What gives the UK the right to involve itself in Hong Kong?

There is an irony in the UK wanting Hong Kong to have democracy it was denied under British rule, writes Sholto Byrnes

Messages of support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. Photo: David Gray / Reuters
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The pro-democracy demonstrations on the streets of Hong Kong have gone on for just under two weeks now, and though the crowds have thinned, many remain determined to stay for as long as they can to make their point.

Millions around the world have great sympathy for their demand that when the promised universal suffrage is implemented in 2017, it should be genuinely open, and that candidates for the post of chief executive should not be vetted by Beijing.

America and Britain, among the noisiest nations when it comes to trumpeting the virtues of liberal democracy, have in this case, however, been notably quiet.

“We do not take sides in the discussion of Hong Kong’s political development,” read an uncharacteristically timid statement issued by the local US consulate, “nor do we support any particular individuals or groups involved in it.”

The UK has done little more. A Wall Street Journal op-ed accused prime minister David Cameron of “subcontracting” the issue to his deputy, Nick Clegg, who summoned the Chinese ambassador to convey his “dismay and alarm”.

While Mr Cameron has said that he is “very concerned”, and urged the Chinese government to stick to the terms of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong’s future that was supposed to guarantee the territory’s system of freedoms and governance until 2047, these responses have given scant comfort to the protesters.

Quite the opposite: Martin Lee, a QC and a leading pro-democracy campaigner, accused Mr Cameron of selling his Hong Kong compatriots “down the river for 30 pieces of silver”, and Anson Chan, a former chief secretary to the Hong Kong government, condemned Britain’s “weak words that have sometimes been worse than silence”.

Past British assurances that Britain would defend Hong Kong’s freedoms were understood to mean that London would adopt a rather more muscular approach should these liberties be under threat.

The anger of the pro-democracy advocates is understandable. But so, to a degree, is China’s insistence that this is an internal matter and not the business of foreign governments at all.

Look at it from a different perspective: why in the first place should the UK have the right to interfere in the affairs of a city-state on the other side of the globe?

The answer is that Hong Kong was ceded to Britain in 1842 after the First Opium War, with Kowloon added in 1860, and remained a colony until 1997, when the 99 year lease on the New Territories area ran out. The original treaties were forced on a weak China by an aggressively expanding empire. The lands were the fruits of conquest, in other words.

The argument that Britain has special privileges over past possessions is one perhaps best avoided. For if that were really the case, what about other countries?

Does it follow that Turkey has an oversight role in Basra, Athens and Belgrade because they were all once under Ottoman rule? The further back you go, the more absurd it becomes.

Perhaps France should have a special say in the English legal system; the country was, after all, originally conquered by a vassal of the French king, the Duke of Normandy (in 1066, but never mind).

Neither should the passing of over two millennia lead us to forget the claims of the heirs to the Carthaginian Empire, under which Tunisia presumably has some vestige of suzerainty over Corsica.

At a more serious level, if this principle of special interests were to stand, it would more than justify Vladimir Putin’s activities in Ukraine and other countries that Russia regards as being its “near abroad” – not an outcome desired by those who think Britain should be involving itself more deeply in Hong Kong’s electoral process.

Ah, it will be said: this is not about privileges but obligations. If Britain was always so concerned about the growth of democracy in Hong Kong, however, then why did it never allow universal suffrage during its own long governance? It managed to hold a general election in what was then the nearby British colony of Malaya, for instance, in 1955. But there was no move to do the same in Hong Kong in the following 42 years.

And if the departing colonial power really did feel a sense of duty to its former subjects, there was one thing it could have done: offered to give the 3.25 million Chinese who held British passports the right to settle in the UK after the handover. This was the position argued by the former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown, but his principled stand was echoed by few others. Obligation, it seems, only goes so far.

The fact is that Hong Kong is a part of China, and Beijing’s rules apply. (Incidentally, it is worth bearing in mind that the pro-Beijing camp insists that its proposed way to elect the chief executive does not flout the relevant part of the Basic Law, which refers to a “broadly representative nominating committee”. )

China’s demand that other countries not meddle in its own regions is often viewed as a request to turn away while dissenters and pro-democratic movements are suppressed. That is one interpretation, and there may well be truth in it. But it is also a demand made by plenty of other countries in good standing. What an uproar there would be if China started weighing in on Catalonian wishes for independence from Spain, or the plight of the Kurdish or Alevi minorities in Turkey. The silence of the Western democracies may seem shameful, but it may have been the only practical course. As for Britain: it did nothing for Hong Kong when it could have done. Please now spare us the crocodile tears.

Sholto Byrnes is a Doha-based commentator and editor