The death of Hong Kong’s freedoms


The Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Falkner chaired a discussion on 8th February on the demise of Hong Kong’s political freedoms since the transfer of its sovereignty to China. The event was organised by the Henry Jackson Society at the Palace of Westminster.

The speakers were Joshua Wong (a Hong Kong student and co-founder of the political party Demosisto), Angela Gui (daughter of detained publisher Gui Minhai) and Benedict Rogers (Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission).

2017 marks the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule.  The freedoms for Hong Kong citizens, guaranteed under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, have been increasingly undermined, with additional concerns now being raised about the abduction of individuals who are not Chinese citizens and which are taking place beyond Chinese borders.

Gui’s father holds only Swedish citizenship but was kidnapped by the Chinese authorities from his holiday home in Thailand in October 2015 after his part in the publication of books critical about Beijing’s leaders.

Gui stated that the kidnapping of foreign citizens from foreign territories points to the development of an imperial aspect of Chinese foreign policy where the Chinese government deems Chinese ethnicity, rather than Chinese citizenship, as the source of its authority over certain individuals.

Wong urged the international community to keep a watchful eye on China, stating that Beijing’s emphasis on ‘prosperity and stability has in reality meant the erosion of political freedoms’.

He also stated that ‘it was not easy to fight for democracy in Hong Kong when others [were] more interested in business interests’ and that they would ‘continue to fight until we have it back’.

Rogers argued that the UK was not living up to its responsibilities as outlined in the Joint Declaration and that the UK has ‘a right and an obligation to keep checking if China is keeping its side of the bargain’.

The Sino-British Joint Declaration outlined the ‘one country, two systems’ principle in which the Chinese government promised to uphold fundamental rights including freedom of speech, freedom of press, judicial autonomy and protection from unlawful detention for a period of 50 years beginning from 1997.

However, since 2002 Hong Kong has dropped from 12th to 70th place in the World Press Freedom Index.  To date at least five Hong Kong booksellers have disappeared, believed to have been kidnapped, by Chinese agents for selling or printing books critical of Chinese leaders. In 2016 pro-democracy activists, including Wong, were found guilty of unlawful assembly following their roles in the 2014 Umbrella Movement; a verdict which Amnesty International said was a ‘chilling warning for freedom of expression and peaceful assembly’ in Hong Kong.

* Esther Lam is on the Executive of the Chinese Liberal Democrats as Membership Development Officer.

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  • Eddie Sammon 27th Feb '17 - 8:43pm

    I strongly support Hong Kong’s desire for political freedoms. I say strongly because too many have been too quiet on it, so compared with others then yes I support Hong Kong strongly.

    It’s not just Hong Kong whom China treats like a colony, but Taiwan, Tibet, islands in the South China Sea and possibly more. There’s no point waiting for other liberals to put their heads above the parapet on this, we should do it more often starting from now.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 27th Feb '17 - 11:07pm

    Esther writes of something very important. In the enthusiasm all of us feel for criticism of Trump, the only thing I like , of his presidency thus far, was accepting the call of President Tsai Ing-Wen of Tawain, a Liberal and Democratic, female president.

    Can anyone even imagine China with any of the above for a leader ?!

  • Eddie
    Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, and the South China sea were all part of the Qing Empire (which also included outer Mongolia) Thus present day China regards this territory as sovereign Chinese territory, except for Mongolia. Tibet and Inner Mongolia are autonomous regions, as is Xinjiang. Do you support the Uyghur separatists there?
    Tsai Ing-Wen is the president of the Republic of China, therein lies the problem.
    Formosa was only a very short lived country before the Japanese occupation.

  • Eddie Sammon 28th Feb '17 - 10:36am

    Manfarang, just because areas were once part of an empire or “dynasty” doesn’t mean they have to be forever in the future, otherwise we would still be claiming sovereignty over the former British Empire!

    When it comes to Uyghur separatists: I don’t know enough about them, but I am not supporting violent protests, if that is what they are into. It’s not separation that we need to support, but self-determination (which can lead to separation if that’s what people wish).

  • Alex Macfie 28th Feb '17 - 3:41pm

    Tsai Ing-Wen made a mistake in calling Trump. She should not have legitimised a President who rules more like the dictators of mainland China.

  • Eddie
    But that is the point. The UK recognised China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong (most of it was only leased to Britain) While the Basic Law recognises certain freedoms, during the colonial times London was boss. Democracy in those years took a back seat.

  • What’s challenging is trying to convince Beijing to play by the rules established by the West. Self-determination and democracy are Western principles to which they don’t really subscribe (at least for now). For China, what’s important is the One China Principle (territorial integrity of Taiwan but also HK etc). The task of the Lib Dems should be to decide how to act liberally in an illiberal world, I think. Answers on a postcard – but I think the carrot will work better than the stick!

  • Eddie Sammon 28th Feb '17 - 6:34pm

    The first step should be moral pressure but there is hardly any of it. It’s not using the stick to simply strongly criticise China’s government. Democracy and self-determination are not western principles, look at how Mandela fought for it in South Africa or the Algerians against France. Of course, these conflicts are complicated, but we shouldn’t allow China to paint self-determination as a western principle that they don’t need to worry about much. It’s a human right, or it should be.

    The One China Policy in its absolutist form is about as liberal as a One Empire one.

  • Eddie – I want political freedoms for HK too! I just don’t think taking the moral high ground (also known as ‘moral pressure’) would be particularly effective, and may even be counterproductive, given the balance of economic/military power. China has been quite crafty in pointing out contradictions in Western rhetoric. One could argue that self-determination was only espoused as a principle with the decline of empires (by Woodrow Wilson post-WW1 w/ the decline of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, and then post-WW2 w/ the decline of French and British empires) – but the present context is that China is a rising, not declining, power.

  • Eddie Sammon 28th Feb '17 - 9:20pm

    Esther, I know you do. I’ll support whatever the Hong Kong people want in terms of their relationship with China, but I’m clear that I strongly support self-determination and I don’t care if it annoys the Chinese Communist Party. I support it for Scotland too, so it’s not just bitterness at Britain losing an empire and trying to keep China down.

    Best regards

  • Eddie
    Maybe I will be able to retire to an independent Orkney.

  • Merlene Emerson 1st Mar '17 - 9:12am

    Thanks Esther for attending this forum organised by the Henry Jackson Society in Parliament and reporting back on LDV and on Chinese Liberal Democrats website. I can see that it has stimulated some very interesting debate!

  • Manfarang – you’re right to point out the context-specific nature of democracy and political rights in Hong Kong. There are many contradictions in western rhetoric, but I don’t think it means we should give up and let authoritarian states do as they please either. It would strengthen the UK’s moral standing if they had an honest discussion about their own imperial past for example. And then if the Lib Dems (because they Tories aren’t going to do it) could reiterate a commitment to a liberal rules-based world order …

  • Esther
    With the UK leaving the EU the UK’s influence in the world is diminished. Britain will become more dependent on mainland China investment and business. This is not good for those who wish to uphold the freedoms Hong Kong people enjoy.

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