Twenty-one years ago this month Hong Kong was handed over to China after 150 years of British colonial rule. The principle on which China assumed sovereignty of the territory is known as “one country, two systems”, guaranteeing the people of Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy, the rule of law and basic freedoms. The Sino-British Joint Declaration, an international treaty negotiated in 1982 and lodged at the United Nations, gives Britain legal as well as moral responsibility to monitor the protection of Hong Kong’s way of life for 50 years after the handover.
For the first 15 years, China observed its side of the bargain reasonably well. I lived and worked as a journalist in Hong Kong from 1997 to 2002, the first five years after the handover. Although I could begin to see some small, subtle erosion of freedoms, by and large “one country, two systems” worked well. After leaving the city in 2002, I lost touch with political developments for the next decade or more, because there appeared to be few problems.
In the past five years, however, the situation has deteriorated dramatically. The promise of genuine universal suffrage was betrayed, prompting the Umbrella Movement, in which, in 2014, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in peaceful protest for almost three months. Since then the repression of the city’s pro-democracy movement has become ever more intense.
In 2015, Hong Kong-based booksellers publishing works about China’s political leaders were abducted by Chinese agents. One, Gui Minhai, is still in detention in China. Since 2016 pro-democracy legislators have been disqualified from the legislature, on the pretext that they had failed to take their oaths properly, and this year pro-democracy candidates who had previously advocated self-determination were disqualified from contesting by-elections.
Over the past 12 months there have been a series of trials of pro-democracy activists, several of whom have been jailed. The most prominent student leaders of the Umbrella Movement – Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow – spent several months in jail last year, and earlier this year the student activist Edward Leung was sentenced to six years in prison.
Academic freedom and press freedom are under increasing pressure. A new high-speed rail link between Hong Kong and the mainland brings Chinese law into Hong Kong territory (Chinese law will be enforced in West Kowloon railway terminus).
This month, in yet another alarming breach of “one country, two systems”, Wang Zhenmin, a senior official in China’s liaison office in Hong Kong, said that the Basic Law – until now regarded as Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – should be regarded merely as an addendum to China’s constitution, which now applies to Hong Kong as much as elsewhere.
By comparison with these increasingly grave threats to Hong Kong’s freedoms, anything I have experienced pales into insignificance. And yet my case further illustrates China’s gangster-style approach. Last October, I was refused entry to Hong Kong on the orders of Beijing, in a well-publicised incident that provoked an unusually robust response from the British Government. Over the past three months, I have been subjected to an extraordinary campaign of intimidation, with anonymous letters being sent to my entire street in south-west London as well as to my mother.
I say “extraordinary” not because it is anything in comparison with what brave activists in Hong Kong endure, but because it represents a surprising stretch beyond China’s borders. That someone went to the trouble of researching both my private home address and my mother’s address, and considering the expense of postage from Hong Kong, is bizarre.
The letters urge my neighbours to “watch” me. One included a photo of me and claimed that I am not really a human rights activist, but in fact a British intelligence officer with a mission to destabilise Asia. The letter to my 77-year-old mother in Dorset urged her to rein me in. All of this simply because I had established a small advocacy organisation, Hong Kong Watch, in my spare time, to be a voice for freedom in Hong Kong.
The letters themselves are amateurish. Indeed, all they have succeeded in achieving is making me laugh – and giving me an opportunity to meet neighbours I didn’t previously know. When I decided, at the request of activists in Hong Kong and on the advice of experienced political figures in Britain, to publicise them, they also gave me another opportunity to highlight the alarming erosion of freedom in Hong Kong and China’s increasingly intrusive efforts to bully its critics, even beyond its borders.
I won’t be intimidated into silence. The reason I went public was precisely to expose such petty behaviour by a surprisingly sensitive superpower, and to remind Britain of our moral and legal responsibilities towards Hong Kong.
Faced with the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms and China’s repression, the Church has a special responsibility. Of course this isn’t an exclusively Catholic issue. But it is noteworthy that many of the central figures in Hong Kong’s recent history are Catholic. They include Chris Patten, the last governor and one of the few voices of conscience for Hong Kong in British politics, and Martin Lee, the “grandfather” of Hong Kong’s democracy movement and founder of the Democratic Party of Hong Kong.
There is also Anson Chan, Hong Kong’s formidable former chief secretary, who served as number two both to the last British governor and the first Hong Kong chief executive, and has been a courageous voice for democracy from within the establishment. Nor can we forget the fiery and brave Cardinal Joseph Zen.
On the pro-Beijing side, there is Carrie Lam, the current Hong Kong chief executive, and Donald Tsang, Hong Kong’s chief executive from 2005 to 2012.
In addition to the Catholics, there are committed Protestants such as Umbrella Movement leaders Joshua Wong and Benny Tai. In the midst of the protests, there were Christian prayer meetings and chapels set up in tents.
As the Holy See pursues its engagement with China in pursuit of a deal on the recognition of bishops and normalisation of relations, it has a responsibility not to sell out Hong Kong – or Taiwan, for that matter.
We all have a responsibility to defend human dignity. That includes freedom of conscience and expression – basic freedoms increasingly at stake in Hong Kong and completely repressed in mainland China.
If we fail to defend them, more and more critics of the Chinese Communist Party will receive the kind of absurd letters I have had over the last three months. And so will our neighbours, and our mothers, as China intrudes more and more into our democratic way of life.
Such intimidation, in and of itself, deserves to be laughed at, but it should also be challenged. While my experience is insignificant when compared with that of activists in Hong Kong and mainland China, there is a sliding scale of bullying by the Chinese Communist Party in its attempt to silence critics within and beyond its territory. And if we do not challenge it, the scale will slide further towards more severe tactics. It’s in all our interests to stand up to China, and defend its people and our universal values.
Benedict Rogers is the founder and chairman of Hong Kong Watch and the author of From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church (Gracewing)
This article first appeared in the July 27 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here