By Lord Alton of Liverpool
Watching the Tiananmen-style assault on Hong Kong universities and their students, I looked again at a postcard I recently received from a student in Hong Kong. It included some words from the Les Misérables classic refrain “Can you hear the people sing, is there a world you long to see? …Will you be strong and stand with me?”
It’s not just about a future world which HongKongers want to see: it’s about their familiar world which they are seeing destroyed.
A student emailed me from one of the universities to say:
[T]he intensity last night was a completely new level when the firing of tear gas has been literally non-stop; I later realized that the HKPolice fired more than 1000 tg overnight. I don’t know how to describe the suffocating-ness, the burning-ness in eyes and on skin, the screams out of injured and fear; It had to be a hell. Yes, it was a hell, …in front of us were students hit by rubber bullets, in their eyes, in their heads, in their chests…
One of Asia’s truly great cities, a free city, is now under de facto martial law, convulsed by previously unimaginable scenes. Three months ago, inspired by Jean Valjean and the students in Les Mis, some Hong Kong school children, during their morning Assembly sang the plea to stand against oppression and dictatorship – instead of singing the National Anthem.
In its characteristically authoritarian, heavy-handed, way, China responded by removing the song from music platforms. Like most of the counter-productive things that authoritarians do, it simply helped to further popularise the song – into Cantonese and Taiwanese. The most popular version is translated as “Asking Who That Hasn’t Spoken Out” (問誰未發聲)?
As one of the two signatories to the international 1984 Treaty guaranteeing Hong Kong’s autonomy, the rule of law and independent judiciary, human rights and basic freedoms, that is a question which the unheard people of Hong Kong have every right to ask the UK.
Those whose voices have been muted and who have failed to stand with Hong Kong should think very carefully about what is at stake.
I think of Chow Tsz-lok who is now dead – because of tear gas, batons and police blockade – one of thousands subjected to police brutality. I think of the boy shot with a live round at close range by the police – his life still hangs in the balance.
I think of the 3 million who, since June, have demonstrated peacefully, and the more than 3,000 who have been arrested: a third of them under the age of 18.
I think of Carrie Lam’s obduracy, her craven submission to her puppeteers in Beijing, her Emergency Regulations, her multiple court injunctions and a de facto curfew, all aimed at stifling the voices of Hong Kong’s law-abiding, freedom-loving people. Students converged on Lam’s old College at Cambridge over the weekend calling for Wolfson to remove her Honorary Fellowship.
The U.K. Government should go further and reconsider her family’s citizenship rights – and instead provide citizenship rights to those, particularly with British passports seeking to escape her tyranny. It must hold to account those who last night in Hong Kong university campuses shot 1000 tear gas canisters and severely injured more than 60 students, with targeted sanctions.
Think, too, of the collusion with the triads, local gangs, agents provocateurs and hired henchmen, attempting to intimidate, provoke and provide a pretext for martial law, deferral of elections, and Red Army suppression.
Think of the bravery of young leaders like Joshua Wong – who was recently nominated for the Westminster Award for Human Rights, Human Life and Human Dignify and who has been told last week that he is to receive it.
I was privileged to chair a meeting for Joshua at Westminster, where he extolled his commitment to democracy, the rule of law, nonviolent protest, human rights and democracy.
At least some at Westminster have understood that the best response to Joshua’s disqualification as an election candidate, and being jailed for promoting democracy, is for him to be honoured by people who share his values.
Carrie Lam – with an 82% disapproval rating – unapologetically regards young people like Joshua as “having no stake in the society” adamantly insisting that she will not “make concessions” to the pro-democracy advocates. Her description of them as “enemies of the people” was disturbing and insensitive at best and deeply offensive at worst.
Beijing’s rubber-stamp politicians and their police openly demonise these fine young people calling them “cockroaches” and saying that they must be “crushed”. A police superintendent, Mr. Vasco Williams, disparagingly and disgracefully called an unconscious first aider detainee a “yellow object”.
Commenting last week, on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the philosopher, Roger Scruton, reminded us that in some circles the “charm” of tyrannical Communist authoritarianism, “has been barely diminished by its enormous legacy of human suffering.”
As British parliamentarians, we must do more than listen to the people sing and be willing to take a stand with them.
Lord Alton of Liverpool is a member of the House of Lords, a human rights campaigner and vice chair of the Westminster Friends of Hong Kong. An extended version of this article appears on his website.