Published: 12:27, March 7, 2024 | Updated: 09:36, March 8, 2024
UK poll: Desperate politicians seek votes by smearing Hong Kong
By Grenville Cross

As the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government’s consultation exercise on the Article 23 legislation was about to conclude, an extraordinary intervention occurred. On Feb 27, its penultimate day, the United Kingdom’s foreign secretary, Lord (David) Cameron, weighed in with an impudent request that recalled Britain’s imperial past. He said, “I strongly urge the Hong Kong SAR government to re-consider their proposals and engage in genuine and meaningful consultation with the people of Hong Kong.” 

While he acknowledged Hong Kong had a “constitutional obligation” to enact national security laws, he claimed the proposals would have “a negative impact on the people of Hong Kong in the exercise of their rights and freedoms.”

His effrontery was breathtaking. Although constructive suggestions about the shape of the Article 23 legislation might have been welcomed, ill-judged grandstanding was not. There was a time when subject territories fell in line whenever London spoke, but someone should tell Cameron it has long since passed.

READ MORE: HK govt slams Bloomberg's Article 23 reportage, calls it false

He was undoubtedly rattled that the consultation document drew heavily on the UK’s National Security Act 2023 (NSA), seeing it as a possible model. This, he realized, curbed his scope for criticism. He was, therefore, thrown back on the line that the NSA was “informed by public consultation and was subject to full scrutiny by both Houses of Parliament,” which was risible.

As the UK’s consul general in Hong Kong, Brian Davidson, must have told him, Hong Kong’s processes mirror those adopted in Britain for the NSA. There was, firstly, the broadest possible consultation in Hong Kong, with Cameron’s own officials availing themselves of it to voice their concerns. A total of 13,489 responses were received from all manner of organizations, as well as from individuals. Of those, 98.6 percent favored the proposals and commented positively, giving the government the green light.

Then, secondly, just as the UK Parliament scrutinized the NSA, so will the Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo) study the proposed Safeguarding National Security Ordinance. This process got underway on Feb 27, at the first meeting of the LegCo’s sub-committee on the Article 23 legislation, when the secretary for justice, Paul Lam Ting-kwok, briefed members and answered questions. Whereas Martin Liao Cheung-kong was elected the sub-committee’s chairman, Gary Chan Hak-kan became his deputy, and they will undoubtedly ensure the proposals are thoroughly considered.

When a long-time British resident of China, clearly aghast, learned of Cameron’s remarks, she inquired of your contributor “why” he had made them, and “on what basis,” which was unsurprising. After all, if he wanted to criticize the proposals, he might at least have awaited the outcome of the consultations, and studied the government’s finalized bill.

However, as he showed with his ill-judged statement of Dec 17, when he impugned the national security trial of Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, Cameron is a politician eager to denigrate Hong Kong. His reasons for doing so, however, apart from pleasing the US, are not immediately apparent, and deserve to be better understood.

On Nov 22, the anti-China hate machine, Hong Kong Watch, announced it had produced briefings for the UK’s major political parties covering the top 10 target parliamentary seats in the general election, which is now only months away. Its briefings were based on the dispersal of the 140,000 Hong Kong people who hold British National (Overseas) passports, are now living in the UK, and are eligible to vote. It concluded that these first-time voters could swing the results in at least 10 constituencies in the general election, meaning their votes could have a big impact if the overall result is tight.

These BN(O) passport holders can only vote because the Conservative government has manipulated the electoral system to its advantage. It decided that if people in this category lawfully reside in the UK, they are classifiable as “qualifying Commonwealth citizens,” making them eligible to vote. As they come from China and have nothing to do with the Commonwealth, this is an obvious abuse of the system. Once registered in a parliamentary constituency, the BN(O) passport holders can then vote in parliamentary elections, hence Cameron’s attempts to attract their support.  

The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, heads a government that is trailing badly to the opposition Labor Party in the polls, and he is desperate for the BN(O) votes. He and Cameron have calculated that, by giving Hong Kong people the vote, they will win many of them over for their Conservative Party even if they have only been in the country for five minutes.

However, this is not a given, as Sunak realizes. He has, therefore, decided that, if Cameron is given his head, and allowed to malign Hong Kong’s criminal justice system and its Article 23 proposals, he may be able to woo more of the BN(O) voters, given that anti-China rhetoric plays well with some of them. And he may be right. 

After all, they include the likes of the convicted felon and disgraced legislator, Nathan Law Kwun-chung, the “Stand with Hong Kong” founder and “lam chau” fanatic, Finn Lau Cho-dik, and the ex-British consulate staffer, Simon Cheng Man-kit, who pleaded guilty to soliciting prostitutes in Shenzhen and then peddled myths in London about his activities. It is a fair bet that some of these sordid characters will welcome Cameron’s attacks on Hong Kong, and vote for his party. 

However, Sunak cannot take the votes of Hong Kong people for granted. Many will look beyond Cameron’s China baiting and judge the Conservatives on their record, dreadful as it is. None of them can be happy with the collapse in living standards, the failure of the National Health Service, the record five-year decline in British trade volumes, the soaring levels of illegal immigration, or the rampant crime. Many will decide it is time for a change. 

If Sunak’s tactics sound desperate, they are. On Feb 22, the YouGov/Times voting intention poll showed the Conservative Party on 20 percent and the Labor Party on 46 percent, with the Liberal Democrats a distant third, at 9 percent. For Sunak’s Conservatives, who describe themselves as “the natural party of government,” this was terrifying news. They will do anything to keep in power and not only target the BN(O) voters.   

On Jan 15, Sunak’s government announced that, with the coming into effect that day of the Elections Act 2023, the 3.5 million British citizens who live abroad would henceforth be entitled to vote in parliamentary elections. The rule that any Briton who lived abroad for more than 15 years forfeited the right to vote was introduced in 2001, but it no longer matters how long they have been away.

At a stroke, the Conservatives have more than doubled the number of eligible voters from 1.4 million to 3.5 million, and they can vote by proxy or by post. Although a spokesman, Michael Gove, claimed the move showed their democratic credentials, the reality was rather more prosaic. The Conservatives imagined that, out of gratitude, the new electors, like the BN(O) passport holders, would rally round them in their time of need, just as overseas voters always have. 

On Jan 30, HuffPost UK’s Kate Nicholson noted, “This is a Tory policy, and, historically, the expat community has backed the Conservatives.”

On Jan 31, The Spectator’s columnist, William Atkinson, observed, “With opinion polls predicting an oncoming electoral shellacking for the Conservatives, it is unsurprising that Rishi Sunak is hoping to find extra voters wherever he can.” Not everybody, however, was happy with his tactics.

A Labor Party spokesman, Lord (Wajid) Khan, said last year it was fine to enfranchise “those who have a strong connection to this country,” but it would be “wrong if people with little connection to this country” were given the vote. He added the “risk of abuse” was “far too great.”

A Liberal Democrat spokesman, Lord (Paul) Scriven, agreed with Khan. He asked how it could possibly be right that someone who had not lived in the UK for 50 years could have a say over policies that do not affect them.

Such objections cut no ice with the Conservative government, whose only focus was on shoring up its overseas support in advance of the general election. However, it may have miscalculated, and the overseas votes are far from assured.

ALSO READ: BN(O) emigrants: HK beckons as UK falters

On Jan 29, the University of Sussex’s Dr Susan Collard told The Times that expatriate voters could support the Labor Party or the Liberal Democrats. Although the Labor Party opposed the change, a study she conducted with Professor Paul Webb, her colleague from the Department of Politics, suggested it could benefit from it. The study surveyed over 3,200 British expatriates living in the European Union (where the bulk of expatriates who participate in UK elections live), and it showed the expatriate voters had swung against the Conservatives since the general election in 2019.

Collard said, “Given the unpopularity of the Conservative Party in this country, I can’t see anything that they’ve done that would change the negative outlook for them based on the results of the data that we had.”

If Collard is correct, the Conservative Party’s ruse will have blown up in its face. It appears that many overseas voters are no less disgusted with the government’s performance than their domestic counterparts. The days when the Conservatives could take their support for granted have gone. 

It is never edifying to see a government in its death throes. Sunak and Cameron have shown that they are prepared to do anything to keep their grip on power, however dubious. There is no reason to suppose that the BN(O) population and the British diaspora are as naïve as they imagine, or that they have not realized it is time for a change, despite Sunak’s blandishments and Cameron’s bullying.

In the UK, people’s trust in their political leaders is at an all-time low, and it is not hard to see why. The shenanigans of Sunak and Cameron, particularly over Hong Kong, vividly illustrate why the Conservative Party has forfeited public trust. If oblivion awaits, they have only themselves to blame.

The author is a senior counsel and law professor, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.