Once China resumed the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997, the full implications were not always appreciated. Although the former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, her Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe, and the Hong Kong Governor, Edward Youde, undoubtedly signed up to the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the future of Hong Kong in good faith in 1984, their successors saw things differently. There were those in the United Kingdom, and elsewhere, epitomized by the former Governor, Chris Patten, but spread throughout the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, who regarded the return of Hong Kong to China as basically a “Rino” (reunification in name only). They were, that is, unwilling to let the city go, imagining that it was, even in the post-colonial era, still on their leash.
As the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region found its feet, therefore, their advice was readily proffered, albeit under the guise of constructive friendship. It was, moreover, often respected by the government, the assumption being it was well-intentioned, and that it was made with the city’s best interests at heart. The mask slipped, however, once the foreign powers assumed they could go further, and lecture, berate and even bully the government. Indeed, in 2003, when Tung Chee-hwa’s government proposed a very mild national security law, it was criticized by the UK, the US and the European Union, and the bill, following public protests, was abandoned. Duly emboldened, the foreign powers felt they could call the government into line if it did not do as they expected, and their modus operandi over the years has been intriguing.
If anything happened in Hong Kong of which they disapproved, the UK and its partners claimed the government was non-compliant with the Sino-British Joint Declaration, imagining that allegations of bad faith would suffice to bring the government to heel. Although Patten is a past master at this, others have also bought in, including the current British Foreign Secretary, the hapless Dominic Raab. The problem, however, was that not only were they unable, when pressed, to substantiate their claims, as Raab has repeatedly shown, but that their reasoning was inherently flawed, as the Joint Declaration became redundant in 1990, when it was subsumed into the Basic Law, the city’s foundation stone.
The Basic Law provides that, from July 1, 1997, Hong Kong is a local administrative region of the PRC, enjoying a high degree of autonomy and coming directly under the Central People’s Government (Art.12). This, quite clearly, however it is read, is incompatible with any degree of subservience to the UK, the former colonial power, let alone its allies. Although they interpreted “high degree of autonomy” as meaning the city was semi-detached from the rest of the country, they could not have been more wrong, and they have found this hard to accept.
In 2019-2020, however, the foreign powers finally had to confront this reality, not least because their attempts to coerce Hong Kong backfired so spectacularly. In particular, the government declined to follow their requests in relation to the urban warfare which erupted on June 9, 2019, including an inquiry into the police force, which was demanded by Patten and his henchmen in Hong Kong Watch, the London-based propaganda outfit which provides a home for China bashers with time on their hands, like its co-patron, Malcolm Rifkind, the UK Foreign Secretary until 1997. Although the police force, with great professionalism, saved Hong Kong from a violent insurrection, all that the Pattens of this world could think about was how to undermine them, and thereby ingratiate themselves with the protest movement.
Patten, of course, has been trying to dictate policy to Hong Kong for many years. He preached opposition, for example, to the government’s fugitive surrender proposals in June 2019. By issuing an incendiary video condemning the removal of a “firewall” with mainland China, Patten not only displayed his contempt for reunification, but also whipped up the anxieties of the gullible. Although the proposals provided a mechanism by which, subject to judicial oversight, criminal suspects could be returned to face justice in the 177 jurisdictions with which Hong Kong had no extradition agreements, Patten treated them as simply another excuse for his rabble-rousing Sinophobia.
In February 2020, in another ill-judged intervention, Patten told Hong Kong Watch that he was “surprised and saddened” that legislation to protect national security was again being proposed in Hong Kong. As he well knew, however, the city was constitutionally obliged, under the Basic Law (Art.23), to enact national security laws, proscribing such things as subversion, secession and treason. Indeed, after violent protesters had spent many months engaging in openly subversive activities, which threatened the survival of the “one country two systems” principle, Patten should have been telling everybody why Hong Kong, 23 years after reunification, could not delay any further the discharge of its legal responsibilities. Instead, he and his ilk frittered away whatever influence they may once have enjoyed, choosing to pander to the protest movement and its armed wing, believing this would help to destabilize China.
By trying, therefore, to demonize even a very mild national security law, such as that adopted in Macao in 2009, the foreign forces made a fatal miscalculation. Their obstructionism helped to create an environment in which, after months of violence, Beijing had no choice but to step in, albeit, fortunately, not militarily. The ultimate irony, which must keep them awake at night, is that all they have to show for their efforts at disruption is the National Security Law (NSL), which was enacted by the NPCSC on June 30, 2020, and is far tougher than the law which had previously been on offer, but which, with culpable short-sightedness, they had opposed.
In many ways, the enactment of the NSL was a watershed for Hong Kong. It not only restored peace, order and decency to the city, but also made clear to the foreign powers that, far from being their plaything, Hong Kong is an integral part of China. It also showed that its security is also that of the country as a whole, which is something they had willfully refused to recognize. Although, up to that point, they had invariably construed the “one country, two systems” principle as meaning little more than that Hong Kong was “half in and half out” of China, the NSL disabused them of this notion, once and for all. From that point on, they had to accept that Hong Kong was not a hybrid ex-colony, but a fully-fledged Chinese city, committed to the nation’s success, albeit enjoying the special status envisaged by Thatcher, Howe and Youde.
Once this realization hit home, the Five Eyes, led by the United States, reacted with fury. Their illusion that Hong Kong, although nominally a part of China, was still within their sphere of influence, was shattered. It was not, as they thought, a place where they could, for example, gather intelligence at will, liaise with anti-China elements, and influence public policy, and their displeasure took various forms. The US cancelled the city’s favorable trading status and imposed sanctions on its officials, and even tried to destroy its financial standing. Following the US, its Five Eyes partners suspended their surrender of fugitive offender agreements with Hong Kong, introduced travel advisories, halted the export of strategic items, and even encouraged citizens to emigrate. When pressed as to how they thought harming Hong Kong and endangering its jobs would help the city, they fell silent, which was unsurprising, as their plan was simply to hurt China by weakening the city.
The Five Eyes, therefore, were, at most, only ever fair-weather friends, and utterly unreliable. When Hong Kong needed their support, with its very survival on the line, they let it down, fawning instead on the insurgents. The US, for example, even allowed Brian Leung Kai-ping, who fled after playing a central role in trashing Hong Kong’s Legislative Council complex on July 1, 2019, which cost HK$50 million to repair, to study there, despite a warrant for his arrest having been issued by the Judiciary, and this strongly suggests he was one of their agents all along. Although they churned out platitudes aplenty about democracy and human rights, and whitewashed those who tried to destroy the city, their hostility towards the government and its police force shocked many, particularly those who imagined that in times of need friends assist one another. Their friendship, however, was only ever skin-deep, being dependent upon the city dancing to their tune, and it is no bad thing that people can now see them in their true colors.
Since the Five Eyes now appreciate that Hong Kong cannot be used as their outpost, they will undoubtedly continue to promote its destabilization, albeit with ulterior motives. The only way, however, to deal with bullies is to stand up to them, and in doing so the city has both inner strengths and reliable partners of its own. Hong Kong now knows who it can trust, and who not, and this will help it going forward. As a result of its ordeal, the city is now tougher, more worldly wise, and better attuned to global realities. While playing to its traditional strengths, therefore, and remaining internationally engaged, whether as a financial, legal or trading hub, its China focus will now be prioritized.
So it is that, 24 years after reunification, Hong Kong’s path is now clear. Its success depends on being a dynamic Chinese city, albeit with global clout. While drawing on its history, it cannot be a prisoner of its past. Hong Kong, finally, has come of age.
The author is a senior counsel, law professor and criminal justice analyst, and was previously the director of Public Prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
HONG KONG NEWS