Hong Kong and the new China – an opinion piece by Lord Paddy Ashdown

Hong Kong and the new China - an opinion piece by Lord Paddy Ashdown

29 November 2017

Peace in the Pacific, and the world, depends on two questions. How will the United States cope with decline? And how will China fulfil her potential as a super-power?

We live in a period of shifting power structures. These are turbulent and conflict-ridden times. The United States remains the most powerful nation on earth, but the context in which she holds that power has changed fundamentally. We live now in a multi polar-world, with China’s powerful position as a mercantile super-power already established. The question is how will China behave?

Until recently, the signs had been hopeful. China had seemed keen to be a good world citizen. She has engaged constructively in multilateral institutions – look at the WTO; look at her support for UN sanctions on North Korea; look at her engagement with international forces to tackle Somali pirates around the Horn of Africa; look at her involvement with UN peace keeping to which she has committed more troops than the United States and Europe combined.

Domestically too, until a few years ago, the China seemed to be moving steadily away from the old dictatorial structures of Communism. The economic liberalisation of China’s markets has been awe-inspiring. Many of us had taken comfort in what we saw as the inevitable fact that economic reform must, over time, lead to political liberalisation too.

If these were our hopes they have now come up against a jolting reality.

Judging from the iconography of the recent People’s Congress it is difficult not to conclude that what we were looking at was less the emergence of a new China, as the return of the old. A Red Emperor, a cult of personality, the leader’s “thought” constitutionally enshrined, centralised power, suppression of dissent. These were all – perhaps - necessary for Mao Zedong, who had to build a unified state from ashes and a nation which was respected abroad after a century of humiliation. But the respect in which China is held is not in question today, nor is her unity and strength. To return to the ways of Mao sits uncomfortably with China’s ambition to be a modern state.

I do not believe that the Chinese people yearn for freedom and human rights any less than anyone else.  A state whose economy pioneers the future, but whose politics has reverted to the past, is a state founded on an irresolvable contradiction. I know of no instance in history where the sustainable greatness of a nation has been built on a market that is free and a public voice which is suppressed. It is just not in human nature to be content for long with glorious freedom in one aspect of your life and permanent voicelessness in the other. It is profoundly worrying to note the recent spate of examples of harsh repression – the abduction and disappearance of dissidents, the jailing of bloggers and activists, the use of so-called “black jails” outside the judicial system where torture is rampant, the repression of religious minorities, the crackdown on lawyers, the arrest of foreign NGO workers for expressing unwelcome views. 

Maybe I had read the signals wrong. Foreigners, even those who have studied China for a long time, can easily do that. The proof of the pudding will come in the eating, and the first slices of that pudding will be eaten. It is in Hong Kong, perhaps more than anywhere else, where we will come to know the true nature of “Xi Jinping Thought”.

Over the past five years, the freedoms guaranteed to the people of Hong Kong in its mini-constitution, the Basic Law, the autonomy promised under “one country, two systems” and the way of life, which the United Kingdom has an obligation to monitor under the terms of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, have been increasingly eroded.

The heart of that Basic Law is the rule of law itself, and while the Hong Kong judiciary is still largely intact and independent, it is under real pressure from Beijing. The abduction of Hong Kong booksellers into the mainland simply for having published books critical of China’s leaders, undermines confidence both in the rule of law and in free speech. The right to protest within defined limits is part of that law. The right to due process by a judicial system independent of political interference is part of it too. The right to be free from the hazard of double jeopardy if you break the law is widely regarded as a fundamental principle of justice worldwide.

Of course those who break the law should be judged, though whether it was wise for the full might of a super-power to come down on three young enthusiastic student demonstrators, one of whom a directly elected legislator, is a different matter. But even the judged have rights that must be protected.

A year before the handover of Hong Kong, Prime Minister John Major promised Hong Kong that “if there were any suggestion of a breach of the Joint Declaration, we would have a duty to pursue every legal and other avenue available to us.” In words which would have reminded every Hong Konger of President John F Kennedy’s pledge that he would stand by Berlin, the British Prime Minister promised that Hong Kong “will never have to walk alone”. This is not a promise that can be lightly broken. As the last Governor Chris Patten has said, if Britain fails to live up to its responsibilities, legal and moral, it risks selling its honour.

The new mood places new responsibilities on the Hong Kong government, too. If things continue to regress further, then Hong Kong’s government has an even greater duty to defend Hong Kong’s autonomy and values.

What happens next in Hong Kong will be judged by a watching world, for it will tell us whether the rise of Xi Jinping leads to a new more modern China, or back to an old more repressive one.

Share this article