Opinion | Hong Kong slurs: Inept foreign secretaries harm UK's future
By Grenville Cross
In 2013, Lord (Peter) Carrington, who served as foreign secretary in Margaret Thatcher's government from 1979 to 1982, told the BBC "I find it very sad and humiliating that we aren't the great power we used to be".
Although the imperial era is over, the UK still has an abundance of talent, and it should have drawn on this in recent times. With its departure from the European Union in 2020, statesmen were required to guide the country through choppy waters, but they have not emerged. Instead, third-raters have been entrusted with responsibilities for which they are unsuited, and the country has suffered accordingly.
Since leaving the EU, the UK has been beset by problems, many unrelated to COVID-19, and some have sought to blame Brexit, which is unfair. Its leaders have been out of their depth, unable to rise to the challenges of self-governance, free trade and global responsibility. They have repeatedly mishandled their portfolios, with unfortunate consequences, not least in foreign policy.
In 2016, after Britons voted to leave the EU, Boris Johnson became foreign secretary, but lasted less than two years. Although tasked with convincing the world that Brexit did not mean the UK's withdrawal from global affairs, his mission was hamstrung by a lack of substance, and he struck many observers as superficial.
Whereas Egypt's president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, walked out of a meeting with Johnson because the conversation did not progress beyond pleasantries, Sweden's former prime minister, Carl Bildt, commented that, while Britain "used to be a nation providing leadership to the world, now, it can't even provide leadership to itself".
In 2019, when Johnson became prime minister, with his slogan "Get Brexit Done", he appointed Dominic Raab as foreign secretary, a monumental blunder. Quite apart from the numerous allegations against him of bullying staff that are now being investigated by Adam Tolley KC, it soon became clear he was just another Cold War throwback, strong on vitriol but weak on vision. This, of course, was the last thing the UK needed as it pursued "Global Britain", which is all about developing relationships with the wider world, particularly China, which is expected shortly to become the world's largest economy.
Instead of supporting Hong Kong in its hour of need in 2019-20, when fanatics tried to wreck the "one country, two systems" policy, Raab chose to join the US in its attempts to destabilize the city and weaken China. He adopted hostile measures, including suspending the fugitive surrender agreement, embracing Washington's Sinophobic propaganda, and, in an attempt to gut the city, offering British nationality to BN(O) passport holders, in direct contravention of the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984.
It was, by any yardstick, an abysmal performance, and its sheer vileness was epitomized by Raab's extraordinary attack upon a leading British barrister, David Perry QC. On Jan 16, 2021, he appeared on national television and denounced Perry, who had been instructed to prosecute a trial in Hong Kong, for having behaved in "a pretty mercenary way", and providing the Chinese government with "a public relations coup". He said he could not understand "how anyone of good conscience, from the world-leading legal profession that we have, would take a case where they will have to apply the national security legislation at the behest of the authorities in Beijing, which is directly violating, undermining the freedom of the people of Hong Kong", which could not have been further from the truth.
The case Perry was to have prosecuted had nothing to do with the National Security Law for Hong Kong (NSL), and only concerned an unauthorized procession. Once his error was exposed, however, Raab failed to apologize to Perry, although his days were clearly numbered.
In mid-2021, things came to a head, and Raab was sacked by Johnson after he was found to have been holidaying in Crete as Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, dodging his responsibilities for organizing the evacuation of Afghan interpreters working for the British in Kabul, many of whom were trapped.
Although his departure was widely welcomed, his replacement, Liz Truss, took the foreign secretaryship to even lower depths. When, for example, she met Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, in 2022, she told him that established Russian provinces were not even Russian, attracting derision from even her own subordinates. This, however, was just the start, and, shortly afterward, she told Britons that, if they wanted to fight in Ukraine, they "absolutely" could, wholly unaware this is illegal under British law.
Her crass ignorance also extended to China, and, when Hong Kong celebrated the 25th anniversary of its establishment as a special administrative region in 2022, Truss not only failed to congratulate the city, but waffled away instead about the "steady erosion of political and civil rights and Hong Kong's autonomy". She was wholly unaware that the Basic Law has provided the city with civil and political rights far greater than anything contemplated by the Sino-British Joint Declaration, including the prospect of universal suffrage for the chief executive and Legislative Council elections, or that the pace of democratization has accelerated since the British departed in 1997.
Whereas the chief executive of Hong Kong is now a local resident chosen by an election committee of 1,500 members representing various sectors, in the British era the governor was always a Briton appointed by the king or queen without reference to local people. She also seemed not to appreciate that, in sharp contrast to the British era, when, for most of the time, legislators were appointed by the governor, the city's 90 legislators are now popularly elected, either directly or indirectly.
Notwithstanding her ineptitude, Truss' Conservative Party installed her as prime minister in 2022, albeit for only 44 cringeworthy days, and this highlighted just how badly the UK has lost its way since leaving the EU.
Although there were initially hopes that Truss' successor as foreign secretary, James Cleverly, might be up to the job, he has now proved otherwise. In January, he signed off on a shoddy 6-monthly report to Parliament on Hong Kong, covering the period when Truss was still in office, which was noteworthy only for its errors and half-truths, and displayed a woeful misunderstanding of the content, effects and objectives of the NSL.
Cleverly has now spectacularly compounded his earlier blunders, this time on the international stage, and Truss cannot be blamed. On Feb 27, 2023, when he appeared before the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, he again maligned Hong Kong, imagining he could pull the wool over its eyes, although his slurs cannot withstand even perfunctory scrutiny.
Whereas, for example, Cleverly claimed that media freedoms in Hong Kong have been eroded, he failed to inform the UNHRC that the media landscape is as vibrant as ever, with all aspects of the government's work being closely monitored. In particular, he did not explain that there are currently 209 media organizations registered with the Information Services Department, comprising local, mainland and foreign entities, and that this showed an increase after the NSL's enactment.
As if not bad enough, Cleverly then declared that "those who speak out, including journalists or businessmen like Jimmy Lai, have been arrested," which was deliberately misleading. Lai is not facing trial because he "spoke out", but because he is accused of subversive activity, for having allegedly conspired with foreign countries or external elements to endanger national security, as well as of conspiring to publish seditious materials. By trying, therefore, to take the UNHRC for a ride, Cleverly has demeaned his office, and it must be hoped that the UNHRC does not again allow itself to be misled by someone pushing a hostile agenda of his own.
After all, those who live in glass houses should not throw stones, and Cleverly must wise up. As his own government is currently trying to push through Parliament its loosely worded, wide-ranging National Security Bill, which exposes journalists who embarrass ministers to severe sentences of imprisonment, it ill-behooves him to complain about press freedom in Hong Kong. As the Financial Times has explained, the "bill will further chill responsible journalism" and "could become a draconian tool for a future government". Instead, therefore, of peddling lies about Hong Kong, he should concentrate on defending media freedom at home.
In both his 6-monthly report to Parliament and his address to the UNHRC, Cleverly, moreover, withheld crucial information. Whereas neither the UK's National Security and Investment Act 2021 nor its National Security Bill contains any reference to protecting human rights, the NSL, by contrast, is human rights heavy. It stipulates 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" (Article 4). If Cleverly imagines he has done his office a service by concealing this, so be it, but it is a far cry from the days when a British foreign secretary could be trusted to play a straight bat on the world stage.
In a final bizarre flourish, Cleverly called for the repeal of the NSL, even though it saved the "one country, two systems" policy, and provided Hong Kong with an assured future. Although this will have gone down well in the US, it was an affront to the people of Hong Kong, and shows just how far he and his ilk are prepared to go to harm China. Even if the UNHRC is taken in by him, the UK's credibility will have suffered, along will its fortunes, which require good relations with China,
In January, Cleverly said the UK hoped to work constructively with Hong Kong, although he needs to understand that actions have consequences. Although his prime minister, Rishi Sunak, wants improved relations with China, these could obviously be jeopardized if Cleverly continues to propagandize at Hong Kong's expense.
At a time when the International Monetary Fund has forecast the UK's economy will be the only one in the G7 to contract in 2023, Cleverly should get real and place the national interest first. The US, its putative ally, has done nothing to help his country since it left the EU, and there is still no prospect of a much-needed free trade agreement. The UK, therefore, needs reliable partners, and it must take full advantage of China's opportunities. If Cleverly cannot grasp this, he should make way for someone who can.
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.