Britain has a duty to help Hong Kong out of this dark moment

Britain has a duty to help Hong Kong out of this dark moment

It took something out of the ordinary to provoke a million people in Hong Kong to take to the streets to demonstrate against proposed new extradition rules. Roughly one-sixth of the population demonstrated peacefully: families, young and old, lawyers, academics, students, professionals and manual workers.

What caused such an outpouring against a piece of legislation? Quite simply, the people of Hong Kong – not British, but Hong Kong Chinese – have seen their government connive with the Communist regime in Beijing to undermine their way of life and freedoms.

Britain’s departure from Hong Kong in 1997 – a colony we acquired in woeful circumstances – was done on the basis of a brilliantly imaginative proposal put forward by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Hong Kong would return to the control of mainland China, but on the basis of “one country, two systems”. Hong Kong’s high degree of local autonomy would continue to be based on the rule of law and on the freedoms associated with a plural open society. 

By and large things did not go too badly in the 10 years or so after the UK left Hong Kong. China, on the whole, kept its word which had been incorporated in a document called the joint declaration, which was lodged as an international treaty at the United Nations. The idea was that Hong Kong would remain as it was until 2047. Some things were unsatisfactory. The Communist party, for example, throttled back on the promises it had made about Hong Kong’s nascent democracy. But overall there was not too much to grumble about, and when the local government pushed too hard to do Beijing’s bidding – for example over introducing more “patriotic” themes into education – public protests forced a change of mind.

But two things have happened in recent years. First, Xi Jinping was made party and state leader and given greater powers. He has exercised these to row back on many of Deng’s reforms, to increase central control and tackle any signs of dissent within China. Second, the leadership was plainly rattled by the massive demonstrations that took place in 2014 against further efforts to prevent democracy flowering in Hong Kong.

Since then things have gone from bad to very bad to even worse. The leaders of the demonstrations in 2014 have been pursued – even five years after the event – with reckless, vengeful enthusiasm, using ancient and often obscure colonial-era public order legislation. People with the “wrong” views have been banned from political activity. Freedom of speech has been whittled away in the media and in universities. Beijing has even abducted individuals from Hong Kong and taken them back to the mainland.

This is the background to the current row over a law that would allow extradition to the mainland of those Beijing does not like.




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