Last Sunday afternoon, within the space of two hours, two friends of mine and I worked together and between us managed to persuade Britain’s former Foreign Secretary, former Speaker of the House of Commons, former leader of the Green Party, former Liberal Party Chief Whip and former Metropolitan police chief to speak out, urgently, for Hong Kong. The next day a North Korean refugee friend organized a statement by North Korean escapees in solidarity with Hong Kong. Specifically, we moved fast to try to put pressure on Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam to avert a Tiananmen-style massacre in Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University.
Why did I spend my Sunday afternoon and evening trying to prevent a crackdown on a group of students who had been throwing Molotov cocktails and bricks in the street? And why did a cross-party group of British dignitaries come together so swiftly to call for restraint?
There are five very simple reasons: because I lived in Hong Kong for the first five years after the handover at the beginning of my working life and as a result I love Hong Kong; because I am a human rights activist and believe passionately in the universal values of freedom and human dignity for everyone, everywhere; because I am British, and I have an old-fashioned belief in Britain’s moral and legal responsibilities; because I have experienced the threat of the Chinese regime’s attempts to silence me, albeit to a tiny degree by comparison with what Hong Kongers face, denying me entry, sending threatening letters to me, my neighbours and my mother, and trying to influence Members of Parliament and my particular political party against me and I refuse to be silenced or to allow China to threaten our own freedoms; and because I am human, and I believe we have a responsibility to each other when human life – and humanity – is at stake.
Now, a cynic might say well human lives are at risk all over the world – are you going to defend them all? In principle, yes I would wish to. Of course in practice, though, one has to pick one’s fights. I pick mine based on a few factors.
Firstly, a personal connection, knowledge and experience. I don’t want to talk about contexts I know nothing about. I do know about Hong Kong, and other parts of Asia, from years working, living in and visiting the region. I have friends, people I have met, people who message me appealing for help, and that adds to my connection.
Secondly, who else is speaking out? If it is a cause celebre, then I am happy to support morally of course. But my guiding motto is to be a “voice for the voiceless”. Five years ago, I felt that almost no one – in Britain at least – was speaking out for Hong Kong apart from the last Governor Chris Patten, and so I began to speak out. For that reason, I founded Hong Kong Watch, because few others were speaking. Today, I am pleased that there are other voices – but we need more to maintain and strengthen momentum.
Thirdly, I am driven by a sense of specific responsibility. There is a general responsibility that I believe every decent, civilized democracy has, to speak up for and defend the universal values of human rights. But in the case of Hong Kong, Britain itself has a very specific moral and legal responsibility. Moral, because of our history together. Legal, because of our obligations under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, an international treaty valid at least until 2047. And we have a particular responsibility to holders of British National Overseas (BNO) passports, to whom we should extend protection and offer sanctuary. We should also work with other nations, including the Commonwealth, to help all Hong Kongers who may need to flee for their lives. And the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary need to speak out personally, publicly, urgently.
And fourthly, I believe we have a particular responsibility to defend human life and human freedom in situations where it is most threatened – cases of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity – and in places where it has until recently existed and been respected and thus represents a frontline of freedom. Hong Kong is today’s frontline of freedom, and if it falls, the threat to our own freedoms comes closer.
Do I condone those throwing Molotov cocktails or attacking policemen? I do not. And we have to be clear about that. On that level, I condemned the rioters in London in 2011 for looting, burning and violence and there is no way I could condone similar actions by Hong Kongers, no matter how much I support their cause.
However, there are two differences. First, the police started the violence in Hong Kong right at the start of the protest movement. The protesters were peaceful, yet they were met with teargas, pepper-spray, batons, rubber bullets and flying beanbags, often at very close range, day after day, week after week. They were described by the police officers as “cockroaches”, language reminiscent of recent genocides. There are allegations of rape and torture in detention. Pro-Beijing gangs, perhaps triads, have been deployed to attack peaceful protesters. Pro-democracy politicians have been brutally assaulted.
So is it any wonder that a minority of them, however unwisely, began to concoct firebombs and catapults in return? The demonstrators called for dialogue, were met with batons, and so some felt so desperate they turned to violence. The reaction is not right, but it must be understandable. And while the protesters’ actions cannot be justified, they must be understood.
Do the kids who have been protesting in Hong Kong want to fight with the police? No. But they do want to defend their way of life, their basic freedoms, their human rights, all of which they see as increasingly threatened by Xi Jinping’s brutal regime. Beijing’s announcement overruling a Hong Kong court’s decision against the ban on face masks is the latest alarming threat to Hong Kong’s rule of law.
That is why the international community must act – not to defend Molotov cocktail throwers, but to insist that the crisis in Hong Kong can only be resolved if there is a de-escalation of violence, a meaningful dialogue, positive steps towards political reform in the city leading to a system based on universal suffrage giving people a say in how they are governed, and an independent inquiry into police brutality with powers to hold those responsible for abuses accountable. Only then can there be any hope for Hong Kong. If these demands continue to be unheeded, Hong Kong is dead.