Hong Kong: No new Belfast solution

Scott Morrison’s proposal of a safe haven for Hong Kong people was never going to happen, and perhaps just another attempt to rile Beijing. Britain and the US have much to answer for in the present state of affairs, and Australia should refrain from precipitating actions.

There was panic in Hong Kong in 1983 when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher engaged in discussions with China about arrangements for the Territory after the expiry of its hundred-year lease. Long queues formed outside the representative offices of the Australian and other consulates as local families considered opportunities to resettle elsewhere. This prompted Christie Davies, then professor at the University of Reading in the UK, to write to the Belfast News proposing, tongue in cheek, that the entire population of Hong Kong could be resettled in a new city state between Coleraine and Londonderry. This would provide long-term security to Hongkongers, he said, while enlivening the stagnant economy of Northern Ireland as well as improving the local cuisine.

Davies is a well-known collector and analyser of jokes worldwide. Presumably, readers of the Belfast News recognised his deadpan humour, but British Foreign Office chappies exchanged memos endorsing his proposal, as was revealed when the British National Archives released relevant files in 2015. Perhaps British diplomats suffered twinges of conscience about the fate of their dependent territory, since they had made no serious attempt to introduce democracy or put government systems in place in readiness for its return to China, but the Belfast solution was doomed not to happen. In the face of growing far right and anti-foreign sentiment in Britain, all that Whitehall did was create a new class of British citizenship for Hongkongers. From 1987 onwards, they were offered British National Overseas BN(O) passports, but these had limited validity and provided no automatic right of abode in either Britain or Hong Kong. Take-up was, not surprisingly, limited. Many Hong Kong people chose instead to emigrate to Canada, Australia or the US.

Overall, Australia gained an influx of well-educated and entrepreneurial talent. Ours was all the benefit without the historical obligations. In accepting these immigrants, Canberra bore in mind our growing important economic and diplomatic engagement with China. Following the signing of the Joint Declaration between Britain and China, we were prompt to indicate acceptance of China’s sovereign claim by renaming our Commission a Consulate. While Foreign Minister Gareth Evans backed the efforts of outgoing British Governor Chris Patten to secure the democratic rights of the people of Hong Kong within the framework of the Basic Law, we accepted the 1997 handover and ties between Canberra and Beijing and Canberra and Hong Kong flourished. The Australian community in Hong Kong grew, particularly as many who had emigrated in the ‘80s and ‘90s returned for business or family reasons. There are now around 100 thousand Australian citizens in the Territory. Hong Kong continued to work closely with Australia in international groupings such as APEC. Close economic ties reached their zenith in January this year with the signing of a Free Trade Agreement.

Over the last decade, however, Hong Kong’s domestic problems have increased greatly. Frictions have erupted with Beijing, starting with an influx of mainland tourists and businesspeople, forcing up property prices, taking local jobs and filling beds in local hospitals. This in turn provoked increasing local sentiment and boosted pride in the local language and culture and even nostalgia for days when life was less complicated under a benevolent colonial administration. Beijing representatives in Hong Kong lost touch with the common people and listened mainly to the tycoons who had their eyes on developing opportunities in the booming mainland economy, so failed to recognise the signals of discontent. Protests proliferated.

These troubles might have been manageable but, unfortunately, the rift was exacerbated by outside forces. While Beijing funded pro-government demonstrations, pro-democracy demonstrators also received funds worth millions of dollars through organisations such as the US National Endowment for Democracy and the local Spark Alliance. Consequently, Hong Kong became a battlefront in the current disputes between China and the US. As former Hong Kong journalist Michael Pascoe has noted, the US has made things worse by ending Hong Kong’s special status, the UK has admitted that the deal it signed back in the 80s was no good, and Scott Morrison has made a half-hearted offer to Hong Kong people of quasi-refugee status. All these moves are simply thumbing the nose to Beijing.

Hong Kong is now trapped between an autocratic nationalistic regime on the mainland and illusions of democratic freedoms in the West. What is to be done? In the real world in which we live, Beijing cannot be wished away. Foreign press commentary supports the “noble” aims of Hong Kong protestors while ignoring the views of the general population. This is not helpful or realistic. We should remember that Hongkongers are above all pragmatic people, hardworking and just eager to do business and support their families. Let us support them where they are and refrain from spiteing Beijing unnecessarily.

In 2020, Hongkongers are hardly likely to up sticks and resettle in Belfast or Birmingham or Brisbane when they know the world economy is rocky and unemployment is rising. They will stay where they are and rely on legal means to defend their personal freedoms, including voting for democratic candidates in the September Legislative Council elections, a privilege specified in the Basic Law. They will shrug off threats and blustering by Beijing and Washington. They will note the remarkable rebounding of the Chinese economy, stimulated by the government’s vast financial reserves – $3.2 trillion, according to the World Bank. They will remind themselves of the old Chinese adage, Huo xi fu zhi suo yi (When disaster comes, there will be good fortune attached to it) and wait for better days. They will hang on in Hong Kong as long as they can.

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Jocelyn Chey is Visiting Professor at the University of Sydney and Adjunct Professor at Western Sydney University and UTS. She formerly held diplomatic posts in China and Hong Kong. She is a member of the Order of Australia (AM) and a Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

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