DURING the heady Thatcher era, it was the dream of Right-wing libertarian types to turn Britain into the ‘Hong Kong’ of Europe. Subsequent British governments realised that vision by turning both into offshore islands threatened by increasingly aggressive, anti-democratic Continental superpowers.
Of course, it would be offensive to suggest our plight is remotely of the magnitude faced by the brave people of Hong Kong, whose protests have touched and impressed the world, but we can nonetheless sympathise: from the late 1980s onwards, in both territories treaties and agreements were signed over the heads the people, handing power to a much larger, autocratic neighbour. Not only was there no democratic oversight but contempt and hostility for it. Instead, the population was served up patronising bromides that nothing would change, the people’s way of life would be protected, nothing to see here, please move along.
Now Beijing’s rubber-stamp legislature has formally approved a controversial national security law which US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says spells the end of Hong Kong’s autonomy.
It is time for Britain to spearhead initiatives to safeguard the future of all Hong Kong’s 7million citizens for several reasons. Firstly, the moral case for doing so is unanswerable: in 1997 we handed over sovereignty to a totalitarian dictatorship that had within living memory starved up to 45million of its own people in the so-called Great Leap Forward and in 1989 massacred more than 10,000 after the Tiananmen Square protests.
Although it is true that Britain, despite technically owning Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon peninsula in perpetuity, had a very weak hand at the time and in many ways played it well, it is a scandal that Hong Kong’s citizens were not given the right to live here. Now that China’s hostility and bad faith are there for all to see, this is a wrong that can now be righted.
A second reason is that this is Brexit Britain’s first real test. As Ben Kelly writes in the Telegraph, we now have the opportunity to prove that post-Brexit we will be a global, generous and morally courageous country, rather than the mean-minded and xenophobic one of Ultra-Remain’s lurid prejudices. Of course, there is a tension here with the desire of most people to have substantially lower immigration, and we must be sensitive to these concerns. However, Hong Kong people, many of whom are highly skilled, could be given priority for work visas by tweaking the new points-based immigration system, thereby to some extent displacing immigration from elsewhere.
Beyond that, we have a duty to preserve Hong Kong’s memory and legacy. Having been transformed by Sir John James Cowperthwaite, Financial Secretary of Hong Kong from 1961 to 1971, from a backwater into a shining light of freedom and enterprise, it became arguably in some ways more Anglo-Saxon than the Anglo-Saxons. We cannot now stop it dying, but we can preserve its memory in the hope that one day freedom will be returned to it. If Brexit Britain really does believe in its values, then the spirit of Hong Kong must be kept alive.
That final point, moreover, extends far beyond Britain, beyond our historic moral responsibility and beyond deciding on the people we want to be: this is the first real test of the modern Anglosphere, of which Hong Kong, had it ever been or should it ever be allowed independence, would be such a salient part. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was assumed that the whole world would be marching towards liberal democracy. Instead it is increasingly obvious that we live in a multi-polar world where Western values are increasingly at bay. Nor can we be assured that the European Union will be a consistent friend to those values, something that Britain in particular should take note of. Although it is currently very far from being the ‘EUSSR’ of the more excitable Brexiteers’ imaginations, a pan-European, non-democratic government seems finally to be emerging. Given current trajectories and continental Europe’s history it is certainly conceivable that such a ‘Europe’ will prove a somewhat difficult neighbour for this country to manage. One day it may be Britain which needs the heft and protection of a resurgent Anglosphere, and as its founding member it is in our self-interest to be at the forefront of realising it as a moral and political entity in world affairs. Thursday’s joint statement by the US, UK, Australia and Canada on Hong Kong may well one day be seen as the start of that process and was certainly a very encouraging start. However, it behoves us to go much further by guaranteeing that all of our Hong Kong Anglosphere cousins have a safe second home they can flee to if necessary. Karma can be a bitch: fail to do the right thing over Hong Kong now, and we may live to regret it bitterly.