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Britain: Hong Kong´s unlikely Savior?

Britain and Hong Kong have a complicated relationship, born of a colonial history, and a unique decolonisation process involving the transfer of sovereignty rather than independence. On July 1st 2020, Beijing inserted newly developed national security legislation (effectively criminalising opposition to the state) directly into Hong Kong law. This presents a new and serious threat to Hong Kong’s status under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ arrangement with China. Britain has responded by offering a pathway to British citizenship to the Hong Kong people – but does this really make Britain Hong Kong’s unlikely saviour?


by Ella Kennedy


Britain colonised and ruled over Hong Kong between 1841 and 1997. During these 150 years, Hong Kong was transformed from a region largely ignored by historians to a major world financial centre boasting the second highest GDP in Asia. At the same time, the region’s ties with China remained strong. Hong Kong offered China a window to the rest of the world, through which goods, overseas remittances and Chinese emigrants flowed. This historic duality is part of what gives modern Hong Kong its extraordinary character – where double-decker buses and a British legal system coexist with traditional Chinese medicine and feng shui. Though Britain undoubtedly helped to put Hong Kong on the world map, it simultaneously imposed colonial rule over the region, alienating and repressing the Chinese population and governing according to foreign values.


Ultimately, with the collapse of the British Empire and the rise of China on the world stage, in 1997 Britain handed Hong Kong back to China. The handover was part of the Sino-British Joint Declaration negotiated by UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang in 1984. This Declaration sets out the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ arrangement, designed to safeguard Hong Kong's existing way of life through a commitment to a high degree of autonomy for the region, and the protection of various rights and freedoms. This arrangement is guaranteed for 50 years following the handover – until 2047.


However, the practical effect of the Joint Declaration is disputed. In 2017, the Chinese Foreign Office declared it an "historical document” that “no longer has any practical significance", arguing that it became legally void after the handover. In contrast, Britain maintains that the Declaration is a "legally binding treaty, registered with the UN and [which] continues to be in force”, and further that “as a co-signatory, the UK government is committed to monitoring its implementation closely”. This inconsistency threatens the status of the Joint Declaration and the principles it protects. The efficacy of international law in general is limited – it is not as if Britain can put China in prison for breaching the agreement. Parties to international agreements must rely on other mechanisms to encourage adherence to the rules, such as political pressure or economic sanctions.


In recent years, the implications of China’s interpretation of the Joint Declaration have become apparent. Beijing has tightened its grip on Hong Kong with the help of Chief Executive (head of the Hong Kong government) Carrie Lam, who is often accused of being Beijing’s puppet. Freedom of speech has been eroded, elected politicians have been banned from the legislature, and abductions of citizens – such as the 2015 Causeway Bay book shop disappearances – have occurred. In 2019, Carrie Lam attempted to introduce a law that would extradite Hong Kong citizens accused of crimes to face trial in Mainland China. This violates the rule of law, as it subjects Hong Kong citizens to the Chinese legal system, which is wholly different to the Hong Kong system (which is built upon English law) and notoriously lacks human rights protection. This proposal triggered 6 months of intense protests in Hong Kong, fuelled also by broader concerns about democracy and police brutality. At its height, an estimated 2 million people took to the streets of Hong Kong to protest – over one quarter of the entire population.


International reactions to the protests were mixed. China condemned the movement and criticized the Hong Kong government’s ‘soft’ response. Historically, China has used extreme measures to quash political protests, as in the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre where Chinese troops in tanks killed thousands of protesters to end the pro-democracy movement. In Britain, media coverage of the protests was patchy, and the government’s response weak. The foreign office pled for an end to the protests, rather than addressing China’s breach of the Joint Declaration, despite their self-declared obligation to uphold the agreement.

The protests ended at the beginning of 2020 as Covid-19 emerged. In the wake of SARS, another form of coronavirus which took hold of Hong Kong in 2003, the city’s response to the new virus was strict and implemented quickly, meaning that the protests could not continue. This marked the beginning of a lull in political unrest in the city. However, this was short-lived. In May 2020, China announced its intention to insert newly developed national security legislation directly into the Basic Law (Hong Kong’s constitution), bypassing the city’s legislature. This sparked a new wave of protests, and was met with desperate opposition from lawmakers, pro-democracy activists and human rights groups. Despite this, the legislation was enacted on July 1st, and is now in effect in Hong Kong.


The legislation, the final draft of which was not published until after it was enacted, targets ‘separatism, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces’. Critics claim that it will be employed against those who oppose the government, and could certainly be used to arrest citizens attempting the kind of protests that occurred in 2019. For example, damaging public transport facilities, as occurred on a large scale during the protests, constitutes terrorism. The new legislation establishes a Beijing-run national security agency in Hong Kong with powers to oversee the implementation of the law, collect national security intelligence, and create ‘agencies’ such as security forces and secret police (which in China regularly harass and intimidate dissidents to the government). It has been confirmed that this agency may extradite a “tiny number” of Hong Kong citizens charged under the new law to face trial in Mainland China (the proposal which triggered the 2019 protests). The new laws also enable Hong Kong’s Chief Executive to appoint judges to national security cases, threatening the independence of the judiciary. Furthermore, in a conflict between the new law and existing Hong Kong law, the new law will prevail – endangering rights like the freedom of expression and assembly, which are protected under Hong Kong law but absent on the Mainland. Conviction under this legislation carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.


Since the enactment of the law, a number of arrests have been made, including of a 15-year-old girl waving a pro-independence flag. Other chilling developments include the disbandment of pro-democracy activist groups in Hong Kong for fear of being targeted by the law, and the requirement that schools in Hong Kong remove all books from their libraries which could violate the new law. Many citizens also report having combed through their online profiles, deleting all publications that could be construed as criticising the government.


The UK government has responded to the passing of the law, which plainly violates the Joint Declaration, by establishing a pathway to British citizenship for Hong Kong citizens. The 6-month stay limit for British National Overseas (BNO) passport holders has been scrapped, and they are now eligible to stay in the UK for 5 years, following which they may apply for settled status, and then British citizenship. The BNO passport was created as part of the handover, and is currently possessed by around 350,000 Hong Kong citizens, though an additional estimated 2.9 million people would be eligible for one.


This offer of citizenship to potentially millions of Hong Kong citizens was surprising, given the government’s feeble response to the 2019 protests, and the anti-immigration policies it is currently developing. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has stressed the government’s moral responsibility to help Hong Kong, and has said that regardless of the influx of immigrants this new policy may bring, this was a “point of principle”. However, on closer inspection the offer is considerably less generous than it first appears.


Firstly, moving to the UK is only possible for the rich and educated – those who can afford to leave their homes and buy plane tickets to move halfway across the world, and who are sufficiently educated to speak good English and secure employment or further education in the UK. Hong Kong is a notoriously unequal city, and Britain’s policy neglects its most vulnerable. Secondly, the BNO passport is not available to those born after 1997 and cannot be passed from holders to their children. Though the dependents of BNO passport holders are able to move to the UK along with their relatives, this makes them reliant on their relatives to leave Hong Kong. As I can confirm having studied at a university in Hong Kong during the protests last year, the protests were largely student-led, particularly in their most radical forms. It is the younger generation which is most opposed to the encroachment of China in Hong Kong, and whose futures will be most affected by it – their elder relatives may not share these views. Thirdly, the UK government has conceded that there is little they could do if China were to forcibly prevent Hong Kong citizens from moving to the UK. Once again, this leaves China with the ultimate power.


More fundamentally, even if all 7.5 million people living in Hong Kong were able to move to the UK, so much more is at risk than just people. The city, with its rich culture and bonkers landscape and electric atmosphere, would be lost under Chinese rule. The cuisine, the language, and the traditions would struggle to survive different parts of the world. The UK government should not accept China’s increasing interference as inevitable, but be fighting to stop the events which are unfolding. Britain is in a unique position, having legal standing from the Joint Declaration to take action against China, as well as a moral duty to step in as the actor which gave China sovereignty over Hong Kong. This would by no means be easy – China is a very powerful country, which limits the willingness of other countries to take action against it. Britain, like much of the rest of the world, will be keen to maintain its trade relations with China. China is also politically defiant – pursuing self-interest without the constraints of international cooperation. However, just because a country is powerful should not mean that it is untouchable. The UK government must gather international support in this battle – no country has the means to defy the whole world.


China’s actions since the handover pose a serious threat to Hong Kong. If the protests last year show anything, it’s that the city won’t go down without a fight. But Hong Kong is too small to defend itself – it needs international support. Britain has a moral and legal obligation to protect its former colony, and though the UK government’s response to the passing of the national security legislation may appear impressive at first glance, it is in fact deeply inadequate. It neglects a large portion of the population, as well as the cultural fabric of the city. Hearing Dominic Raab preach ‘principle’, as if Britain is Hong Kong’s saviour, is an embarrassment. Britain must do more to help Hong Kong.