Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. He works for the human rights advocacy organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and was PPC for City of Durham in 2005.
In 1997, just two months after the handover, I moved to Hong Kong. I lived in Hong Kong for the first five years of Chinese rule. Working as a journalist, I began to see the subtle, creeping changes, the “death of a thousand cuts” that Martin Lee, founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, predicted. But overall it appeared that “one country, two systems” was working well.
I never imagined then that we would see anything resembling what we have seen in the past few months. I would not have predicted the mass protests, involving tens of thousands of Hong Kong people of all ages and backgrounds: an 82 year-old Cardinal, Joseph Zen, and an 18 year-old student, Joshua Wong, becoming two of the public faces of the so-called ‘Umbrella revolution’. Nor would I have predicted police brutality, arrests, and the chilling aftermath of the crackdown that has followed. As Cardinal Zen says here, there is something “very ugly” and at the same time “very beautiful” about it.
Writing in the New York Times, Martin Lee says that “at 76 years old, I never expected to be tear-gassed in Hong Kong, my once peaceful home”. But while the tear-gassing, the beatings and the arrests gained some international attention, the more sinister aftermath risks going unnoticed. In Orwellian fashion, authorities are rounding up school students who took part in pro-democracy activities.
At least two 14-year-olds may be taken away from their families and into care – not because there is any problem with their parents, but simply as a political punishment. One 14-year-old girl was sent to a children’s home for drawing chalk flowers on the Lennon Wall, named after references to John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ were drawn.
At the same time, Democratic politician Emily Lau was denied entry into Macau on the grounds that she might threaten public safety. Hong Kong democrats have long been barred from mainland China, but Macau – which returned to Chinese rule two years after Hong Kong – is surprising, and suggests a further turning of the screws on democratic dissent.
It is clear that Beijing is ripping up the concept of ‘one country, two systems’ and abandoning its commitments under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, as the last British Governor Chris Patten sets out here. And Hong Kong’s Chief Executive CY Leung seems to be willingly doing Beijing’s dirty work for them.
Just before Christmas I spoke to Martin Lee. He told me that he and other protest leaders may be charged with unlawful assembly, and that “imprisonment cannot be ruled out”.
Hong Kong, he added, is now ruled “by Communist Party cadres”. Even judges, at all levels, are described by Beijing as “administrators” under the supervision of the Central People’s Government. “This is a departure from the Joint Declaration which provides for an independent judiciary,” Mr Lee told me. “The rule of law is now under attack.”
The entirely peaceful nature of the Umbrella Movement was what has been so impressive. As Cardinal Zen told me, on 28 September the police fired 87 canisters of teargas – “but people just regrouped [peacefully].” Martin Lee confirmed this, claiming the protests were “conducted with love and peace – it was the most peaceful movement and it won the hearts of so many people.” And their determination to find ways to continue the movement, even if not in the streets, is clear.
What has not yet been made clear is whether the international community, and Britain in particular, will at any point find the courage and the principle to stand by Hong Kong. As Martin Lee wrote in the New York Times, “this is a last stand in defence of Hong Kong’s core values, the values that have long set us apart from China: the rule of law, press freedom, good governance, judicial independence and protection for basic human rights….Our future as a free society is at stake.” Hong Kong, he adds, deserves “more vigorous backing from Washington and London,” which, “in their failure to come out strongly in favour of the peaceful democracy protesters, have effectively sided with Beijing in a disgraceful display of power politics.”
Lord Patten agrees, and has criticised Britain for being too soft.
But it is not too late. Even though Britain failed to stand with the protestors when they were on the streets, we can raise a voice now to stop the insidious repercussions they face. Britain has a responsibility to speak up, and it is in our interests to do so too. To prioritise relations with Beijing over safeguarding the rule of law and an open society in Hong Kong would be not only immoral, but profoundly foolish.