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The UK must sanction Chinese officials guilty of human rights abuses


4 min read

We currently live at a time when democracy is under threat in various geopolitical arenas across the globe.

Afghanistan has slid back under the control of the Taliban, protesters in Iran face brutal subjugation from their government and within Europe itself the first land war in decades rages, where an authoritarian-led Russia has invaded Ukraine. While these anti-democratic forces rear their head in Europe and beyond, it is especially vital that democratic countries stand up to these bullies.

This is the UK’s opportunity to support the democratic values we believe in

One such instance where the United Kingdom has a particular duty to act is in reaction to the human right abuses carried out by the government of Hong Kong. The 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration enshrined the principle of “one country, two systems” for Hong Kong, and in the past few years the Hong Kong government and Chinese Communist Party have colluded to ride roughshod over the agreement, which included allowing Hong Kong to preserve its political freedoms independently of mainland China until 2047.

Following the recent Stand With Hong Kong (SWHK) report on human rights abuses against Hongkongers, it is time for the UK government to impose sanctions on individuals responsible for these violations – this is the UK’s opportunity to support the democratic values we believe in, as well as upholding our historical commitment.

The threat to Hong Kong’s way of life came to a crisis point following the controversial implementation of the 2019 Hong Kong extradition bill. More than 10,000 people were arrested during protests in opposition to the bill between 2019 and 2020. The recent SWHK report included evidence of unlawful arrests, notably the mob attack in Yuen Long MTR Station, which saw prolonged and indiscriminate beatings of unarmed civilians. The anti-extradition protests also saw unlawful treatment of professional groups, with medical workers being subject to regular verbal abuse and arbitrary arrest, including 90 per cent of journalists covering the protests being exposed to tear gas.

Despite these egregious human relations violations, no Chinese or Hong Kong officials have been targeted or sanctioned for the abuses in Hong Kong. The UK government must ensure that these human rights abuses do not go unnoticed or unpunished. It must set a precedent that authoritarian, anti-democratic governments like the Chinese Communist Party are not able to readily disregard historical diplomatic agreements by asserting their will via an iron fist without facing serious international consequences.

It is vital that the government implements sanctions on individuals who have been identified as directly involved in the systemic violations of human rights. Senior officials that would be legitimate targets for sanctions include former chief executive, Carrie Lam, and former deputy police commissioner, Chris Tang. Many such officials were civil servants of the UK government prior to the 1997 handover, with significant ties to the UK, meaning that we are in a unique position to censure them for their complicity in human rights abuses and the suppression of free speech and freedom of expression.

Sanctions would mean the guilty individuals not being able to freely travel or access their international assets, which would hit them hard as they hypocritically benefit from countries like the UK that respect democracy and the rule of law.

Hongkongers have been unable to use the judicial and political system to challenge human rights abuses, leaving sanctions as the most effective method of challenging violations. If Hongkongers cannot legally or politically stand up for their own rights, it is vital the UK plays its part where we can.

Rights and freedoms are under assault across the world. Liberal democracies must act, and we in the United Kingdom must honour our obligations, including to the people of Hong Kong and to the democratic principles of human rights and freedom of expression.


Alistair Carmichael, Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland and co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong.

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