Twenty-six years ago today, Hong Kong was handed over to China with a promise.
Beijing has pledged, under an international treaty, to protect Hong Kong’s freedoms, rule of law, human rights, way of life and autonomy for at least fifty years. Over the past decade, and especially in recent years, Beijing has completely reneged on its promises, broken the treaty and dismantled Hong Kong’s freedoms. It has turned Hong Kong from one of Asia’s most open cities into one of its most repressive police states.
The erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms began a decade or more ago, but Beijing dealt a heavy blow to what was left of freedom when it imposed a draconian National Security Law on the city, with no debate, no discussion and very little warning.
In the three years since the law was introduced, all of Hong Kong’s major independent media have been forced to shut down, more than 60 civil society organizations including political parties, trade unions, student unions and human rights groups, they were disbanded, banned, and the legislature has been transformed from a vibrant center of debate into a zombie-mongering puppet show.
According to lawyer Johannes Chan, by the end of May this year, 251 people had been arrested for offenses against national security. Someone was arrested every 4.2 days. They include legislators, journalists, students, academics, and political activists. Nearly four in five of the defendants are denied bail, and some have spent more than two years in jail awaiting trial. The conviction rate is 100%.
This has chilling echoes of the legal system in mainland China. This week I hosted two remarkably brave men who have served several years in jail in China. Both are of foreign nationality. Peter Humphrey, a British citizen, is a former Reuters journalist and due diligence investigator with nearly half a century of experience in China, while Marius Balo is a Romanian theologian. Peter and his wife spent two years in prison in Shanghai, and Marius served eight years for crimes they did not commit.
They testified in parliament before the Conservative Party’s Human Rights Commission on Monday, with Peter noting that in China “police, prosecutors and judges are all part of the same family: the Communist Party.” The police do not carry out investigations with detective or forensic procedures.
“They are based on extracting confessions from detainees while they are being interrogated on a day-to-day basis in a cage,” Peter said at our hearing. In addition, witness statements are coerced, prosecution witnesses are not questioned or even forced to appear in court, and, in Peter’s words, “contradictory evidence is not allowed.” Forced televised confessions are often used and defense witnesses are not called to court. No wonder the Chinese system achieves a nearly 100% success rate on convictions.
This is the legal system that Hong Kong has become. A city that until recently prided itself on the rule of law is becoming part of the Chinese Communist Party family. That is why authorities have denied Hong Kong media entrepreneur Jimmy Lai the right to choose his own lawyer, and prevented British lawyer Tim Owen, KC, from representing him, despite rulings from the Court of Final Appeal. that Mr. Owen should be allowed to act on his behalf. Mr. Lai.
There are three sobering lessons in all of this.
First, the mendacious regime in Beijing simply cannot be trusted to keep its word. His promises in any treaty are not worth the paper they are written on.
Second, there are enormous risks to doing business in China. Not only financial risks, but physical, moral and ethical risks. If you try to do due diligence, especially now with a new espionage law going into effect today that interprets corporate due diligence investigations as espionage, you could end up in jail for a long time. The Peter Humphrey case is groundbreaking: the recent crackdown on Mintz, Bain and other corporate investigators indicates that the worst is yet to come. However, if he is unable to exercise due diligence, it is highly likely that he will unknowingly use forced labor or prison labor in his supply chains and turn a blind eye to corruption.
Third, China only respects force. If we continue with the policy of the past decades of bowing down, naively thinking that trying to befriend dictators in Beijing will soften their hearts, we will only encourage Beijing’s increasing repression of its own people and aggression beyond its borders.
We have to show strength. That means speaking up for our citizens when they’re incarcerated, upholding international agreements when they’re violated, promoting our values when they’re under attack, and ensuring that there are consequences for Beijing’s crimes.
Rumors abound that Foreign Secretary James Cleverly might visit Beijing soon. I have my reservations about it, but for me, the most important debate about such a visit is not whether it should take place or not, but what are the conditions and objectives of it. If you use the visit to put forward very clear and strong demands seeking the release of UK citizens imprisoned in China, including Mr Lai in Hong Kong, and explain what the consequences will be if the current trajectory of repression, aggression, slave labor and heinous crimes continue, so I have an open mind. If he sacrifices human rights while bowing to Xi Jinping’s altar, then he will have betrayed Britain.
As we commemorate the anniversaries of the handover of Hong Kong and the imposition of the security law, let us reflect on our relationship with the Beijing regime with a sober and informed mind. Can we trust them? Based on the evidence, the answer is no. And that’s why we must face them. Failure to do so will not only be a betrayal of our values, but will be an invitation for us to be further attacked, infiltrated, intimidated, influenced and threatened. That is not an invitation I think we should extend on this anniversary, as we examine the carnage of broken promises.
Benedict Rogers is the co-founder and CEO of Hong Kong Watch and the author of “The China Nexus: Thirty Years In and Around the Tyranny of the Chinese Communist Party.”