A Personal Plea to Help Hong Kong
We mark 25 years since the handover at a time when China’s grip has become a stranglehold.
Editorial note: This article was originally published on Persuasion’s website on July 1st, 2022 to mark the 25th anniversary of the British handover of Hong Kong.
One morning in the middle of March, I woke up, switched on my computer, and found the Hong Kong Police Force in my email inbox threatening me with arrest, a fine and imprisonment for violating Hong Kong’s National Security Law.
Bleary-eyed from sleep, I wondered whether I was still dreaming. Re-reading the emails after a shower and a cup of coffee, I discovered I wasn’t.
In fact, there were two letters—one from the Hong Kong Police Force, and one from Hong Kong’s National Security Bureau. Both told me that my activities, and those of Hong Kong Watch, the organization I co-founded and lead, were “seriously interfering in…and jeopardizing” China’s national security.
Both letters told me that Hong Kong Watch and its website were in violation of the draconian National Security Law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing two years ago, designed to crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations. I was told that we must take down the website, and that failure to comply within 72 hours of receipt of the letters could result in a fine of HK$100,000 (US$13,000) and potentially up to life imprisonment.
And yet: I live and work in London.
Our website is hosted in London.
Hong Kong Watch is a UK-registered Non-Governmental Organization (NGO).
We have no people, no entity, no presence in Hong Kong.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime and its supporters in Hong Kong were threatening me under the auspices of the “extraterritoriality” clause of the NSL, which essentially says that it does not matter whether or not you’re a Hong Kong resident or citizen, or even whether you are acting outside Hong Kong: wherever you are in the world, if you criticize the CCP, the long arm of the Chinese state can reach you. You cannot travel to China and Hong Kong. If you do, especially if you are extradited, or even if you transit there, you will be jailed.
For me, this was a ratcheting up of pressure rather than anything new.
Over the past four years I have been subjected to a regular campaign of intimidatory, harassing, anonymous letters. Some have been sent to my home address, some to my neighbors, one to my previous employer, and some to my mother who lives in a completely different part of the country. There have also been various emails misrepresenting me fraudulently to others. The most recent was a false Interpol notice my mother received, telling her I was a very dangerous person to be approached with “extreme caution.” She laughed. Previous attempts by the CCP to urge her to tell her son to shut up were met with similar hilarity. “I gave up years ago trying to tell you what to do,” she said.
Why does all this matter? Because today, we mark the 25th anniversary of the British handover of Hong Kong to China.
On this anniversary, when it’s clear that rights and freedoms in Hong Kong are being irreparably eroded, it’s vital that the free world does three things.
First, remember. Remember what Hong Kong used to be. Remember what it could have been. And remember what it promised to be.
A quarter of a century ago, Britain handed Hong Kong to China on the understanding that the principle of “one country, two systems” would be protected for at least fifty years. It meant that Hong Kong’s freedoms, rule of law, “high degree of autonomy” and way of life would be respected.
Two months after the handover, in September 1997, I flew out to Hong Kong to begin my career as a journalist. I worked for publications that were critical of Beijing and the Hong Kong government. I belonged to the Foreign Correspondents Club, and I led protests through the streets of Hong Kong in solidarity with the human rights crises at the time in East Timor and Myanmar. Back then, Hong Kong was an oasis of liberty in a region of repression. Basic, foundational freedoms were respected—perhaps against expectations—in those early years. That was the heart, soul, word and punctuation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a treaty that was lodged at the United Nations and has since been completely and comprehensively breached.
Read Goodbye to Hong Kong by Archie Hall.
Second, reflect. Were we naïve? Were we too slow to react to the early warning signs? Could we have acted sooner to help Hong Kong?
The answer to all three questions is a very obvious yes. Britain should have done more to entrench democracy in Hong Kong. The world should have acted more robustly to the early warning signs: the jailing of the first dissidents, the early kidnappings of the Hong Kong booksellers, the disqualification of legislators, the expulsion of foreign nationals. When Hong Kongers marched against the anti-subversion law in 2003, against the CCP’s national education curriculum in 2012, and for universal suffrage in the Umbrella Movement in 2014, the free world should have stood with them more boldly than it did. If stronger words and even tougher actions had emerged in 2017 and 2018, maybe, at the very least, the pace of change could have been slowed.
Third, act. That the world did not act earlier is no excuse for inaction today. That we (the British) have colonial guilt should not excuse us from doing the right thing now.
That those responsible for dismantling Hong Kong’s freedoms, jailing Hong Kong’s dissidents, driving others into exile and shutting down Hong Kong’s vibrant civil society are not held accountable is a disgrace. They must not be permitted to pursue persecution and repression with impunity. They cannot be allowed to destroy one of the world’s most open, dynamic and free cities without penalty or consequence.
In four clear words: there must be sanctions. Not against the people of Hong Kong and China. Not against ordinary businesses. But against officials and entities directly responsible for or complicit with the dismantling of Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy.
Listen to Yascha Mounk’s conversation with Hong Kong activist Nathan Law.
Hong Kong was once my home. Now, if I even enter Hong Kong airspace, or a country with an extradition treaty with Hong Kong or China, I could face years in jail. Today most of my Hong Kong friends are jailed, exiled or silenced. And I do not dare contact those who are not in prison or exile, for fear of endangering them. That is heartbreaking, 25 years after I began my working life there.
I therefore ask you, from the depths of my heart: help Hong Kong. For Hong Kongers who want to leave their city in search of freedom, give them a pathway and welcome them into your community. Britain has done this, generously, and the United States, Canada, Australia have done so in a more limited way. These countries should extend the terms to offer Hong Kongers a safe haven for longer. Freedom-lovers from Hong Kong should be allowed an escape route. And then, let’s hold those responsible for the destruction of Hong Kong’s liberties to account.
Benedict Rogers is the co-founder and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch and author of a new book, “The China Nexus: Thirty Years In and Around the Chinese Communist Party’s Tyranny,” to be published in October. He is based in London.