Foreign Ministers from the U.K., U.S.A., Australia and Canada issued a joint statement January 10th voicing their concerns over the arrests of 55 Hong Kongers for subversion under China’s “National Security Law.”
Ministers Mike Pompeo (U.S.), Marise Payne (Australia), Dominic Raab (U.K.), and Francois-Philippe Champagne (Canada) signed the statement which condemned Beijing’s mass detention of pro-democracy politicians and activists. The activists were arrested on January 6th in dawn raids carried out across the city in the largest action taken under the controversial National Security Law since its implementation in June 2020. The arrests are believed to be connected to an unofficial primary organized by pro-democracy campaigners to determine which of their candidates would be most likely to win the 35 electable seats in Hong Kong’s legislative council. 52 of the campaigners have been released on bail, pending further investigation.
In their statement, the ministers called the arrests a “clear breach” of the Sino-British joint declaration which protects Hong Kong’s democratic rights, and noted that it was “clear” that China was using the National Security Law to “eliminate dissent and opposing political views.” They urged Beijing to respect Hong Kongers’ “legally guaranteed rights,” emphasizing that the postponed elections must proceed in a fair way that “includes candidates representing a range of political opinions.”
Although the joint statement has clearly exacerbated tensions between China and the West, with the Chinese and Hong Kong governments accusing the ministers of “interfering” in China’s domestic affairs, its importance should not be underestimated; it is a shout amongst the global cries against China. Whilst New Zealand’s foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta, the fifth of the “Five Eyes” Western alliance condemning China, did not sign the joint statement, she did release her own via Twitter, criticizing the arrests as “another effort to erode [Hong Konger’s] rights and freedoms.” Equally, the European Union called for the immediate release of those arrested under the National Security Law, and is “eyeing up” sanctions to impose on Beijing.
In order to understand the significance of this Western outcry, exploration of Hong Kong’s political history is needed. As a result of the 1997 Sino-British joint declaration, a treaty signed by Britain and China concerning Hong Kong’s transition from a British territory to being under Chinese sovereignty, a “one country, two systems” policy was agreed. Under this treaty, Hong Kong was granted certain autonomous rights, including democratic rule, until 2047. However, over the decades, China has infringed on this autonomy through increasingly interventionist policies. An important example of this was the introduction of a bill in 2019 which would allow the extradition of Hong Kongers to mainland China. This bill, despite being later withdrawn, was a catalyst for massive pro-democracy protests across Hong Kong. It was in response to these demonstrations that Beijing introduced the “National Security Law.” which targets acts that it deems to be secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. It argued that the law was necessary to “restore order” after “months of often violent anti-government protests.” However, since it was passed, prominent pro-democracy activists have been severely oppressed, many being barred from politics, arrested, jailed, and even forced to flee overseas.
It is thus in recognition of the rights that Hong Kongers are owed that Western ministers continue to raise their voice. And this is not done without sacrifice – the U.S., U.K., Australia, and Canada have had severe economic repercussions from their opposition to China due to their financial dependence on the country. But at least we know that the West has not turned its back on Hong Kong, nor taken its eyes off China.