As Prince Charles sailed out of Hong Kong’s harbour in the early hours of July 1 1997, he lamented the symbolic end of British empire after 156 years of colonial rule in the city. “Whatever may be thought about colonisation nowadays, Hong Kong was a pretty remarkable example of how to do it well,” he wrote in his journal aboard the soon-to-be-decommissioned royal yacht Britannia.
The British empire had ended long before that night. But in many respects, decolonisation in Hong Kong was not fully realised until July 1 2020, when Beijing unilaterally imposed a national security law on the territory, essentially outlawing all forms of dissent.
The law has mostly achieved its short-term goal of quashing the biggest eruption of unrest on Chinese soil since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. The collateral damage to Hong Kong’s role as a global financial centre is hard to quantify, but is likely to be extensive.
Beijing’s belated decolonisation — perhaps recolonisation is more apt — of the territory provides a fresh reminder of the UK’s much-diminished place in the world. The Chinese Communist party has made clear it has no intention of honouring the international treaty it signed with the UK in 1984, which promised a high degree of autonomy to Hong Kong for at least 50 years.
The most important aspect of this affront to the former colonists is what it tells us about the kind of power a rising Chinese Communist party intends to be in the world.
For all his anachronistic pomposity, Prince Charles was right about the UK’s role in Hong Kong’s success. To quote Chris Patten, the 28th and final governor of the territory, Britain provided the scaffolding — clean government, the rule of law and freedom of speech — that enabled the people of Hong Kong, most of them refugees from China, to ascend.
These are the very things China’s current rulers blame for the turmoil of the past 18 months. The formerly free press is under assault, with broad but vague clauses in the new law outlawing “incitement” of crimes including the barely-defined “collusion with foreign forces”. Described by party cadres as a “sharp sword” hanging over the city, the law explicitly requires the education system to instil “love of the motherland” in young hearts. Politicisation of the relatively independent courts has begun, as Beijing and its agents pursue enemies and “unreliable” judges are sidelined.
The Hong Kong administration has delayed elections on Beijing’s orders. It has tied itself in knots trying to explain how the “separation of powers” between the judicial, executive and legislative branches of government does not exist in the city. As one member of the Chinese rubber-stamp parliament put it: “You can still go on dancing, you can still go horseracing, you can innovate, you can trade . . . but just stay away from [politics].”
Last week’s scrapping of what would have been the world’s biggest initial public offering, of Ant Financial, obliterates the assertion of optimistic financiers that nothing has changed in the city.
The sweeping changes in the territory indicate that President Xi Jinping really does believe China is engaged in a bitter ideological struggle with the “extremely malicious”, “western” ideas of liberalism and democracy. For his party it makes sense to crush the things former colonists think made Hong Kong so successful.
But that does not change the reality. More than two decades after the handover, the territory is administered by British-trained bureaucrats. Foreign financial firms dominate capital flows and one of the biggest landlords in central Hong Kong is the former opium merchant Jardine Matheson. Add to this the steady stream of criticism from local and international media, and the open rebellion that broke out on the streets last year, and it is easy to see why Beijing decided the time for recolonisation had come.
The party of Mao Zedong once spoke of exporting revolution. Today’s party is intent on merely making the world safe for its brand of ethno-nationalist authoritarianism. After a dozen protesters set fire to a national flag outside the Chinese embassy in London in early October, party officials condemned their “abominable acts” of “secession and treason” for allegedly violating the new national security law.
Since that law explicitly covers “crimes” committed anywhere on the planet, the embassy called on UK authorities to “bring the perpetrators to justice at an early date”. Less than 25 years after Prince Charles sailed out of Hong Kong harbour, China is now asserting its jurisdiction on British soil.