Bob Seely is the MP for the Isle of Wight.
This coming week, China’s National Peoples’ Congress will approve – rubber stamp is perhaps a better term – a resolution to change the security apparatus and laws in Hong Kong. In doing so, they will undermine Hong Kong’s freedoms; cause further, significant damage in our relationship with the Chinese Communist state, and confront the Home and Foreign offices here with a significant political and practical crisis.
Beijing’s planned laws, which threaten to strip Hong Kong of its autonomy, give China power to establish its own security agencies in the city-state, and to introduce concepts such as ‘subversion’, ‘secession’, and ‘collusion with foreign political organisations’, which will ensure the previously lawful activities of pro-democracy politicians as well as activists may now carry prison sentences. China has tried to get the Hong Kong administration to bring in these laws itself, but it has failed to do so, thanks to months of mass protest.
I was lucky enough to attend one of these last year on a rainy Saturday in September. Those people I spoke with could technically fall foul of these new laws by talking with me, UK diplomats or journalists under “collusion with foreign political organisations”. I have been to many demonstrations over the years, and I was deeply impressed by those I met. They reconfirmed my belief in the integrity of those universal values that free states – and those who care for freedom – share.
The assumption must be that these laws will enable the arrest of politicians and activists who support Hong Kong’s autonomy from China and its constitutional freedoms. This will signal the beginning of the end for Hong Kong as we know it, as China’s Communist Party seeks to end the ‘one country, two systems’ in exchange for ‘one country, one (authoritarian) system’.
Why does this matter?
First, it is regrettably clear that a new reckoning with China is coming. Our policy towards it has been woefully out of step with the reality of an aggressive Communist state with its ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy. Whilst the UK needs to relearn the art of strategy in our foreign policy in general, we specifically need a new one for China which aligns us with an alliance of free nations. The decision to review Huawei’s involvement in the UK is part of that review, but it is only a start.
Second, there are immediate and significant issues for the Home and Foreign offices. Some Hong Kongese have British National (Overseas) – BNO – passports – a little over 100,000 people. Some of those will now be under fear of arrest and imprisonment. What does the UK Government intend to do whilst BNOs are arrested and imprisoned for what amount to political ‘thought-crimes’? The UK needs now to make clear that arrest or imprisonment of BNOs will come at a price, not only for UK/China relationship, but also internationally for China. The Foreign Secretary’s joint statement with Canada and Australia is a good start, but it is just that – a start.
Third, the Government needs to be prepared for an exodus of BNOs from Hong Kong, anything from the low hundreds to the tens of thousands. BNOs have the right to come to the UK, but they cannot work here, and it takes years to transfer BNO status to that of full citizens. Effectively, the BNO status treats the UK as a bolt-hole for Hong Kong citizens, but not more.
I believe we must now change the status of these passports to allow Hong Kong BNOs a quicker path to full UK citizenship, and potentially to offer the same to younger Hong Kong residents who may not have BNO status, but have been active members of the democracy movement. It would be a stain on our country’s reputation if other nations were to open their arms, metaphorically speaking, to Hong Kong BNO folk in their hour of need before the UK did so.
Like many people in this country, I am delighted that, under this Government and Home Secretary, we have an immigration policy that will allow stricter control of our borders. I agree that the open-door immigration policy of New Labour damaged and discredited the idea of balanced immigration.
However, we must not over-compensate. The possibility of a mass flight from Hong Kong may become one of those rare occasions where mass asylum in the UK is morally right, as it was with ethnic Indians in Uganda expelled by that country’s insane dictator, Idi Amin, and accepted by the UK and others in 1972.
I believe we should loosen the rules for BNOs, and work with the US, Australia, Canada and others, to ensure that Hong Kongese have long-lasting places of sanctuary. BNO passport holders have British passports. This is not an issue where we should be following others, but leading. One of those places of sanctuary must be our own nation, should the Chinese Communist Party now believe that freedom of thought and expression is incompatible with the state it is trying to build in Hong Kong.
We may be approaching a crisis point in Hong Kong. Thousands, potentially tens of thousands, of Hong Kong people may soon be in jeopardy. We cannot save that remarkable city-state from Beijing’s increasingly authoritarian one-party state, but we can open our arms to those remarkable men and woman who believe in a better future for themselves and loved ones, and who believe in human freedom. In the coming weeks, we must do the right thing.