An important international development that ought to be publicised but has received only limited US media coverage is the Hong Kong government’s current controversial plan for extradition to mainland China. This has precipitated unprecedented major civil unrest and mass protests with marches and demonstrations on the city’s streets involving an estimated two million people. After the clashes turned shockingly violent last week the police used tear gas and rubber bullets injuring more than 80 protesters. This was judged to be the largest demonstration and worst political violence in Britain’s former colony since its handover to China in 1997.
More than 20 years after the ending of British sovereignty and the creation of a new status for Hong Kong of ‘one country, two systems’ – the product of a deal between Britain and China guaranteeing a special semi-autonomy including freedom of assembly, free speech and an independent judiciary – there have been growing fears about the preservation of these freedoms; in particular, the rule of law and an independent judiciary which underpins Hong Kong’s position as an international financial hub.
Younger people there especially are concerned that under the pro-Beijing Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, China is steadily restricting the territory’s responsibility for its own affairs and is increasingly meddling in internal matters. This is despite President Xi Jinping’s commitment to continuation of ‘one country, two systems’ when he visited Hong Kong in 2017 for the celebrations to mark the 20th anniversary of the handover.
Against this background, a legal amendment known as the Extradition Bill has been proposed which would enable the Hong Kong authorities to send criminals or suspects to stand trial in China. This would cover Hong Kong residents and foreign and Chinese nationals living or travelling in the city. The Hong Kong government maintains this is important to prevent criminals from finding a safe haven there. But the protesters claim that not only would this affect human rights and undermine the country’s democratic freedoms – not least its independent judiciary - but it would also condemn people to face China’s justice system which, as well as the danger of politically motivated trials, is marked by torture, forced confessions, arbitrary detention and limited access to lawyers. All this, they say, means China cannot be trusted to meet the basic standards of judicial fairness and that this situation may become worse as it gradually becomes a more authoritarian state.
According to reports, this Extradition Bill has been criticised by US and British lawmakers and there has been a formal protest by certain EU countries on the grounds it would strike a blow against the rule of law in Hong Kong and its stability and security and could seriously affect its status as a significant international financial and trading centre.
To an extent, all this has now been overtaken following the Chief Executive’s announcement at the weekend that in the face of such serious opposition the Extradition Bill has been suspended indefinitely to allow further consideration of the views of all concerned.
But it is clear it has not been totally scrapped, so fears remain about possible further erosion of Hong Kong’s cherished freedoms and protections. The result has been continuing anger and tension and a resumption of mass demonstrations, with even greater numbers calling for the controversial bill to be cancelled rather than deferred and an undertaking it will not be revived. Protesters are also demanding Carrie Lam’s resignation, but she remains defiant.
Meanwhile, it was interesting that in a BBC interview last week the Chinese ambassador in London maintained the Beijing government had not been involved in the Extradition Bill but that it had emerged from Hong Kong lawmakers themselves. He also made it clear there was no role for Britain to play in this issue.
In the negotiations leading to the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, the detailed treaty guaranteeing for 50 years Hong Kong’s freedoms and way of life, Britain’s main concern was the long-term welfare of its then five million citizens. The British objective was to preserve the structures, freedom and unique aspects of Hong Kong and to avoid confrontation when China was in a position to impose its wishes by force.
Negotiators realised the need to convince the Chinese that it was in their interests - as the nation launched itself to become a global economic powerhouse - to have a smooth and orderly transfer of power, not least because with its close ties to the southern mainland Hong Kong’s service-orientated economy was an important part of China’s economy. But, even though Britain is committed to monitoring implementation of the terms of the Joint Declaration, in practice there is little it can do in a meaningful way to live up to its residual obligation to protect those freedoms.
As I recorded in an article two years ago about the 20th anniversary, the last Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, revealed in his book entitled East and West that the blunt advice given to him by the bluff former Labour Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, James Callaghan, was that the British interest was simple - to make sure their businessmen could do a lot of trade with China. The Chinese, he is reported to have said, would act in any way they wanted after the handover and, realistically, Britain could do little about it. An oversimplification perhaps, but uncomfortably near to the stark truth.
Painful to look at Britain’s Brexit turmoil
I find it almost painful to write about the political turmoil that has been engulfing Britain for far too long. But there is no denying this is the most turbulent period in the country’s domestic politics for decades and that Brexit is the reason for the current crisis. It is overshadowing everything.
Both the main parties, Conservative and Labour, promised to implement the outcome of the 2016 referendum in which the British electorate voted clearly but narrowly to leave the European Union. Parliament passed the EU Withdrawal Act in 2018 providing for Brexit on March 29 the following year. But it has not happened because Parliament voted down the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with the EU by Prime Minister Theresa May. In a nutshell, an overwhelmingly ‘Remain’ Parliament – both the House of Commons and the House of Lords – is confronting a Brexit electorate because it is being made to do something which it does not want to do and has failed to deal with the crisis provoked by the referendum.
The eminent English historian, David Starkey, maintains this situation is unprecedented in the nation’s constitutional past and that what some people term the Brexit betrayal - not leaving on the set date of this year - is a contradiction of democracy because parliamentary sovereignty cannot deny national sovereignty or the will of the people that is the root and core of democracy itself.
Amid all this, the Conservative Party is in turmoil internally and is deeply unpopular with the general public after Mrs May was unable to deliver Brexit and resigned. Following the party’s disastrous showing in the European Parliament elections last month when, reportedly, it received its lowest share of the vote in any election since the early 19th century, it was then knocked into third place in the recent Peterborough by-election. Now, while Mrs May stays on as prime minister until her successor is chosen, the Tories are conducting a leadership contest.
As Tory MPs vote for their preferred candidate in a second ballot today, the field is being whittled down to two who will face a postal vote across the party membership, with the winner announced in late July. Before that, the six remaining contenders are due to participate in a second live election debate today. The frontrunner is former foreign secretary and two-term Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who is well ahead of his nearest rival. He is seen as an experienced and tough operator with a forceful personality who has charisma and star quality and is the most likely Tory leader to beat the Labour Party in an early election. But he is also regarded by others as unreliable and untrustworthy - a flawed and divisive figure with a record of false statements and gaffes who lacks good judgment and, as such, is unfit to be prime minister. While seen as a successful London mayor, his performance as foreign secretary was less effective. Despite all that he remains the favourite to become the next prime minister.
Mr Johnson has declared he will honour the will of the people by taking the UK out of the EU by the agreed date of October 31, but he has been accused of making false promises which he may find hard to deliver.
Meanwhile, it is said people in Britain are suffering from ‘Brexit blues’ and are fed up with the increasingly polarised debate and aggressive rhetoric while the continuing uncertainty has induced a sense of powerlessness that leaves them disillusioned and resentful. With no faith in politicians, it appears public anger on the issue of Brexit has boiled over. There is deep pessimism about the future.
A pleasure to welcome Brian
What a pleasure it was for my wife and me to receive an invitation to attend last week’s swearing-in ceremony for Brain Moree as Chief Justice of The Bahamas. In the Ballroom at Government House, guests witnessed a formal ceremony in the presence of the Deputy to the Governor General which was solemn, dignified and well organised and followed by a reception and speeches in a welcoming and happy atmosphere. It was a wonderful occasion with people expressing confidence in a judiciary to be led by someone supremely well qualified for the task. All will surely agree the administration of justice in this country is in the best possible hands.
• Peter Young is a retired career diplomat and former British High Commissioner to The Bahamas where he is
now a permanent resident