THE wide terrace of Government House in Hong Kong was an agreeable place to discuss the colony’s future in 1996 with its last governor, Chris Patten, over a glass of gin and tonic. Surveying that kaleidoscopic and sizzling civilisation, into which he had introduced some real social and economic reforms, Patten was most proud of its new democracy.
Coming from the same internationalist wing of the Conservative Party, I had admired his tenacity in extracting a fair settlement from the Chinese on Hong Kong’s constitutional arrangements. Despite criticism from some, including former governors, Patten braved the hostility of Beijing and gave Hong Kong universal suffrage in its legislative elections.
I was writing a report for the European Parliament on a new EU-China Strategy, promulgated by EU Commissioner Leon Brittan – a former Yorkshire MP – who was assisted by an able young negotiator in the form of Nick Clegg.
That strategy included the first-ever EU-China human rights dialogue. It was the Deputy Prime Minister who carpeted the Chinese ambassador on China’s national day, October 1, about its bullying tactics against Hong Kong’s polite protesters.
Nor can we escape the double standards being applied by some in Westminster to human rights, accepted by most to be universal values. On the one hand, Conservative Eurosceptics cannot wait to escape from the obligations of the post-war European Court of Human Rights (not an EU body and inspired by the UK) while on the other there is a clamour for the people of Hong Kong to enjoy precisely those rights, under an agreement we made with China, but which Beijing is now breaking.
When it became clear last month that Beijing would rig the selection of the chief executive, Hong Kong’s premier, to be held in 2017, Patten wrote in the Financial Times: “My comments are not directed principally to Beijing or Hong Kong. What a former governor can more legitimately do is to invite an interrogation of Britain’s sense of honour.”
The background is that the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 formally agreed, in accordance with the “one country, two systems” principle, that on its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 Hong Kong would become a Special Administrative Region, ensuring that it would keep its freedoms, autonomy and, crucially, the promise of universal suffrage.
The main grievance of the protesters on the streets is China’s interpretation of Article 45 of the Basic Law governing Hong Kong, adopted in 1990. It states that “the ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures”.
The nature of those democratic procedures is at issue. Indeed, there has been since China’s takeover a game of cat-and-mouse played by Beijing about this. In 2007, with the key pro-democracy activists in the Legislative Council – Hong Kong’s legitimately-elected parliament – we published a democracy charter in response to Beijing’s assertion that the colony’s chief executive would not be elected in fully-free elections until 2048!
Legislators Albert Ho, Emily Lau and Martin Lee continue to lead the protests in the streets, with increasing rancour at the failure, as they see it, of the British government to live up to its obligations.
In an emergency resolution, this week’s Liberal Democrat conference states that ‘given the commitments the UK government has made to the citizens of Hong Kong, we have a responsibility to ensure democracy and human rights are delivered, and maintained, for the citizens of Hong Kong’.
As columnist Alex Lo wrote recently in the South China Morning Post:“The British prime minister has long concluded there is little to be gained fighting China over Hong Kong and prefers to further his country’s trade and commercial interests with the country.”
Over the years I have met hundreds of people who have been tortured in China’s jails, all prisoners of conscience. Whatever Beijing’s public face, it is a brutal and corrupt regime in reality. I used my position as an MEP to draw attention to this but I do not intend to stay silent now I am no longer in public office.
Of course we must trade with China, but she needs us – and a free-trading, free market, democratic Hong Kong – more than we need her. Above all, we should keep our word in international affairs.
• Edward McMillan-Scott was a Yorkshire and Humber MEP from 1984-2014 and was vice-president of the European Parliament for Democracy and Human Rights.