The People’s Republic of China (or China as it is more commonly known) and Hong Kong have had strained diplomatic relations for years. Most people think this goes back to the 1997 handover between the UK and China. However, traces of strained relations between the two nations date back to the Qing Dynasty in 1842.
Hong Kong’s past
Historically, Hong Kong was ruled by China up until what was known as the Qing Dynasty in 1842. The Qing Dynasty today is made up of countries including China and parts of countries such as Russia, Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan, Afghanistan, North Korea, India, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Taiwan and Kyrgyzstan. In 1842, The treaty of Nanjing ceded the peninsula to what was at the time, The British Empire.
Things started to become diplomatically difficult between the two nations in 1972 when, after the proclamation of The People’s republic of China on October 1, 1949 by then leader Mao Zedong (aka Chairman Mao), Beijing had officially asked the United Nations for Hong Kong to be removed from a special list of non self-governing territories, and in doing so, denied Hong Kong the right to full independence.
In 1984, The Sino-British joint declaration laid out the terms on which Hong Kong would have its sovereignty transferred back to China in 1997, under Tony Blair as Prime Minister, Chris Pattern as Hong Kong Governor and Robin Cook as Foreign Secretary. The legal terms, as set out in the agreement, can be challenged in the International Court by the United Kingdom. However, China has always remind extremely critical of the ICC. The terms of the declaration include a series of economic, political and legal systems that will be run by Hong Kong, developed with the aim of forgoing assistance from either London or Beijing.
For years scuffles between China and Hong Kong have been numerous and ongoing. However, it was 2014 when things started to escalate with the onset of protests known as The Umbrella Revolution. The Sino-British joint declaration, signed by Zhao Ziyang and Margaret Thatcher that ultimately led to the handover of Hong Kong, stated that Hong Kong must have a high degree of autonomy in all areas apart from military defence and foreign relations. This same declaration also stated that it must guarantee the rights of its citizens for at least 50 years after the transition period, bringing the expiry date to 2047. The Umbrella protests were a response to the National People’s Congress of China having placed limits on the 2016 legislative Council election and the 2017 Chief Executive election. It was the 2017 election which ultimately saw Carrie Lam get elected and carry on the strained diplomatic relationships between the two countries.
Since Lam’s election much has changed. China has illegally put a stop to the Sino-British joint declaration’s transfer period — 27 years earlier ahead of schedule. It did this through its new security law which was allegedly required under Article 23 of the Hong Kong Basic Law.
Article 23 states the following:
The Hong Kong Special Administration shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, subversion against the Central People’s government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organisations from conducting political activities in the region, and to prohibit political organisations or bodies of the region from establishing ties with foreign political organisations or bodies.
Since 2019, there has been a vigorous power grab by Beijing. In response, Hongkongers took to the streets to protest against the declaration’s infringements and premature dissolution. The circumstances that enabled this step from China remain highly suspect. So much so, that it is in fact possible for the UK to take China to the ICC in order to get a ruling on whether the new Security Law — passed by the Hong Kong legislature — hasn’t been the result of coercion by Beijing.
The protests of 2019 were met with widespread censorship, brutality, but also an international outcry of support. China was seen to be taking power and ignoring the UK as well as a host of other organisations sending it warnings to desist. These included the UN, Amnesty International and OSCE.
However, China is in an extremely lucky position. As one of only five countries to have a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, it has automatic veto power towards any resolution it doesn’t agree with. And it has been using that power to the fullest.
The British response
One member of Parliament who has been extremely vocal on allowing passport holders from Hong Kong the right to British citizenship is the Rt Hon Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland.
Carmichael has always been a champion of the rights of those in Hong Kong, declaring that he is a patron of Hong Kong Watch, an NGO that observes the human rights of those living on the the territory. Civic organisations do a lot for the citizens of Hong Kong and their work should never be forgotten by the likes of the United Kingdom and their allies.
This isn’t the only remark that Alistair Carmichael has made on the subject and is unlikely to be his last, especially given that he is the Liberal Democrats’ spokesperson on Foreign and Commonwealth affairs. In various speeches, Carmichael speaks adamantly about aspects of the Chinese regime, which he argues are evident to any normal person. These include: police brutality against the protesters, censorship of the press, social media blackouts, and the way that British oversees nationals are treated.
The United Kingdom is speaking with one voice in support of Hong Kong today. We cannot abandon Hongkongers who are struggling for their freedom, many of whom did not have the chance to take a BNO passport during the Handover. Now is the time to live up to our values. pic.twitter.com/rZgyifxcch
— Alistair Carmichael (@amcarmichaelMP) July 1, 2020
The way in which the Liberal Democrats have presented themselves on this issue demonstrate the party’s internationalism. The party continues to campaign for the rights of British Oversees National passport holders, a campaign that was led by the late Paddy Ashdown, the MP for Yeovil. Carmichael was quoted as saying:
‘A treaty is what all the contracting signatories agree it is; it is not simply what one side says it is’.