We seem to be building up to a second Tiananmen Square, 30 years after the first. This time the venue is Hong Kong. As then, the Chinese government longs to kill protestors, but it hesitates because it fears global reaction. It therefore matters greatly that the ‘rules-based international order’ strongly assert that breaking the 1984 Sino-British Agreement would put China beyond the pale. No international discussion of Brexit is complete without a reverent invocation of the Good Friday Agreement (which in fact has almost nothing to do with EU membership). The Hong Kong Agreement should command such reverence, and its pledge of ‘One country: two systems’ should be the test of whether China is a law-abiding international partner. This is not an obscure dispute about a small territory, but a big one about legality, liberty and, by extension, trade and prosperity.
The Hong Kong legal model is the one China enticingly offers in its Belt and Road initiative. Yet it is trashing it. After Tiananmen, the Chinese knew they had overreached and had to creep slowly back to respectability. By the turn of the century, they achieved this, but now they are losing it again as they have become more repressive, corrupt and threatening. So the wider world has leverage. Tom Tugendhat’s suggestion on Tuesday of offering Hong Kong people British citizenship is not as daft as it sounds.
Thirty years ago, when I edited this magazine, we pushed this idea on the grounds that, far from persuading Hong Kong people to leave, British passports would give them the confidence to stay. Mrs Thatcher introduced a very small version, extending full British passports to more than 200,000. It was just enough to prevent a flight of citizens and capital. We should try a more ambitious version today.
This article is an extract from Charles Moore’s Spectator Notes, available in this week’s magazine