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Hong Kong is the new frontline of freedom

4 min read

The UK has a unique historic and legal obligation to champion human rights and democracy in Hong Kong. The year 2019 might have been consumed by Brexit, but in 2020, the new Government must prioritise this crisis, writes Lord Alton 

Last November three million people took part in an amazing victory for the democratic camp in Hong Kong, exposing widespread support for the demands of the protest movement.

Civil society groups invited me to monitor the elections and although there were some infringements and irregularities – most notably the disqualification of Joshua Wong and the pre-election assault by thugs on Jimmy Sham – by and large, this was a well-run, fair, and free election. 

With no direct election for Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, democratic deficit has been the greatest driver of the protests. She would be wise now to engage directly with a convention of the newly-elected grassroots representatives.

Sadly, the calls for greater democracy have been met with police brutality.

The indiscriminate use of batons, tear gas and rubber bullets over a period of months has etched in the minds of Hong Kongers the view that the Hong Kong Police Force cannot be trusted. Rising numbers of 'missing people' and 'suicide' cases, along with reports of the mistreatment of prisoners in the San Uk Ling detention centre have consolidated this view.

I recently hosted Dr Darren Mann, a consultant surgeon who has provided medical assistance during some of the protests.

He told parliamentarians how the Hong Kong Police Force zip-tied and arrested medics, saying: “These violations amount to grave breaches of international humanitarian norms and human rights law.”

Reports of journalists facing similar intimidation are an assault on the freedom of the press. 

A Mingpao newspaper poll recently said 50 per cent of the population rated their trust in the police force at zero out of ten. This collapse of trust, and the refusal to establish an independent inquiry, creates a perception of the police as an enemy, and given a license to more extreme, unacceptable, forms of protest.

The Conservatives’ election manifesto committed the party to introduce a regime for Magnitsky-style sanctions. Perhaps senior Hong Kong police officers who approved the brutality, and the administration to whom they answer, could be among the first to be targeted.

The Sino-British Joint Declaration – enshrined in international law – gives the UK a unique historic and legal obligation to champion human rights and democracy in Hong Kong. Its people see the Declaration as a lifeboat in a tempestuous sea.

Before Christmas, in the Lords, we had a three-hour debate (including speeches from the two surviving British Governors of Hong Kong). There was strong consensus that the UK must make this issue a priority. This week there will be an oral question on how we can help those seeking peaceful ways forward.

There is also growing cross-party consensus that the immigration status of Hong Kongers should be reviewed. Unlike other British colonial subjects, Hong Kongers – even those who served in the British army – were never given the right to retain their British citizenship.

Beyond the rights of British National (Overseas) passport holders, last year over 170 parliamentarians called for a global initiative to give all Hong Kongers an “insurance policy” of second citizenship and a second place of abode elsewhere in the world.

The upcoming CHOGM – Commonwealth Heads of Government – conference provides a chance to put this on the agenda. 

No-one wants anyone to have to leave Hong Kong. But we are already seeing capital flight as a result of the erosion of freedoms and the rule of law. 

And this is the big challenge for China. Hong Kong’s erosion of freedoms must be seen in the context of China’s new Cultural Revolution – with its Surveillance State, arrest of dissidents, mass internment of Uighurs, imprisonment of pastors (Pastor Wang Yi was jailed last week for nine years), the demolition of churches, systematic persecution of Falun Gong, questions about the Chinese Communist Party’s role in companies like Huawei and in our universities, and recent torture of an employee of the UK Government.

In so many respects, Hong Kong is the new frontline of freedom. The year 2019 might have been consumed by Brexit, but in 2020, the new Government must prioritise China and Hong Kong. 

Lord Alton is a Crossbench Peer who serves on the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Select Committees and is a Patron of Hong Kong Watch. His oral question on the situation in Hong Kong is on Wednesday 15 January 2020


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