By Oliver August.
23 Juli 2003
If only Baghdadis could see Hong Kong
today. Their fallen city is unlikely to resemble
the moneyed former British territory of glittering
skyscrapers any time soon. But liberal Iraqis could
learn something about their future.
The first visit by Tony Blair to Hong
Kong in five years illustrates what happens to those
places where imperial Britain introduced freedom,
sanitation and a vigorous press. Once Britain retreats,
those who continue to fight for Western ideals are
The Blair Government merely looked
on as hundreds of thousands demonstrated in Hong
Kong this month. The pro-democracy campaigners are
fighting draconian legislation that would allow
Beijing-appointed leaders to outlaw and arrest opponents
almost at will.
Given his dramatic speech at the handover
six years ago, one would expect the Prime Minister
to back these demonstrators. On that rainy night
of June 30, 1997, he warned the city's new masters
what would happen if they disregarded the Sino-British
treaty, the guarantee of Hong Kong's freedoms. "China
must know Hong Kong will be destroyed if they try
to undermine the Joint Declaration," he declared.
Snubbing Beijing, he then took out
his earpiece during the Chinese speeches before
the bands played The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Has
Ended, and the Last Post was sounded. At midnight,
the Union Flag dipped and the audience sang Auld
Today, Mr Blair returns to Hong Kong
but his speeches will sound nothing like they did
After only six years, Beijing has
breached the treaty supposed to protect the territory's
freedoms for 50 years. A study by the Bar Council
of England and Wales has confirmed what pro-democracy
campaigners have long said. Beijing is imposing
illiberal practices. Groups outlawed on the mainland
may be banned in Hong Kong; journalists can be punished
for publishing leaked documents deemed to be state
secrets; and the homes of suspected subversives
might be searched without warning or warrant.
During talks in Beijing on Monday,
Mr Blair had the perfect opportunity to complain
to China's leaders. After all, the Joint Declaration
is an international treaty lodged with the UN and
not a mere "internal matter", as the Chinese
like to say to foreign critics on other subjects.
Instead, he merely welcomed the hold-up
of the legislation, which was forced by the protesters.
When Mr Blair called the delay a "sensible
way to proceed", no Chinese leader would have
disagreed with him. The statements from his Government
have been equally meek. Bill Rammell, the Foreign
Office Minister, has endorsed, welcomed, supported
and agreed with various developments. Verbs such
as oppose, disagree, differ or condemn are missing
from his vocabulary.
The Foreign Office's defence is that
what we see is not a breach of the Joint Declaration
but an inconsistency with the spirit of the treaty.
But did anybody hear Mr Blair and Chris Patten,
the last Governor, say the Chinese had only to stick
to the letter of the declaration after July 1, 1997?
While the Foreign Office insists that
observing niceties is in the national interest,
democracy campaigners such as Martin Lee rightly
point to Britain's loss of credibility. He will
tell Mr Blair at a reception tonight that other
countries look to Britain for leadership. Why should
the French or Germans stick their necks out when
the former colonial masters don't?
Equally, why should Iraqis trust that
Britain will support freedom for longer than its
colonial footprint is visible after the withdrawal
of its troops?
The author is Beijing correspondent
of The Times.