Government talks about supporting Hong Kong democrats, but where are the sanctions?

Green peer Natalie Bennett questions whether the UK Government is authentic about protecting the security of Hong Kong nationals in the UK.

Hong Kong skyline
Hong Kong skyline

Image credit: 'Hong Kong city view' by Ruslan Bardash (Unsplash License)

Green peer Natalie Bennett

Last week the House of Lords had a short debate looking into Sino-UK relations following the 34th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre, secured by Labour’s Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town.

It landed on a sadly apt, newsworthy date, as two of eight Hong Kong exiles around the world – who now have a one million Hong Kong dollar bounty on their heads – held a press conference in the UK Parliament to highlight their plight. (No, you are not in the 19th-century Wild West and this is not a Hollywood movie). 

Speaking in the Lords debate, I noted that for comparison, there is currently a reward of 300,000 Hong Kong dollars for information leading to the prosecution of a man accused of murder, and a 400,000 Hong Kong dollars reward for two men wanted in connection with an arson case that killed 17 people. 

One of the men to speak in Parliament was Finn Lau, who has lived in Britain since 2019 and is a BNO visa holder. He reflected on the fact that he has been sent screenshots of Chinese nationalists discussing kidnapping him. No doubt the eight people affected are hoping and believing that the states they currently reside in will not extradite them to China in the face of this Chinese action, but they have to live in fear of bounty hunters. We need to think about the security of these individuals – I am sure the Government are, but I really hope they are thinking hard. 

I also noted in Lords the comments by Christopher Mung, who has lived in the UK since 2021 and is also a BNO visa holder. He said this attack on eight people is a much broader effort to silence and cause a ripple of fear among the greater Hong Kong diaspora. I hope the Government are thinking very hard about how to provide both security and confidence to the many people, I am happy to say, we have welcomed from Hong Kong to the UK.

Not all of those people are necessarily intending to be permanent residents. It is interesting that there has not been much discussion of the fact that this year a record number of students have come from China to study in the UK: nearly 152,000 people.

I am concerned about the experience those students are going to have in our system. Those students have to be kept safe here in the UK. They have to be able to enjoy the freedoms we expect all students to enjoy.

Students are generally young people. They are being exposed to new ideas; that is the whole idea of studying and studying overseas. When I have been handing out Green Party leaflets in Sheffield, I consciously give them to people who I think are probably Chinese students because direct examples of democracy in action are a really useful experience to have.

Are we able to ensure – and do the universities have the right advice to ensure – that those students, if they start to explore democratic ideas, have the right security and support? I had reassurances from Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon for the Government, but I remain to be convinced.

The timeliness of the debate was multiple. Last Thursday was also the day that the Hong Kong legislature voted to slash opportunities for democracy by restructuring its local government. The last independent elections there were in 2019 – district council elections where the pro-democracy camp won a landslide victory. But next time, there’ll only be 88 directly elected seats, instead of 452.

And it was also the week that a Hong Kong photographer was convicted for editing a video – of the fencer Cheung Ka Long’s Olympic medal ceremony in 2020 – in which the national anthem of China was replaced with the protest song ‘Glory to Hong Kong’, a song from which Labour’s Lord Leong quoted during the debate. Photographer Cheng Wing-chun, 27, was convicted of ‘insulting the national anthem’. These are dangerous times in Hong Kong.

The morning before the debate, I spoke to a group of King’s College London summer school students about the development of Magnitsky-style sanctions. They arose from civil society campaigning and are a social innovation brought about through the activities of civil society. The Government have followed along and adopted them.

Yet the UK has yet to impose sanctions on anyone implicated in the crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong. In responding to the bounty announcement, James Cleverly said: “We will not tolerate any attempts by China to intimidate and silence individuals”.

The background briefing to the press release states that ‘the UK continues to lead international efforts to stand up for the people of Hong Kong’.That’s demonstrably not true, given on 7 August 2020, the US Department of Treasury sanctioned 11 individuals ‘for undermining Hong Kong's autonomy and restricting the freedom of expression or assembly of the citizens of Hong Kong’.  

So fine words from the UK, but where are the Magnitsky-style sanctions, as a practical demonstration of support? And why did Britain's Minister for Investment Dominic Johnson visit Hong Kong in May, the first official visit in five years, after meeting him with London in April?