high degree of autonomy enjoyed by the people of Hong Kong. We have not succeeded in honouring these promises. The Joint Declaration has 25 years left to run, but in today’s Hong Kong, people are in prison for lighting candles in memory of Tiananmen, and the Five Star emblem sits above Hong Kong Bauhinia in the LegCo. Call that what you like, but a high degree of autonomy it is not.

It is one thing to have failed to achieve a settlement worthy of the city, and quite another to fail to even attempt to hold Beijing accountable for utterly destroying that settlement, however imperfect.

If this isn’t betrayal, I don’t know what is. Hong Kongers deserved better.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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