Today is the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, which took place in Beijing in 1989. The Chinese government estimates that 200 people died that night. The true number is almost certainly an order of magnitude higher. To this day, the Chinese government continues to deny the simple fact that the protests even happened, and doubles its efforts to suppress attempts to remember it each anniversary, although remembrance demonstrations are permitted in Hong Kong.
Margaret Thatcher issued a strongly worded statement at the time criticising the massacre. She did little else. In 1984 she had signed the Sino–British Joint Declaration, which would set the scene for Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty from Britain to China in 1997; in return, China had to promise that she would look after Hong Kong really, really well and allow autonomy under the principle of ‘One country, two systems‘. The handover went ahead as planned, even after the world saw the true face of the Chinese regime: one not unlike the Soviets, who invaded Hungary in 1956.
Britain asked no questions as she handed over seven million people. And, despite increasingly frequent and increasingly large-scale protests in the former colony, she remains quiet. No economic sanctions against China have ever been considered, even as the latter continues to infringe upon Hong Kong’s civil liberties, in direct violation of the Sino–British Joint Declaration. The Cantonese language is slowly being replaced, as is the Traditional Chinese script. David Cameron and George Osborne continued to kowtow to China’s leaders in the hope of obtaining Chinese investment for Britain. British nationals were abducted by Chinese agents, and they did little about it other than grumbling indignantly in an ever-so-British way.
What does this have to do with the upcoming UK election?
Whoever forms the new UK government later this week should hold China to the terms of the Sino–British Joint Declaration, as well as its human rights obligations more generally. The new British Prime Minister should be prepared to criticise and not to kowtow. How Brexit will play out precisely is unknown, but Britain must continue to work together with the rest of Europe in order to have the power to impose meaningful economic sanctions against China. Since 1989, the EU has banned arms sales to China; post-Brexit Britain should not resume these in exchange for Chinese cash.
Britain fiercely defended the Falklands against the 1982 Argentinian invasion, and continues to reject foreign claims to the Falklands and to Gibraltar, based on the principle that the locals have the right to self-determination. Hong Kong deserves as much. And this is not just for the sake of the Hong Kong people: What message would it send to the world if Britain simply allows a treaty to be broken, with no consequences? Would that be a good position in which to start negotiating trade deals after Brexit?
Unsurprisingly, Hong Kong and China are not major talking points in this election, but how the next British government responds to the China’s continued human rights abuses, both on its mainland and in Hong Kong, could define Britain’s place in the post-imperial world for decades to come.