The importance of defending freedom in Hong Kong

Helen Paton

July 2, 2020

The threat of a Maoist takeover has been hovering over Hong Kong for some time but few imagined the power and ambiguity of the new legislation that Beijing would come up with. Its new national security law contains a number of very troubling elements.

The situation was already dire. In recent months, we have seen a great deal of aggression from riot police, who have targeted citizens without mercy, taken over shopping centres and cornered journalists with water cannons.

The law has instilled a new fear in residents of Hong Kong because its specifications of what constitutes a criminal offence and what does not are very ambiguous, and therefore open to creative interpretation from the oppressive Chinese state.

Many people’s worst fears are already being realised under this new law. 370 people were arrested under it in the first 24 hours after it was implemented, including a 15-year-old girl who was waving a Hong Kong independence flag.

This new law is a blatant breach of the “one country, two systems” agreement. Unsurprisingly, the British government has condemned the clear anti-sedition infringements on Hongkongers’ freedom of speech.

Diplomatic warnings were not enough to sway the CCP’s course of action, so the UK has now offered all Hong Kong residents the chance to adopt British National Overseas (BNO) status, opening up a path to British citizenship. 350,000 Hongkongers currently hold BNO status. Now, a further 2.6 million residents will have the chance to pursue the freedom that was snatched away from them.

This bespoke immigration route creates a clear pathway for Hongkongers to establish themselves in Britain and escape totalitarian rule. It grants them five years’ leave in the UK, including the right to work and study. After a further year, they will be able to apply for citizenship.

The BNO announcement is no small step. Britain’s duty to the people of Hong Kong dates back to the Sino-British agreement of 1997, the crucial conditional element of which was freedom. The agreement does not assign Britain any legal obligations to Hong Kong, but our moral duty to ensure that China respects its side of the treaty remains.

The agreement does not expire until 2047. The Chinese state attempting to bully Hong Kong, which has evolved into a buzzing free-market hub, into submission is wholly out of order. That’s why other countries are beginning to join Britain in condemning the communist regime’s recent actions.

Earlier today, for instance, the US House of Representatives voted unanimously in favour of sanctioning business with China in retaliation at its outrageous violation of Hong Kong’s autonomy.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, defended the new national security law. “All those countries who have pointed their fingers at China have their own national security legislation in place,” she said.

The premise of this statement is deeply problematic. Standard national security law in use across the west is in no way comparable to the new Chinese legislation. Hong Kong’s supposed leaders signed off on an unprecedented move to roll back its semi-autonomous status in the name of the “safety and stability” of all Chinese nationals.

The Chinese foreign ministry is deeply unhappy that Britain has planted its flag by standing up for Hongkongers’ rights. The Beijing foreign ministry has already declared that Britain will face consequences and sanctions for opening up the BNO immigration route.

Nonetheless, granting residents of Hong Kong a way out was entirely the right thing to do. China’s latest power grab gave its government near-absolute power to interpret the law however it saw fit, as well as interfering with a whole host of local laws designed to protect people from imprisonment without a public and fair trial.

As Boris Johnson has said, this constitutes a clear breach of the joint declaration that the UK and China signed in 1984. It hands President Xi’s government a free hand to detain and censor individuals and groups without being held to account for their actions.

The next step for the government is to reevaluate its priorities and explore how we can modify our trading relationship with China and state-linked companies like Huawei, especially in the context of the implementation of the 5G network.

The free world has a responsibility to challenge crackdowns on liberty and make clear the consequences of breaching international agreements. We must step up in Hong Kong.


  • Helen Paton

    Helen Paton is a local coordinator with Students for Liberty. She was formerly an intern with the Adam Smith Institute.

Written by Helen Paton

Helen Paton is a local coordinator with Students for Liberty. She was formerly an intern with the Adam Smith Institute.


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