Earlier this morning, 53 democrats from Hong Kong were arrested. Their crime? Trying to win last September’s elections.
As absurd as it sounds, the new reality in Hong Kong is that it is now effectively a criminal offence, under the National Security Law, for the opposition to have the audacity to try and boost its representation in parliament. 'The operation today targets the active elements who are suspected to be involved in the crime of overthrowing, or interfering (with)...the Hong Kong government’s legal execution of duties,' said John Lee, Hong Kong’s security minister. But, as he later suggested, in reality this meant that those who were arrested were simply trying to win a majority of seats in Hong Kong's legislature.
If it wasn't clear already, Hong Kong’s unique system and way of life has been shredded. The city’s Legislative Council has always been rigged in favour of Beijing’s clients because only half the seats are democratically elected; the other half are ‘functional constituencies’ controlled by vested interests often with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party. Democratic victory is highly unlikely. But now even the aspiration for such a victory is seemingly a criminal offence which could carry years in jail.
The significance of these arrests should not be underestimated. It is a purge of pretty much the entire pro-democracy camp. It means that nearly every prominent member of that group is now either facing charges, in jail or in exile.
Foreign nationals in Hong Kong are not immune from this new totalitarianism. John Clancey, an American solicitor who was the treasurer for the organisation which coordinated the democratic slate primaries in July, has been arrested too. This will further shake confidence in Hong Kong’s future as an international city and will inevitably ratchet up tensions with the United States.
How has Britain responded? Dominic Raab has said the 'mass arrest of politicians and activists in Hong Kong is a grievous attack on Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms as protected under the Joint Declaration'. But he must go further. Despite fierce pressure from Parliament, Raab has not yet applied Magnitsky sanctions against those responsible for the sharp deterioration of the human rights situation in Hong Kong. Surely now is the time for him to do so.
There are also wider lessons to be learnt in London from China’s behaviour in Hong Kong. These should inform the British-China strategy going forwards.
The willingness of the Chinese Communist Party to cast aside the 1997 handover treaty, made in good faith, demonstrates why we need to pay greater attention to British strategic dependency on China. If the promises made by Beijing in Hong Kong cannot be trusted, they should be met with caution when considering the presence of China General Nuclear or Huawei in our key strategic infrastructure. We should also be asking whether it is right for British institutional investors to be investing millions into Chinese state-owned enterprises with ties to the Chinese military. The US government has started to place restrictions on investment into these firms. If the situation in Hong Kong does not improve, then the UK should consider similar measures.
These lessons do not only apply to the UK but should also be noted by Europe. The mass arrests of democrats comes only days after the European Union agreed a major investment agreement with China. Despite the allegations of Uyghurs being forced into slavery, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron made a suite of last-minute concessions on labour rights to get the deal over the line. The message sent by this decision is appalling in a year where human rights in China has deteriorated faster than at any period since Mao.
Following today’s arrests, the last British Governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten said:
'It is surely inconceivable that the European Parliament can support the miserable draft deal that the European Commission wants to sign with Beijing. It is a massive strategic blunder at a time when president Biden will be seeking to put together an international partnership of liberal democracies to deal with assault on our international rules by Chinese Communists. If this deal goes ahead it will make a mockery of Europe's ambitions to be taken seriously as a global political and economic player.'
If Europe is serious about being a bastion of liberal values, the European Parliament cannot allow the interests of the German car industry to trump international law. While we have been arguing about Brexit, it has become clear that relationships with China will be the defining diplomatic issue of the century. Beijing’s disregard for international law in Hong Kong is serving as a catalyst for a change in alliances – both Britain and Europe have serious choices to make. And this morning's arrests make that clear for all to see.