Hong Kong's freedom is vanishing in front of us
May 29, 2020 – 2.46pm
In 1996, a year before the return of Hong Kong to China, I was in Beijing meeting the Chinese foreign minister, Qian Qichen. I had stopped off on my way to speak with some of Hong Kong's leading politicians, who requested me to make clear the necessity of the territory continuing to enjoy the rule of law .
Although Hong Kong, under the British, was a colony, it had always enjoyed independent judges and freedom under the law, as we do in the UK. When I raised this with the Chinese foreign minister he assured me that was no problem. "China, too," he said, "believes in the rule of law." And then he added, "In China, the people must obey the law."
Pro-democracy supporters scuffle with riot police during a rally in Hong Kong on Wednesday. Getty
I pointed out to him that the rule of law did not just apply to "the people". The Government, too, must be under the law. He not only did not agree with me, he had not the faintest idea what I was talking about. The idea that a government might be subject to independent courts and judges was unacceptable in China, as it is in all dictatorships.
In China they do not have the rule of law. They have rule by law, which means the government often uses the law to criminalise political opposition. That is the fate that now faces the people of Hong Kong as a result of without the consent of Hong Kong's own local parliament.
This is denied by Xi Jinping and his spokesmen. They insist that Hong Kong's autonomy and "one country, two systems" will remain until 2047, as agreed in the treaty signed jointly with the United Kingdom.
In one limited sense they mean it. Hong Kong remains a very valuable economic and financial asset for China. A large part of the foreign capital that is invested in mainland China by international companies is raised in Hong Kong, where all the financial institutions and legal and banking expertise are concentrated. Shanghai and Beijing cannot compete with Hong Kong in this respect.
The Chinese government knows that if it crushed Hong Kong like it did the protesters in Tiananmen Square then business confidence would collapse, the financial institutions would move to either Singapore or Taiwan, and Hong Kong would become an empty shell instead of one of Asia's great cities. China's strategy has been to use salami tactics; to erode Hong Kong's freedom and autonomy slice by slice while all the time protesting that these are modest and reasonable changes compatible with one country, two systems.
Such protestations would be difficult to believe even if the Chinese government was behaving in an otherwise moderate and responsible way. However, that, sadly, has not been the case since Xi Jinping came to power.
While attacking Hong Kong's autonomy, he has also incarcerated up to a million Muslim Uighurs in what are, euphemistically, described as "re-education camps". He has been threatening his South East Asian neighbours with the , ignoring the verdict of the Arbitration Tribunal on questions of sovereignty. He withheld vital information not only from the rest of the world but from his own people after the coronavirus pandemic erupted in Wuhan.
Against that background, it is not surprising that he treats the very real anxieties of the people of Hong Kong with indifference. He will want, for his own reasons, to retain the appearance of one country, two systems. But it would be little more than a hollowed-out facade within a few years.
What can be done about it? To a large extent this will depend on the response of the 7 million people of Hong Kong. Over the last year they have shown, week after week, their determination to preserve freedom. Hundreds of thousands have come out onto the streets in what have been, overwhelmingly, non-violent protests. The local elections in Hong Kong resulted in candidates supporting Beijing being massively defeated.
But the people of Hong Kong need international support. While the Chinese government rejects international protests as "interference", they are very sensitive to it.
The British Government has been robust, as was its duty, and we should welcome yesterday's Joint Statement by the British, American, Australian and Canadian Foreign Ministers. What we still need, however, is an even more concerted international response. The Hong Kong people deserve the support of the European Union; the issue should be raised at the next G7 meeting, and the members of the Commonwealth in particular have an ethical as well as a political obligation to speak out.
It is not too late for free peoples and democratic governments throughout the world, in Asia as well as Europe, to express their support. There is no certainty that Beijing will listen. But we will never forgive ourselves if we do not do all in our power to help the brave people of Hong Kong.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind is a former foreign secretary and a patron of Hong Kong Watch
The Telegraph London