The 2019 UK General election looms over the horizon, and with it, so do weeks of interminable Brexit-centric debates. Whilst parties will do their best to tortuously squeak in some discussion of other domestic affairs, they’d be doing themselves a disservice by ignoring the fruitful foreign policy issue that is Hong Kong. Indeed, there are plenty of political reasons for the campaigning politicians to take a decisive stance on the city’s protests, which this article will attempt to outline.
For one, it should be highlighted that protestors seek long-term liberalisation of their government in the face Chinese efforts to gradually erode the ‘One China, Two Systems’ arrangement. This is crucial considering that all mainstream parties across the British political spectrum desire to paint themselves as the true defenders of democracy across the country. As such, the election presents politicians with a golden opportunity to appeal to voters on the other side of the political isle by making the protests a central aspect of their campaigns. Whilst token expressions of support are likely to ring hollow with the public, promises of tangible support akin to diplomatic pressures towards China just might do the trick.
In addition, it could be argued that Britain has a historical responsibility to uphold Hong Kong’s autonomy. Indeed, the Sino-British Declaration which preceded the handover of the territory in 1997 explicitly states that China is to avoid interference with the city’s politics and way of life until 2047. As a result, by publicly siding with the protesters, parties would be highlighting the UK’s continued ability to flex its diplomatic muscle for legitimate causes. This would be a particularly powerful campaign move considering numerous Britons have come to view the Brexit negotiations debacle as a major source of international derision for the country. As such, Hong Kong provides candidate MPs with the opportunity to turn those assumptions on their head, gaining considerable support across the political spectrum in the process.
Parties shouldn’t fear parliament’s accusations of employing unilateral, or reckless rhetoric either. Indeed, Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last British governor, has been increasingly vocal of his support for the protests in the face of new anti-mask laws introduced by the administration last month. In the process, he’s butted heads with Carrie Lam, the current Chief Executive of the city, as well as the Chinese government itself, both of which heavily criticised Mr. Patten’s comments. Thus, as far as Beijing is concerned, the gloves are already off; should British parties decide to back Mr. Patten, it’s unlikely they’d come under any more fire than the former governor. Instead, they’ll come across as defiant and honest, qualities which the electorate will very much appreciate.
In the end then, UK parties stand much to gain, and little to lose from siding decisively with Hong Kong’s protestors. By now, it’s clear the demonstrations seek to not only loosen Beijing’s grip over the city, but more importantly also ensure the latter’s return to a more democratic form of government. This is a sentiment that a large portion of the British electorate can support, which is why it has the potential to become a powerful campaign tool that’s ripe for the taking. On top of that, the UK’s history with Hong Kong gives it a legitimate excuse to assert diplomatic pressure in favour of the protesters. Whilst the foreign policy value of such a move is debatable, voters are likely to see it as mitigation for Britain’s international humiliation in the face of Brexit negotiations. Such an admittedly risky decision is also unlikely to be publicly condemned in parliament given the precedent set by Mr. Patten, who has already taken the brunt of Beijing’s criticism. Regardless, a diplomatic slap on the wrists might end up being of little concern to parties in the context of campaign pragmatism. Should this be the case, there is no reason for politicians not to seize the golden opportunity that are the Hong Kong protests.
Featured image by Wing1990hk. Available on Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license