Amy Dwyer argues that citizens in Hong Kong deserve greater advocacy and action from the British government.
Although the British government handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, the British government has clear ongoing commitments to Hong Kong’s autonomy. The “One Country, Two Systems” principle entrenched within the handover agreement guarantees the semi-independent status of Hong Kong until at least 2047. Britain must, therefore, step up to its obligations and protect the democracy of the institutions of the territory.
There have long been protests in Hong Kong over the Chinese government interfering in the city and its governance, yet these have largely been ignored by its former British colonisers. It is likely that the government excuses their lack of action, by noting that the previous widespread demonstrations held across the city back in 2019 were successful in persuading chief executive, Carrie Lam, to suspend the bill that would have allowed the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China. Yet as Chinese attempts to involve themselves in the internal affairs of Hong Kong continue and seem to seek increasingly bolder moves to achieve reunification at some level with the mainland, the United Kingdom can no longer simply provide empty rhetoric in support of the territory.
British colonial history has been dark and immoral, that much is clear. At present, it seems as though Britain was more than happy to reap the benefits of their vast colonial empire, but is somewhat more reluctant to step up to its resulting obligations to its former territories. This is not to say that Britain should try to involve itself in the politics of previous colonies but that when this is called for by the people of that territory, it has a duty to act.
Johnson and Raab have made public statements condemning this recent move to intervene in Hong Kong’s justice system, reaffirming that ‘such legislation would be a clear violation of China’s international obligations, including those made under the Sino-British Joint Declaration’. While this may seem like a tough stance against China, too often the British government’s policy has been to publicly condemn, but do little else. Across the media, there has been headlines that state Britain must honour its Hong Kong obligations since the widespread protests in 2019, yet almost a year later we are seeing the same headlines again.
Lisa Nandy, shadow foreign secretary, has been particularly outspoken on this issue and repeatedly called for the government to ‘step up’ to protect the autonomy of Hong Kong. She has pushed for more clarity on the government’s plans to allow the people of Hong Kong to apply for British citizenship. This plan will undoubtedly provide protections for citizens and similarly challenges Chinese intervention. Nonetheless, surely the best plan to support and protect Hong Kong is not to take the people out of Hong Kong or provide them with British passports but to ensure that retaining a Hong Kong passport is a viable and secure option for the people there. If the people of Hong Kong have British passports, they will be more protected individually from Chinese intervention, but this will do very little to prevent greater Chinese authority over the territory and its institutions. This is precisely what the government should be looking to protect.
Britain needs to challenge China, not by offering the people an alternative in the form of British citizenship but to guarantee the autonomy of the territory itself. This is the tough stance that the government needs to take. Responsibility to Protect is perhaps being sought to some extent by the government preparing for plans to support Hong Kongers through British passport applications, but we need more to support the future of an independent and secure Hong Kong.
The British response to the latest Chinese attempts to intervene in Hong Kong perhaps demonstrates a step being taken in the right direction regarding its obligations here. Yet one step in the right direction should not be seen as sufficient measures to relieve pressure on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The people of Hong Kong deserve real protection and support from the British government to ensure the future of an autonomous Hong Kong. They need real protection, not public statements, but tangible action to protect the institutions and population.
Amy Dwyer is studying for an MA in Politics and is an ambassador at 50:50 Parliament.
She tweets at @AmyDwyer23