Britain Failed Hong Kong

The U.K. owes Hong Kongers fighting for democracy a moral debt.

Demonstrators take a rest the night after a protest against a controversial extradition law proposal in Hong Kong on June 12, 2019.
Demonstrators take a rest the night after a protest against a controversial extradition law proposal in Hong Kong on June 12, 2019. Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

Hong Kong is awash with protest—and facing a dangerously uncertain future, as Beijing looks to extend mainland law’s grip on the territory. The region, once a rare shelter for dissenting voices in China, is seeing protections for freedom of speech stripped away one by one. That leaves Britain, once Hong Kong’s colonial master, with a particular obligation to the Hong Kongers it has let down in the past.

In 1984, British parliamentarians across the House of Commons were informed of the Hong Kong governor’s proposals for democratic reforms when they attended debates on the future of Hong Kong during the Anglo-Chinese negotiations. Based on these proposed reforms, parliamentarians approved the U.K. government’s intention to sign the Joint Declaration that would ensure Hong Kong’s handover to China in 1997. These reforms never materialized, and the PRC inherited an executive-led system in Hong Kong—one that it has used to push through its own agenda, despite resistance from the Hong Kong public. Today, as a recent report by the Henry Jackson Society I helped compile argues, Britain has both legal and moral responsibilities toward Hong Kong.

The legal obligations come because the United Kingdom is one of the two signatories of the Joint Declaration, an international agreement registered at the United Nations, which promises the ways of life in Hong Kong—including the freedom of expression, guarantee of human rights, and rule of law—would be unchanged for 50 years, until 2047, under the principle of “one country, two systems.” The moral obligations, because Britain handed over the whole of Hong Kong: not only the New Territories that were leased from the Qing empire for 99 years, but also Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula, which were permanent British territories. Along with them came all the people, subjects of the Queen who called Hong Kong their home. Some of these people were refugees who risked their lives to escape Communist rule in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). That puts a particular burden on Britain to back democracy in Hong Kong—or, more practically, to support the rights of individual Hong Kongers.

Although the United Kingdom bears the heaviest burden of responsibility, the handover would not have been possible without some kind of international consensus. At the time of the negotiations over the future of Hong Kong, some in the West supported a handover of Hong Kong because of Britain’s imperial rule, and because Hong Kongers’ ethnic heritage was put over their beliefs and values. Anti-imperialists in the West failed to realize that to many Hong Kongers, being a British subject was preferable to being a subject of the Chinese Communist Party.

More critically, in those days, it was popular to think that ideas about individual liberty, democracy, and human rights would spread from Hong Kong to other parts of China after the 1997 handover. There was a strand of thinking in the West that as China became more prosperous, a higher level of economic prosperity would translate into greater individual freedoms and democratic developments. After the Tiananmen Square massacre, it was clear to many that this was unlikely to be the case (although, bizarrely, that optimism returned in the 2000s). After 1989, English-speaking countries partially opened their doors to those who were lucky enough to be able to afford emigration from Hong Kong; Britain had an oversubscribed scheme to offer citizenship to 50,000 Hong Kongers in 1990. Between 1984 and 1997, 10 percent of the population of Hong Kong emigrated.

Hong Kongers do not see themselves as citizens of the PRC, as surveys by the Public Opinion Programme at the University of Hong Kong have repeatedly shown, but put local identity first. However, their ability to defend their identity and to aspire to democracy has been crippled by the dominance of Beijing. Rather than having any avenues for potential policy change, like citizens in a democracy, Hong Kongers’ efforts have only enabled them to delay policies that officials in Hong Kong or Beijing are determined to implement.

This has been the case since the demonstrations against the introduction of the national security bill, seen as a weapon against dissent, under Article 23 in the Basic Law back in 2003. It was delayed then, but issues that infringed on the principles of “one country, two systems” and “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong”—which are the foundation of the Joint Declaration—kept coming back, from introducing compulsory PRC national education in schools to “one location, two checkpoints” customs and immigration arrangements, which allow PRC security officers to exercise PRC law at the high-speed train terminus in the heart of the city.

Hong Kong is not a democracy. It is led by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who, like her predecessors, was prescreened by a nominating committee before being elected by a 1,200-member electoral college of the city’s political elite, then appointed by Central People’s Government on the basis that she is “a person who loves the motherland and Hong Kong.” The fundamental problem, then, is that the government of Hong Kong is not accountable to the people of Hong Kong. It responds to the wishes of Chinese Communist Party officials in Beijing.

The Umbrella Movement five years ago aimed to achieve genuine universal suffrage in choosing the chief executive is chosen, but failed to secure any changes. Hong Kong is a rare example of an area with a largely liberal population, yet with an undemocratic system. The United Kingdom had a window to change that before 1984. Having failed to do so, it has greater obligations now.

The questions on the rights of Hong Kongers born under British rule, the “British nationals (overseas),” is a particularly tricky policy issue. Today, more than half of young people in Hong Kong wish to seek a better and freer life elsewhere.

Naturally and understandably, British nationals (overseas) want British citizenship. In a United Kingdom already torn by immigration issues, handing citizenship to hundreds of thousands of people, however strong the moral case, is a political impossibility. There are, however, intermediate steps that can provide real aid for Hong Kongers. Britain should prioritize asylum applications from Hong Kongers who face political persecution. Pro-independence activists Ray Wong and Alan Li, likely the first political asylum seekers from Hong Kong, were born as British subjects. Now in Germany, they faced persecution in Hong Kong due to their pro-democracy activism.

Wong led Hong Kong Indigenous, a group that sought to defend Hong Kong’s identity and raised proposals of a Hong Kong independent from China, and Li was a member of the group. They are wanted by the Hong Kong authorities on charges of rioting at a 2016 clash between protesters and police officers under the Public Order Ordinance, which is another legacy of British rule in Hong Kong. Wong commented that he would not enjoy refugee protection by Germany if the German government did not think that “Hong Kong uses the judiciary to persecute Hong Kong people.”

One minor policy adjustment that the United Kingdom could make is to lower the requirements for British nationals (overseas) to permanently reside in Britain, putting them in line with the current requirements for EU nationals. British nationals (overseas) are currently subjected to the same immigration restrictions that apply to other nationals outside the European Economic Area. An EU citizen who completed her three-year undergraduate studies and works for two years currently qualifies for indefinite leave to remain in Britain, and can apply for British citizenship a year after acquiring that status. A British national from Hong Kong who has spent exactly the same amount of time residing legally in the United Kingdom and paying taxes does not get this benefit.

Britain must take a leading role internationally and communicate the case for Hong Kong clearly, bilaterally with like-minded free countries, and multilaterally in organizations such as the Commonwealth and the United Nations. Britain needs to show it cares and that it is serious about Hong Kong, beyond the routine exercise of six-monthly reports and responding to occasional debates and questions in the chamber of the House of Commons. The joint statement by U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland on the proposed extradition law changes in Hong Kong was a healthy sign of renewed and refreshed policy. Britain must step up this effort to truly become “an invisible chain linking the world’s democracies,” because that is the right thing to do—and because if not us, then who?

Milia Hau is a British foreign-policy researcher with a keen interest in the Indo-Pacific. She was formerly a research assistant at the Henry Jackson Society, where she worked on a number of issues relating to Asia, and is one of the authors of the latest report on Hong Kong.