In my final speech as Hong Kong’s governor on June 30, 1997, a few hours before I left the city on Britain’s royal yacht, I remarked that, “Now, Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong. That is the promise. And that is the unshakable destiny.”
That promise was contained in the 1984 Joint Declaration, a treaty signed by China and the United Kingdom and lodged at the United Nations. The deal was clear, and the guarantee to Hong Kong’s citizens was absolute: the return of the city from British to Chinese sovereignty would be governed by the principle of “one country, two systems.” Hong Kong would have a high degree of autonomy for 50 years, until 2047, and would continue to enjoy all the freedoms associated with an open society under the rule of law.
But with his recent decision to impose a draconian new security law on Hong Kong, Chinese President Xi Jinping has ridden roughshod over the Joint Declaration and directly threatened the city’s freedom. Defenders of liberal democracy must not stand idly by.
For over a decade after the 1997 handover, China largely kept its promise regarding “one country, two systems.” True, not everything was perfect. China retreated from its promise that Hong Kong could determine its own democratic government in the Legislative Council, and the Chinese government periodically interfered in the life of the city. In 2003, for example, it abandoned an attempt to introduce legislation on issues such as sedition – an odd priority in a peaceful and moderate community – in the face of mass public protests.
Overall, however, even skeptics conceded that things had gone pretty well. But China-Hong Kong relations started to deteriorate after Xi became president in 2013 and dusted off the playbook of aggressive and brutal Leninism. Xi reversed many of his immediate predecessors’ policy changes, and the Communist Party of China (CPC) reasserted control over every aspect of Chinese society, including economic management.
Xi toughened the party’s grip on civil society and universities, and cracked down on any sign of dissident activity. He demonstrated that his regime’s word could not be trusted internationally, for example by reneging on promises he had made to US President Barack Obama that China would not militarize the atolls and islands it was seizing illegally in the South China Sea. Furthermore, Xi’s regime locked up over a million predominantly Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang and obliterated signs of their culture wherever possible. And, of course, he tightened the screws on Hong Kong.
Last year’s protests in the city were triggered by the Hong Kong government’s attempt to introduce an extradition law that would in effect have removed the firewall between the rule of law in the territory and communist law in mainland China. The demonstrations were badly handled by Hong Kong’s police, whose behavior – including the unchecked use of tear gas and pepper spray – led a small minority of the protesters to resort to unacceptable violence.1
An independent inquiry into the reasons for the demonstrations, the mishandling of them by the police, and the behavior of the demonstrators (the overwhelming majority of whom were peaceful) could have helped to calm the community and promote reconciliation. But the proposal was rejected out of hand. In last November’s district council elections, Hong Kong’s citizens showed whose side they were on by voting overwhelmingly for pro-democracy candidates who had supported the demonstrations.
The protests have stopped in recent months as a result of the city’s (successful) measures to combat the coronavirus. But the Chinese authorities clearly expected them to restart, for example to mark the June 4 anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, and no doubt are worried that Hong Kong’s democratic parties would go all out for victory in the next Legislative Council elections in September.
This prospect plainly terrified the Chinese government and the hardline officials that it recently put in charge of the territory. The latter had already asserted their determination to curtail Hong Kong’s autonomy and had interfered at will in matters that should have been left to the city’s government and legislators.
Xi’s government has now struck its heaviest blow yet. Taking advantage of the world’s current focus on fighting COVID-19 (whose rapid global spread is in part the result of the CPC’s secrecy and mendacity), China’s rubber-stamp parliament has now bypassed Hong Kong’s own legislature and imposed a national-security law on the city. The law covers unspecified crimes such as sedition and secession, and would allow China’s version of the KGB, the Ministry of State Security, to operate in Hong Kong, presumably using its customary methods of coercion.
But what is the alleged national-security threat that Hong Kong poses to China’s Communist regime? China’s leaders fear the very things they promised to Hong Kong in the Joint Declaration, namely the rule of law and the freedoms it protects. The city represents everything Xi’s regime hates about liberal democracy, which is why what is happening there is not only a huge challenge for Hong Kong and its people, but also a direct threat to open societies everywhere.
The world simply cannot trust this Chinese regime. Liberal democracies and friends of Hong Kong everywhere must make it clear that they will stand up for this great, free, and dynamic city. Following China’s announcement of the new law, over 512 parliamentarians and senior policymakers from 32 countries have signed a statement supporting Hong Kong. The city’s freedom and prosperity are at stake; so are the values and interests of open societies around the world.
As the co-signatory to the Joint Declaration, the UK has a special responsibility to show leadership. For starters, Prime Minister Boris Johnson should ask for Hong Kong to be put on the agenda at next month’s G7 meeting. He might find inspiration in advice found in the Analects of Confucius: “A gentleman would be ashamed should his deeds not match his words.”
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