Different Levels

The introduction by the UK government of a “Pathway to citizenship” for Hongkongers holding BN(O) status has generated much excitement and interest both in Britain and locally. As many as 5.4 million could in theory be eligible and estimates as to how many may apply range from 200,000 to several million. How many will actually choose to move there instead of to one of the more traditional emigration destinations (USA, Canada, Australia) is another variable. Numbers on this scale have inevitably attracted international attention.

Looked at closely, the scheme is not nearly as generous as it appears at first sight. As I have pointed out in this column before, Hong Kong people at one time had the right to settle in the UK without fuss. The Chinese man who later married my Mum (thus becoming my stepfather} did so in the 1960s. This right was gradually stripped away from them by a series of amendments to British Nationality laws. The new package requires a series of hefty fees to be paid for residence followed by a wait of six years before an application can be made for British citizenship. Given the current state of the UK economy with the full horrors of Brexit still to work their way through, many will find the going tough, especially for employment. At least the new path does allow people to work while waiting to complete the process which is an improvement over previous proposals.

Older hands will recall that before the Portuguese withdrew from Macau they offered full EU citizenship to all residents upon request. Macau students were then able to study at UK universities paying only “home” fees while Hong Kong students had to pay the much higher “overseas” rates.

If the micro level merits a closer look, so too does the macro one. In recent years a group of Western nations has been trying to confront China on a range of matters. The group comprises the USA, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand and is known as the “Five Eyes” because these countries share intelligence. Differences have arisen between them and Beijing over Tibet, Xinjiang, the South China Sea, and Taiwan as well as over trade, technology etc.

The latest issue to catch their eye is the introduction by the Central People’s Government in the middle of last year of national security legislation applicable to Hong Kong. Some argued that this was a breach of the Basic Law because Article 23 says the SAR “shall enact laws on its own” to protect national security. The argument does not stand up. That obligation remains and the SAR government still needs to fulfil it. But this in no way detracts from the national government’s right to step in if it sees genuine threats to national security. In the middle of 2019 what began as a peaceful demonstration against ill-considered legislation on extradition (against a backdrop of slow progress towards greater democracy) morphed into a series of increasingly violent protests. There was extensive vandalism of public and private property and a serious threat to public safety with throwing of petrol bombs and other acts of terrorism.

The narrative of the Five Eyes was that this new law had the effect of crushing freedom in Hong Kong, and to show support for oppressed local citizens they would offer a safe haven. This was the stated purpose of the new UK arrangements for BN(O) holders. Supportive statements to the same effect were made at the same time by Canada, Australia and the USA.

My impression is that many Hongkongers have reservations about the new law, but are prepared to wait and see how it is implemented in practice. A small minority have serious grounds for concern: those who advocated the pipe dream of independence or had been engaged in criminal acts during the social unrest. At the same time, many ordinary people seem to quietly welcome the restoration of law and order on the streets.

For some reason in recent public statements the Five Eyes have linked the national security issue to the situation in Xinjiang. The system of re-education camps established, reportedly for steering the Uighur minority away from militant Islamic extremism, have been described as “concentration camps”. The term has been slavishly followed by much of the western media. On his last day as Secretary of State, former CIA director Mike Pompeo also applied the word “genocide”.

Since the middle of the twentieth century, the term concentration camps has had only one meaning: centres for organizing mass murder on an industrial scale. The Five Eyes know this well: American forces relieved Dachau and Buchenwald, British troops entered Bergen-Belsen. Films of what the soldiers found were widely screened after the war and are still available in various archives.

Like most people, I am not familiar with the camps in Xinjiang never having visited or seen independent TV footage. Critics claim the conditions are unpleasant and that there are abuses. I do not gainsay them because I do not know. But one thing I can say with certainty is that they are not concentration camps. If someone is now in the United States giving media interviews about their experiences or meeting political leaders to discuss, then it is simply impossible that they were in Auschwitz-like conditions. Had it been the real thing they would never have survived to tell the tale.

What can we take from a coordinated approach to providing safe haven for persons fleeing from Hong Kong, combined with use of emotive language on a separate subject? Is it genuine altruism, or have the Eyes found the Hong Kong situation to be a useful new stick with which to beat China?