In November 2019, I was part of the international delegation that observed Hong Kong’s District Council Elections in the Sixth District. The elections were a moment of great joy – with nearly three million ballots cast (circa 71% turnout), the pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong gained control of 17 out of the 18 District council, and winning 388 seats (up from 124) out of the total of 479 seats.
This landslide (coming just three months after nearly 1.7 million people participated in peaceful protests) was an important victory for the pro-democracy camp, and highlighted Hong Konger’s desire to exercise their rights and freedoms, and maintain the city’s high degree of autonomy.
Yet, this important victory also no doubt shook the Hong Kong government and their masters in Beijing. Taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic which spread from China to the rest of the world, as well as its social, economic and political impact, the Hong Kong government and the Chinese Communist Party, began to strike back against the people and their dreams.
Although the government has been using an array of vague colonial-era laws to pursue political convictions of political opponents since the 2014 Umbrella Movement, in April 2020 fifteen of Hong Kong’s most respected pro-democracy politicians and advocates were arrested, including the “father of the democracy movement” Martin Lee.
But these arrests were not isolated cases. The government and their masters pressed on, disqualifying pro-democracy members of the Legislative Council, cracking down against activists, increasing pressure on the judiciary and, after calls by the Chinese government’s Liaison Office , China’s National People’s Congress adopted a national security law for Hong Kong, de facto destroying the ‘One Country Two Systems’ policy and representing a clear violation of Hong Kong’s freedoms, the Basic Law as well as the Sino-British Joint Declaration. But
The so-called national ‘security’ law was imposed in June, giving Beijing and its lackeys in the Hong Kong Government a pretext to intensify their repression through the use of crude force, arbitrary arrests or further disqualification of pro-democracy legislators and future candidates, based on dubious charges and vague articles of the so-called ‘security law’. In the case of 12 Hong Kongers attempting to flee the city, who were caught and, in contravention of the Basic Law and their rights, they were held in detention on mainland China, without access to lawyers, their families, or even basic medicine, and sentenced in a sham trial.
But political leaders from across Europe and the democratic world refused to stay silent. In June, nearly thousand legislators globally signed a joint letter denouncing the so-called security law and the intensifying repression. In the European Parliament, we launched a cross-party informal Hong Kong Watch Group to bring together MEPs to work together on issues related to Hong Kong, and to cooperate with political leaders from across the democratic world, including the UK Parliament and the US Congress. Worldwide, we have created the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) for legislators to work together to address the wider challenge posed by China, human rights violations across mainland China and Hong Kong.
In the European Parliament, I have now co-authored two resolutions on Hong Kong – in June 2020 and in January 2021. In both cases, the EP sent a clear message, with strong cross-party support, denouncing the continued attacks by Beijing and the Hong Kong government against the city’s freedoms and autonomy, as well as on international agreements.
The EP made its voice clear, but now it is time for the European Union as a whole to act. Article 21 of the EU treaties clearly state that the Union’s external action shall be guided by the values and principles on which the Union was founded – in particular, democracy, the rule of law, the universality of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and respect for human dignity.
This means that the Union must consistently adhere to its values both internally and externally. Often, however, including in our dealings with the Chinese Communist Party, we have fallen short. We naively believed that China will transform through trade and growing interdependence, and even closed our eyes to increasingly troubling reports. Instead, the CCP has been engaging in the worst human rights abuses since the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and spreading its malign influence across the world, including in our own democratic states and attempts to influence the EU, and holds moral responsibility for the current pandemic.
In this respect, the deteriorating situation in Hong Kong, and the city’s future, is a litmus test also for the EU and the wider democratic world. We have made enough statements, but it is no longer sufficient to be concerned. We have to learn the lesson that engagement based on economic interest alone is not a way of supporting democracy and human rights, as previously too many naively believed. If the EU wants to be a credible actor, and truly engage in a value-based foreign policy, we must use our economic position as leverage to support those who are oppressed rather than reward human rights abusers. Otherwise, we may become morally co-responsible for these crimes and abuses.
We must follow our words with concrete action. First, there is an urgent need to implement the July 2020 Council Conclusions, notably through immediate suspension of all remaining member states’ extradition treaties with Hong Kong, and the creation of ‘lifeboat schemes’ for Hong Kongers wishing to leave the city due to the growing repression. Second, the EEAS and the European Commission must draw up a clear strategy on supporting Hong Kong’s civil society, including ensuring regular attendance of pro-democracy activists’ and politicians’ court hearings and consular access to dual nationals held in detention as per the Vienna Convention.
Third, it is time to use the EU’s new Magnitsky-style targeted sanctions against Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam, and other Chinese and Hong Kong officials responsible for human rights abuses; and finally, the CCP must understand that the EP will take human rights into consideration when asked to endorse the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) and any future trade deals with China (or, for that matter, with any other regimes supressing human rights).
The EU cannot reward bad behaviour, nor can we afford to compartmentalise our policies and instruments. Instead, we need a comprehensive strategy that takes into account the full spectre of challenges posed by the CCP, and back it up by strong instruments, political will and concrete action in conjunction with our democratic allies. Above all, however, we must understand that our values are not our weakness, but our strength. That is why defending freedom must be at the heart of our external action. That is why we must Stand with Hong Kong.
Miriam Lexmann is a Member of the European Parliament for Slovakia and sits within the Group of the European People’s Party. She is a co-chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China and the EP’s cross-party informal Hong Kong Watch Group.