HALIFAX, Canada — A delegation of Hong Kong democracy activists has accused Britain’s prime ministerial contenders of abandoning millions of people who grew up in the territory when it was a British colony.
Emily Lau, the first woman elected to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, slammed British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn over their failure to offer Hong Kong residents right of abode in the United Kingdom.
“There are over 2 million British citizens living in Hong Kong and very many of them are very nervous and anxious about their future,” said Lau, speaking to POLITICO on the sidelines of the Halifax International Security Forum on Friday. “I hope Britain would consider giving them citizenship, real citizenship.”
The U.K. controlled Hong Kong for more than 150 years through to 1997, when it was handed back to China. Hong Kong residents were offered the designation “British National (Overseas)” as part of negotiations to return the territory to China, but that status “denies them right of abode in the U.K.,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London.
Lau mocked the system, saying “British national overseas, it’s B and NO. It’s Britain says no. It’s a disgrace.”
“The U.K. should honor our obligations to Hong Kong people and in particular those of British nationality” — Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute
In their manifesto for the December general election, the Liberal Democrats committed to honor what the party called the U.K.’s “legal and moral duty to the people of Hong Kong” by extending the rights of British National (Overseas) passport holders to include “the right to abode to all holders.”
Labour and Johnson’s Conservatives have made no such pledges so far.
“The U.K. should honor our obligations to Hong Kong people and in particular those of British nationality. Both Johnson and Corbyn should do so, though I don’t see either doing so,” Tsang said.
Asked about the Corbyn’s relative silence on the residency question — the Labour leader has built a reputation of supporting social justice causes around the globe — Lau said: “I call on Jeremy Corbyn to make some positive statements. I call on all the political parties.”
In August, Tory MP Tom Tugendhat, chair of the foreign affairs committee, said that it was a mistake for the U.K. to have granted Hong Kong citizens “a second-tier citizenship” and that this should “be corrected.”
Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones, a former Conservative minister and chair of Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee, told the Halifax forum that there are doubts “there would be any price to pay” if the Chinese military rolled into Hong Kong to quell the protests. “We’re basically more interested in the trade,” Neville-Jones concluded.
Tsang warned that any veto by U.S. President Donald Trump of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act — a bill passed Thursday by the U.S. Congress that, among other measures, authorizes sanctions against Chinese officials — “would send a very clear signal to China that at the end of the day he will turn in favor of China, so China can do whatever it wants in Hong Kong.”
Beijing, meanwhile, warned Washington against passing the bill into law. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in a statement: “We urge the U.S. to grasp the situation, stop its wrongdoing before it’s too late, and immediately take measures to prevent this act from becoming law.”
Lau and Figo Chan, a 23-year-old social democrat who coordinated the participation of 50 political parties and activists groups in the current protest movement, told POLITICO they also wanted targeted sanctions against Chinese officials over their efforts to weaken checks and balances in Hong Kong and their sometimes violent response to protests.
“I support legislation to punish officials who violate human rights by banning them and freezing their assets,” Lau said, but she acknowledged that Hong Kong may become a pawn in Trump’s trade war with China.
Trump said in a television interview Friday: “We have to stand with Hong Kong, but I’m also standing with President Xi.”
“We are sort of caught right in the middle. We know he changes his mind every day. We were not born yesterday, there are certain things we cannot influence,” Lau said.
“We don’t trust China” — Figo Chan, 23-year-old social democrat
While defiant, both Lau and Chan are pessimistic that the democracy movement can succeed in the absence of a more coordinated Western strategy against China’s attempts to roll back democratic checks and balances in the territory.
“We don’t trust China,” Chan said. He expects a wave of “massive imprisonment, arrest and prosecution.”
Hong Kong holds council elections on Sunday, which some have characterised as a referendum on the democracy protests. But Lau warned the international community to keep Sunday’s vote in perspective.
“These councils have no power. You know, they are advisory bodies” only, she said.
Lau — a legislator for 25 years and former Hong Kong Democratic Party chair — says the new generation of protestors still have a lot to prove: “They can’t just suddenly say, ‘oh, I protest three weeks, I’m going to stand for election.’ If people still vote for them, good luck. But I want people to really do the work and then stand.”
Despite the escalating situation, Lau said she plans to stay put in Hong Kong. “I don’t have the right of abode anywhere else. And I have no intention” to leave, she said.