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How British Government Betrayed Hong Kong Protesters

The tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents, prominent among them high school and university students, whom the world saw on the streets of the territory for two months since September, were reasonable and peaceful, even in the face of sometimes terrible provocation.

Last week saw the police clearing away the barricades and the few hundred protestors who remained.

One of the business groups that took out an injunction to clear the protest sites is a joint-venture controlled by Chinese state-owned Citic Group.

On Dec. 2, three of the co-founders of the Occupy Central movement called for protesters to retreat.

The three turned themselves in to a police station the next day, though the authorities have not charged them with any offense.

Talks between student leaders and city officials proved fruitless.

An attempt to travel to Beijing was blocked by Hong Kong authorities, and two leaders – Joshua Wong and Lester Shum – were arrested for obstructing police and are now out on bail.

The silence of the British government over the events in Hong Kong has been utterly shameful.

Britain has yet again betrayed one of its former colonies by failing to honor its treaties and promises.

In 1984, Margaret Thatcher’s government signed a treaty with the Chinese that guaranteed Hong Kong’s core values and way of life, including freedom of speech and assembly, until 2047.

Thatcher’s successor John Major made a pledge before the handover in 1997 that Britain would ensure that the terms of the joint declaration were adhered to.

At the time of the handover, the then foreign secretary, Robin Cook, reiterated that Britain would do everything in its power to defend Hong Kong and its freedoms.

Beijing also promised to grant Hong Kong a genuine “one person-one vote” for the elections of their chief executive in 2017.

Instead, a sham consultation resulted in Beijing presenting to the people of Hong Kong the following proposal: You can have “one person-one vote,” provided we prescreen all the candidates so that we are 100 percent in control of the final outcome.

At root, then, the protests on the streets of Hong Kong were not about democracy. They were about keeping promises, honoring treaties. That is a fundamental moral issue.

Both the Chinese and British governments have broken their promises to the people of Hong Kong and have so betrayed them.

The truth is that morality, and even democracy, has been undermined by corporate greed.

Business as usual with China trumps all moral considerations. The young people of Hong Kong are expendable.

The super-rich in Hong Kong and Shanghai, just like their counterparts in London or New York, find talk of freedom and human rights irksome.

The only freedom they care about is the freedom to make more money; and for that they will, paradoxically, sell their souls to the worst regimes in the world.

Capitalism was once believed to be the handmaiden of democracy. Open up trade and markets, and political freedoms will follow.

That was the myth behind which European and American capitalists and their governments hid in the early 1990s when relocating all their manufacturing industries in China.

They chose to ignore the fact that capitalism is morally promiscuous and can flourish under both the best and the worst of political regimes.

But the more Europe, the United States and Australia are economically “owned” by China, the more muted is their condemnation of that regime’s worsening repression.

Anson Chan was the chief secretary in both the British colonial government of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government under Chinese rule.

In a column in the British newspaper, The Observer, in October, she wrote:

“I genuinely did not think at the time of the joint declaration that it would turn out this way. I thought that the co-signatories, Britain and China, would honor all the promises laid down in the treaty and guarantee Hong Kong ‘one country, two systems.’ They included guaranteeing: independence of the judiciary, the rule of law and our rights and freedoms and, in particular, that we would move steadily towards genuine universal suffrage.”

She went on to note that, where students in Hong Kong were concerned, “For them the big change since I was their age is perhaps the decline in social mobility. Now within the territory there is a sense of ‘them’ and ‘us.’ Those who make money are tempted to stay quiet, to maintain their links, their status. The rest, they want what many people want across the world – a good education and an open society.”

Vinoth Ramachandra is secretary for dialogue and social engagement for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. He lives in Sri Lanka. A version of this column first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.