The British Government has often had a hazy relationship with international law. Indeed their behaviour in the mid-2000s could be characterised as part of the Captain Barbosa-ification of the norms of international law: that is to say that they are ‘more like guidelines’.
International law comes with contradictions: moments where the charter of the declaration runs straight up against the reality of how the Security Council vote. Nonetheless, there are some parts of international law that are unambiguous. Britain made an unambiguous promise to the people of Hong Kong that they would be a guarantor of the one country, two systems legal settlement, and the Basic Law. It has demonstrably failed to do so. Leaving aside the revelations of the past two days, Hong Kongers have seen a steady erosion of their freedoms at the hands of Chinese Communist Party. This is the Communist Party who wants to extradite Hong Kongers out of the public view, and what remains of a free press, onto the Mainland, where anything could happen to them.
During George Osborne’s tenure at the Treasury, much exacerbated after the Liberal Democrats left office, the push was ever more for close cooperation with China at all costs. One of those costs seems to be our silence on Hong Kong. Close advisors like Lord Jim O’Neill (now involved in a China Centre at Jesus College) were prime movers in this strategy. Not only did this spell in the Treasury encourage us to become more beholden to Beijing’s wishes, it also lowered our expectations of how much action was possible. Dominic Raab has been willing to make statements (normally mealy-mouthed), but the Government has been completely unwilling to look at a Magnitsky Act for Hong Kong, which would exert real financial pressure on Beijing.
Alan Leong, former leader of the Civic Party, remarked when he spoke recently at the Cambridge Union that Hong Kong was on the forefront of a battle of ideas between East and West, and that this made the battle there not just more possible but more essential. Where does the direct foreign investment money pour into China from? Macau and Hong Kong. And yet we steadfastly refuse to apply any serious pressure, when now would be the ideal time, as China has its first quarter of recession in decades.
As Liberals, this is what we should push for: an unyielding commitment to the rights of Hong Kongers as guaranteed in international law and by the promises of this country. We should push for Hong Kongers once more to have the right to British citizenship. As much as I might wish Government decisions would be influenced by liberals everywhere, I doubt it, not least during this pandemic, where the Government feels it has other priorities. But as Cambridge Liberals, there are things we can do within this university, and our standards must start at home.
Wolfson College still refuses to remove Carrie Lam from its honorary fellowship. Lam has been one of the architects and instruments of Beijing’s recent brutal repression. The response from Hong Kongers in the local elections last year demonstrated well that the people no longer have confidence in her. She cannot continue to rule as ‘one man, two guv’nors’, claiming to serve the people of Hong Kong whilst catering in reality to the demands of politicians in Beijing. If her position as CEO is untenable, how much more untenable is her position as a fellow of a College that claims to support academic freedom? Thursday marked Hong Kong’s ‘National Security Education Day’—something that sounds dystopian even to a population entering its second month of a state mandated lockdown—and, as expected, it was used as an excuse to arrest Beijing’s enemies. Lam’s regard for academic freedom does not seem to extend to the fifteen lawmakers who were locked up in the past 24 hours, including Martin Lee, a man I am honoured to call a friend, and who embodies liberal civilisation. Lam proudly lists her honorary fellowship from Wolfson amongst her achievements—perhaps it’s time Wolfson proudly announced that it will rescind that fellowship, and appoint Martin instead.
Coronavirus has been the dream of dictators everywhere, providing excuses for state control, tracking citizens and passing emergency laws. Yet it should also be an opportunity for us to sit back and reconsider our liberal priorities, and realise what is most precious to us. The freedoms Hong Kongers are deprived of should be precious to us too, even if they are not our freedoms, not only because of Britain’s promises, but because we may regret one day that we did not fight this growing repression on its front line.