Last Tuesday, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the UK Parliament gathered for the first of two meetings on China.
This meeting, split over two sessions, focused on ways in which China’s domestic affairs interact with its foreign policy, and the implications these have for the UK’s engagement with China.
Hong Kong’s present status and future, including the UK’s role and responsibilities, were also brought up. In choosing to group these two issues together, given the committee’s wide-ranging remit, the UK government seemingly hints at several points.
The first is that while Hong Kong falls under the sphere of Chinese domestic affairs, it nevertheless warrants being considered an issue of separate and focused discussion.
Therefore, while recognising that Beijing views Hong Kong as an internal affair — a position both Beijing and the current SAR administration have repeatedly stressed — the UK government continues to hold its own position: that Hong Kong is worthy of particular note, and the UK still has a legal and historic role and responsibility towards the only former British colony not granted self-determination upon the withdrawal of British rule.
Secondly, it puts Hong Kong’s current situation in the context of emerging signs of a broader Chinese national policy blurring the lines between domestic and foreign affairs.
Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, the more conciliatory approach to both domestic and international relations first adopted by Deng Xiaoping, and followed in spirit by Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, has been replaced by an increasingly assertive and confrontational regime.
China today does not act as a confident and rising power, but an intolerant and oppressive one. Perhaps this is because the leadership is aware that a slowing and debt-ridden economy may no longer have the steam required to overcome the fast approaching structural challenges of an ageing workforce, environmental degradation and the absence of traditional investment opportunities.
This would pose significant problems for a mature economy and workforce buttressed by a robust political system and legal institutions, but could prove disastrous to a regime that lacks representative legitimacy in a country like China.
In consolidating power Xi has also consolidated responsibility, and this Sword of Damocles weighs heavily over the new imperial China.
Within the context of national hubris that hides domestic and international confrontation, Hong Kong’s limited freedoms now serve to highlight the meaning of Chinese nationalism and Xi Thought, and how these may be applied within a rules-based society.
Hong Kong has become the point at which Chinese domestic and foreign relations intersect; where internal authoritarianism become external bullying; where methods and means of influence and control over a liberally minded Chinese people may be developed and applied for a Chinese diaspora; and where a liberal and rules-based system may be undermined from within.
This does not mean that there is a deliberate and calculated state policy to politicise the Chinese identity, infiltrate and weaponise the overseas Chinese diaspora, and to undermine a liberal world order that has served the Chinese so well economically.
However, it would likewise be wrong to ignore the mounting evidence that the new assertive Beijing government is playing a very different game. Until the object and rules of this game become clear, it would be unwise for the UK to ignore what is already assessed as a credible threat by the country’s traditional allies, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the European Union.
If the grouping of the issues to be discussed pointed to a ready dose of realism from Whitehall, the questions raised by the cross-party committee sadly did not, and betrayed a worrying naivety among much of the British political class as to the nature of this new politics.
Eva Pils and Sebastian Veg have first-hand experience of the politics of Xi’s China, and of the changing realities not only within China but also among Chinese people. Steve Tsang and Chris Patten may, if we are to be fair, be watching mostly from afar — and yet both, careful as they are with their words, could not have been more clear in their warnings that China is no longer playing the game we in Hong Kong (and many in China) hoped it was.
The destination has changed. It is no longer good enough to question issues of human right abuses in Xinjiang or the disappearance of opposition voices. What matters today is not only the way a minority are treated but also the way a majority, who continue to hold on to the China dream, are being conditioned to accept it.
This brings me to the crux of the Hong Kong experience: far more insidious and indeed effective than what has been actively done — interpretations of the Basic Law, disqualification of sitting legislators, electoral barring, legal persecution — has been what has been allowed to happen passively: the politicisation of our academic and legal institutions, a loss of public confidence in the police force, a hostile and increasingly restricted press environment, the erosion of our civic values and grassroots society.
To identify as a Hong Konger, a personal and social construct, has become political, as is any affiliation with a community organisation without official blessing. The words “universal suffrage” have become almost unspeakable, though they are a fundamental political term within the Basic Law.
Ignoring the spirit of the law has rendered the rule of law, in practice if not on paper, ineffective. The law no longer protects people from politics, but has come to be understood by the people as a means by which politics rules.
No matter how robustly Hong Kong’s judiciary has, in particular, been able to resist the tide of political interference, the rule of law does not begin and end with the character of our judges. When people no longer trust its independence, and when the way we relate to the law changes, the rule of law is broken.
Regardless of where people stand politically, for the vast majority of Hong Kong people the nature of the city that the UK handed over to Beijing in 1997 is broken. Not knowing where we now stand on so many levels has left us not daring to breathe for fear of crossing someone else’s line.
The most poignant moment of last Tuesday’s meeting came at the end of the first session when, as the chair begun to call time, Sebastian Veg interjected to urge that the UK declassify and publish all of the archives related to the handover negotiations. “Hong Kong people are owed the exact information on who asked for what, who received what promise, who said what at that time,” he added.
Hong Kong people are indeed owed the opportunity to piece together the truth of their own story. That Hong Kong people must ask the UK for the truth only serves to highlight the following truisms: that Hong Kong Chinese people, like Chinese everywhere, understand with a heavy heart that the truth does not lie in either the official narrative we are fed nor with the Chinese Communist Party; and that the UK, for all its questions concerning the Basic Law, Belt and Road and human rights does not understand what China and being Chinese means today.