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‘Britain Must Meet its Historic Responsibility to Hong Kong’

The UK Government must do more to stand against the curtailing of democracy by Beijing in the former British colony – and fulfil its legal and moral responsibilities, writes Lord Alton

A pro-democracy protestor in Hong Kong. Photo: Ivan Abreu/SOPA/Sipa USA

Britain Must Meet its Historic Responsibility to Hong Kong

The UK Government must do more to stand against the curtailing of democracy by Beijing in the former British colony – and fulfil its legal and moral responsibilities, writes Lord Alton

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The Foreign Secretary last week spoke before the UN, criticising the arrest and ongoing national security trial of Jimmy Lai, a British citizen, whose outspoken pro-democracy activities have placed him directly in the crosshairs of the pro-Beijing Hong Kong authorities. 

This intervention is a welcome one. Similarly, Foreign Secretary James Cleverley urging Hong Kong and Chinese authorities to uphold the Sino-British Joint Declaration – a treaty underpinned by the ‘one country, two systems’ principle that Hong Kong would continue to enjoy a “high degree of autonomy” after its authority was transferred to China by the UK in 1997 – and implement the recommendations of an earlier report from the UN, which called for the removal of Hong Kong’s National Security Law, was a welcome step.

But the UK Government must go further.

While speaking out in support of Lai and other pro-democracy activists who have faced censure under the National Security law, the UK Government can and should take substantive and consequential action in support of Hongkongers. 

A prime opportunity to do this would be for the Government to impose Magnitsky-style sanctions on individuals directly responsible for human rights abuses under the National Security Law.

Targets should include senior officials who were complicit in overseeing human rights abuses, like Hong Kong’s former Chief Executive Carrie Lam – many of whom worked on behalf of the UK Government in pre-1997 Hong Kong. Many of these individuals have political and financial ties to the UK, meaning that sanctions from our Government would have a significant impact and demonstrate that anti-democratic forces within Hong Kong cannot simply act with impunity. 

In addition to sanctions, the Government should also be supporting Hongkongers by responding to the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Hong Kong’s recent report outlining the shocking complicity of UK-based banks appearing to act on behalf of the Hong Kong authorities to punish and coerce political dissidents and refugees.

Evidence has been found that British Nationals Overseas (innocent political refugees from Hong Kong who have legally emigrated to the UK) are being denied legitimate access to their pensions by banks like HSBC. This means that innocent Hongkongers who have paid into their pensions throughout their lives are now being financially punished by the Hong Kong Government (which is acting in accordance with the wishes of the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party). 

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The report also noted the continued freezing of assets of political dissidents including pro-democracy activist Ted Hui, who has had all his accounts with HSBC frozen, as well as those of his family, on spurious accusations of money laundering. 

In both cases, I believe HSBC’s actions constitute a violation of international human rights law.

The withholding of Hongkongers’ pension funds by banks has curtailed their ability to relocate to Britain and away from potential political persecution, thereby infringing on their right to freedom of movement. The unfounded freezing of dissidents’ assets, meanwhile, is a clear breach of Article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees an individual’s right to private property.

Senior officials at HSBC, for example, have repeatedly expressed support for the National Security Law, with its chief executive Noel Quinn publicly backing the law when testifying before the UK Parliament in 2021, despite the well-documented human rights abuses that the law has provided cover for. 

While Lai and his media organisation Apple Daily were bravely standing up for freedom and were unafraid to criticise the CCP, HSBC backs the National Security Law even while Hongkongers continue to suffer. 

It is vital that the UK Government actively works with UK-based banks to allow BNOs and dissidents access to their own funds in accordance with international human rights law. It also needs to do more to hold to account those responsible for the shocking legal and judicial vendetta against Jimmy Lai. The rule of law matters and the UK should be leading the way in making that clear. 

By punishing human rights abusers with sanctions and protecting pro-democracy activists and political refugees from financial coercion, the UK Government could finally meet its legal, moral and historic responsibilities to the people of Hong Kong.

Lord Alton of Liverpool is a crossbench peer in the House of Lords, vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong, and a member of the Joint Select Committee on Human Rights of the Commons and Lords

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