Hong Kong Review

The following blog appeared on 9Dashline on 17th August, 2020, under the title ‘Hong Kong: can it be saved? https://www.9dashline.com/article/hong-kong-can-it-be-saved.


Writing about Hong Kong in 2020 is a real challenge. Either you commit to a retrospective to hit a deadline, or you jump on the political juggernaut, knowing that today’s events render obsolete yesterday’s paragraph of deathless prose. At any rate, it is certainly time for an update. 

Let’s rewind to 1 July this year, when thousands of protesters took to the streets, facing tear gas, pepper spray and water cannon fired by the police with, more than 370 protesters arrested. 1 July represented the twenty-third anniversary of the UK transferring sovereignty over Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on 1 July 1997, under the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong. As is well known, the central reason for the spate of protests that followed in July arose from China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) passing and putting into effect new national security laws for the semi-autonomous region of Hong Kong. This took place at 11pm on 30 June. 

Under the “One Country, Two Systems” structure established and codified by the Sino-British Joint Declaration which remains in place until 2047, “any national security legislation should be considered by Hong Kong’s legislation”. To be clear, as Tim Summers has highlighted, the NPC’s decision:

“is not itself a law, but it authorises the NPC Standing Committee to draft legislation which will then be added to Annex III of the Basic Law – Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – under a provision in Article 18 of the Basic Law. This will then be promulgated in Hong Kong by the chief executive, constituting a rare example of an ‘executive order’”. 

Both the substantive and procedural aspects of the new law have evoked wide-spread condemnation. Kuo & Davidson, for instance, argue that Beijing is “effectively writing the law for Hong Kong and telling Carrie Lam [HK’s leader] to declare it. It bypasses the legislative council. It bypasses debate. It bypasses opposition,” said Wilson Leung, a Hong Kong barrister who is part of the Progressive Lawyers Group”.

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However, this is by no means the first time that Beijing’s actions have prompted deep unrest among the people of Hong Kong. Indeed, the first major protests took place in 2003, only 6 years after Hong Kong received semi-autonomy, in response to initial attempts by Beijing to get Hong Kong to limit the range of their civil liberty laws while simultaneously widening both sedition and security laws. At that time, the protests were large and vociferous enough to cause Beijing to think again, and the legislation was abandoned. In 2012 however, Beijing again tried to influence Hong Kong’s laws through a proposal for the Hong Kong educational system allowing fundamental changes to the curriculum, specifically, untrammelled, and uncritical support of Chinese communism.

In 2014, the “Umbrella Movement” protests took place prompted by Beijing’s “plans to influence the selection” of the city’s chief executive”, which in turn increased momentum for a clear and distinct pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. The Umbrella Movement drew up to a million people to the streets, with police resorting to the use of tear gas to deter the protesters. The protests were quashed only after 79 days, by which time, the protestors and their cause had received sustained global attention.  

Last year, protests once again erupted, this time over an extradition bill introduced by Beijing in April 2019 which “would have allowed for criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China under certain circumstances”. Hong Kong Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, conceded that the bill would be suspended indefinitely, but only after sustained protests, with a major escalation in July 2019 (the anniversary of the 1997 Joint Declaration) oftentimes descending into violence, largely arising from police brutality. It was not until September 2019, that Lam formally withdrew the bill. By this point, however, “the protests had ballooned into a movement centred on a broader set of democratic demands”. 

The protests continued throughout the autumn, with Hong Kong police resorting to the use of live ammunition on demonstrators in October. While the COVID-19 pandemic of spring 2020 impacted the ability of protestors to take to the streets as formidably as before, activism continued, with only one of five demands by Hong Kong citizens being addressed. Protests had continued in sustained fashion even before the NPC declared their intent to impose national security laws in May 2020. With Beijing’s new security law passed and implemented on 30 June, and the subsequent fallout echoing in key international quarters, the movement has indeed regained its momentum. 

The right of Hong Kongers to protest 

Over the years, the nature of Hong Kong’s protests has changed. While each of the protests can be traced to a specific attempt by Beijing to utilise a change in legislation to exert increased power over the semi-autonomous region. What began as a single protest in 2003 has now turned into a consolidated, permanent anti-government structure, including a wide range of citizens and stakeholders from across and beyond Hong Kong, all of whom are largely united in their demands to preserve democracy and autonomy for Hong Kong, and resist both Beijing’s strategic attempts to undermine Hong Kong’s overall governance and its tactical increase of police brutality.

However, as seen from the continued attempts by Beijing to impose laws enabling greater gradual latitude for PRC authority, and the corresponding violence sparked by both sides, undertaking any form of consensus now appears virtually impossible and City-wide strikes are nothing new. What this summer has revealed for the first time is that the international community is at last listening. Key countries, including the US with its call “to ‘liberate’ Hong Kong” and (as explored below) the UK illustrate both the intractable nature of the PRC-Hong Kong divide in Hong Kong itself and the hardening of international attitudes to China globally. 

Understanding the UK response 

Britain’s role in this situation is particularly challenging. The UK’s initial reaction to Hong Kong was criticised as “muted” at best and absent at worst. However, the tide seemed to turn when several government figures, including the Prime Minister, made increasingly pugnacious statements even before the security law was passed on 30 June 2020.

The strongest of these — seen as the boldest assertion made by a sitting British prime minister on the topic since the handover– was Johnson’s first statement regarding the status of Hong Kong citizens, made on 3 June 2020. Stating that China’s decision to proceed with the national security law “would be in direct conflict with its obligations under the joint declaration, a legally binding treaty registered with the United Nations”, Johnson went on to argue that:

“the British government will change our immigration rules and allow any holder of these passports from Hong Kong to come to the UK for a renewable period of 12 months and be given further immigration rights, including the right to work, which could place them on a route to citizenship”.

This was a stunning announcement by London, not only because of its tough stance on China but the wider implications for UK immigration, particularly considering immigration’s explosive role in polarising views on Brexit and British attitudes to Europe more broadly. 

Actions speak volumes. For those concerned that Johnson was paying lip service to rhetoric, the UK government appears to be following through on the Prime Minister’s initial pledge to allow British Nationals Overseas (BN(O)s) to come to the UK. The details, however, remain sketchy. According to UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, such changes would entail:

“a special, bespoke, set of arrangements developed for the unique circumstances we face and in light of our historic commitment to the people of Hong Kong” with no apparent limits or quotas and a simplified application process”.

While further details are still to emerge, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman has said that “British National Overseas Passport holders in Hong Kong will be able to travel to the UK immediately, subject to standard immigration checks” and further that “[t]hey will also not face salary thresholds to gain their visas”.

In terms of numbers, there are currently almost 350,000 British National Overseas BN(O) passport holders in Hong Kong; of whom an estimated 2.9 million are eligible for BN(O) passports. Currently, BN(O)s receive a visa-free entry to the UK for up to six months, and can obtain British citizenship if they “have lived in the UK for 10 years, with the English language and annual income requirements”.

Under the Johnson government’s plans, all British Overseas Nationals and their dependents will be given the right to remain in the UK, including the right to work and study, for five years, after which — not unlike EU citizens — they would be able to apply for settled status and seek citizenship after a final further year.  Therefore, the UK government’s plans would make it significantly quicker for BN(O)s to receive British citizenship. However, there still are questions as to how many Hong Kong residents the UK would be prepared to receive, would there be enough jobs, would BN(O)s have recourse to public funds, and importantly would they be covered by the NHS?

International responses to Hong Kong’s security law

Many in the international community have also responded to the situation in Hong Kong. A cross-regional joint statement representing 27 countries, including the UK and Canada, was first delivered to the UN Human Rights Council on 30 June, arguing strongly that:

“Making such a law without the direct participation of Hong Kong’s people, legislature or judiciary of Hong Kong undermines ‘One Country, Two Systems’”

The United States then revoked Hong Kong’s special status, but in a way that widens the issue from merely Hong Kong autonomy to anxieties over Chinese state security, arguing that:

“With the Chinese Communist Party’s imposition of new security measures on Hong Kong, the risk that sensitive US technology will be diverted to the People’s Liberation Army or Ministry of State Security has increased, all while undermining the territory’s autonomy”. 

Europe too has joined the fray, condemning “China’s ‘deplorable decision’ to press ahead with its new security laws in Hong Kong” and warned, “that it will speed up the reassessment of China as a trustworthy economic partner”. 

Diplomatic Challenges

Diplomatically, the EU is in a tricky situation. For Brussels, Hong Kong was generally viewed as an issue for London. And Britain has decided to leave the EU. Will this reduce the EU’s ability to exert pressure on China, absent Britain, or does it release it from prior policy stances, allowing it a new role as an intermediary between China and the West? Some suggest that the EU’s “status as a ‘major power’ in the current Chinese diplomatic approach” will diminish. The EU however is walking a tightrope, suggesting on the one hand “that the new security law will not have much impact on its relations with Hong Kong or China” and on the other “that events in Hong Kong put at risk investment deals with China”. 

This may explain why the EU’s new foreign policy chief, High Representative Josep Borrell has argued that sanctions are not the best way to resolve the problems with China, instead urging restraint. The EU has a delicate role to play, balancing regional interests on the one hand, and its heritage as a norm-led geopolitical actor on the other. In diplomatic terms, this means that the EU’s “response to events in China and Hong Kong must be more than hand-wringing” and incorporate a tough stance on human rights while rebalancing trade and investment opportunities.

One possible avenue may be to establish a “Magnitsky-style” framework for human rights abuses as suggested in December 2019, whereby a bipartisan bill ratified in 2012 by President Obama authorised the sanctioning of human rights offenders (via asset freezing, travel bans) against the backdrop of restoring trade relations (in this case with Russia).

Other countries, including the UK, are certainly mulling Magnitsky; the balance is between the perceived depth of human rights abuses in Hong Kong, in Xinjiang towards the Uyghur community, and the need for continued economic relations with China. From a diplomatic perspective, the balance of power favours Beijing, with little to materially prevent it from further crackdowns on what it views as domestic issues, and bilateral trade pressure with key partners circumventing international condemnation. Equally, post-COVID-19 attitudes and structural changes suggest a fundamental reworking of supply chains, employment structures and trade in general, as well as improved scrutiny of the global governance of health. As mentioned by Bartlett, a new “golden age for diplomats” may emerge to help manage the competing priorities between the US, the UK, the EU and China. 

China responds to criticism

China’s response to London’s declaration to permit as many as 3 million Hong Kong residents with BNOs status the right to settle in the UK has been predictably hostile. According to foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian: 

“All such BNO passport holders are Chinese nationals and if the UK insists on changing this practice it will not only violate its stance but also international law”.

Liu Xiaoming Beijing’s ambassador in London further vowed that China would undertake “corresponding measures” to prevent such a policy, arguing China’s firm opposition, “the UK has no sovereignty, jurisdiction or right of ‘supervision’ over Hong Kong”. The UK upped the ante further by then granting asylum to Simon Cheng, described as “a former Hong Kong consulate worker who alleged he was tortured in China and accused of inciting political unrest in the city”. Other pro-democracy activists – many charged by the Hong Kong Police including Joshua Wong and Nathan Law — are now in the UK, pressing their case.

Moving into August, both the UK and the US began to adopt a similar line: opposition to Beijing’s policies towards Hong Kong, and more widely on the use of Chinese state-sponsored security instruments consolidated in commercial firms like Huawei and TikTok, as well as the treatment of the ethnic minority Uyghurs population. In tackling the Hong Kong issue, both states have adopted bills to signal their displeasure. UK human rights sanctions legislation is due in the next few weeks. It reinforces the bill passed by the US House of Representatives and the Senate in rebuking China on its Hong Kong crackdown and is set to impose sanctions on any groups “that undermine the city’s autonomy or restrict its freedoms”. By early August, the UK had gone even further, by revoking its extradition treaty with China. 

What now? 

The key issues for August and the autumn will focus on trade and international pressure, with post-COVID changes, the US election, and UK-EU relations in the background. For some, Hong Kong appears to have faded as the core issue, displaced by security concerns over Huawei’s role in developing the UK’s 5G network, and its subsequent U-turn to placate US anxieties in this respect.

On the one side, UK politicians have been “hoping that trade deals with China would compensate for the exit from the European Union, openly encouraging Chinese investment in a host of sectors, from tourism and ICT to higher education. On the other, Chinese deals are currently not flavour of the month with the United States, the only other major non-EU trading partner that Britain is courting in hopes of a free trade agreement.

President Trump has satisfyingly “described the Chinese government in Hong Kong as a “tragedy” and announced a possible end to preferential US treatment for the city in trade and travel”. The intensifying US-China confrontation suggests that the UK will ultimately have to choose sides. While the UK receives more Chinese FDI than any other EU country, “China sees Brexit as an opportunity to speed up a trade deal between the two economies amid an escalating trade war with the US”. In light of recent events, it looks like “in the end, the US-UK relationship is destined to be more “special” than the UK-China one”.

And Hong Kong? 

For observers and commentators worldwide, Hong Kong must remain a key issue. The background questions here are enormously complex, with uneasy colonial and Communist backgrounds, and more recent concerns over security, academic freedom, and the treatment of ethnic minorities.

Hong Kong citizens have the right to preserve the autonomy of their city, a democratic government, and their human rights. The new National Security Law is undeniably in breach of all three of these factors. Evidence is mounting. In the UK, the Crossbench Peer Lord Alton, patron of Hong Kong Watch and vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong highlighted the use of violence by the Hong Kong Police Force against medical and humanitarian workers during the 2019 protests in the APPG’s August report:

“the reality of the shrinking safe space for these crucial workers and touches on the draconian measures that have been implemented to silence every day, brave people of Hong Kong”

Germany’s Deutsche Welle has meanwhile reported on the increasing desire of many Hong Kong citizens to emigrate rather than face the consequences of publicly supporting the “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times” protest slogan.

At the time of writing, human rights violations have further widened to include free speech issues, with the arrest of Jimmy Lai, a prominent pro-democracy figure and owner of Apple Daily (published by Next Digital Media) the largest pro-democracy paper in Hong Kong (along with senior members of the paper, including his son) under the aegis of the new law. The arrests (which also include another prominent activist, Agnes Chow) combined with the barring of international news organisations from a subsequent press conference regarding the police search of Apple Daily offices have been roundly condemned by journalists and campaigners alike as the death of press freedom in the city. 

Bearing in mind that officials on both sides had initially “promised the security law would not impinge on the city’s civil freedoms, including its independent press”, this particular development provides the first real indication of China’s intended use of the new security law. China is not intending to go quietly into that good night, but rather taking the fight further, and faster. Responses are going to be needed, and quickly. The Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) Elaine Pearson argued recently that “the international community [ought] to put pressure on China to wind back recent infringements on human rights in Hong Kong”.

The question is what type of pressure, and how precisely to apply it, that is at issue. Internationally, a multi-level approach could be considered. Magntisky-style frameworks undertaken by the bigger players like the US and EU, coupled with clear actions from multilateral organisations including the UN and NGOs over clear human rights abuses are part of the answer. Such actions are likely to include establishing multi-layered sanctions, or in the case of the US, deepening those recently undertaken by Secretary of State Pompeo against specific senior Hong Kong officials (to which China has responded with its bespoke sanctions on 11 key officials).

Beyond the tactical manoeuvring of sanctions however, both trade-based pressure and value-led diplomacy must continue. As well as an acceptance that things may get worse before reaching a tipping point. In this respect, taking a leaf from Henry Paulson is instructive. Paulson – formerly of Goldman Sachs and subsequently US Treasury Secretary – “has spent a career trying to work with China”, having cultivated “ties to senior officials” in the US and China alike. The current clash has amalgamated “military prisms and ideas into economic policies”, producing militia-like approaches to international trade, as well as economic and social governance, include the management of Hong Kong. The result is that in his wordsthe positive-sum metaphors of healthy economic competition are giving way to the zero-sum metaphors of military competition”. Solutions are needed to find positive-sum methods of engagement, for Hong Kong, and China’s overall role in world affairs. And fast.