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Mon 16 September 2019
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The Government appears to have stepped up the sale of security equipment to Hong Kong following the Umbrella Movement protests in 2014. How does this fit with the UK’s role in standing up for the city’s people?

Tear gas rained down as police turned the streets of Hong Kong into a battlefield, using rubber bullets, pepper spray, batons and riot shields against unarmed protesters.

Last Wednesday was the turning point in protests that have been so widespread they have drawn comparisons to the 1989 student demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

The police crackdown sent many, old and young, to the emergency room. Thousands of others stayed on the streets in clouds of tear gas, urging the police to end their assault and stand up for the people they are supposed to protect.

Come and Meet Scilla Elworthy at Byline Festival 23-26 August 2019

It has been estimated that more than a million people took part in the demonstrations, which called on Hong Kong’s leaders to halt legislation that would allow people detained in the city to face trial in mainland China.

The move could endanger political dissidents and violate the ‘one country, two systems’ principle that has governed Hong Kong since the UK handed the city back to China in 1997.

As the crowds dissipated following the crackdown, the clean-up began and pictures of empty tear gas canisters began to emerge on social media.

It didn’t take long for the munitions to be traced to their point of origin – they had been manufactured in the United Kingdom.

One organisation to examine the images was Omega Research, which is dedicated to identifying military, security and police equipment used in human rights abuses.

Evidence indicates that many of the sales were made in the wake of the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement, when the police used force against thousands who had come out to call for fair elections.

A spokesman for Omega said: “On Wednesday morning a tweet was posted online and, after searching in our archive, we concluded that the CS grenade photographed was likely to be a N225 Rubber Bursting CS Grenade manufactured by the UK-based Chemring Group.

“This grenade has previously been promoted by the group in its brochures and has been photographed on display at the Eurostatory arms fair in 2014.

“We also received other similar images from a journalist.

“The N225 deploys multiple small CS payloads which are designed to prevent protesters from throwing them back at police. Unfortunately, we are unable to comment on the precise context in which this piece of equipment was used, but media reports suggest that the use of tear gas by police was widespread during Wednesday’s protests.

“The original photograph posted on Twitter was tagged in the Central and Western District of Hong Kong which is consistent with media reporting of the protests.”

CS gas grenades on display at the Eurostatory arms fair in 2014. Photo: Omega Research

It is not unexpected that the UK would have sold security equipment to Hong Kong as they have always had strong ties with the city. But, evidence indicates that many of the sales were made in the wake of the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement, when the police used force against thousands who had come out to call for fair elections. Hundreds were injured and many more imprisoned.

It appears that, to the British Government, those demonstrations presented something of a business opportunity and the sale of security equipment to Hong Kong was quickly stepped up. This is despite the UK’s own licencing criteria stating that exports should not be granted if “there is a clear risk that the items might be used for internal repression”.

Among the export licences granted in the aftermath of the Umbrella Movement protests, were two five-year ‘Open Individual Export Licenses’ in 2015 and 2016. These allowed for the unlimited delivery of equipment such as CS hand grenades, assault rifles, crowd control ammunition, smoke canisters, body armour, and anti-riot shields.

Jeremy Hunt talks of the need to preserve Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms, yet the UK is actively assisting the suppression of these freedoms through its supply of tear gas and other anti-protest weapons.

Sarah Waldron, Campaign Against the Arms Trade

Sam Perlo-Freeman, a research coordinator at the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), said: “Maintaining a positive relationship with the Hong Kong authorities may be a reasonable goal, but this does not require the Government to supply any and all equipment to Hong Kong’s law enforcement as part of that relationship, regardless of its human rights impact.

“Given the large-scale repression that occurred during the Umbrella Movement protests of 2014, in which it was confirmed that UK-supplied tear gas was used, it is hard to understand how the Government could continue to allow the sale of similar equipment thereafter.”

Alongside this criticism, the UK has also come under pressure to call out Hong Kong’s leadership and hold them to account for attempts to breach the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

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The intention of this agreement was to protect the city from China’s authoritarian rule and is legally binding until 2047. As the architect of the declaration, it is the UK’s job to take a leadership role in holding the authorities to account.

Instead, it appears that, while Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt urges Hong Kong’s leadership to “listen to the concerns of its people”, he is also allowing British-made security equipment to flow into the hands of Hong Kong’s police force, which is then used against the same people Mr Hunt says the city’s leaders should be listening to.

Sarah Waldron of CAAT said: “Jeremy Hunt talks of the need to preserve Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms, yet the UK is actively assisting the suppression of these freedoms through its supply of tear gas and other anti-protest weapons.

“The Government should immediately revoke all current export licences for such equipment as a first practical step to showing solidarity with the people of Hong Kong.”

The UK’s own licencing criteria states that exports should not be granted if “there is a clear risk that the items might be used for internal repression”.

Following the clashes last Wednesday, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam apologised and announced that plans for the extradition law had been suspended. But, in another show of defiance, citizens took to the streets again two days later to demand the bill is scrapped completely and called on Ms Lam to resign.

According to some estimates, the latest round of demonstrations were the largest in modern history with more than two million of the city’s seven million population taking part.

Prominent student activist Joshua Wong, who was released from jail after his arrest in the wake of the Umbrella Movement, said it is time for Ms Lam to end her political career and that she had “allowed police to hold a gun to the citizens of Hong Kong”.

The Chemring Group did not respond to a request for comment on the claims made by Omega Research.

UPDATE: Following publication of this article on June 18 2019, the Department for International Trade responded to Byline Times‘ request for comment.

A spokesman said: “The Government takes its export responsibilities very seriously, operating one of the most robust export control regimes in the world. We keep our defence exports to Hong Kong under careful and continual review. All export license applications are considered on a case-by-case basis against international criteria, including respect for human rights. We will revoke any licences found to be no longer consistent with these standards.”

The spokesman added that the last export licence from the UK for tear gas hand grenades and tear gas cartridges used for training purposes by the Hong Kong police was in July 2018. The last export licence for rubber bullets was in July 2015. The Government rejected an open licence for riot shields in April 2019.

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