By ALex Bristow and Yvonne Lau
Xi Jinping’s visit to Hong Kong during the 25th anniversary of its handing back to China helped confirm that Beijing is committed to fully subjugating the former British colony. In his speech, Xi distorted the meaning of ‘one country, two systems’, to align with his vision of ‘patriots’ ruling Hong Kong. Meanwhile, 47 democratic politicians and campaigners potentially face life in prison on spurious national security charges.
The paranoid security, goose-stepping police and Putin-esque social distance Xi maintained from his subjects reflected simmering discontent in Hong Kong, but Beijing’s draconian grip prevents the people shaping their own future as they tried to do in mass protests in 2019 and 2020.
Hongkongers can only look forlornly overseas for hope. Unfortunately, despite British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pledge that ‘we’re not giving up on Hong Kong’, there is scant prospect of Hong Kong regaining the freedoms the Chinese Communist Party has stolen.
But even if Hong Kong is effectively lost, we must still ensure Beijing feels the cost of its actions to deter it from further aggression.
So far, international condemnation has been piecemeal and ineffective. Western politicians marked the 1 July anniversary with familiar rhetoric. Foreign Minister Penny Wong urged Beijing to uphold the freedoms guaranteed until 2047 by the Sino-British Joint Declaration, an extant treaty registered at the UN, and enshrined in the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s de facto constitution.
But even the West’s appetite for statements is receding. While the G7 criticised John Lee’s appointment as Hong Kong’s chief executive in May, there was nothing jointly marking 1 July like the Five Eyes’ statements of the past. In joint action at the UN, Hong Kong slips behind Xinjiang in the rollcall of Chinese human rights abuses. Burdened with the combined challenge posed by China and Russia, and dealing with supply shortages, inflation and looming recession, the West lacks the bandwidth to keep international attention focused on Hong Kong.
Beyond public rhetoric, legal avenues look uninviting.
There is no realistic hope of using an international court to hold Beijing to account for breaching treaty commitments. And, as the Philippines discovered over the South China Sea in 2016, China simply ignores arbitral decisions its doesn’t like. Some foreign judges have withdrawn cooperation with Hong Kong’s highest court to avoid what British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss called the risk of ‘legitimising oppression’. But a handful of retired foreign judges, including three from Australia, have exercised their independence by staying—much to the enjoyment of CCP propagandists.
Sanctions also appear ineffective. The US revoked Hong Kong’s special status and has sanctioned a handful of high-profile individuals, including Lee, but they seem to be weathering the pressure despite some inconveniences. Under the Hong Kong autonomy act, foreign financial institutions that knowingly transact with sanctioned individuals are also targets, but the US Treasury is yet to find such ties.
Other countries have hesitated to apply sanctions, despite parliamentary lobbying in Australia, Britain and the EU. Greed and cowardice might be factors. But Western countries also have legitimate concerns about hurting Hongkongers and aiding Beijing by inadvertently accelerating homogenisation with the mainland.
Meanwhile, many foreign businesses are relocating. But this seems more because of the ‘Covid zero’ strategy, which Beijing supports despite Hong Kong’s economic contraction, rather than reasons of conscience or mounting political risk.
Fundamentally, Beijing seems unconcerned by Western opprobrium or economic blowback.
In his 1 July speech, Xi spoke warmly of a place in Hong Kong for ‘foreign friends’, but his call to remove all ‘interference’ was the real message. In relative terms, Hong Kong is not as economically important to the mainland as it used to be. And, ultimately, the CCP always prioritises control and subservience over other considerations.
So, having taken stock of the West’s options, the only remaining policy that can offer hope to Hongkongers and impose long-term costs on Beijing is expanding facilitated migration.
Significant numbers of Hongkongers are already voting with their feet. While businesses favour Singapore, Britain is attracting a good share of permanent migrants. More than 120,000 Hongkongers are already on the pathway to UK residency launched in January 2021 for so-called British Nationals (Overseas), or BN(O)—a unique identity available to nearly three million people tracing ties back to pre-handover Hong Kong, plus more than two million of their dependents. At smaller scale, Australia and Canada have also launched new routes to residency, while the US has acted to assist refugees and delay mandatory returns.
There are also potentially huge benefits for recipient countries, reflecting the skills many migrants bring, including high education and English-language standards. The British Home Office estimates that around 300,000 eligible Hongkongers will arrive in the first five years of the scheme. In narrow economic terms, this should increase growth in the UK by at least £2.4 billion (around $4.2 billion) over that time. The social and cultural benefits are much wider.
Beyond ceasing to recognise BN(O) passport holders, Beijing seems relatively unconcerned while Hong Kong’s workforce is backfilled with more politically acquiescent mainlanders. As Britain’s last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, reflects in the postscript of his newly published diaries, Beijing’s ‘ideal city will be a Hong Kong without Hongkongers, they want Hong Kong with political lobotomy’.
But migration from Hong Kong poses a long-term headache for the CCP. As Patten notes, Hong Kong’s pre-1997 population consisted of ‘refugees from some of the worst excesses of communism’, which shaped their opinions of the CCP. As the Hong Kong population grows in Australia and other Western countries, many of its members can be expected to speak out against the CCP and its abuses, working with established communities including Tibetans and Uyghurs. The true cost to the CCP for betraying Hong Kong will be a motivated and resistant diaspora.
It is also in the West’s strategic interest to welcome Hongkongers. Inaction would embolden our authoritarian adversaries and tarnish the soft power we accrue by acting on our values, as former prime minister Bob Hawke did when he granted asylum to Chinese students in Australia after the Tiananmen massacre. And migration can have benign, long-term effects that dictators overlook—such as the contribution East–West migration made to ending Soviet tyranny.
Hesitation over concerns for domestic social cohesion would play into Beijing’s hands. Despite the CCP’s claims, it does not speak on behalf of all people of Chinese descent. As polling shows, Australia’s Chinese community is diverse and deserves our support. It was the Chinese consulate-general in Brisbane that applauded the ‘patriotic behaviour’ of violent protesters at the University of Queensland in 2019—we must address malign CCP influence rather than stifle peaceful protests by our migrant communities.
So, to channel Emma Lazarus, let’s open our doors to Hong Kong’s ‘huddled masses yearning to breathe free’. Our gain is Beijing’s pain.