Why the British government must speak up for the people of Hong Kong

All of us must stand in solidarity with the protesters on the streets of their city; we cannot turn a blind eye to the erosion of their rights and freedoms. 

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This weekend up to one million people took to the streets of Hong Kong to protest proposed changes to the region’s extradition laws. The moving scenes served as a poignant reminder of the degree to which those in Hong Kong value their democracy and the rule of law. Our government has a duty to stand shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with Hong Kong’s protestors.

Planned changes to Hong Kong’s extradition laws would see Beijing able to extradite people forcibly from the region to mainland China. The Rendition Bill represents the latest development in Beijing’s increasing assertion over the city. According to the handover agreement made between Britain and China, Hong Kong should still be operating under a ‘one country, two systems’ framework in which the region’s autonomy is respected and upheld in all areas other than foreign and defence policy.

When Britain handed Hong Kong back to China, we made a promise to the people of Hong Kong. Under the agreement made with China, the rights and freedoms of those in Hong Kong would remain in place and untouched by Beijing. This promise is increasingly under attack by Beijing’s attempts to exert influence over the region. Earlier this year a number of those involved with the peaceful 2014 umbrella protests were sentenced to jail, now the proposed extradition laws are again threatening Hong Kong’s democracy, rule of law, and the human rights of those in the city.

The extradition proposals do not guarantee a fair trial and do not come with any commitment to human rights safeguards. There are concerns that Beijing would use the new laws to extradite political activists or opposition figures and could lead to abductions. When it comes to the rule of law, the World Justice Project ranks Hong Kong at 16th in the world, while China is down at number 82. China also uses the death penalty more than any other country in the world and its human rights record is nothing short of appalling.

The cost of this is not just abstract values. There is a human cost too. The inestimable Benedict Rogers wrote recently about the story of Lam Wing-Kee, who managed a bookshop that sold books that were critical of Chinese leadership. When he crossed into China from his home in Hong Kong he was immediately arrested, and then imprisoned for eight months, cut off from the rest of the world. He spoke not of physical torture but of mental torture, threats, and brainwashing. He was forced to sign more than 20 confessions, and if the confession was unsatisfactory he had to do it again. Lam warned that “Beijing will use this law to control Hong Kong completely. Freedom of speech will be lost. In the past, the regime kidnapped its critics like me illegally. With this law they will abduct their critics legally.”

Britain has a legal as well as a moral responsibility to speak up for Lam Wing-Kee, and the people of Hong Kong. All of us must stand in solidarity with the protesters on the streets of the city. We cannot turn a blind eye to the erosion of their rights and freedoms. The UK government made a promise to the people of Hong Kong when the Sino-British Declaration was signed in 1984 and now the government must do the right thing and honour that promise.