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One year after Hong Kong's National Security Law, the UK government needs to up its game

4 min read

Consecutive Conservative governments have been naïve and complacent in their approach to relations with China. The UK must take a much firmer stand against China on the international stage.

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the unilateral imposition of the National Security Law by the Chinese government on Hong Kong. As expected, the legislation has been used nefariously to crush democracy and undermine the principle of “one country, two systems".

Pro-democracy activists, protesters, politicians and journalists live in fear that they could be prosecuted at any moment. Meanwhile, key figures who have spoken out against Beijing – like Apple Daily owner Jimmy Lai – face a barrage of charges and targeted campaigns of state harassment.

The law has been used to silence the media, deter anyone from expressing disagreement with the authorities and supress the possibility of free and fair elections. The trials which are held for charges under the law are farcical, with lawyers and judges hand-selected by the Hong Kong authorities and defendants being refused a jury. This has led to a system of public prosecutions that is almost indistinguishable from that in China, with its ominous 99% conviction rate.

The National Security Law’s introduction, followed by its implementation, has resulted in numerous brazen breaches of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the binding bilateral treaty agreed by the UK and China about Hong Kong’s governance.

Meanwhile the Chinese Communist Party leadership’s contempt for Hong Kong’s Basic Law has meant that opposition lawmakers have been unceremoniously removed. These breaches of international law should have been met with a co-ordinated international response led by the UK in order to apply pressure on the Chinese government to change its behaviour, yet the response has been too weak.

The British government has yet to sanction a single Hong Kong official

The Labour Party welcomes the introduction by the UK government of this British National (Overseas) visa scheme which has attracted 34,000 Hongkongers, but Conservative ministers must do more to support jobs, education, healthcare and housing and at present there is no provision for those Hongkongers born after 1997. Huge numbers of young Hongkongers will not be eligible, despite having been at the forefront of the protest movement, fighting for the values we in the UK hold dear – democracy, the rule of law, and basic universal rights and freedoms.

And the UK must also take a much firmer stand on the international stage. Despite all the violence in the police protests of 2019, the trampling of democratic rights and the repeated breaches of the Joint Declaration, the British government has yet to sanction a single Hong Kong official – not even Carrie Lam. The government should also withdraw support for British judges who sit on Hong Kong courts, which now serve only to provide a veneer of legitimacy to a compromised system.

There is of course a wider problem here. Consecutive Conservative governments have been naïve and complacent in their approach to relations with China. Each have eroded the UK’s leverage and influence: first, by leaving critical sectors of the British economy and national infrastructure over-reliant on Chinese imports and supply chains; and secondly, by failing to form or maintain the alliances and partnerships on the world stage that can help defend our values and interests.

In 2015, David Cameron and George Osborne, with enthusiastic support from Boris Johnson, who was then London Mayor, proclaimed a “golden era” of UK-China relations, a strategy designed to open up UK markets to Chinese business and investment, in the expectation that China would fall in line with international norms on trade and human rights.

The opposite has happened with China’s state-backed firms adopting uncompetitive market behaviour and the Chinese government riding roughshod over the rights of Hongkongers and the Uyghur people in Xinjiang and threatening Taiwan. We therefore need a long-term strategy, starting with a full audit of every aspect of the UK-China relationship.

The UK must always defend human rights, democracy and the rule of law, starting with Hong Kong – which represents the frontline in the fight for democracy.


Stephen Kinnock is the Labour MP for Aberavon.

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