Hong Kong’s struggle is Britain’s shame | Dominic Crannis
Last summer I took part in a Solidarity with Hong Kong rally in London. About 1800 Hong Kongers as well as British sympathisers marched from Trafalgar Square to Whitehall and the Palace of Westminster. We were assailed by Mainland Chinese counter-protesters who blocked the entrance to Downing Street, but thankfully the police averted any possible breakouts of violence.
In response to the Mainlanders’ heckles, we were inclined to change our rallying cries from “Democracy for Hong Kong” and “Free Hong Kong”, to “Democracy for China” and “Free China”, which I found quite touching. Perhaps the Chinese Mainland has been led to believe that the Hong Kongers are virulent anti-China xenophobes, when all they really desire is to be free of the tyranny that afflicts all corners of that ancient country.
I come from a village near Cambridge, a small and quaint town that really has no right to call itself a city. Therefore I have the habit of imagining that all of Britain is like this, and am always amazed when I come to Central London and find such gigantic buildings. Trafalgar Square is magnificently impressive. Nelson’s Column towers above it; surrounded by fearsome bronze lions and other great statues of military heroes. Beyond them, as we took our protest to Whitehall, we passed statues of WWII icons like Monty, and finally came to Parliament Square which is watched over by Winston Churchill, David Lloyd George, Benjamin Disraeli, and even non-Britons such as Jan Smuts, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Throughout the entire rally I felt we were making history, in the presence of history.
Of course, the architectural and iconographic grandeur of Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, and Westminster is a relic of the wealth and power of a fallen empire, no different to the Colosseum of Rome or the Pyramids of Giza. This was especially poignant to me in a Hong Kong protest, for it was the decline of the British Empire that led to the helpless surrender of the territory to the Chinese dictatorship.
China ceded Hong Kong Island, Stonecutters Island, and the Kowloon Peninsula to Britain in the mid-19th century as a result of British victory in the Opium Wars. The rest of Hong Kong was leased for a period of 99 years in 1898 due to Chinese powerlessness after the First Sino-Japanese War and British interest in defending Hong Kong from rival European powers expanding in the region. British diplomat Claude MacDonald chose 99 years because he felt it was “as good as forever”. How wrong he would later turn out to be.
Hong Kong was ceded when China was weak and sterile under the ailing Qing dynasty. By 1984 the tables had turned: Britain had lost most of its other colonies and could barely hang on to the Falklands; it was in no position to negotiate with the resurgent China under Deng Xiaoping, who cunningly combined traditional Maoist authoritarianism with the free market (a tyranny fit for the modern age). It was well enough that Britain was able to secure Hong Kong’s basic liberties as a Special Administrative Region of China until at least 2047, according to the terms of 1984’s Sino-British Joint Declaration. Subsequently, Hong Kong (both leased and unleased territories) was returned in this form to China on 1st July 1997, a date which for many marked the dying breath of the British Empire.
Exchanging land for paper promises never ends well in statecraft. China by now regards the Joint Declaration as irrelevant, and has been encroaching upon freedom and democracy in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region for years. Our protest, as well as showing solidarity, was to pressure the British Government to uphold its promises to Hong Kong and stand up to China as so many Western countries fail to do. The chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee Tom Tugendhat has excellently recommended granting those Hong Kongers with British National (Overseas) status the right to abode in the United Kingdom. Not only would this be a peaceful act of resistance towards Beijing, but it would reassure Hong Kongers that Britain still respects the Joint Declaration, and will grant them refuge if they are forced to flee. It’s the least we can do after selling them down the river.
Passing through the lost Imperial grandeur of Central London with a crowd of weary, betrayed Hong Kongers made me mourn more than ever the loss of British power. I don’t look back on history through rose-tinted glasses; the British Empire was culpable in many grievous mistakes. But I recognise that as our European rivals amassed empires of their own, it was either do or die, and while other historical empires brought little more to their subjects than genocide and oppression, the British spread liberal democracy, the rule of law, free trade, and the Industrial Revolution across the globe. Hong Kong is a testament to this. I support the right to self-determination, but would the world have this right if not for the ancient liberal Whig tradition of British political culture?
Though the loss of British power isn’t just about our territorial decline. After all, in many respects standards of living have actually improved in Britain since decolonisation. On paper there is absolutely no reason why we can’t be a happy, proud, successful nation-state without Imperial aspirations. However, the end of Empire was too rapid and humiliating for us; the psychological damage it did to our national pride and faith in our national institutions would turn out to be far more terminal than any single lost colony or dominion.
In 1914 Britain was apparently indomitable, standing strong after a century of Pax Britannica, with the largest Empire the world had ever known. But after the devastating First World War (in which we became a debtor nation to the United States) we surrendered our naval supremacy, in the Pacific and elsewhere, to the Americans by terminating the Anglo-Japanese Alliance and signing the Washington Naval Treaty. In the Second World War we were effectively defeated and forced to retreat at Dunkirk; thereafter, faced with becoming a German satellite state, we opted to become an American satellite instead, by yet more debts, agreeing to split up our Empire in the Atlantic Charter, and submitting to voluntary, yet nonetheless humiliating, occupation by American GIs. The struggles of the ANZACs in the First World War had already done much to sever trust in Britain in the dominions; a lack of British support in WWII caused dominions like Australia to head further into the American fold. The Fall of Singapore, meanwhile, which was arguably the result of British neglect of the Pacific theatre in favour of the Mediterranean, would be our worst ever military defeat and would prove to independence movements throughout the Empire that the white man was defeatable. After the War as our colonies left us one by one, America would again act to subvert our interests in the Suez Crisis, a final military defeat that shattered our remaining illusions of Imperial power.
Two devastating World Wars, the hasty, pathetic American-led dismantling of the British Empire, the Suez embarrassment, and the Profumo sex scandal, left a Britain without faith in its destiny or in the political and religious establishment that had served it throughout its better years. Since then we have been seeking new destinies, of course. In 1973 we looked to the continent for our future as we joined the Common Market. During the Cold War we were America’s chief ally in Europe (though we have since been sidelined in this regard after the reunification of Germany and the establishment of the German-dominated European Union). Under Tony Blair’s premiership we became a major belligerent in the War on Terror. But overall we are a nation with little sense of place in the world.
Most ordinary Britons are oblivious to the values and institutions which made their country great in the first place: the adversarial system of government, constitutional monarchy, common law, habeas corpus, negative freedom, the Anglican compromise, etc. The two most important events in our constitutional history were Magna Carta and the Glorious Revolution; yet while many have a vague conception of the former, the latter is practically unknown among ordinary people. Can you imagine a US citizen who had not heard of the American Revolution? For that is the equivalent; how is Britain supposed to be strong if it is not strongwilled? We have become separated from our history; with little memory of what Britain is or what it should be doing. Subsequently much of our population is apathetic to its very existence, with many sorely wishing we had remained a non-sovereign province of the EU. This is why British politicians only ever seem to talk about money – because they have nothing else to stand for.
Britain’s shame is that it lacks the power and willpower to protect Hong Kong from the Chinese tyranny. What was once the premier promoter of liberty in the world now barely understands the meaning of the word, or why it should put money and effort into defending it. To all those anti-patriots at home and anglophobes abroad who smugly celebrated Britain’s downfall, I say look at where it’s got us. The Free World has one less defender.
Speaking of the Free World, it comes to mind that this criticism cannot be levelled at Britain alone. Since Deng Xiaoping’s opening of China to international markets, developed countries have bent over backwards to appease the Communist Party and secure lucrative trade deals. It makes you question why we fought a Cold War against the Soviet Union only to embrace this equally repressive regime with open arms. I had always assumed we were fighting for freedom and democracy, but perhaps if the Soviet Union had simply embraced capitalism we would have turned a blind eye to the gulag.
The fascists and Soviets have come and gone, and today the People’s Republic of China is the greatest threat to Enlightenment values, especially with a possible Asian Century on the horizon. Yet the West has been relatively meek compared to its responses to those previous regimes, just because the Chinese cut cheap deals with their sweatshops. I’m not advocating a war, or a revocation of diplomatic recognition in favour of Taiwan. We must give the Communist Party the impression that we’re ready to do business, but only if they change their repressive ways. The international community condemned and boycotted Apartheid South Africa, and that regime fell. Why can’t we try something similar with the PRC? While China has been building a trading empire through other repressive Third World countries, if every liberal democratic nation turned away Chinese goods the consequence for the PRC would still be severe. In any case it would be better than doing nothing.
I don’t care how big the Chinese economy is. We have it quite lucky in the West. Surely we can forego a little extra cash to find a different 5G provider than Huawei, in order to boycott a dictatorship? I would also recommend fully remilitarising Japan. Just as West Germany was remilitarised after the Second World War to be a bulwark against the Eastern bloc, a strong democratic Japan would be useful to contain PRC domination in Asia.
But instead of doing anything significant about China, Britain and the West posture pointlessly over the Russian Federation as if the Cold War hadn’t ended thirty years ago. The Russia of today is not the empire it once was – without Ukraine it lacks control over the Black Sea and is therefore no longer an imperial power. Apart from that, the Soviet ideology that pitted the country against the West in the first place is long dead and buried. Honestly, Western media coverage of Russia is practically xenophobic – i.e. the 2018 film The Cloverfield Paradox, which contains a nasty caricature of a big bad Rusky, played by a Norwegian actor, for no particular reason. Putin’s rule is undemocratic and thuggish for sure, but this is as nothing compared to the old Soviet Union or the People’s Republic of China, which apart from suffocating the liberties and democratic rights of Hong Kong, also commits ethnic cleansing against the Uighur people of East Turkestan, destroys mosques and churches, and harvests the organs of members of the Falun Gong religious sect, among other unnumbered atrocities. People look back on history and wonder in horror at why more was not done to prevent the Holocaust. Well, now we know. People are greedy, cowardly, and weak. The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men – or free countries, in this case – to do nothing.
Photo by Jonathan van Smit on Flickr.