Sunday, 17 January 2021

What should Britain do in Hong Kong?

International concern has grown that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) may soon deploy the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) across the border into Hong Kong to suppress twelve weeks of protests by Hong Kongers fearful of the proposed Extradition Bill. Since then, Hong Kongers have continued to reiterate five key demands to their government. Fearing the influence of the PRC, the people of Hong Kong have continued to demand government accountability, the end of police violence, the release of arrested protesters accused of rioting based on flimsy grounds (including a nurse who was tending an injured protester), and genuine autonomy from the PRC.

Quite simply, Hong Kongers fear that if they do not continue to assert their freedoms, their home may very likely become another Xinjiang or Tibet – if not worse. The PRC’s reaction to the uprising gives them a reason to be cautious. Hong Kongers note that some police have stopped displaying police identification numbers on their uniforms as required by law, and speak in Mandarin instead of Cantonese native to Hong Kong. Many wonder whether the PLA is already in Hong Kong, illegally masquerading in the uniforms of the Hong Kong police – to beat up protesters according to their Chinese Communist Party masters’ wishes.

Moreover, the Hong Kong Police have been using tear gas – sometimes expired – on protesters irresponsibly and without restraint, often in densely-populated residential areas with elderly care homes and children. Tear gas containers have also been fired from high buildings. Excessive exposure to tear gas has long-lasting and adverse health effects and expired tear gas contains dangerous chemicals such as cyanide and phosgene.

Further, the police have attacked random onlookers, such as a man out for an evening walk with his son close to his home; have indulged in sexual violence against female protesters by intentionally removing parts of their clothing when they arrest them in public; and have looked the other way when criminal gangs – Triads – loyal to Beijing roam the streets to beat up protesters with bamboo sticks or carry out knife attacks on protesters.

The rule of law in Hong Kong – a legacy of British administration – is slowly being eroded as it is replaced by rule by law.

The people of Hong Kong have the right to demand that their internal constitutional structures are not diluted by the PRC. This is because the United Kingdom (UK) and the PRC together signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984 – an international agreement registered at the United Nations – to begin the transfer of the entire Hong Kong territory to Chinese sovereignty once the British lease of the New Territories expired in 1997. This agreement lasts for 50 years.

The UK has significant leverage over PRC actions in Hong Kong. If further violations of Hong Kongers’ dignity or attempts to enforce PRC legal code in Hong Kong occur, London should begin ratcheting-up pressure on Beijing.

Despite the absurd assertion of the PRC Ambassador to the UK that some British politicians think ‘their hands are still in the colonial days’, and his threat that Britain should ‘refrain from saying or doing anything that interferes or undermines the rule of law in Hong Kong’, developments in the territory remain an inherently British ethical and legal responsibility for at least another 28 years. But the steady erosion of freedom in Hong Kong also requires a collective international response. If the UK truly aspires to be an ‘invisible chain’ linking the world’s democracies, Britain and its allies should begin to speak up in relation to the deteriorating situation in Hong Kong. 

The UK has significant leverage over PRC actions in Hong Kong. If further violations of Hong Kongers’ dignity or attempts to enforce PRC legal code in Hong Kong occur, London should begin ratcheting-up pressure on Beijing. The family of many Hong Kong and Chinese Communist Party officials have foreign citizenship: the husband and children of Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, are British citizens, while as many as 90% of the members of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party have emigrated abroad. If human rights violations continue, the UK should revoke the British citizenship of any individuals concerned on national security grounds and use its new Magnitsky Powers to freeze the British-based assets of those who violate human rights.

More importantly, Hong Kong still enjoys a separate international legal identity in relation to trade. Families connected to the Chinese Communist Party continue to benefit from the trust that Hong Kongers built up around the world and the separate legal identity that Hong Kong and Hong Kongers still share. One key example is that of Meng Wanzhou, the daughter of the Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei. Meng is said to have broken United States sanctions on Iran and she was found in possession of multiple Hong Kong passports concurrently during her arrest.

Moreover, based on Hong Kong’s separate legal entity, the Hong Kong dollar has remained pegged to the United States (US) dollar since 1983, which provided the currency stability compared with the Renminbi. Chinese Communist Party officials derive financial gains from Hong Kong’s separate legal status, consolidating their grip on power, while failing to adhere to other parts of the Hong Kong deal underwritten twenty-five years ago. At some point, it would be silly for the UK and its allies to continue to treat Hong Kong as a legal economic entity separate from the PRC, especially since 2047 is still some years away.

At the same time, the UK could provide support to Hong Kongers by offering – should they want it – full British citizenship to those with British National (Overseas) status. British Nationals (Overseas) should be made an inheritable nationality, and young Hong Kongers born to Hong Kong-British parents after 1997 should be able to retrospectively claim British nationality if they renounce their Chinese nationality. Britain could also prioritise asylum-seeker applications from Hong Kongers who face political persecution and lower the residency requirements for indefinite leave to remain for Hongkongers in line with the settlement scheme for citizens from European Union (EU) countries. 

Should the PRC undertake to quash the protests with military force, the UK should take more robust action to punish the regime in Beijing. This could include immediate cuts to British official development assistance to the PRC, the closing off of Chinese investment in British infrastructure, and other efforts to isolate the PRC diplomatically.

In short, there are many tools the British government could use to signal support for Hong Kong and Hong Kongers and to deter the PRC from rash action. The British stance in the past decades confirmed that Margaret Thatcher, the former Prime Minister, was right to say to Deng Xiaoping, the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, in 1982, that Britain was motivated by its moral obligation to Hong Kong, and not colonialism.

As authoritarian regimes like the PRC seek to push against international norms and ascertain what they can get away with, those who underpin the rules-based international system – such as the UK and its democratic allies – should stand firm in their efforts to prevent them. With the will to do so, and coordination among government departments and international allies, Britain has the power to impose a cost on Beijing for illegal and unethical behaviour in Hong Kong.

  • Milia Hau was one of the authors of the Henry Jackson Society’s recent Hong Kong Report.

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