I am one of the two million pro-democracy activists who have been demanding basic human rights against an increasingly brutal crackdown from agents of Beijing. I was born in Hong Kong, and have participated in many protests there, but have lived in the UK for over 10 years.
We don’t just share 150 years of history: 248,000 Hong Kong citizens have British passports, but no right to live in the UK. The Union Jack has become a symbol of our struggle, as protesters sing “God Save the Queen” outside the British consulate, demanding refuge from violent abuse. British police officers have been accused of abusing human rights in Hong Kong. While MPs and peers back our struggle, the UK Government is offering little more than warm words.
I am around 30 years old and have a professional job in London, but am too frightened to show my face in public due to the risk to me and my family. Friends and colleagues have been threatened with beatings and rape. A UK student ended up with a brain haemmorhage after being beaten by undercover Hong Kong police officers. Activists wear face masks because they fear being tortured or sexually abused in police custody, imprisoned for up to 10 years or “disappeared” to appear in show trials in mainland China.
The Chinese state apparatus has long tentacles. After an NBA manager tweeted our logo, they are trying to use their financial might to intimidate anyone who speaks out. UK citizens in London have seen their streets flyered with anonymous messages of intimidation targeted at their homes and elderly relatives. At a London concert for Denise Ho, attendees were pelted with eggs, while pro-Beijing demonstrators held up banners with slogans such as “eradicating cockroaches is everyone’s responsibility”. Do you realise how ludicrous it is to have your cries of support stifled by a foreign state in the UK?
I am involved with “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”, which seeks to build international solidarity for the pro-democracy movement. It is positive that the US is prepared to match words with action, bringing forward legislation to target those in the regime who abuse human rights.
However, Britain should be leading the way. The United Nations has condemned the violence and called for an independent investigation into police brutality; the French Government has taken a firm stance that caused disquiet in Beijing ahead of a visit by Emmanuel Macron; the US are considering sanctions, but Dominic Raab has yet to match his rhetoric with action.
Some argue that the UK is prepared to turn the other cheek in the name of a future UK-China trade agreement. I don’t think that is true, and even if it is, it would be a false choice.
Post-Brexit, the UK needs Hong Kong to be politically stable, under the rule of law and with the democratic freedoms that were promised under the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984. We’ve seen multiple breaches of that declaration: the most recent being the decision to ban the pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong from standing in local elections in November.
As the Lord Mayor of London has noted, Hong Kong is one of the biggest Asia-Pacific markets for UK exports in goods and services; worth £8 billion. There are over 600 UK companies with a presence in Hong Kong. This is in China’s interest too. Nearly 60% of China’s nonfinancial outbound direct investment goes via Hong Kong.
The moral argument is surely clear: while teenagers are shot on the streets for seeking to exercise their democratic right, and allegations of sexual abuse of young men and women at detention centres abound, it is only right that our former colonial power stands up for the freedoms we were promised in a treaty that they lodged with the United Nations. And the economic argument backs it too.
So what should the UK do? The first step would be to acknowledge, as over 50 parliamentarians have already done, that China has breached international law. The second would be to insert binding human rights clauses into future trade deals with China. The third would be to provide a safe haven for British (overseas) passport holders and those detained and arbitrarily convicted in the Hong Kong police state.
Whether through military parades, currency wars, or cyber attacks, China is showing its strength. It is time everyone in the international community, led by Britain, matched that strength.
John Song* is part of the NGO ‘Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.’ and writes under a pseudonym.