Armistice Day 2019 will surely be remembered as a threshold moment in the history of Hong Kong. In the early hours of Monday morning, traffic police fired live rounds into the chests of two protestors at Sai Wan Ho. Instead of putting one of those students into the recovery position, the police manhandled the body of the kid who had been shot, trying to force his limp frame to sit up straight.
Anyone thinking that this was an isolated incident should watch this video of a policeman pepper spraying into the face of already-subdued protester at point blank range. Or this revolting abuse of a pregnant woman. Or this harrowing footage of a policeman raining down blows upon the head of a protestor.
Perhaps most disturbing of all, a policeman on a motorbike deliberately driving into demonstrators on some sort of ISIS-inspired rage, hitting at least one of them. All in a single morning of carnage when violence seemed to consume the entire city. Even universities and churches weren’t safe from the thickening cloud of tear gas engulfing Hong Kong. “Tiannaman Square in slow motion and with a wide angle lens” is the chilling way one local described the situation to me. This might feel like overstatement, but the direction of travel is becoming difficult to deny.
It’s hard to put a finger on what has caused such rapid deterioration. Demonstrators had planned a city-wide strike for November 11. There may have been an order to dispense with police restraint in an effort to shut it down. We don’t know yet. But locals speculate that this is either a way for Lam to delay local elections, scheduled for 24 November, or a pretext for inviting the forces of the Chinese Communist Party in to restore order.
Whatever the rationale, it is hard to see how Beijing’s consideration of a new treason law to clamp down upon protestors will help. Add to this Carrie Lam’s unwise, unjust, and incendiary rhetoric, describing protestors as “enemies of the people”, and the ground is fertile for yet further escalation. With the protestors ever more resolute and Lam unable to face-down Beijing, neither side seems likely to budge.
Where does this leave the UK? Hong Kongers are flooding social media with desperate appeals for help. “How bad do things have to get before you keep your promises to us” is one comment, typical of many thousands.
You can see their point. We signed a treaty which binds us to uphold a ‘high degree of autonomy’ for Hong Kong, together with rights of ‘the person…speech and strike’. Unarguably, these values are under grave threat in Hong Kong, and we haven’t exactly been chomping at the bit to defend them.
The Foreign Office has only just dropped the now patently absurd line that “One country, two systems generally continues to function well”. We’re now taking about the need the need for the Joint Declaration to be respected and for peaceful protest to be adhered to “on both sides”.
Dominic Raab himself has been a bit stronger, saying that the UK won’t look the other way while protestors are beaten. But this hasn’t been backed up with anything concrete. Contrast this with the US, which has no comparable relationship to Hong Kong, but has proposed sanctions legislation with huge bipartisan support. Back in the UK, bipartisanship feels like a pipe-dream. It won’t surprise anyone reading this to learn that Jeremy Corbyn has said nothing to rebuke the advances of yet another Communist State.
So what should we do?
The first thing to understand is that what is going on in Hong Kong is much bigger than the five demands of the pro-democracy activists. It’s about the UK’s future relationship with China and a growing identity crisis at the heart of the rules-based order.
For too long we have allowed Communist China’s economic expansionism to penetrate our universities and research base. We have turned a blind eye to its desire to own our core industries, its determination to control our energy and telecommunications. Only this week, Jingye made a £70 million ‘rescue’ bid for British Steel and was successful.
The International Community is equally culpable, allowing China to increase its presence at the UN and redefine its human rights programmes, vetoing scores of Security Council Resolutions. The Belt-and-Road initiative – China’s massive infrastructural investment project – has already bought the silence of nations which might otherwise have decried the internment of millions of Uyghur Muslims or ripping out and selling of the organs of Falun Gong practitioners.
In a climate of post-Brexit economic uncertainty, no Prime Minister will want to upset China. They are our fifth biggest trading partner. But the time has come to carefully weigh our options around strategic divestment from Chinese business to prevent the balance of our economy tipping towards dependency. Already our universities are finding themselves unable to defend our values for fear of economic reprisals from China.
When the new Prime Minister enters Number Ten next month, he should spell out to China that there will be no deals with Huawei, no control of our nuclear industry, no more infiltration in our university research programmes. We need a values-led China strategy which welcomes trade, but never at the expense of who we are. If this means divestment, then we need to be ready for it.
On Hong Kong, we need legislation to help us to fulfil our clear legal obligations to ‘two systems, one country’. At the moment, there is no protocol setting out what we should do when the Joint Declaration is violated. We need a mechanism to help determine – as objectively as possible – whether a breach has occurred, triggering sanctions and Magnitsky measures where the answer is affirmative.
Then we need to think carefully about how to offer concrete help to Hong Kongers caught up in a desperate battle for the soul of their city. Some have called for British Nationals Overseas passport holders to be given right of abode in the United Kingdom. But this does nothing to help the majority of pro-democracy campaigners, many of whom were born after 1997 and are too young to be eligible.
We should be working towards securing cooperation through the Commonwealth and other willing nations to create an international mechanism to offer all freedom loving Hong Kongers the option of second citizenship and right of abode. The numbers could easily be absorbed internationally, and Hong Kong migrants are known the world over for their extraordinary industry and willingness to assimilate. This proposal already has the backing of 176 UK Parliamentarians of all parties. Obviously, the hope would be that no one has to leave Hong Kong, but I can think of no stronger message for the international community to send to China.
For those who don’t think that these things matter, understand that Xi Jinping’s world view is not ours: China is not a democracy, it is a one Party State which denies free speech, violates human rights with impunity, and upends the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law. Hong Kong is the fault-line between a values system we uphold and one which we reject. We have to defend Hong Kong, not just because of our special responsibility to them, but because of what their struggle represents for us.