The UK has a Duty to Hongkongers

After mounting evidence of China breaking the Sino-British Joint Declaration, Tom Randall MP argues that due to the UK’s recent colonial history with Hong Kong, the Foreign Office now has a duty to stand up and protect Hongkongers’ freedoms and rights.


Let me say at the outset what this debate is not about. It is not about colonialism or interference by a former colonial power. In his final act as Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten telegrammed London to announce “I have relinquished the administration of this government.”

The 156 years of British rule over Hong Kong ended on 1 July 1997, and we are not here to debate taking it back.

What Was Promised?

Hong Kong was handed over to China following an agreement that took the form of an international treaty lodged at the United Nations, which both the United Kingdom and the People’s Republic of China entered into freely. It is right that we consider whether that agreement—the Sino-British joint declaration on the question of Hong Kong—is being upheld and whether it meets our and Hongkongers’ legitimate expectations.

The joint declaration was signed in December 1984. The text sets out the basis on which Hong Kong would be returned to China. It states:

“The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will be vested with executive, legislative and independent judicial power, including that of final adjudication. The laws currently in force in Hong Kong will remain basically unchanged.”

It goes on to say:

“The current social and economic systems in Hong Kong will remain unchanged, and so will the life-style. Rights and freedoms, including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, of strike, of choice of occupation, of academic research and of religious belief will be ensured by law in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.”

Those rights and freedoms have been diminished in modern-day Hong Kong.

Turning Chinese

Last year, China passed a national security law for Hong Kong that created a number of chilling measures. A new security office with its own personnel has been established by China in Hong Kong, outside local jurisdiction. Some criminal cases can now be tried in mainland China. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive has the power to appoint judges to hear national security cases.

The law includes many broad-brush offences, including “provoking by unlawful means hatred among Hong Kong residents towards the Central People’s Government or the Government of the Region, which is likely to cause serious consequences.”

Given the extraterritorial nature of the legislation, it might well apply to those of us participating in this debate.

However, this debate is not about history, rules or what might happen to Members of Parliament; it is about people such as Donna Kong, who has lived in Hong Kong her whole life but has decided to take the difficult decision to leave her family behind and move with her husband to Liverpool. She says:

“Nowadays, we have to be careful what we say on the streets.”

Her husband adds: “Hong Kong is going from a free, international city to just another Chinese city.”

It is about people such as Jimmy Lai, who was jailed in April 2021 for his participation in a peaceful protest in 2019. In reality, it was because he has the temerity to publish a newspaper that criticises the Government. It is about people such as Martin Lee, a barrister and member of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong for over 20 years, who is regarded and revered as the father of democracy in Hong Kong. He has been silenced by the national security law. He has stopped his public activism and is no longer granting media interviews. He has also been sentenced for participating in an unlawful assembly, although his sentence was suspended.

The crackdown on human rights in Hong Kong has been all pervasive, and I will give some examples. The legislature has passed an immigration Bill to restrict freedom of movement in and out of Hong Kong. The police chief has floated the idea of a law to target so-called fake news, and he has called for the closure of Jimmy Lai’s Apple Daily, the last pro-democracy publication. Police have censored a website belonging to a Taiwanese church. The Government have attacked the Hong Kong Bar Association and fired 129 civil servants for refusing to sign an oath of allegiance. The local broadcaster, RTHK, has purged its online platform of any shows over a year old but given Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, her own television show, which is shown four times every day. So-called national security education is to be embedded across the curriculum in all secondary schools.

The UK’s Initial Steps

The examples I have given are from April 2021 alone—just one month in the life of Hongkongers—so I welcome the steps taken by the Government in response to China’s actions. The Government have suspended the UK’s extradition treaty with Hong Kong, and extended to Hong Kong the embargo on certain military items already imposed on mainland China. I particularly welcome the new visa route to people from Hong Kong who have British national overseas status and their close family members. It is a generous offer that befits a global Britain that takes this issue seriously, and I am pleased that the Home Office has announced that it has received 34,000 applications for visas in the first two months of operation.

What More Could Be Done?

The Government recognises that there is an ongoing breach of Chinese obligations, and I ask whether further measures might be taken. Is there scope to work with allies and partners to ensure a coordinated approach? I read recently that Germany will not accept BNO passports as identity documents, and it is important that democracies take a common line on such matters. We continue to have British judges sitting on Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal—a position that perhaps looks increasingly untenable as the current situation continues. As we are able to identify officials in Hong Kong who are guilty of human rights breaches, I ask whether it is time to consider targeted sanctions against them, or at least to assess their effectiveness.

There is no dispute resolution clause in the Sino-British joint declaration, but it is a living document, and the United Kingdom is party to it. This country has a duty to protect the rights and freedoms of Hongkongers. Until such time as those freedoms are restored, I expect that the voices from this island will only get louder.

30th June 2021