The galleries of the House of Lords are seldom, it must be admitted, full, but they were on Friday afternoon for the last business of the day – a debate on the state of Hong Kong.
The House lived up to the interest, with a powerful debate that featured two former governors-general, many peers who declared business interests in Hong Kong and those with a general interest in human rights and policing, including Lord Alton of Liverpool, who had initiated the debate, expressing grave concerns about the behaviour of police and other officials in the former British colony and the clear abuses of human rights occurring there.
As I reflected, the depth of the debate was a sign of continuing close ties with one more mess left by British colonialism.
As was the case with many of the peers speaking, I have a personal link: as a young journalist from nearby Bangkok I covered the Hong Kong handover of 1997, and it was part of my political education to see the democratic aspirations of the Hong Kong people ground down under the force of realpolitik.
I had for my speech reflections written down from that time, but when I stood to speak I chose instead to reflect on the powerful earlier words of Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson: “Personally, I have never been comfortable with the word ‘handover’ when talking about people”.
And as the debate reflected, there is a remaining official link: the Joint Declaration, agreed in 1997 and registered as a treaty with the United Nations, that set out the ‘one nation, two systems’ model that was to give the people of Hong Kong at least some rights until 2042.
China has recently – disturbingly – described this as purely historic, but you don’t have to be a lawyer to see that isn’t the case. The UK does have a huge responsibility here – although action needs to be international, coordinated with nations that are still concerned with the rule of law.
The UK also has a massive responsibility to the people it left with British National (Overseas) Passports – which despite the title give no right of residence in the UK.
The world of course has moved on a long way since 1997, and as many newspapers were reflecting this weekend, it’s now unmistakeably a turbulent world – our older generations have profoundly failed the young, who are entering an unstable, undemocratic, poverty-stricken, environmentally disastrous world.
The incredibly hubristic claims of the triumph of Western capitalism, as epitomised in Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ thesis of 1992, now look very hollow indeed (and it remains one of the most ill-informed books I have ever read – there’s probably still a dint in a wall in a Bangkok apartment where I threw it in frustration after reading the claim that because domestic violence statistics in Japan were negligible, there was no domestic violence there).
The world has moved on, but not in the convenient ways that the powers that be, in the US, UK or China, wanted.
As the Bishop of Salisbury said in last week’s debate: “Those aged under 35 in Hong Kong see themselves as Hong Kongers first and Chinese second. In other words, Hong Kong’s identity has been hardened and has grown more significant, not less”.
Yet their peaceful demands for democratic rights and respect for the rule of law, in the ‘Umbrella Protests’ of 2014 and more recently, have been met with increasing violence, to the point now where former British police chief Lord Hogan-Howe was driven to express grave concern to the House about the video images he was seeing of police behaviour.
And there’s more. Many members of the House, myself among them, have communications from citizens in Hong Kong expressing the feeling of the streets – a pervasive, heart-sapping fear. Fear of the finding of bodies floating in the sea, unexplained ‘suicides’, and well-documented reports of abuse, including sexual abuse, particularly of young women, in police custody.
This is clearly a situation of authorities out of control – of people to whom we have a special responsibility being abused.
Lord Chris Patten, former governor-general, put it very well when he said: “Public order policing has been regarded by the government as a substitute for politics. Tear gas is not a substitute for talking to people and trying to deal with their real grievances.”
So what will come of this debate? The official topic was to ‘take note’ of what is happening. And certainly we heard emollient words and promises of action from the government. That’s something to be watched very closely in the coming days, weeks and months.