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Britain’s next prime minister must stand with Hong Kong

4 min read

There’s something missing. The Conservative leadership contest has understandably been dominated by the candidates’ plans for addressing the cost-of-living crisis. Yet, whatever the merits of the two candidates’ approaches on this and other challenges, there’s an issue that deserves much more attention.

It’s the United Kingdom’s relationship with China, and particularly how we hold the Chinese government to account for the ongoing brutality and suppression of human rights in Hong Kong.

The sad fact is that over time, Britain has gradually sacrificed the values it holds dear – such as democracy and free speech – at the altar of Chinese investment. We may take it for granted here in the UK, but freedom of conscience is priceless, while standing up for it comes at a very heavy personal price. Just ask Joshua Wong and Jimmy Lai.

Let us follow the United States’ example and confront Beijing’s litany of abuse in Hong Kong through imposing sanctions on officials guilty of rights violations

Ironically, the people responsible for this sad devaluation of our own values isn’t the CCP. It’s us, to the delight of a repulsive regime whose cynicism knows no bounds. Inadvertently, our greed has given a green light to genocide in places like Xinjiang and to awful authoritarian abuses in Tibet and Hong Kong. Yes, we have toughened our stance, and for that Dominic Raab, Priti Patel, Liz Truss, and Rishi Sunak should share the credit, but to what effect? Are human rights being respected? What other test is there?

Just look at Hong Kong, where despite Britain’s profound historic, legal, and moral responsibility, democracy has been systematically destroyed at breakneck speed. In response to widespread protests calling for democratic reform, Beijing’s puppet masters have brutalised the former beacon of freedom in the east and bent it to their dictatorial will.

Its national security law has silenced even the faintest whispers of dissent. More than 200 people have been arrested on trumped-up sedition charges, including dozens of former politicians, activists, and journalists, while many have been sentenced to years behind bars for little more than chanting slogans, holding placards or exercising their right to peaceful assembly. 

Authorities have closed more than 50 civic groups, including unions, student societies and religious networks, while a wholesale crackdown on press freedoms has led to the closure of several independent media outlets.

Hong Kong’s political system has also been farcically disfigured. Its parliament has been stripped of opponents and packed with vetted loyalists in sham elections, while the city’s new leader – former security tsar, John Lee – was crowned by a band of hand-picked communist party cronies.

Britain has declared Beijing to be in a state of ongoing non-compliance with the Sino-British Joint Declaration - the treaty that sought to safeguard Hong Kong’s autonomy following Britain’s return of the territory in 1997. Big deal, says Beijing: its breach of its legal commitments is relentless.

That is why Rishi Sunak’s and Liz Truss’s pivot to a harder line on China is absolutely right. Now is the time for urgent and proportionate action, in line with our values and obligations to the brave people of Hong Kong.

We know that the political will to act exists. Britain’s response to Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, including the use of targeted sanctions, asset freezes and travel bans, has been exemplary. It is not so far-fetched to suggest that similar action, scaled to adequately stand up to Beijing, can be taken in coalition with our allies. Let us follow the United States’ example and confront Beijing’s litany of abuse in Hong Kong through imposing sanctions on officials guilty of rights violations.

We have already acted to challenge the worst of Beijing’s crimes. Last year, the government, in coordination with international partners, introduced sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for the genocide and systemic abuse of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang.

By the same token, decisive action must also be taken in Hong Kong. The next prime minister must, as a priority, impose sanctions on the Chinese and Hong Kong officials most responsible for the brutal crackdown on freedom, democracy, and human rights.

Whoever is selected Britain’s next prime minister must keep their campaign promises to confront China’s assault on human rights and civil liberties. Addressing that real and present danger requires realigning the relationship to defend our values, rather than sacrificing them in favour of economic gain. Five words encapsulate that message: we stand with Hong Kong. Always. The question is: which candidate will be brave enough to say that that has to mean targeted sanctions on the perpetrators?


Lord Shinkwin is a Conservative peer and vice-chair of the APPG on Hong Kong.

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