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Opinion | UK Hong Kong report: Provocative nonsense no substitute for constructive engagement

By Grenville Cross

In Lewis Carroll's classic story, Alice in Wonderland, Alice declares, "If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense," and she is by no means the only one to feel that way.

Although, since 2020, when it left the European Union, the United Kingdom has had a world of its own, its stances ever since have often been nonsensical, particularly regarding China. Instead of walking tall and making the most of "Global Britain," it has simply exchanged the hegemony of Brussels for subservience to Washington, which makes a mockery of Brexit.

This was shown, for example, when the UK caved in to US demands to ban Huawei from its 5G network in 2020, as well as by its ongoing hostility toward Hong Kong. Although this delighted the Biden administration, which warned US companies in 2021 about the risks of doing business in Hong Kong, it has undermined British influence in China, which is fast becoming the world's largest economy.

Propaganda sheets

Since 1997, the UK has, for reasons best known to itself, given that they have no practical value, issued six-monthly reports on Hong Kong. Although the earlier ones made some pretense of objectivity, they have now degenerated into little more than propaganda sheets, intended to needle China.

The latest report, issued on Jan 12, 2023, covers the first six months of 2022, when Liz Truss was still foreign secretary, and she will have had a hand in its formulation (hence the flaws). Her blunders as foreign secretary are not only cringeworthy, but also the stuff of legend. They range from telling her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that established Russian provinces were not Russian at all (she later ascribed her blunder to hearing problems), to assuring Britons that they could go off to fight in Ukraine if they wanted, even though this is illegal under British law. Having been the worst foreign secretary in living memory, she then became the most incompetent prime minister ever, lasting only 49 days, and the fallout is still being felt.

Although Truss' fingerprints are all over the latest report, her successor, James Cleverly, provided a foreword, which does him no credit. Its errors, however, strongly suggest it was drafted for him by Truss before she departed, although he should have had the good sense not to sign off on it, given he has little grasp of the issues. Indeed, its flaws are legion, and, apart from demonstrating exactly why Truss had to go, it reflects everything that is rotten in the report it introduces.

Report conveniently ignores facts

Once again, the National Security Law for Hong Kong (NSL) is targeted, and Cleverly claimed that "there is little chance of bail" for those charged under it, with criminal suspects like Jimmy Lai Chee-ying facing prolonged detention (he seemed unaware that Lai is actually undergoing imprisonment for his unauthorized-assembly convictions). What, however, he did not mention is that, in 2022, approximately 25.7 percent of national security suspects were granted bail, or that it is recognized globally that national security offenses are in a class of their own, given they threaten a country's very survival.

What is likewise ignored is that criminal cases in Hong Kong are tried far more expeditiously than in the UK, where it was reported in 2022 that the average time it takes for a case to be completed is 708 days (well over double the Hong Kong figure), with many suspects being remanded in custody throughout.

Although Cleverly complains that the NSL's extraterritorial provisions have been invoked against the website of Hong Kong Watch, the London-based anti-China propaganda outfit, it disregards the right of every country to protect itself from those who threaten it, a right the US is currently deploying in the UK. Indeed, the British government is currently aiding and abetting the attempts by the US to extradite Julian Assange, the journalist who courageously exposed America's nefarious activities through WikiLeaks, to Washington, using the extraterritorial reach of the US Espionage Act of 1917. If the UK is prepared to assist the US in this way, it can obviously have no complaints if Hong Kong also tries to protect itself from evildoers, wheresoever they may be operating.

Double standards everywhere

In another smear, the foreword claims that the "authorities are using the antiquated offence of sedition to crack down on dissent", which beggars belief. It was, of course, the Hong Kong government under British rule that enacted Hong Kong's Sedition Ordinance in the first place, in 1938, as Cleverly should know, and it had no qualms over deploying it at times of social unrest. It was used, for example, without complaint from London, to prosecute Ta Kung Pao journalists in 1952, and the publishers and printers of three newspapers in 1967.

If, moreover, Cleverly is really so concerned over the use of sedition charges to tackle criminal activities in Hong Kong, it is very strange indeed that he has had nothing to say about the convictions in the US, on Jan 23, 2023, of four members of the Oath Keepers on charges of seditious conspiracy arising from the Capitol attack of Jan 6, 2021.

In one particularly inane smear, Cleverly asserts that "the judiciary are required to enforce laws and values imposed by Beijing". If he had checked, he would have discovered that the bulk of Hong Kong's laws predate 1997, and that most of the laws the judiciary are required to enforce derive not from Beijing but from London.

If his smear was aimed at the NSL, Cleverly should also have highlighted the NSL's "values," as it specifically requires that, in its implementation, "human rights shall be respected and protected", and that the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which contains the fair trial guarantees) "shall be protected in accordance with the law" (Art.4).

As those who live in glass houses should not throw stones, Cleverly would do well to note that, by contrast, the UK's most recent security law, the National Security and Investment Act 2021, contains no mention whatsoever of protecting human rights, let alone upholding the ICCPR. The same is also true of its National Security Bill, currently being debated in the British Parliament, and it is not hard to see why. Because of the threats it poses to the free press, the Financial Times has said it "could become a draconian tool for a future government even more shy of accountability than those of recent years".

Foreign judges confident in HK's rule of law

In his foreword, moreover, Cleverly highlights the resignations, in March 2022, of two serving British judges as nonpermanent judges of the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal (Lords (Robert) Reed and (Patrick) Hodge). Using words identical to those deployed at the time by Truss, Cleverly claims that it "became untenable for UK Supreme Court judges to continue within Hong Kong's judicial system". What, however, he failed to mention was that the 10 remaining overseas judges (all retired), of whom five are British, expressed their full confidence in the CFA, and indicated they had no intention of walking away from their responsibilities.

Although, like Truss before him, Cleverly has sought to give the impression that the two judges who resigned were free agents, the truth has now emerged, thanks to two insiders. When Lord (Chris) Patten, the ex-Hong Kong governor and former chairman of the Conservative Party (Cleverly's own party) was interviewed on Nov 6, 2022, he confirmed what many suspected: that Truss had told the judges not to sit on the CFA, adding "I thoroughly disapprove of politicians telling judges what to do."

Patten's revelation was, moreover, corroborated by the serial fantasist Benedict Rogers, the deputy chairman of the Conservative Party's Human Rights Commission, who said (of the two judges), "The British government is right to have taken steps to recall them."

Ideological hang-ups should go

In a concluding smear, beloved of the Foreign Office's Sinophobes, Cleverly trotted out the hoary old chestnut "that China is failing to comply with the Sino-British Joint Declaration", even though it has long since been superseded by the Basic Law. It was, of course, Beijing, not London, that protected the "one country, two systems" principle when armed mobs and political saboteurs tried to wreck it in 2019-20, often egged on by hostile forces in the UK and elsewhere. Although the US and its Five Eyes partners failed to stand with Hong Kong in its hour of need, it nonetheless survived, and was fortified by the experience.

In consequence, Hong Kong's capitalist system, rule of law and way of life are now secure and a great future lies ahead of it, and it is a huge pity that none of the credit for this can go to the British government, let alone the likes of Truss and Cleverly.

However, despite the foreword's hypocritical nonsense (which would have titillated Alice), Cleverly still says, "We will work constructively with the new chief executive where we can within the wider relationship." Although this sounds positive, it takes two to tango, and the UK, if serious, must scrap its China-baiting and get real. After all, the International Monetary Fund has just forecast that the UK economy will be the only one in the G7 to shrink in 2023, and it is high time for Rishi Sunak's government to place the British national interest above the ideological hang-ups of people like Truss.

If, therefore, the UK wants to buy into the success story that is the new Hong Kong, it should cut the propaganda, show it can be a reliable partner, and constructively engage. Its long-term interests lie in forging closer ties with China, and not in clinging to America's coattails.

The author is a senior counsel and law professor, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR.


The article was first published in China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of DotDotNews.


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