Seldom is Westminster this united. This week, as China threatens to bar British members of parliament from Hong Kong, parliamentarians condemn China in unison and urge the United Kingdom government to show more strength over Hong Kong’s democratic demands.
‘If you want to be a member of the G20, you have to behave like a member of the G20.’ Richard Ottaway, chair of the foreign affairs select committee, took aim at Beijing. The flame of fury burns across the political divide. China has ‘reneged’ on its commitments and ‘there is no other way of putting it’ said Tory John Baron, as Labour’s Mike Gapes mocked the Communist party for being ‘afraid’ ‘nervous’ and ‘worried’ over the MPs’ visit.
MPs are angry because this is not the first time China has insulted Britain recently. A week ago, China refused MP Richard Graham’s request for a visa over his unflinching support for the Umbrella Movement, forcing the cross-party delegation to abort their business trip. Even before the protests, China humiliated parliament by demanding MPs to halt their current review into post-handover Hong Kong, interfering in Britain’s ‘internal affairs’ – a phrase often used by Beijing to rebut criticisms by the west.
What are actually internal affairs of Hong Kong, however, are suffering from heavy interventions by China. Beijing barring MPs’ entry into Hong Kong illustrates once again the erosion of the city’s autonomy is not abating. As Ottaway stated, ‘immigration is a devolved matter … it’s not for China to ban them.’
China has, in effect, unilaterally declared the death of a solemn agreement it signed with Britain. As Chris Patten explained to the committee, whereas before 1997 Britain was obliged to China for a stable and peaceful handover, after this date ‘the obligations are now from China towards the UK’ on ensuring the completion of democratisation.
We need a Hong Kong policy, separate from our China policy. It must be clear and consistent in recognising Hong Kong’s unique status under the joint declaration. After all, Britain has an agreement with China over Hong Kong only, not Tibet or Taiwan. Hong Kong is a special case, where British interest does not amount to ‘interference’.
If David Cameron fails to deliver this policy, we should start thinking about this in the Labour party.
Hong Kong has been an awkward territory for Labour. It was Margaret Thatcher who signed the joint declaration, John Major who vowed to honour it, and Patten who threw himself into a tug of war with the Chinese for democratic progress in Hong Kong, of which many Hongkongers are still very grateful for.
For too long, we have turned a blind eye on China’s subversion of Hong Kong, as Labour ministers went along with Foreign Office officials’ strategy of avoiding conflicts with China at all cost. We, the party for the working people, should have been the first to denounce Beijing’s crony capitalism and the denial of Hong Kong people’s democratic rights.
We should also be creative in our foreign policy. For instance, why not get our message across via the European Union? As Tony Blair has repeatedly argued, ‘the rationale for Europe today is power.’ Surely we should leverage this power over an issue of this importance, and seek strength in our European allies?
Either way, Britain has a right and a responsibility to defend the seven million people it handed to China in 1997. Seventeen years on, with China breaking its promises, it is about time we remind ourselves of these obligations.
Noah Sin is a regular contributor to the Independent. He is currently completing a MSc in International Relations Theory at the London School of Economics and tweets @Noah_Sin
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