The people of Hong Kong look to the UK to keep the promises we made to them
Former Liberal Democrat Cabinet minister Alistair Carmichael writes following his Urgent Question on the guilty verdict handed to pro- democracy activists in Hong Kong.
Back in 2014, the Umbrella Movement started a 79 day protest movement of passive resistance and non-violent direct action seeking free and fair elections in Hong Kong. At its peak the centre of Hong Kong was brought to a standstill by massive occupations. While ultimately unsuccessful, it was a display of peaceful protest that shook the Chinese government to the core and, as such, was never going to be allowed to go unanswered.
This week nine of the Umbrella Movement’s leaders were convicted of rarely used public order offences from the days of colonial rule. Chris Patten, the last British Governor of Hong Kong, described it as being “appallingly divisive to use anachronistic common law charges in a vengeful pursuit of political events which took place in 2014”.
The response of our own Foreign Office was a silence. How embarrassing, and not for the first time.
It was only 1997 that the UK handed Hong Kong back to China. It was a handover that allowed the UK to divest itself of another vestige of empire while entering into a treaty with China which sought to provide autonomy of the former colony and a continued progression towards democracy. It was Chris Patten’s not insubstantial legacy which gave both Britain and China obligations for fifty years until 2047.
However, the “one country two systems framework” today looks rather insubstantial, fragile and battered by Chinese authoritarianism and British acquiescence.
The prosecution and conviction of the Umbrella Movement leaders is just the latest in a long line of human rights violations by the Beijing regime. We have already seen a political party banned and a senior Financial Times journalist expelled from the city.
Despite widespread concern from Human Rights organisations, the Chinese Government is now seeking to change the rules around extradition to make it easier to extradite people to mainland China from Hong Kong. In a week where China was again identified by Amnesty International as the heaviest user of capital punishment you can see why they are concerned.
The world is watching. The iconic image of the umbrella from 2014 resonated with many as a symbol of the peaceful nature of the 79 day long pro-democracy protest. The leaders of that protest are those now facing up to seven years in prison. They include sociology professor Chan Kin-man, 60, the law professor Benny Tai, 54, and the Baptist minister Chu Yiu-ming, 75. These were not violent protests and these individuals were merely exercising their freedom of expression. Yet they have been slapped with colonial-era public nuisance charges.
The UK Government has a moral and legal duty to stand up to Beijing on these matters. We may have left our colonial rule behind but not our obligations to democracy and human rights.
The people of Hong Kong look to the UK to keep the promises we made to them. Our government must stand up for the umbrella nine and all those facing down Beijing’s violation of their freedoms and do it before the case returns to court for sentencing.
The Late Paddy Ashdown was another man who took an interest in and cared about Hong Kong. Just last year he said, “we should be advocating change [in Hong Kong]. Instead we are quiescent. With the spread of tyranny and our history, it is unwise and shameful”.
He was right.
Alistair Carmichael is the Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland