As police use increasingly violent methods to disperse protesters in Hong Kong, huge columns of Chinese troops have been converging ominously on the mainland. The moment the world has been dreading — a second Tiananmen Square, crushing the fragile freedoms of the former colony — now seems to be approaching fast.
What are Britain’s duties and obligations to the people of Hong Kong? Legally, Her Majesty’s Government is the co-guarantor of the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, a solemn international treaty which created the principle of “one country, two systems”. That principle came into effect after the handover in 1997 and is due to last until 2047.
Under the Joint Declaration, China promises to maintain by law the “rights and freedoms [of Hong Kong], including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, of strike, of choice of occupation, of academic research and of religious belief”. The People’s Republic must also protect “private property, ownership of enterprises, legitimate rights of inheritance and foreign investment by law”. Margaret Thatcher, under whose auspices this Treaty was negotiated, ensured that it came as close as possible to enshrining in law the way of life shared across the globe by the English-speaking peoples, among whom Hong Kong by right and by choice belonged.
In short, China is bound by international law to preserve Hong Kong’s character as a community enjoying full personal and economic liberties under the rule of law. If Beijing breaks these binding commitments, the UK is equally bound to hold China to account.
How, though, can the British exercise leverage against a political, economic and military superpower? Mere warnings by successive Prime Ministers and Foreign Secretaries have failed to deter the authorities in Hong Kong from infringing the freedoms guaranteed using excessive force. Such exhortations are unlikely to deter the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo, led by Xi Jinping, from ordering the People’s Liberation Army to occupy the Special Administrative Region, as Hong Kong is officially known on the mainland.
As a former journalist, however, Boris Johnson knows better than anyone how to deploy the soft power of words and ideas against brute force. So far, he has chosen to keep his powder dry. But the time has come to take to the world stage and defend the internationally recognised rights of Hong Kong. By doing so, the Prime Minister would be striking a blow for freedom and the rule of law.
If Britain takes a stand on these principles, the United States cannot stand idly by. America has a similar commitment to Taiwan as Britain does to Hong Kong, even though Taiwan lacks a treaty such as the 1984 Joint Declaration. China has already refused permission for two US warships to use the port of Hong Kong. This means that Beijing is worried that the US Navy might intervene in Chinese coastal waters. Powerful as China may be, it is not ready for a military confrontation with the United States.
But would the Trump administration be prepared to risk American prestige and potentially lives in order to help its British ally to uphold Hong Kong’s rights under international law? To put it in cruder terms, as the White House prefers: does The Donald have Boris’s back?
That is the question on which the fate of Hong Kong is likely to turn. And that is why the talks this week in London between John Bolton and Boris Johnson, as a prelude to next week’s G-7 summit in Biarritz, are so important. We can only hope that President Trump has used his National Security Adviser to convey a message of solidarity with the Prime Minister in the event of a second Tiananmen. Next week we may learn more about just how robust the Anglophone alliance will be. But Hong Kong is likely to be the first real test of whether this new transatlantic relationship will strike fear into the bunkers of Beijing.