- Many of China’s oppressive policies in Hong Kong are facilitated by laws introduced by Britain.
- The British government has failed to acknowledge the role its colonial legacy has played in the persecution of Hongkongers today.
- A new visa scheme giving Hongkongers a path to UK citizenship is a good start – but it doesn’t go nearly far enough.
- Jason Reed is the UK liaison at Young Voices.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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In 2019, the government of Hong Kong proposed a bill that allowed the extradition of Hong Kong citizens to mainland China for trial. The bill set off months of protests, and eventually the Chinese government responded with a stricter measure that allowed for arrests of anyone in Hong Kong who voiced political dissent.
In doing so, the Hong Kong and Chinese governments effectively ended the ‘one country, two systems’ framework, and subjected Hong Kong’s residents to the dictatorial rule of the Chinese Communist Party.
The sweeping national security law paved the way for a fascistic crackdown, with several high-profile pro-democracy figures arrested. Now, with every week that passes, there is a new, tragic case of a brave soul speaking out against Beijing and finding themselves locked away.
One recent example is radio DJ Edmund Wan Yiu-sing. “Giggs”, as he is better known, is charged with four counts of “doing an act with a seditious intention”. In other words, the Chinese government believes that Wan used his media platform to stir hatred and contempt against the authorities – although it has not offered any details of what “seditious” things he is alleged to have said.
Wan’s case is notable for a troubling reason. He was not charged under the national security law, or any other hurried new legislation from the last couple of years designed to quash brewing unease among pro-democracy activists. Instead, he was charged under the Crimes Ordinance, which has not been amended since 1972, when Hong Kong was still under British colonial rule. For a first offence on this charge, Wan could end up with a fine of HK$5,000 and two years in jail.
Last year, a group of British members of Parliament – all members of the governing Conservative Party – formed the China Research Group to campaign on issues relating to Hong Kong, and other China-adjacent areas of foreign policy. While their efforts have been admirable in drawing attention to China’s atrocities and forcing the government’s hand on matters of diplomacy, there has so far been a lack of appreciation of the role Britain has played in laying the foundations in Hong Kong for the oppression we are seeing today.
The Wan case is not the first time colonial-era British laws have been used to malicious ends by the CCP-controlled Hong Kong government. For instance, in April of last year, in an extraordinary indication of the disdain the ruling regime feels for those who speak out against it, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam doubled down on a ban on face masks which had been introduced in October of the previous year.
Lam even went to court to defend her right to prevent dissenters from covering their faces, despite the raging coronavirus pandemic, thanks to another colonial-era British law. The law in question – the Emergency Regulations Ordinance – was introduced in 1922 to combat strikes by Chinese fishermen who were protesting against their pitiful wages. It was passed in a single day with minimal scrutiny, and it remains on the statute book, with appalling consequences a century later.
Unlike the CCP’s genocidal campaign against the Uighur ethnic minority in the country’s Xinjiang province, where Beijing claims nothing of note is taking place, the Chinese Communist Party likes to draw the world’s attention to its deeds in Hong Kong. It is as if the CCP is taunting Britain, the region’s former ruler. For instance, it released a statement via state propaganda channels last July urging the UK to ‘abandon the illusion of continuing its colonial influence’ there.
So while the Chinese government makes out as though it is rescuing Hongkongers from the grip of its British imperial overlords by oppressing them and reneging on its international commitments, it is in fact making use of the legacy of British rule in Hong Kong for its own dictatorial purposes. This fact ought to be acknowledged in the UK, and it should inform the UK’s response to China’s aggression in the region.
Last month, after the governments of China and Hong Kong said that they would no longer recognize British National Overseas (BNO) passports as valid travel documents, the British government implemented a new visa scheme, granting Hong Kong residents a path to UK citizenship. This is a good start, but in light of the above, it plainly does not go far enough.
Hongkongers, through no fault of their own, are caught in the middle of a deeply unpleasant diplomatic divorce between the UK and China. They are stuck under the thumb of an abusive parent and it is Britain’s duty to do everything in its power to help them upend and relocate their lives to the UK, even if that means embracing radical ideas. Half-measures will not suffice. Britain is Hongkongers’ only safe refuge now – they must be made to feel welcome.
Jason Reed is a policy analyst and political commentator. He is the UK liaison at Young Voices. Jason writes for the Times (of London), the Independent, the Telegraph, and many other outlets.