Every experienced politician recognises that devising policies and contingency plans is all very well, but the real test of statesmanship is how you react to unfolding and unforeseen events. Britain’s aspirant Prime Ministers are facing their first examination now: what to do about Hong Kong?
Protests there are raging against extradition legislation that is seen as a license for the Big Brother on the mainland to crush democratic opposition. Just a week after the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square was passed over in silence by the People’s Republic, the former colony that Britain handed over to China less than 20 years ago has been convulsed by demonstrations numbering more than a million people. True to form, Beijing has suppressed any mention of the protests on Weibo, its version of Twitter. As in 1989, China’s 1.3 billion people mostly have no idea what is happening to their compatriots.
Now this peaceful show of people power has turned violent, as the elected chief executive Carrie Lam deploys tear gas, pepper spray, water cannon and even rubber bullets to stop protestors blockading Hong Kong’s parliament. Ms Lam has appeared on television to justify her use of force and to deny that she is simply a puppet of Beijing. She wept as she insisted that the charge of “selling out Hong Kong” could not be true: “I grew up here, like everyone else in the city.”
To the embattled pro-democracy activists, however, these are crocodile tears, from a woman who has allowed their leaders to be imprisoned or even abducted. They now fear that Lam’s amendment to the extradition law will legalise repression. The Basic Law, laid down when Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of China in 1997, is intended to guarantee the rule of law. It enshrines the principle of “one country, two systems”, agreed by Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher in the 1984 Sino-British joint declaration. This agreement has formed the basis of Hong Kong’s continuing prosperity as a free market economy that operates independently of the Chinese Communist Party and its ideology. All this is now at risk.
So far, the West has barely lifted a finger. The Germans have threatened to reconsider its extradition treaty with Hong Kong. That is not much of a threat, but it is more than the rest of the EU has done. “Europe is watching,” declares Guy Verhofstadt on behalf of the European Parliament. President Trump’s message to Hong Kong is hardly more reassuring: “I hope they’ll be able to work it out with China.” We can safely assume that President Xi is hardly quaking in his boots.
And what of Britain, which has a unique moral and legal responsibility to Hong Kong? The Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has issued a statement: “I urge the Hong Kong government to listen to the concerns of its people and its friends in the international community and to pause and reflect on these controversial measures.” This will strike most people as mild stuff, but the Foreign Office abhors “megaphone diplomacy”. Behind the scenes, London may be assumed to be pressing Beijing to permit Ms Lam to amend her amendment to make it clear that it is not intended to target political opponents of the regime. But a complete climbdown is no longer possible without Xi Jinping losing face. That would, of course, be unthinkable in the one-party dictatorship that China remains.
What do the other prime ministerial wannabes have to say? They should be asked. Rory Stewart was actually born in Hong Kong, the son of a deputy head of MI6. So far, he has kept his counsel on the extradition row. How about Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary, who would be responsible for extradition to Hong Kong? Not a peep from him. Even Michael Gove, the apostle of Western intervention, has kept stumm.
And what of Boris Johnson, the favourite and, more to the point, former Foreign Secretary? He must know a good deal about the situation in Hong Kong and he has more freedom to speak out than his successor. Last year, while still in office, he protested when the prominent human rights activist Benedict Rogers was denied entry to Hong Kong. Yet since the latest protests erupted, he has been uncharacteristically silent. He may have a particular reason to do so. As mayor of London, Johnson purchased expensive water cannon for the police, despite controversy and legal challenges; his Labour successor Sadiq Khan wasted no time in disposing of them. Now may not be the time to remind his colleagues and party members about an episode best forgotten.
Yet Hong Kong weighs heavily on our national conscience. Whoever becomes Prime Minister will have to deal with China, one of our biggest trading partners. But he or she cannot decently ignore what is happening to the people we entrusted to the tender mercies of Beijing. A polite but firm message to President Xi would show that Britain cannot be taken for granted on the global stage. Who will stand up to be counted?