Empire brought responsibilities as well as riches. This country should not shirk them
Hong Kongers don’t wave the old colonial flag at pro-democracy protests because they want the British back, they just want us to keep our promises and remember our duty. And it’s about time we did.
In 1981, we stripped Hong Kongers of rights they had enjoyed for generations. Gone was the citizenship of the UK and Colonies. In (for a minority of the territory’s population) came a second-class status—British National (Overseas)—which removed their right to reside in the UK. This act kept out of our country people who had helped make it rich and powerful. It was a mistake then, and one we are still paying for today.
The reason was simple: the government was concerned that large numbers of people would move to the UK when they discovered what living under Chinese rule was really like. We assured them that their fears were groundless. But our actions suggested that we shared them.
Now that British nationals—around 170,000 holders of the BN(O) passports—are being threatened again, we should not let them down.
Our stance will affect not only the fates of individuals. It shapes the future of Hong Kong. We need to help everyone buy time to find a political solution and citizenship can help. After the hand-over in 1997 a few essential civil servants, businesspeople, and judges were treated better than the rest and given full British citizenship so they could leave any time they wanted. Knowing they could also wait and see gave them the reassurance to wait. The ex-territory’s leaders were able to give confidence to everyone.
Today the same is true. Those who argue that entrenching Hong Kongers’ right to come to the UK will only encourage migration have it the wrong way round. If we fail to reassure Hong Kongers that their rights are secure, we stoke the crisis. Narrowing options encourages desperation—fight or flight is a deep-rooted human instinct.
It is not only human ties that bind us to our ex-colony. Another is the legal system.
Hong Kong is not just an offshore Shanghai. It’s a haven of legal confidence in a region that struggles with corruption, and the greed of oligarchs—including the so-called red princes in China. The rule of law makes all the difference. Like old European aristocrats, members of the Chinese Communist Party can only be tried by their peers, not the ordinary courts. In Hong Kong, by contrast, justice underwrites the city’s prosperity and gives confidence to traders and investors around the world; it also gives a route for Chinese money to access the region.
To reassure investors that trade in the city will meet international standards, judges from Australia, Canada and New Zealand join UK judges as overseas non-permanent judges, on the Court of Final Appeal, the Special Administrative Region’s supreme court. Most of their work is commercial but as they sit on the bench in all trials, they cannot divide their work between commercial and civil rights.
That can make their position difficult as the Beijing regime’s influence grows. China’s use of the law as a means of control, not only justice, puts it in direct opposition to the principles of an independent legal system. The withdrawn (for now) extradition bill which sparked the recent protests would extend the remit of Chinese Communist Party courts to Hong Kong—and British judges could be made complicit. The risk to the reputation of the British and other legal systems is clear. This is not just about Hong Kong, it’s about us.