When the fate of Hong Kong was last seriously considered by a British prime minister, the world looked very different. It was argued — naively — that not much would change when the colony was handed back to China in 1997. A deal had been struck. Beijing would run defence and customs control, but otherwise Hong Kong would still be self-governing. It was always unlikely that China would honour this promise, but the pretence was useful to a Tory party terrified of admitting the alternative: that Britain had a moral duty to let the Queen’s subjects stay British. Which meant allowing them to settle in the UK if they wished.
The deal is now in tatters. After gnawing away at Hong Kong’s liberties for years, Beijing is now engaged in an all-out assault. The street protests which had been going on for almost a year ended with the Covid lockdown, but China has used the interregnum to come back with the biggest crackdown yet. Last month, it said that Hong Kong will become subject to Beijing laws on ‘subversion’ — currently used to jail Tibetan and Uighur dissenters — with other crackdowns on free speech. This would mark the end of the one-country, two-systems treaty agreed in the handover and raises the question: what is Boris Johnson going to do?
The answer, so far, is quite a lot. The Prime Minister has offered a full–throated defence of the Hong Kong Chinese in a way that would have been unthinkable in the coalition years. George Osborne’s policy on China was to secure a big slice of its economic pie. As he knew, there are unwritten rules for countries playing this game: never receive the Dalai Lama as a guest; never raise the subject of human rights during foreign visits (the Chinese press praised Theresa May for perfecting this art); and never challenge Xi Jinping’s ambitions to control China’s periphery.