2020 has been a bad year for democracy in Hong Kong. The new national security law, imposed by Beijing in July, attacks the city’s autonomy and the rights freedoms of Hong Kongers. Police have aggressively cracked down on protesters expressing opposition. In November, some elected legislators were disqualified, leading to widespread resignations from opposition lawmakers. Now the city’s government is apparently seeking to restrict the rights of Hong Kongers to leave their city. These moves were clear violations of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the treaty between the UK and China that guarantees the autonomy of Hong Kong and the rights of its citizens and are part of a wider and deeply troubling crackdown on human rights in China, from Xinjiang to Tibet.
The reality of life on the ground in Hong Kong hit home last week when Lisa Nandy and I met virtually with two high-profile Hong Kong activists: the former student leader Nathan Law, and Ted Hui Chi Fung, the exiled opposition legislator whose family’s bank accounts were recently frozen by HSBC on the instruction of the Chinese authorities, due to his attempts to gain international support for the protesters. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters have fought a courageous campaign to defend democratic values in the face of an increasingly authoritarian Chinese government. They spoke passionately about the recent arrest of their fellow protesters in Hong Kong – Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam – who are facing between seven and 13 months in prison merely for organising a protest. Both are now seeking to settle in the UK.
Nathan and Ted also stressed that they felt that the UK government should be doing more to put pressure China and support Hong Kong. Like us, they recognise that diplomatic condemnation and support for the protesters have not persuaded the Chinese government and Hong Kong executive to change course. So, what further actions should be taken?
First, the UK government should offer additional support for young Hong Kongers who are seeking to settle in Britain. The government has rightly extended the British Nationals (Overseas) scheme, offering a pathway to citizenship, but it has done too little for 18- to 23-year-olds who were born after 1997 and therefore do not qualify for BN(O). The existing Youth Mobility Scheme, the route most commonly signposted by government ministers, fails to offer a clear path to citizenship. Young people are most likely to be leading the defence of democracy, so they deserve UK government support. The Foreign and Home Offices must also work to ensure that the spurious convictions of protesters are not a blockage to their gaining of asylum or citizenship.
Secondly, Labour will continue to call for targeted sanctions against Chinese officials who are directly responsible for human rights violations in Hong Kong. Earlier this month, the government’s updated designations didn’t include the names of any individuals from Hong Kong, or indeed to any other Chinese government officials. Given that other countries have managed to gather evidence and sanction officials, the government’s claim that it needs more time is wearing thin. It is time for action.
Thirdly, the UK government must apply more pressure on British companies who have shamefully supported the national security law, starting with HSBC following its recent freezing of Ted Hui’s accounts. It cannot be right for UK banks, headquartered in London, to be playing a part in the dismantling of Hong Kong’s democracy.
While UK politicians express their outrage, British banks have been actively aiding the Chinese Communist Party. Company executives should instead be standing up for the liberal values that have allowed their businesses to flourish. Chinese officials should recognise that Hong Kong’s success has been built on the ingenuity of its people and the independence of its institutions. They must recognise that a threat to the rule of law is a threat to Hong Kong’s attractiveness for business and investment and its long-term prosperity.
Fourthly, the UK government must have a strategy for the long term. We must rebuild the UK’s international relationships in order to effectively apply economic and political pressure on the Chinese leadership to change its approach. This is a difficult task for this Conservative government, which is struggling with a track record of years of complacent mercantilism towards China that ignored issues of human rights, security and the rule of law. The government should make a priority of working with the Biden administration, our European allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific to coordinate our approaches to Hong Kong.
According to a recent report by the V Dem Institute, for the first time since 2001 authoritarian regimes outnumber the world’s democratic countries – and the number is growing. The protesters in Hong Kong are trying to resist that trend. Britain must stand shoulder to shoulder with them.