Fiona Bruce is MP for Congleton.
As September turns to October, we all begin to dust off our umbrellas. Our unusually dry British summer is turning to autumn and the onset of cold, wet drizzle is inevitable.
The umbrella means something different in Hong Kong. It brings back memories of the fateful events of 28 September 2014, when tear gas rained down on Hong Kong’s peaceful democracy activists.
Today we mark the fourth anniversary of the ‘Umbrella Movement’, an unprecedented 79-day protest in the heart of Hong Kong.
Although hundreds of thousands of people would meet for the annual July 1st march to mark the anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong, never had so many gathered for such a long period of time. The protest carried a clear message: the people of Hong Kong believe in democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, and do not want to see them compromised.
Sadly, the largest sustained pro-democracy protest since handover did not generate the change which its young protagonists sought. In fact, since 2014 the situation in Hong Kong has deteriorated dramatically: young activists have been imprisoned, legally elected legislators have been disqualified from holding or contesting office, a political party faces being banned outright, booksellers have been abducted, freedom of expression in the press and academia has been eroded, and judges have complained of mainland Chinese interference in Hong Kong’s robust and independent judiciary.
In the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s most recent report on Hong Kong Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, raised concern about the “continued pressure” put on the rights and freedoms that were guaranteed in the handover agreement. He said that that recent developments “give cause for concern about respect for rights and freedoms and contribute to a reduction of political plurality in Hong Kong.”
His report was right to make it clear that the Conservative Party and the government both still stand with the people of Hong Kong.
When the British Government, led by a Conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, negotiated the handover agreement with China, we did so on the basis that it would protect the judicial independence and basic freedoms in the city. This was a priority for two reasons: first because it was the desire of the majority of Hong Kongers that their human rights and robust rule of law were protected; but also, because Hong Kong’s rule of law and human rights protections allows the city to be China’s international financial hub, indicating clearly in this case that British interests align with our clear human rights commitments.
Sometimes it seems that China policy faces a tension between human rights and business interests. On one side, you have human rights activists, who say we must make a stand against the imprisonment of human rights lawyers, forced organ harvesting, or the fact that thousands of Muslims have been arbitrarily held in detention camps. On the other side there is the business lobby, pragmatic and seeking that golden ticket: access to Chinese markets.
But whatever the divisions between the business and human rights lobbies on China, when it comes to Hong Kong, these two groups should be on the same team. When the Sino-British Joint Declaration was written, it was designed to both protect the freedoms of the local population and ensure that Hong Kong remained a viable international financial hub.
Unlike what may be the position in other areas in the region, significantly mainland China, in Hong Kong there is robust rule of law for commercial transactions, intellectual property rights are well protected, and there is the freedom of information, movement and capital vital for any financial hub. Hong Kong’s institutions provide the necessary safeguards for this. The independent judiciary mean that businesses know there will be fair play; the semi-democratic legislative council, although far from perfect, has provided a measure of political accountability; and the human rights safeguards makes it an attractive place for expats to live.
These are the key ingredients for international investment, and so the desires of human rights protections for Hong Kong’s local population dovetail nicely with our business interests (and those of Hong Kong) and point to one course of action: that the Government do all they can to protect the integrity of one-country, two-systems.
Hong Kong has a separate seat at the World Trade Organisation, and has not faced tariffs from the Trump government in the US-China trade war because of its unique system. British, American, and Chinese interests in the region are tied to the fate of ‘one-country, two-systems’, and we must not let them be undermined.
The Government recognises this, and the Foreign Secretary said in his recent report that: “I believe that ‘One Country, Two Systems’ continues to be the best arrangement for Hong Kong’s long-term stability and prosperity, and for the city’s reputation as a global financial centre and leading advocate of free trade.”
I want to invite you to join me to continue this conversation at this year’s Conservative Party Conference. The Conservative Party Human Rights Commission have the great privilege of hosting three of the leaders of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong at a fringe meeting, on Sunday 30 September from 12.45-2pm in Hall 11A.
Martin Lee, the ‘grandfather’ of Hong Kong’s democracy movement; Benny Tai, one of Hong Kong’s leading pro-democracy academics; and Nathan Law, one of the student leaders who has been disqualified from Hong Kong’s legislature and jailed, after being elected at the age of 23 as the city’s youngest legislator, are all flying in to share their concerns about the situation and their hopes for a free Hong Kong.
It is not only in our interests to care, but the Sino-British Joint Declaration means that we are legally signed up to make sure that Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms are protected for fifty years after the handover. I hope you will join me in being part of the growing Conservative Party movement committed to the future of Hong Kong.