Gerard Miles is the founder of QV Politics, an organisation dedicated to promoting Compassionate Conservatism at a grassroots level.
The yellow umbrellas of Hong Kong’s protest movement made headlines around the world in 2014. A dignified protest of citizens who were demanding the rights promised to them under the arrangement which saw Hong Kong transition from British to Chinese rule. This was not a group of radicals picking a fight, but rather an assembly of citizens peacefully calling for the state to respect the rules that it had agreed to.
Sadly, like a jealous lover the Chinese state in its quest for control can suffer no rivals. Over time they have slowly eroded the freedoms of the people of Hong Kong and persecuted those who actively lead opposition to them. Three of the great young men of their generation, Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow were imprisoned recently for a crime that they had already once been punished for. That crime is leading the Umbrella Movement; for organising that non-violent assembly of people they had already been given (and completed) a lengthy sentence of community service. In an apparent deliberate attempt to further harass them, the Chinese government has retrospectively appealed their case and in effect found them guilty again and issued a new punishment (in breach of the solid legal principle of double jeopardy, that you cannot be retried again and again for the same offence). The fact that they were punished once for peaceful protest causes anger in the Conservative mind, but the fact that they can (at the command of the state) be effectively re-tried and punished a second time is a cause for howling outrage.
I had the privilege of meeting Nathan Law a year ago, when he came to visit the Houses of Parliament. He is quiet, polite, and extremely young (he was 23 when I met him). He was the first in his family to go to university and was the youngest member ever elected to Hong Kong’s governing body, the Legislative Council. It is the character of the man inside the humble exterior that the Chinese government fear. He is passionate about justice and about protecting the rights guaranteed to Hong Kong citizens under law. Passion without courage, however, is ineffective. Nathan and his colleagues have proved themselves as dignified, immovable opponents, possessing the courage of lions.
One cannot talk about China, though, as if it were some tinpot dictatorship which is easily condemned. They are of course too important strategically, militarily and economically to be casually rebuked. There is a policy of “holding our noses” in the Foreign Office when dealing with certain regimes that we do not agree with, and many voices will quickly rise to say “the world is a bad place, we cannot live in an ideal world”. Hong Kong is necessarily a separate case, as the UK has a direct legal responsibility to the situation.
Through the Sino-British declaration (the treaty which the British Government negotiated and signed to secure the rights of the Hong Kong populace) we have a direct responsibility to the people of Hong Kong that we stand up for the rights and agreements that we ostensibly secured. We therefore have a moral obligation (and, as Conservatives, this phrase should mean something to us) to publicly and loudly condemn these arrests in an international forum just as these 25 international figures have done. Equally, we must champion and support rallies such as the one held outside the Foreign Office organised by Conservative activist Ben Rogers who personally knows all three of the jailed men. If our response to China’s actions is tepid, we will be seen as tepid enthusiasts for our own commitment to Conservative values.
As an ideological cause there are few situations that demand our sympathy in greater measure. Conservatism was born out of the struggle to establish the rights of the individual against the potential tyranny of an overbearing state. The peaceful methods of the Hong Kong protesters are in the greatest traditions of conservative thinking. This is not the radicalism of the French Revolution, which might be rightly feared for its violence and volatile nature. This instead has the marks of the Glorious Revolution that saw power flow without the need for bloodshed. If the Conservative thinkers, activists and MPs of our age cannot speak up in solidarity for the principles that the Umbrella movement stands for, then we cannot ever expect to rule our own country with any moral authority, or perhaps to even call ourselves true Conservatives at all.
Speaking out of course runs the risk for repercussions from the China, who like to punish foreign powers who dare to call out its behaviour. Many will comment that we have should put our self interest above all things. We must rebuke this form of thinking – it is a selfish ideology, that holds no proper place in a modern Conservative Party. History has taught us that one can only truly build a safer, more economically prosperous and more liberal society when we stand by our duties, and we must refuse to put short term gain over our inherent commitment to liberty.