Twenty five years since sovereignty over Hong Kong was transferred from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China, Eric Lai discusses the recent changes that have centralised the power of the Chinese government in the city. He considers the measures international policy and legal communities can take to protect the interests of individuals in Hong Kong, and the lessons Hong Kong might hold for Taiwan.
EL: The election overhaul last year has completely excluded all the meaningful opposition parties in Hong Kong to run for election in future. To put it in a nutshell, it is like a rolling back to the colonial times where only limited number of seats can be popularly elected and the rest are mainly chosen or appointed by the authorities.
It is a very unfortunate event because the government of Beijing chose to impose new election systems that have a greater colour at selection rather than election. And this new election system has further centralised the power of the Chinese authorities to control the electoral outcome, as well as the distributions of the different interest groups that are obedient to the party or that are named as patriots.
Consequently, most of the opposition figures in Hong Kong were not allowed to run for elections and above all many of them now have been jailed or been remanded in custody for national security trials. So the election overhaul is part of the scheme of the Chinese government to impose a stronger national security system in Hong Kong, to control political security, to safeguard the security and stability of the regime.
It is obvious that the Chinese government today is no longer appreciating the liberal values of the rule of law as well as the values of existing systems in Hong Kong, including the common law, including accountable government and independent institutions in this city.
For local policy and legal communities in the UK, it is obvious that they need to know what’s happening in Hong Kong, and they need to know that now is not just a conflict between different interests between the government in the UK and in China – it’s also about a conflict or tensions of the values that the governments uphold.
Observers who are concerned about Hong Kong have to distinguish the interests of the people in Hong Kong and the interests of the Hong Kong and Chinese government. It is so true that many people still want to enjoy a high degree of autonomy, to enjoy the rule of law, to enjoy judicial independence and the basic protections of their political freedoms. But in the eyes of the government of Hong Kong and China, they may not regard these demands as important as stability and national security.
So, a good balance must be maintained. It is really upon foreign policymakers to consider not just their own interests but also the interest of the people in Hong Kong.
And the recent moves of the UK government to introduce the BNO [British National (Overseas)] scheme is a good way to provide alternatives to the Hong Kong people who wish to have a new way of life. And the recent call for UK supreme judges to leave Hong Kong’s final court of appeal is also a prudent step to demonstrate the UK’s commitment to the rule of law and judicial independence, and its commitment to safeguarding political freedoms in Hong Kong.
I will not give very specific suggestions, given that I’m not a policymaker or I’m not a lawyer in the UK, but it’s obvious that policy and legal communities should consider the interests of the people in Hong Kong would appear to be different from the interests of the Chinese and Hong Kong governments.
And it is important to remind that economic benefits could not satisfy the political freedoms, and that is why the Chinese government actions or policies in Hong Kong were not fully appreciated, and we should not follow their footsteps.
The BNO scheme introduced by the current administration in the UK is fully welcomed by many Hong Kongers who wish to leave Hong Kong for safe and for free ways of life that they could no longer enjoy in Hong Kong any more. And this visa scheme is helpful in the short term, but similar as any comprehensive migration and settlement policy in different countries, there must be comprehensive packages to help the people of Hong Kong migrants to immerse and to integrate into the society. Not just an immersion to the own values of the recipient countries, for example the UK, but also to help them to enrich the plurality and multiculturalism in this country. Otherwise, the failure of helping them to integrate in society will only lead to further conflict and instabilities in this new territory for the Hong Kong people, and it would discredit the good efforts done by the current administration.
[It] is ironic that the original model of one country two systems was prepared for Taiwan’s unification with mainland China, and Hong Kong was an experiment to see whether this could really work in a city that has a completely different system, ideology and ways of life compared with the mainland Chinese ones.
And now, after twenty five years, we can see that this experiment hasn’t worked very well. After 2019, when the city-wide protests sparked off in Hong Kong, Taiwanese people also have a strong opinion that one country two systems may not be the best model for them to consider peaceful coexistence with the People’s Republic of China.
So it is very difficult to say what shall we do or what shall the people in Taiwan do, but it is obvious that there must be some more creative and stable ways to help Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China to maintain a peaceful and stable relationship at this turbulent times in the world.
This gives the views of the author, and not the position of the China Foresight Forum, LSE IDEAS, nor The London School of Economics and Political Science.