Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch. He works full-time at the international human rights organisation CSW, which specializes in freedom of religion or belief for all, and also serves as the Deputy Chair of the UK Conservative Party’s Human Rights Commission. He is also on the advisory board of the new Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC).
It seems to me we are on the brink of war. Not a war between nations or peoples, and not a war that necessarily involves military hardware – yet. But a new Cold War, between values. A war between freedom and authoritarianism, between human rights and repression, between the international rules-based system and a winner-takes-all profiteering perspective. And the frontline in this new war is Hong Kong.
A month ago, the Chinese Communist Party regime shocked the world by announcing that it would impose on Hong Kong a national security law that would destroy Hong Kong’s basic freedoms, flagrantly flout an international treaty – the Sino-British Joint Declaration – and decimate Hong Kong’s “high degree of autonomy” under “one country, two systems”.
Democracies scrambled to respond, and their response – to their credit – has not been lacking in vigour. The United States announced that Beijing’s decision rendered their special treatment of Hong Kong as a special autonomous region redundant, since Beijing was so blatantly disregarding Hong Kong’s autonomy. The United Kingdom followed suit by pledging expanded protection for Hong Kong’s British National Overseas (BNO) passport holders, if the security law is imposed, on the basis that China has violated the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Now the European Parliament has passed a resolution calling for a case to be brought at the International Court of Justice against China for violation of the Joint Declaration, targeted sanctions, a UN Special Envoy or Special Rapporteur and a lifeboat policy to offer sanctuary for brave Hong Kong frontline activists who are not BNOs and who may be in grave danger under Beijing’s new security law. It is a resolution that mandates an immediate action plan.
Now Beijing has revealed some of the details of its dreaded new law. And it is appalling. While a full draft is not yet released let alone approved, Chinese State media has let it be known that those convicted of “moderate” violations of the security law in Hong Kong – whatever “moderate” means – may be jailed for three years, and those convicted of “serious” crimes could face five or ten years, or more, in jail. The law suggests that Hong Kong’s Chief Executive – currently Carrie Lam, who has proved herself to be a totally subservient puppet of Beijing – can choose the judges in such cases, and that Beijing will oversee the process. In other words, judicial independence is dead and buried if this goes through and the rule of law becomes a historical fact rather than a present reassurance.
So all the theorizing, positioning and leveraging become no longer a matter of conjecture and now a matter of immediate action. Will the world’s democracies step up?
In plain English, we need everyone – absolutely everyone – who believes in freedom, human rights, democracy, the rule of law – to be all hands on deck. But not in a scattergun, isolated or egotistical way. No. It’s time to unite, coordinate and fight back. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that we are, in relation to Xi Jinping’s regime in mid-2020, how we were in regard to Adolf Hitler’s regime in the late-1930s, or in response to the Soviet Union at various stages of the Cold War. We either dismiss the dangers as Stanley Baldwin did, or we try to appease as Neville Chamberlain did, or we stand true to our values and stand up for freedom – as Winston Churchill did and as Ronald Reagan, in his Berlin Wall speech, the anniversary of which was last week, did. And I know what side I am on.
For that reason, we need to unleash a full volley of reactions. Yesterday I sat with my nephews playing the card game Uno Extreme, where you press a button and a mass of cards comes if you’re unable to cast a card. The current crisis is much more complex but the principle applies. We must marshal all our cards – and ensure we don’t play the wrong one.
That means Britain leading, because Britain has a responsibility to Hong Kong – moral and legal. The Prime Minister should be commended for his op-ed in the South China Morning Post pledging protections for BNOs, and the Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary should be saluted for their historic signals of intent to stand by Hong Kong. But much, much more is needed.
Britain must lead the world in establishing an international contact group to coordinate a global response. “Britain must lead” is indeed the refrain from many, and I agree – but Britain can’t do it alone. A precedent is set by the statements in past weeks by British, Australian, Canadian and US foreign ministers together. And by Japan leading the G7 statement. We need more of this. Why not build on this into an international contact group, as at least seven former foreign secretaries have suggested?
That international contact group should coordinate a lifeboat scheme to provide sanctuary for Hong Kongers who aren’t BNOs who need to escape. Helping Hong Kongers to safety is a moral responsibility – but it should also be remembered that Hong Kongers would bring wealth and entrepreneurialism, and so would be a boost to any economy rather than a burden. But a lifeboat is a last resort, not a first response. So the international contact group should coordinate international diplomatic efforts combined with targeted sanctions that will hit individuals in the Chinese and Hong Kong administrations hard.
And while many may argue that the United Nations lacks teeth, a global effort is needed to secure the establishment of a UN Special Envoy or Special Rapporteur on Hong Kong, to monitor the human rights situation and mediate a solution – as the last Governor Lord Patten, the head of the International Bar Association’s human rights centre Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, the chairs of foreign affairs committees in the parliaments of the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and former UN officials themselves, including the former UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar who is also a former Chair of the UN Committee on the rights of the child, Yanghee Lee, among others, recommend.
The wheels of diplomacy turn slowly and often lack teeth. The impact of individual countries’ actions is limited. But when the world pulls together and acts as one, it can speed up the process and enhance the impact. If the free world values freedom, then it must wake up to the imminent dangers exhibited in Hong Kong – but likely to spread further if allowed to pass unchallenged. This may not be the darkest hour, as things may get darker still. But that the hour to act has come is not in doubt. For as Churchill famously said, “you cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth”. It’s carpe diem time – for Hong Kong, and for freedom.