When the United Kingdom handed back control of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, both governments agreed that Hong Kong would remain administratively separate from mainland China, allowing it to maintain the kind of free society that is not possible under the communist Chinese system. The Sino-British Joint Declaration guaranteed Hong Kong its own laws and judicial system, control of its internal security, and, in the words of the declaration, the continuation of Hong Kong’s distinct “social and economic systems” and protections for “rights and freedoms, including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association,” until at least 2047.1
However, since the handover, China has progressively eroded these freedoms, and a new development threatens to end them entirely.
Following years of meddling in the internal affairs of Hong Kong, China is now working to implement a new “security” law that is expected to criminalize the advocacy of secession (i.e., supporting Hong Kong’s independence from China), “sedition” (encouraging people to undermine the power or authority of the Beijing government in Hong Kong), and “foreign meddling” in Hong Kong’s internal affairs (which could, for instance, prevent international charities from supporting pro-freedom movements).2 If this law is implemented—and it likely will be—it will ratchet up China’s suppression of the rights of Hong Kong citizens, bringing islanders a step closer to the level of oppression that mainland Chinese citizens experience every day.
In response to China’s clear violation of the Joint Declaration, the UK has taken the unprecedented step of creating a new “pathway to citizenship” for Hong Kong citizens.3 Under the new arrangement, any Hong Kong citizen who is eligible for a British National (Overseas) passport—in other words anyone who was a permanent Hong Kong resident prior to 1997, roughly 2.9 million people—will be allowed to live and work in the UK for up to twelve months, with further twelve-month extensions available indefinitely until they are eligible to become UK citizens.
This was an unexpectedly moral move on the part of the British government in two respects. First, the proper role of a government is to protect the individual rights of the people living under its purview. Although the people of Hong Kong no longer live under British law, they did prior to 1997. However, rather than protecting their rights, the British government chose to hand over Hong Kong to a dictatorial country with a track record of severely violating the rights of its citizens.4 It was unrealistic ever to expect such a country to abide by the terms of the Joint Declaration. The decision to create a new “pathway to citizenship” for Hong Kong citizens, although falling far short of what could and should be done—including an unequivocal apology for the atrocity of handing Hong Kong to a communist dictatorship and full-throated support for Hong Kong’s seccession from China—nonetheless is a step toward undoing Britain’s failure to protect the rights of the people of Hong Kong.
Second, anyone who claims to value liberty ought to stand against systems fundamentally opposed to it, as communism clearly is. The economic and practical benefits of welcoming rights-respecting people from Hong Kong should be obvious; with practically no natural resources to speak of, Hong Kongers have built one of the most vibrant economies in world history. But, as or more important, providing them with an escape hatch is the right thing to do. It is in the best interests of people in all relatively rights-respecting countries to welcome citizens of Hong Kong. As well as being an act of justice for those people, it would constitute a meaningful stand against China’s rights-violating ideology.5
The impassioned way in which the people of Hong Kong have repeatedly risen to defend their liberty is evidence of how ingrained this value is in their minds. Of course, some have used the protests as a cover for looting businesses and damaging property, and these individuals should be held accountable. But many (if not most) have taken a principled stand for individual rights.6 They’ve erected their own Lady Liberty; invoked Patrick Henry’s ultimatum, “Give me liberty or give me death!”; and protested the infringement of their right to speak.7 Further, some of the destruction has been justifiable, directed against instruments of state oppression, such as facial recognition cameras.
The protests in Hong Kong have shown that people there have a clearer understanding of the values our Western countries purport to represent than many in the West do. Joshua Wong, one of the leading voices in the Hong Kong protest movement, put it succinctly when he said, “A victory for Beijing is a victory for authoritarianism everywhere,” noting that he was sent to jail “because I fought for my city’s freedom.”8 Keith Oderberg, part of Wong’s legal team, notes that “Hong Kong’s respect for individual rights” is what made it possible for him to be freed and added, “The attitude of the People’s Republic of China towards social disruption puts the ‘good of the society’ first, whereas in Hong Kong’s legal system, both legislation and Common Law enshrine the importance of individual freedoms.”9 This British-inspired system is what Hong Kong now stands to lose.
Of course, it would be unrealistic to assume that everyone protesting in Hong Kong holds individualist values. It is clear, however, that resisting China’s authoritarianism and protecting Hong Kong’s freedoms is the primary motive for the protests. Guardian columnist Natalie Nougayrède notes, “Hong Kong’s activists stand for something vital for us all: the right of the individual not to be persecuted or extradited to a dictatorship, the right to assemble without incurring prison, the right to speak freely, to enjoy freedom of information.”10 The protestors wave American and British flags in defense of liberties that many of us take for granted, such as the right to vote, assemble, and speak freely. Meanwhile, in the West, these flags are misconstrued as symbols of oppression. Not only is opening our doors to these people likely to make Western countries more productive and economically successful, but it would bring into our societies people who know from experience the importance of freedom and individual rights—and the horror of tyranny.
For people who have fought so passionately in defense of their freedoms to lose the chance to live in a free society and be consigned to life under increasingly dictatorial rule would be a tragedy. Unfortunately, the youth of Hong Kong—the students and young people who have been at the forefront of the pro-liberty protests there—are the ones left out of Britain’s pathway to citizenship.
In addition to creating the pathway, Britain, together with three other members of the “Five Eyes Alliance” (the United States, Canada, and Australia), has issued a condemnation of China’s proposed security law. Britain also is putting pressure on its Five Eyes partners (including New Zealand, which shamefully did not join in the condemnation) to follow its lead and simplify the process of emigrating from Hong Kong.11 Although these measures are righteous actions and should be commended, they still amount to a weak reaction to China’s relentless expansion of its repressive system.
It’s time for Western countries to take a real, principled, and robust stand. Britain, in particular, owes it to all Hong Kongers to rescue them from the oppressor to whom Britain threw them. But it would be in the interests of all who value freedom for governments around the world to take a much stronger position, opening their doors to the people of Hong Kong and sending a message to China that authoritarianism is profoundly evil and its expansion will not go unchallenged.Those who value freedom should support the people of Hong Kong and send a message to China that authoritarianism is profoundly evil and its expansion will not go unchallenged. Click To Tweet