Recent events in Hong Kong have been both inspiring and depressing. Inspiring because we’ve seen an incredible number of people rally around the principles of free expression and free society; over a million people, one fifth of the population of a territory that for a long time was, and arguably in some respects still is, the freest place on Earth.
The depressing side is, of course, the reaction to these protests, both locally by the Hong Kong government and police force, but also in a more sinister way by the Chinese government and its media machine.
The 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration allowed for the handover of the entire territory of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China. This is in spite of the fact that the UK was only legally obliged under the 1898 Hong Kong Treaty to return the New Territories to the north, not the primary business areas of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, which had been ceded indefinitely to Britain half a century earlier. The Joint Declaration includes a commitment from China to maintain Hong Kong’s separate governmental system and not impose socialist policies until at least 2047.
Britain’s concerns that China is not honouring the Joint Declaration in the wake of the protests received a cold shouldered response from China. Its view is that Britain should stay out of China’s “internal affairs”, and China has even gone so far as to blame the US for causing the protests. There are now suggestions that China might deploy its own military into Hong Kong if the protests continue.
China’s stance is perhaps unsurprising from a country that’s recently introduced a government social points scoring system, banned millions of people from travelling because of poor scores on it and severely restricts the international travel of its citizens, for instance recently preventing solo individual travel to Taiwan. Citizens in mainland China have no right of protest to speak of and China’s state-run media is adept at misinformation, from its attempts to suppress information on events like the 2015 Tianjin explosion through to its framing of the US as the cause of the Hong Kong protests. China’s treatment of its Muslim and Tibetan minorities has also been a regular staple of news stories recently.
The fact that Britain saw fit to hand five million of what were its own subjects over to the whim of such a country is beyond shameful. It’s popular nowadays to refer to Britain’s colonial legacy with a sense of shame, but a key part of handling that reality is recognising the responsibility Britain has to the people living in the territories it controlled. Britain’s colonies were established at a time where such colonialism was widely practised and the concept of a rights-respecting state was still somewhat nascent, but the handover of five million free people to a communist dictatorship in a time where the importance of individual rights and responsibility to citizens was well understood does not have the benefit of that justification.
China’s military and social power is of course the main reason why this occurred. There is a defensible case for saying that the real successor to Qing China in terms of the 1898 treaty was the Republic of China, AKA Taiwan, and not the People’s Republic. For Britain to take that stance, however, it would have had to legally and internationally recognise Taiwan as the legitimate government of China. Without the backing of its allies (chiefly the US) in that recognition Britain would have been in serious danger of a conflict over Hong Kong and China would have had little difficulty in asserting control over the territory militarily. Britain, the US and other global powers would also lose a great deal of trade and influence were they to take this step, even though it is morally the right thing to do.
Britain could also have stuck to its actual treaty obligations and only ceded control of the New Territories, although this would have had the result of severing the territory in half, in population terms, and leaving those in the geographically much larger New Territories likely at the full mercy of Chinese control. Whether keeping half the population under British control would have been preferable to having all under the present tenuous compromise is somewhat academic at this point. The fact remains that China’s stance today is a product of Britain and the west’s failure to stand up to China over Hong Kong’s sovereignty and its citizens’ rights, both through the handover process and since.
China takes the view that the people of Hong Kong are no longer Britain’s concern, but Britain’s past actions in ceding control of Hong Kong to a rights-abusing country like China have created the very opposite situation. The rights and freedoms of Hong Kong’s citizens are the British Government’s responsibility. Its actions have placed them in this situation and while the support of other countries is helpful in standing up to China’s might, Britain alone has a real moral obligation to act.
That would mean prioritising the moral rights of Hong Kong’s citizens over the golden goose of Chinese trade, however, and it would take a very principled government indeed to make that move. How far will China need to go before the British government honours its responsibilities over its financial interests? Will that point ever come?
The fact China is acting this way now, 28 years before the Joint Agreement’s stipulations expire, raises the far more frightening question of what the situation will look like by and after 2047.