Last summer, when the United Kingdom’s then foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, was running against Boris Johnson for the leadership of the Conservative Party, his behavior toward Hong Kong was shameful. After an armed mob smashed its way into the Legislative Council building on July 1, he warned against any crackdown on the rioters.
Having applauded the demonstrations, Hunt proclaimed “support for Hong Kong and its protesters”. At the very time when the police force was valiantly trying to defend Hong Kong from violence and destruction, Hunt cynically announced that he was refusing to grant new export licenses for crowd control equipment. For good measure, he then threatened sanctions against China, if it did not do as he wanted.
Not surprisingly, China’s ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, deplored Hunt’s behavior, pointing out that it had “damaged” China-UK relations. If Hunt thought that, by adopting an anti-China stance, and failing to give the police force the support it needed, he would win over the Sinophobes in his party and raise his stature, the tactic backfired. Not only was he roundly defeated by Johnson, but he was then promptly fired.
Quite clearly, its (Hong Kong Watch) message of alarm, distortion and hate is no longer resonating as much as previously ... which is a healthy sign
We will probably never know for sure who exactly was advising Hunt on Hong Kong affairs, but it is a fair guess that Hong Kong Watch, chaired by the wacky Benedict Rogers, also a Conservative Party member, will have played its part. Hong Kong Watch, which is rabidly anti-China, and gives a platform to anyone with bad things to say about Hong Kong, including the former governor, Chris Patten, has, since its inception in 2017, established a formidable reputation for bias. Serious China watchers now give it a wide berth, with its resort to fantasy having shattered any claim to credibility.
In August, for example, when Rogers tried to explain away the invasion of the Legislative Council by armed rioters on July 1, he made the astonishing claim that they had “protected books and antiques”, and left it at that. He failed to mention the wanton damage, including the destruction of paintings, and concealed the repair bill, which exceeded HK$40 million (US$5.1 million). Nobody, however, need be surprised, as Rogers’ concern throughout has always been with the rioters, not their victims. Although he is always keen to condemn police officers who defend themselves when attacked, he falls silent whenever they are stabbed, set on fire by petrol bombs or injured by corrosive acid.
As for Patten, when he analyzed the situation for Project Syndicate, on Sept 30, he felt obliged, given the overwhelming evidence, to make a fleeting reference to the “occasional violence of some protesters”. He may, of course, have also downplayed the violence in any briefings he gave to Raab or his officials, in an attempt to minimize the excesses of those whose political agenda he supports. Far from being “occasional”, however, the violence was regular, indiscriminate and intense, and involved not simple “protesters”, but highly-trained thugs.
Once Hunt was replaced by Dominic Raab, on July 24, Hong Kong Watch banged off an “open letter”, designed to place Hong Kong in the worst possible light. It warned him of an “unprecedented deterioration in the human rights situation in Hong Kong”, while ignoring the horrendous levels of terrorist-type violence being deployed by the mobs. To his credit, however, Raab has realized, at least in part, that he was being conned.
In the UK government’s latest six-monthly report on Hong Kong, released on Oct 31, Raab acknowledges that the nature of the protests has changed, and emphasizes that the violence of a “hard-core minority cannot be condoned”. He frankly recognizes that “protesters have vandalized property and tried to shut down banks, metro stations and the airport”. Instead of suppressing inconvenient truths, Raab acknowledges that “a police officer was injured by a knife, and petrol bombs have been thrown at police stations and other targets”.
Although Raab also observes that the police response to the violence must be “proportionate” and that the right to “peaceful protests” must be safeguarded, he does not suggest otherwise. After all, the huge restraint displayed by the police in the face of armed aggression has been commendable, while they have always, wherever possible, authorized legitimate protests.
Whereas Hunt had tried to whitewash the men of violence, Raab is now prepared to call out thuggery for what it is, which is welcome. Perhaps truth will now catch on, with his counterparts in the European Union and the United States also getting in on the act. What is intriguing, however, is why the UK’s stance has shifted in such a short period, and there are several possibilities.
Raab, of course, may simply have watched the mobs in action on his television screen, and refused to let anyone pull the wool over his eyes. After all, given the UK’s historical links with Hong Kong, no sensible British politician, whatever their feelings toward China, would want to see the city going up in flames. The UK has too much invested in Hong Kong to want it to fail, although some people certainly hope it will, imagining that this will damage China.
In addition, Ambassador Liu Xiaoming, held a highly praised conference at his embassy in London on Aug 15, and went to great lengths to set the record straight on Hong Kong. This was widely reported by the British media, and Raab would have been fully briefed by his officials on what Liu had to say.
It is, moreover, entirely possible that the UK Consul General in Hong Kong, Andrew Heyn, has been shocked by the constant misrepresenting of the situation by anti-China elements, including Hunt, Rogers and Patten. Whatever may have been the position with Hunt, Heyn has hopefully now taken it upon himself to ensure that Raab fully appreciates what is happening. If so, we must hope that, as an objective diplomat, he will continue to stand up for the truth, and counter the distortions so shamelessly peddled in some quarters.
Hong Kong Watch, unsurprisingly, was less than happy with Raab’s candor, grandly announcing that it was “concerned” over the report. It described as a “glaring omission” its “failure to condemn the brutality of the police”. Regarding a commission of inquiry into the police force, it found it “disappointing” that Raab had “reneged on his predecessor’s call for such an inquiry”. It then signed off with a call for “a stronger line” in future reports.
To hear Hong Kong Watch squealing like this, in the face of balanced reporting, will surely be music to the ears of anyone who truly cares about Hong Kong. Quite clearly, its message of alarm, distortion and hate is no longer resonating as much as previously, and is not unduly influencing Raab, which is a healthy sign.
Henceforth, objectivity and fair mindedness will, hopefully, with Heyn’s help, guide the UK whenever it considers Hong Kong issues.
The author is a senior counsel, law professor and criminal justice analyst, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of Hong Kong.
HONG KONG NEWS