The Chinese Communist party regime likes to portray itself as the new superpower, displaying its strength on the world stage. In reality it is an extraordinarily fragile, sensitive, fearful, petty and vindictive snowflake of a dictatorship that is so surprisingly un-self-confident that it responds to any criticism with aggression, any dissenting or disloyal idea with repression, and any perceived slight with tit-for-tat retaliation.
We have seen this last week with the decision by Beijing to impose sanctions on nine British citizens — politicians, lawyers and an academic — and four entities, including the Conservative party Human Rights Commission, which I co-founded and serve as deputy chair. And we have seen this same fragility with the instruction by the Hong Kong government to foreign consulates not to recognise the British National Overseas passport as a valid travel document. In both cases it is in retaliation against justified British government policies — which in themselves were responses to very grave human rights violations by the regime in Beijing.
The CCP’s behaviour was a response to the imposition of Magnitsky sanctions by the UK against four Chinese government officials and one state entity, all complicit in gross human rights violations against the Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang region. These violations are increasingly seen by experts as genocide.
The British National Overseas (BNOs) passports decree is an attempt to curtail the Britain’s courageous and remarkably generous offer to potentially up to five million Hongkongers to come to these shores, to work and study here, and set themselves on the pathway to citizenship.
In both instances, the dragon’s roar is worse than its bite: and we must stand up to it. The days of kowtowing are over.
In the case of sanctions, except for those desperate to travel to China and those who have assets there, they have little practical significance. I was already denied entry to Hong Kong in 2017, so for more than three years I have known that I cannot travel to China — and I don’t own a villa in Macau or shares in Qingdao Brewery, much as I love both. The irony is that two patrons of the organisation I co-founded and lead, Hong Kong Watch, have been sanctioned by Beijing — Lord Alton and Sir Geoffrey Nice QC — yet not a single Chinese or Hong Kong official has been yet sanctioned by Britain for repeated and flagrant violations of a UN-registered international treaty, the Sino-British Joint Declaration. It is surely time to rectify that.
In the case of the BNO passport, most countries will tell the Hong Kong authorities where to go. Beijing’s Hong Kong puppet regime has no right to tell other countries what passports they can recognise. The BNO passport is a perfectly valid travel document and any country that refuses to accept it is rejecting British nationals. Should that happen, the Foreign Secretary should be quick to pick up the phone and demand an explanation.
At least 14 countries have a reciprocal working holiday scheme with Hong Kong, allowing young Hongkongers to travel to those countries for an extended period and undertake short-term work or study. These include — in addition to Britain — Japan, Canada, Germany and Australia. The United States, Finland and Norway have similar arrangements. Japan, South Korea, Italy and New Zealand have already indicated they will continue to recognize BNOs, and most of the others are expected to do so.
Only Victor Orban’s Hungary is wavering, which — while sad — is unsurprising, given the extent to which his government has sold out to Beijing. And while Budapest is beautiful and there is much to learn from Hungary’s history, it is probably not among the top destinations for Hongkongers thinking of moving abroad. Besides, most BNOs in Hong Kong also have Hong Kong passports. Even if a country chose to cave into the puppet government’s vindictive demands, most Hongkongers would be able to flee the city.
So once again, the fiery dragon seems to be a paper tiger. Perhaps the one measure that the Hong Kong authorities could impose that might hit those intending to leave hard is a prohibition on withdrawing pension funds. Hongkongers are required to invest in a Mandatory Provident Fund, which you can only withdraw when you retire or if you leave the city for good. Having lived in Hong Kong when the fund was introduced, my employers and I invested in it — and when I left Hong Kong to return to Britain, I withdrew my savings. Will the Hong Kong authorities prevent BNOs leaving the city from doing the same? That is something to watch.
But overall, the behaviour of the Chinese regime is similar to that of any playground bully who will throw their weight around if no one stands up to them, but who at heart are fearful and insecure. The Hong Kong authorities must know, deep in their soul, that what has made Hong Kong what it has been until now is its freedoms, autonomy, rule of law and dynamic people. The first two have been dismantled completely, the third is disappearing rapidly and the fourth — its talented citizens — are likely to leave in an exodus. A brain-drain and sudden capital flight would freak Beijing out more than they admit.
The lesson to be learned from this is that the nonsense of the so-called ‘Golden Era’ of Sino-British relations must be buried. It is time to stand up to the dictators in Beijing, and their proxies in Hong Kong, and tell them where to stick it when they try to bully and threaten their way in the world. It is time to defend our values — and the rights of the people of Hong Kong.