Today’s conviction of nine leaders of the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement on charges including ‘incitement to public nuisance’, ‘incitement to incite public nuisance’ and ‘conspiracy to public nuisance’ is, in itself, one of the biggest public nuisances in Hong Kong in recent years. And the verdict is yet another hammer blow to Hong Kong’s rapidly eroding freedoms.
The nine convicted leaders include three of the most prominent activists and figureheads of the Umbrella Movement: law professor Benny Tai, sociology professor Chan Kin-man and Baptist pastor Chu Yiu-ming. They could face up to seven years in jail.
Human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Hong Kong Watch, and members of the US Congress and the German Bundestag have condemned the verdict, and Hong Kong’s last colonial Governor, Lord Patten, described it as ‘appallingly divisive’ and ‘vengeful’.
The Umbrella Movement protests in 2014, which continued for 79 days, were one of the most peaceful and orderly demonstrations anywhere in the world. Sparked by Beijing’s refusal to introduce full universal suffrage in Hong Kong, the Umbrella Movement began with a campaign called ‘Occupy Central with Love and Peace’, initiated by Tai, Chan and Reverend Chu. It then evolved into a wider movement that took its name from the yellow umbrellas that protestors used.
The conviction of the nine protest leaders is part of the Chinese regime’s campaign of ‘lawfare’ against the pro-democracy movement, using archaic laws left over from the colonial era. Activists such as Edward Leung have been jailed under the ambiguously worded Public Order Ordinance (POO), which punishes ‘unlawful assembly’.
But the jailing of peaceful protestors is by no means the only example of the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms. Over the past five years we have seen Hong Kong booksellers who published titles critical of China’s rulers abducted. We have seen a political party banned, and a senior Financial Times journalist, Victor Mallet, expelled from the city. I myself was refused entry to Hong Kong in October 2017, which drew international attention, was raised in parliament and condemned by the then-Foreign Secretary. Since then I have received at least eight anonymous, threatening letters, postmarked from Hong Kong, sent to my neighbours in suburban London, my mother and my employers.
And the situation in Hong Kong looks like it could worsen. A new national anthem law has made it an offence to insult China’s national anthem, despite failing to define such ‘insults’. Mainland Chinese law has been changed so it applies at the high-speed rail terminus in Hong Kong, so if you are travelling to the mainland, you are subject to Chinese law before you even begin your journey. Meanwhile, a national security law will tighten the noose on freedoms even further.
Perhaps more alarming are current proposals to change Hong Kong’s extradition laws, to enable suspected criminals to be extradited from Hong Kong to the mainland. Not only do political activists fear they could be in danger if this change goes ahead, but businesses are increasingly concerned that international and local businessmen could be vulnerable. The proposals have been described as ‘legalised kidnapping’. Hong Kong’s Law Society, the American Chamber of Commerce, the Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, British Members of Parliament and others have spoken out against the new laws, but so far Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam appears determined to carry on doing Beijing’s bidding, whatever the cost to Hong Kong’s reputation.
Britain has a legal as well as a moral responsibility to speak up for Hong Kong, under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, an international treaty lodged at the United Nations – until at least 2047. Prior to the handover 22 years ago, Hong Kong was promised a high degree of autonomy, human rights and the rule of law under the ‘one country, two systems’ principle. For the first few years after the handover, China largely kept to its side of the bargain, but in the past five years the principle has been shredded. China dismisses the Joint Declaration as a ‘historical document’ with no practical significance, and attacks foreign critics for ‘interfering’ in its internal affairs.
It is time now for Britain to stand up for Hong Kong. Every six months the Foreign Secretary publishes a report on the situation, and recent reports have become noticeably more robust. But as parliament’s human rights committee has noted, these reports are not enough. It is time to get tough. A human rights clause, protecting the rule of law, should be included in any future trade deal with Hong Kong. And Britain should build a global coalition of like-minded countries, to speak up against the proposed extradition laws and for Hong Kong’s autonomy. Other countries – the United States, Canada, Germany and the European Union – are willing to do more, but understandably they look to Britain to lead. Not only for moral reasons, or even for legal treaty obligations, but for hard-headed self-interest too. It cannot be in anyone’s interests to allow Hong Kong’s basic freedoms, the rule of law and autonomy to be further eroded. Hong Kong’s reputation as an international financial centre and a regional business hub is at stake. If Hong Kong becomes just another Chinese city, ruled by the brute force of the corrupt Chinese Communist Party, its appeal to investors will wane. Let’s hope today’s verdict serves as a wake-up call to the world: Hong Kong needs our help.
Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Chairman of Hong Kong Watch.