Just a few years ago, Hong Kong was celebrated for its autonomy. It was hailed as a unique place, governed by UN-recognised laws designed to protect Hong Kong’s values, culture, identity and ability to determine its future.
Yet today, this Hong Kong is a distant memory. Hong Kong is now dominated by a draconian regime that is committed to furthering the power of Beijing. Anyone who stands in the way of that goal will be removed. The arrest of 11 Hongkongers Thursday reflects this relentless brutality. Sadly, it is becoming increasingly clear that we have lost the Hong Kong we once celebrated.
On 14 January, eight men and three women were arrested on suspicion of helping pro-democracy activists escape Hong Kong. The 11 woke to police officers banging on their front doors at around 6am, in a Stalin-esque roundup of political opponents. Among those arrested was the mother of pro-democracy filmmaker and activist Willis Ho, who is currently working on a documentary about the protest movement.
These latest arrests send a chilling message to Hongkongers: the authorities will arrest pro-democracy figures as well as innocent members of their family and anyone else believed to be helping them. This development is important because it reflects the manipulative nature of Beijing’s regime. The authorities will not only arrest you if you appear to support the principle of democracy, but also they will alienate you from everyone that you know and love.
Sadly, these are not the first Hong Kong arrests to shock the world. Far from it. In October 2020, authorities arrested 12 pro-democracy escapees, which the above 11 allegedly aided, known as the “12 Hong Kong youths". This group consists of activists who allegedly played a leading role in the 2019-20 pro-democracy protest movement.
In sheer desperation to avoid persecution for their pro-democracy views, the 12 allegedly attempted to escape the clutches of Beijing by fleeing Hong Kong before being intercepted. This was used against the Hong Kong 12 in a court of law, with further charges of “colluding with foreign forces” being issued.
When a community is persecuted in their own country and unlawfully detained, then the international community has a responsibility to intervene. The wider democratic world faces a clear choice. We can either act now to protect Hongkongers and stand up for the principle of democracy and freedom, or we can sit idly by, allowing tyranny to prosper and our democratic allies to be tortured before the democracy movement is quashed entirely.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the Hong Kong authorities now completely lack respect for personal freedoms, the safety of their people, and the culture and autonomy of Hong Kong. Consequently, Hongkongers face mounting uncertainty and genuine fear for their basic safety. Hongkongers can only wait until they are the next targets, and their family and friends suffer the consequences with them.
So, what exactly is the UK doing about this? Given our strong moral, historical and legal ties to Hong Kong and the wider democratic movement, the UK government must hold Beijing to account for its illegal takeover of Hong Kong.
Foreign secretary Dominic Raab has said that he will “consider” imposing Magnitsky-style sanctions on the senior officials in Hong Kong responsible for the gross human rights abuses against Hong Kongers. Surely, following the horrific events of recent months, it’s now time to stop considering such sanctions and start implementing them.
We need the UK government to impose such sanctions in order to deter future perpetration of abuse and to send a clear message to Hongkongers: we stand with you, we recognise your bravery and we will act to protect you.
We cannot just sit here in the UK and watch Hongkongers be subject to the trampling of democracy, freedom and the rule of law. We must act, and we must act now.
Siobhain McDonagh is the Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden