Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
Britain’s moral authority to comment on Hong Kong affairs is wobbly at best. Recently evidence emerged that the UK pressured Portugal not to grant citizenship to Macau residents. The Brits feared it would create a similar demand in Hong Kong. Why is this significant?
Well, British politicians make much of standing by Hong Kong with their sweet words. Yet, when it comes to providing tangible actions, all that ‘hot air’ evaporates. Anyway, the time long passed when Britain was in a position to influence matters. In any case, with Brexit looming, Britain needs to keep China on-side. Otherwise, those lucrative trade deals may falter.
British stinginess over citizenship rights in the UK is well documented. In a series of law changes in the 1980s, the Brits laid the ground for denying Hong Kong folks access to the UK. The British National Overseas (BNO) passport is proof. Yet, the Macau episode reveals deep-seated deceit. The people of Macau played as silent pieces in a game that serves Britain’s self-interest. Undertones of racism run through this approach.
UK politicians asinine utterances against China and its rule over Hong Kong don't help matters. Grandees like Chris Patten venture here to make statements, usually when they've got some product to sell. But let's face it, Britain had its chance to do the right thing. Instead, it played a tricky game.
Let's not forget the history. In broad terms, European merchant warriors, aided by armies, forced their way into China’s functioning trading system. They demanded access to markets (sounds familiar) and when they didn’t get their way, in went the gunboats. Force was brought to bear. The British led the way to take Hong Kong, and then Kowloon. Some of that trade involved opium. Nice.
In its first form, the colony of Hong Kong was run with one purpose. It’s a port and base for the British to trade, with expanding influence throughout the region. The Chinese population is incidental to this process. They provide manpower and support services to the colonial regime. In the early days of the 1800s, the Chinese and Expat communities existed apart. Even the nascent police force didn’t cover the Chinese areas, focusing on Expat parts of the colony. In any case, a curfew was in place to keep the Chinese off the streets at night.
Such was the approach to running colonies. The British co-opt nationals from elsewhere to police the locals. Then it grants a few indigenous people roles as representatives. This template was applied across the colonial empire.
So why the rush of blood to the head in recent years? Why are so many British politicians expressing concerns about Hong Kong people? Britain ran a system of status quo in Hong Kong for the vast majority of the time. British politicians remained mute. None pushed hard for democracy, accepting that China wouldn't countenance such a move.
Only at the last minute did Chris Patten reverse that approach in a ham-fisted effort. He ended up doing more damage than good. It's hard to conclude that UK politicians making noises about Hong Kong are motivated by an interest in the well-being of the people here. There was no sign of that for decades.
It’s more likely the motivation comes from other factors. Maybe one is guilt. Indeed, Chris Patten has tacitly acknowledged Britain could have done more to secure Hong Kong people’s future. Lord Paddy Ashdown is in the same boat. He’s on record expressing embarrassment at Britain’s actions.
After guilt, comes China-bashing; using Hong Kong as an issue with which to berate China. It’s an easy one to adopt. Merely state that China is clamping down in Hong Kong, restricting freedoms. With your overseas audience ignorant of the facts, it’s lapped up. The truth, as usual, is more complicated and nuanced. You could argue the freedoms enjoyed by ordinary citizens have increased since the departure of the Brits. But, that doesn’t make headlines.
Anyway, neither guilt nor China-bashing is honourable in the context of the history. Hong Kong’s status was a hard-won compromise by sensible men on both sides. Hong Kong was always ‘Borrowed Place, Borrowed Time’ as eloquently put by journalist Richard Hughes. In effect, China consented to allow a British presence on a temporary basis. The stance was always ‘Hong Kong will be taken back when the time is right.’
China would have been within its rights to take back the place at any time. After all, Hong Kong is indefensible, as the Japanese proved. In any case, just cut off the water and sit back. Likewise, Hong Kong is dependent on the mainland for food and electricity.
That China allowed Hong Kong to keep its freedoms under the elegant ‘one country, two systems’ solution speaks of a pragmatic attitude. Meanwhile, a common law judicial system operates intact. Yes, there have been bumps along the road; yet, none of these has derailed the fundamentals.
British politicians need to reflect on history before wading into criticism of Hong Kong or indeed China. Britain’s own failures including to former colonial subjects is a national embarrassment. Although this is something unrecognised by the majority of Brits. After all, there is no affinity to Hong Kong people such as the Gurkhas or Falkland Islanders enjoy.
Any British moral authority has evaporated. The stoic Hong Kong people recognise the situation for what it is. 'Britain says no' is the Hong Kongers name for the BNO passport. Thus the majority seek to work within ‘one country, two systems.’
Granted 'freedom of speech' means British politicians may say whatever they like. Moreover, the existence of the Joint Declaration as a UN-registered legally binding treaty confers on the UK government a monitoring role. But, the reality is the UK has no power to intervene. That's a nuance lost of British politicians. Therefore they must exercise care with their words. Otherwise, their remarks echo the patronising sentiments of yesteryear with Hong Kong people played as pawns in a bigger game.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.