Is it too late for Britain to help Hong Kong?

No-one seems able to agree when the British Empire began. It could have been when the Normans invaded Ireland in the 12th Century. Or, perhaps, when Humphrey Gilbert claimed Newfoundland in 1583. Or maybe when Jamestown, the first permanent British settlement outside of the British Isles since Calais, was founded in 1607. However, there is no doubt over when it ended: 30 June 1997, when Britain handed Hong Kong over to Chinese rule.

Yet, this was not the end of Britain’s connection to her former colonies, particularly Hong Kong. Since the handover of Hong Kong, there have been consistent concerns about China flouting the rules set by the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. Lord Patten, the last British governor of the province, warned last year that Britain was selling her honour for Chinese trade deals by ignoring its treatment of Hong Kong. This came in the wake of Chinese authorities seizing 5 booksellers, one of whom is thought to have been taken while still in Hong Kong, and the banning of pro-independence candidates in the 2016 elections. Patten’s fears appear to be well founded. Last July, Lu Kang, China’s foreign secretary spokesman, declared:

"The Sino-British Joint Declaration, as a historical document, no longer has any practical significance. It is not at all binding for the central government’s management over Hong Kong. The UK has no sovereignty, no power to rule and no power to supervise Hong Kong after the handover."

The Joint Declaration saw Hong Kong handed over to China in 1997 under the “One country, two systems” arrangement. Hong Kong is to retain her political freedom and capitalist system for 50 years after which she will be subsumed into China. Signing it was based on two flawed assumptions by Britain.

the democratic process creates the, remote, possibility of an independent Hong Kong

The first was that China would move towards laissez-faire capitalism and social democracy. On the one hand, China has turned towards capitalism as it has sought to unlock its economic potential. As it has reaped in the profits, the future of capitalism, albeit not necessarily laissez-faire capitalism, in Hong Kong seems secure. However, it remains an authoritarian, undemocratic, one-party state. A popular groundswell for democracy seems unlikely due to limits on freedom of speech and strong economic growth which has lifted millions out of poverty and limited cause for popular malcontent. Consequently, it is difficult to imagine democracy in Hong Kong lasting beyond 2047.

The second assumption was that Britain would be economically strong enough to hold China to the Declaration — there was never any belief post-Suez that Britain could hold China to it militarily. At the time, Britain’s economy was 58% larger than China’s. Today, China’s economy is 392% larger than Britain’s. That gulf is only widening. China’s annual growth rate is 6.84%; Britain’s rate is 1.65%. The past decade has seen a drive to improve Sino-British relations, with a slew of trade deals signed in the last five years. Such deals benefit both nations, but both sides know that Britain, particularly post-Brexit, needs them more. Should trade deals be threatened due to breaches of the Declaration, it is clear who would blink first.

British diplomats are well aware of recent breaches. The last two biannual government reports on Hong Kong have noted a greater strain on the system. The latest report, covering July to December 2017, stated:

During this reporting period, developments set out in detail above which demonstrate this continuing pressure included: the denial of entry to Hong Kong of the UK citizen Benedict Rogers; controversy over the legal basis for the juxtaposed border-control system for the new high-speed rail link to mainland China and the co-location of mainland officials in Hong Kong; the number of high profile judicial cases related to the political system; proposed changes to the education syllabus; and continuing concerns about the exercise of some of the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Joint Declaration and Basic Law.

In the past two years, both the current Foreign Secretary and his immediate predecessor were forced into making statements on breaches of the Joint Declaration. Yet there has been no suggestion of any action beyond that.

This is, in part, because British diplomats know how much more important Hong Kong is to China than Britain. Hong Kong was, and could still be, a geopolitical thorn in China’s side. An independent Hong Kong poses a serious security risk, has claim to maritime territory, and deprives China of a major deep water port. With so much at stake economically and militarily for China in the South China Sea, they simply cannot afford to allow Hong Kong to gain full independence.

Yet, the democratic process creates the, remote, possibility of an independent Hong Kong. It is unlikely for two reasons: first, the independence movement is relatively small. Voters tend to prefer parties who support maintaining and increasing democracy, while remaining part of China. Secondly, the functional constituencies, which are elected solely by special interest groups, are overwhelmingly pro-Beijing and account for 30 of the 70 seats. Nonetheless, China has an inherent interest in limiting Hong Kong’s constitutional right to democratic self-governance. One can empathise with their position, but no supporter of democracy can defend the actions they have taken to support it.

By cutting ourselves off, we lose geopolitical influence and weaken our ability to promote our values

The question is, what can Britain do about it? British interaction with former colonies is usually based on the Commonwealth and the 0.7% of GDP that goes on foreign aid. However, neither apply to Hong Kong: she neither receives foreign aid nor is a member of the Commonwealth. The options for Hong Kong face limitations. Direct British interference in Hong Kong would be seen as a direct provocation, while indirect interference (most likely through cultural ties) is often limited in its impact and reach. Attempts to rally the international community may also struggle to produce much. While a significant coalition would draw attention to the issue, it would be outside the national interest of other countries to go against the Chinese. If too few joined, their protestations would simply be dismissed as none of their concern.

If we discount these options, some argue that Britain should do nothing. This argument holds that the handover marked the end of our responsibilities to Hong Kong and our other former colonies. It would allow us to sweep the Empire and the issues surrounding it under the rug. No debates over whether it was good or bad, whether it helped or hindered, whether we should be proud or ashamed. Hong Kong would be China’s responsibility. Any troubles she faced would be none of our concern.

That argument is wrong. It is wrong politically. It is wrong economically. It is wrong morally. By cutting ourselves off, we lose geopolitical influence and weaken our ability to promote our values. We reduce our ability to forge trade links and promote free trade. We forgo the moral responsibility that we took on in creating an empire and our duty as global citizens. To stand idly by would be categorically wrong on every level.

In The Lion and the Unicorn, George Orwell warned against giving India independence during wartime as they would be at the mercy of predatory expansionist powers. Ultimately, India gained independence at a time when the world was catching its breath. When trouble did come looking, she had had enough time to prepare herself. Hong Kong did not have that luxury. She was always going to be vulnerable to Chinese authoritarianism, particularly as Britain did not do enough to prepare her to resist it on her own. Now, Britain must try to find a way to make up for that mistake. There are few options and their effect may not be as grand as we would like, but there remains a moral duty: Britain must act.

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