The purge of democratic lawmakers in Hong Kong underlines China’s disregard for international law

The latest move by Beijing is such a flagrant breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration that the UK needs to ensure there are consequences

Johnny Patterson
Thursday 12 November 2020 16:48
<p>Hong Kong opposition lawmakers announced their resignation as a bloc following the disqualification of four of their colleagues</p>

Hong Kong opposition lawmakers announced their resignation as a bloc following the disqualification of four of their colleagues

There are few better case studies of how democracy dies than Hong Kong. In the last 20 years, Beijing has steadily taken control of the key levers of power: the economy, the media, the executive branch. This year, the government decided that it was time for full-blown authoritarianism.  

Covid-19 restrictions have provided a pretext to stamp out peaceful assembly. With the city’s chief executive little better than a puppet, the national security law was introduced to eradicate the city’s autonomy. This week, mass disqualification of democratic lawmakers served to rubber-stamp the new single-party status quo.

Two years ago, Hong Kong touted itself as “Asia’s world city”. Now the world looks with pity at a city in decline. A mass exodus should not surprise us.

Hong Kong’s politics brutally expose the fragility of democratic norms and institutions. For all Beijing’s talk of multilateralism, it also shows that the Chinese Communist Party no longer cares about the facade of complying with international law. This has been made clearer by the latest developments in China’s trade war with Australia, which is in direct violation of its free trade agreement and obligations under the World Trade Organisation.

The latest move by Beijing, to unilaterally purge Hong Kong's legislative council of democrats, is such a flagrant breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration that the UK needs to ensure there are consequences. 

Two courses of action should be on the table: first, the UK should be looking at whether there is any case that might be pursued at the International Court of Justice. This is a clear violation of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, and so there may be a case to be made.  

Second, the developments strengthen the case that has been made by the British parliament for applying Magnitsky or other sanctions against the officials responsible for Hong Kong’s turn to authoritarianism.

Taking a step back, this is another reminder of the fact that one should be sceptical of good-faith agreements made with the Chinese Communist Party, and that a key foreign policy priority for the UK government should be considering areas where we are strategically dependent on Beijing and seeking to mitigate this.  

Writing recently, Chris Patten observed that from Xinjiang to Hong Kong, and from Covid to the South China Sea, Beijing’s foreign policy proves that “one thing is clear: the world cannot trust Xi’s dictatorship.” Xi Jinping has explicitly stated that “western constitutional democracy” and “universal human rights” are ideas which must be overcome if China is to emerge as a great power. The Communist Party has set itself against western values. We should be wary of giving them too much leverage.

This is a question of national security, values and British interests. As the House of Commons gets ready to debate the government’s long-awaited National Security and Investment Bill, the British government needs to urgently audit areas of weakness. There is growing awareness that the policies of the Cameron “golden era” have left the UK exposed. Bloomberg recently reported that the Chinese have participated in deals worth $70bn (£53.2bn) in the UK. Many of these focus on key industries, such as energy, as well as real estate. Our universities are reliant on Chinese student funding, and Hong Kong students are reportedly facing intimidation. The exposure of UK-based firms in Hong Kong is also an issue of concern: for example, HSBC makes 70 per cent of its profits out of Hong Kong, its Asia hub; they are treading a tightrope.

All of this means that China policy can no longer be fragmented between the Foreign Office focusing on diplomacy and the Treasury concerned about the UK’s financial relationship with China. It touches defence, home affairs, BEIS (business, energy and industrial strategy), trade and education. The Cabinet Office should convene a working group to coordinate action and commit greater resources to identifying where the threats lie. The new Biden administration in the US has already explicitly stated that it is looking to take multilateral action in response to China; here is an opportunity for Britain.

Events in Hong Kong point to a new world order. In 1990, Deng Xiaoping, China’s former paramount leader, summed up Beijing’s approach to foreign policy with the words “hide your strength and bide your time”. In 2017, Xi rejected this principle and adopted a new slogan: “It is time for us to take centre stage.” His foreign minister said that China would become “the most active and positive force in global governance”.  

Tearing up the Sino-British Joint Declaration is the outworking of this new assertive foreign policy. Xi’s vision includes a wholescale rejection, or reimagining, of international norms. It is the greatest contemporary foreign policy challenge to liberal internationalism. We need to take it seriously.

Johnny Patterson is policy director of Hong Kong Watch an NGO promoting human rights, freedoms and rule of law in Hong Kong

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