Now that the world’s biggest China-basher is no longer president of the United States and has even been banished from Twitter and other social media for his inflammatory rhetoric, perhaps it’s time for Chinese diplomats also to rein in their wolf-warrior outbursts and provocations.

But while the Trump menace is behind us, the wolf warriors keep snarling away, especially here in already tired, battered and bruised Hong Kong. 

Paul Harris.

Their latest target is the recently elected head of the city’s Bar Association. Paul Harris, a mild-mannered, greatly accomplished and widely respected human rights barrister, had the temerity to question the merits of the harsh national security legislation imposed on the city by the Chinese leadership in late June of last year.

Harris’s predecessor as chair of the association, Philip Dykes, was also a target of wolf warriors after he and his fellow barristers proved to be one of the few professional groups in Hong Kong that would not kowtow to Beijing’s increasingly hard line. 

But the digs at Dykes were absolute patty-cake in comparison to the vitriol that over the past week or so has been hurled at Harris. Now that the likes of Joshua Wong Chi-fung and Jimmy Lai Chee-Ying are languishing in jail and other pro-democracy “troublemakers” such as former legislators Ted Hui Chi-fung and Nathan Law Kwun-chung have fled the city for safe haven in the West, it seems Harris and his stubbornly principled body of lawyers have become Beijing’s new Public Enemy Number One.

Where to begin in this nasty game of pile-on by Chinese authorities?

Let’s start with the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, whose spokesman accused Harris of being “hostile toward the Communist Party,” promoting discussion of Hong Kong independence and using “his British nationality to collude with foreign forces in interfering with Hong Kong affairs.”

This last charge is, of course, the most worrisome because, if proven true, it may be a breach of the national security law that could put the Senior Counsel behind bars alongside Wong, Lai and a host of others. 

Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong eagerly joined in the assault, issuing a statement castigating Harris for disregarding the “unquestionable and sacred power” of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, which wrote and promulgated the national security law whose overreach the Bar Association has questioned since Day One. 

Photo: May James/HKFP.

The statement added that Harris had “blatantly challenged the city’s constitutional order,” China’s national sovereignty and “the bottom line of one country, two systems.”

State media chimed in, with People’s Daily calling Harris “arrogant” and decrying his “lost professionalism and rationality” while also impugning the association for “making use of its influence in society to abet activities that cause mayhem in Hong Kong” — a clear reference to its support for the rights of protesters during the months of anti-government unrest that gripped the city in 2019 and early 2020.  

And what did Harris actually say or do to provoke all this invective? After his January 21 election as Bar Association chair, he pledged to appeal to the Hong Kong government “to agree to some modifications” in the national security law, some of whose provisions are seen by many barristers as conflicting with individual rights guaranteed under Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law. 

Sadly, such a modest proposal is now regarded as the height of anti-government extremism in a once free-thinking, free-speaking society that has almost entirely lost its oppositional voice under Beijing’s authoritarianism. 

File photo: Jimmy Lam/United Social Press.

One can’t help but think that Harris’s real offence as the new Bar Association chair was standing up for the rule of law in a city that now runs by rule of the Chinese Communist Party.
It is also true, however, that Harris’s British nationality has done him no favours in this case. As the attacks on him mount, the wolf warriors are likewise going apoplectic over Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s offer of a pathway to citizenship in the United Kingdom for up to 2.9 million Hongkongers and their dependants, who qualify for British National (Overseas) passports and may be worried about their future in a city that no longer feels like home.  

Hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers born before the 1997 handover from British to Chinese rule are expected to take advantage of this offer, which the Chinese Foreign Ministry has roundly denounced as “gross interference in China’s internal affairs” and a betrayal of the 1984 Sino-British Declaration that paved the way for the handover 13 years later.

But, of course, the national security law was the prior and far bigger betrayal that prompted the British response. And this time the wolf warriors’ growl appears far more menacing than their bite. 

File photo: GovHK.

In retaliation, China says it will no longer recognise the BN(O) passport as a valid travel document. But while that may sound ominous for those Hongkongers considering emigrating, it is actually meaningless. Hong Kong citizens generally don’t use their BN(O) passport to travel anywhere except to Britain. They use their Hong Kong passport and ID card when they depart the city for other destinations and their home-return permits when travelling to China. 

The BN(O) row is not over, however. China’s Foreign Ministry has threatened further action, such as possibly denying permanent residency and voting rights in Hong Kong to those who emigrate to Britain. That would indeed be a very wolf-like counterstrike but also difficult to enforce as there is no official record (except at the British Consulate in Hong Kong, where mum will no doubt be the word) of those who currently possess or will in future possess the BN(O). 

Thus, while the growling is likely to continue, it won’t stop Hongkongers — lots of them — from leaving and taking their assets with them.  


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Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.