United Kingdom

DOMINIC LAWSON: At last, we're showing backbone against thugs in Beijing over people of Hong Kong 

At last, our Government is displaying a backbone - and a sense of honour - in its dealings with the totalitarian Communist regime of Beijing.

Interviewed by the BBC's Andrew Marr yesterday, the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab declared that unless the Chinese Communist Party revoked its decision last week to apply its own tyrannical and capricious 'anti-subversion' policies to the previously protected citizens of Hong Kong, we would extend (from six months to a year) UK visa rights to the territory's 350,000 British National Overseas (BNO) passport holders.

And Raab did not rule out extending this to a further three million Hong Kong citizens who were born under British rule but who had let their BNO passports lapse. 

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab declared that unless China revoked its decision to apply its 'anti-subversion' policies to the previously protected citizens of Hong Kong, we would extend UK visa rights to the territory's British National Overseas (BNO) passport holders

This, the Foreign Secretary told Marr, would create 'a pathway to future British citizenship' for some of the world's most highly-educated and hard-working people.

It is the correct response to the way that Beijing has peremptorily trashed the guarantee in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, which had promised (under the mantra 'one country, two systems') that freedom of speech and assembly for Hong Kong residents would remain protected by an independent judiciary in the former colony after 'handover' in 1997.

Massacre

When this decision of China's President-for-life Xi Jinping (rubber-stamped last week by the Chinese Congress) is imposed on Hong Kong, it will mean that anyone in the territory whom Beijing regards as subversive - that is, inconvenient - can be grabbed off the streets and carted off to the mainland to experience who knows what horrors at the hands of a regime which tortures and 'disappears' its astonishingly brave internal critics.

Zhao Lijian, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman - a charmer who has been promoting the line that Covid-19 had been unleashed on Wuhan by 'the U.S. military' - responded to Raab's initiative by saying that Beijing 'reserves the right to take corresponding countermeasures' against the UK. 

Well, if China wants to offer Britons the right to apply for eventual citizenship there, I think we can live with that.

When this decision of China's President-for-life Xi Jinping (rubber-stamped last week by the Chinese Congress) is imposed on Hong Kong, it will mean that anyone in the territory whom Beijing regards as subversive - that is, inconvenient - can be grabbed off the streets

Zhao also declared it was a breach of the UK's obligations in the Joint Declaration to offer such rights to Hong Kong's BNO Passport holders.

This is ripe: China has itself already declared that the Joint Declaration is a 'historical document' which 'no longer has any practical significance', and Zhao's own ministry has brusquely observed that 'it is not at all binding on the central government's management over Hong Kong'.

Many of us could see this coming, long before Xi Jinping inaugurated a policy of reducing even the limited freedoms and independence of thought that previously existed on the mainland.

Our fears for the future of Hong Kong were galvanised by the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989, when thousands of unarmed (mostly young) people were slaughtered by the 'People's Liberation Army'. 

This demonstrated just what a Communist regime which continued to regard Stalin as beyond criticism was capable of doing.

And it's worth reminding ourselves of the secret diplomatic cables of the then British Ambassador to China, Sir Alan Donald, which two and a half years ago were discovered in the UK national archives by Hong Kong journalists.

Zhao Lijian, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, responded to Raab's initiative by saying that Beijing 'reserves the right to take corresponding countermeasures' against the UK

Sir Alan reported to London that 'Army APCs [armoured personnel carriers] opened fire on the crowd before running over them. APCs ran over . . . civilians at 65kph. 

Students linked arms but were mown down. APCs then ran over bodies time and time again to make 'pie', and remains collected by bulldozer . . . Remains incinerated and then hosed down drains.'

Sir Alan's cable went on: 'Wounded girl students begged for their lives but were bayoneted . . . 1,000 survivors were told they could escape but were then mown down by specially prepared MG [machine gun] positions.'

The final sentence of his cable read: 'Minimum estimate of civilian dead 10,000.'

At the time of the tragedy, I was deputy editor of the Spectator magazine: we mounted a campaign to persuade the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, to immediately offer a right of UK citizenship to the more than three million Hong Kong holders of BNO passports. 

The Spectator's editor then, Charles Moore, was one of Mrs Thatcher's favourite journalists (she later approved him as her biographer).

But our campaign failed, although Thatcher was initially sympathetic to the idea of at least taking in around 250,000 applicants, not just because of her horror at what had happened but because she saw the highly aspirational and hard-working Hong Kong citizens as exemplars.

At the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989, the Spectator magazine mounted a campaign to persuade the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, to offer a right of UK citizenship to the more than three million Hong Kong holders of BNO passports

Norman Tebbit (pictured with Jan Bevan at Men Of The Year 1989 Awards) led a vehement backbench counter-campaign, arguing that keeping the party's pledge of 'no further large-scale immigration' was much more important

Revolt

However, Norman Tebbit, the former Conservative Party chairman, led a vehement backbench counter-campaign, arguing that keeping the party's pledge of 'no further large-scale immigration' was much more important than the PM's concern about the future of Hong Kong's BNO passport holders.

The revolt of about 100 Tory MPs, cynically backed by the Labour opposition (on the grounds that such an offer to 'wealthy' Hong Kong citizens would be 'elitist') threatened to exceed the government's majority in Parliament. Facing defeat, Thatcher conceded to Tebbit.

The Spectator published a leading article reminding the PM that before negotiating the settlement with China in 1984, she declared: 'I shall speak not only for Britain but for Britain's moral responsibility and duty to the people of Hong Kong.'

We observed: 'If she does not, if three and half million people are to be abandoned, she will have presided over something worse than [Neville Chamberlain's] betrayal of Czechoslovakia in 1938 . . . worse, because our responsibility is more absolute.'

The secret diplomatic cables of the then British Ambassador to China, Sir Alan Donald (pictured right with Hong Kong Governor Sir David Wilson), were discovered two and a half years ago in the UK national archives by Hong Kong journalists

As I say, Tebbit's backbench revolt succeeded and Mrs Thatcher closed the escape hatch for the citizens of the colony (which unlike our other colonies, and for obvious reasons, never had the choice of independence).

But what does Lord Tebbit - as he is now - say today? Last November, in the wake of the Beijing-mandated crackdown in Hong Kong, he was one of 179 parliamentarians who signed a letter to Boris Johnson, calling on the PM to change the status of Hong Kong's BNO passport holders 'to make it easier for them to move to the UK'.

Courageous

The letter described not extending those rights sooner as 'an historic error'. It added that 'the one country two systems settlement is on the brink. 

By increasing the rights of BNO passport holders, we can not only correct this historic error, but also we can provide the support that these British nationals in Hong Kong vitally need.'

It was courageous of Lord Tebbit - a brave man in his personal life, too - to admit the error in what he had done over 30 years ago. Tebbit is also a long-standing Brexit supporter, convinced that EU free movement had led to unsustainably high levels of uncontrolled migration into the UK.

Interestingly, the current cabinet member whose politics most closely resemble those of Norman Tebbit, Priti Patel, is also passionately in favour of extending rights to the Hong Kong BNO passport holders

However, he appreciates the particular moral obligations we now have in respect of the people of Hong Kong. And, like his former boss Mrs Thatcher, is vividly aware of the prosperity which could be brought by such an entrepreneurial people (Hong Kong's average personal income dwarfs that of the former Eastern Europe).

Interestingly, the current cabinet member whose politics most closely resemble those of Norman Tebbit, Priti Patel, is also passionately in favour of extending rights to the Hong Kong BNO passport holders.

Indeed, she has been arguing in cabinet for such a policy for months. As Dominic Raab pointed out yesterday, Patel's parents were among those Ugandan Asians to whom we offered a home after they were threatened by the odious Idi Amin; and Raab's own father was a Czech Jew taken in by this country after the Nazi regime occupied his homeland.

To Marr's obvious question -can we really offer the possibility of refuge to as many as three million Hong Kong BNO passport holders? - Raab said it was inconceivable that more than a small minority of them would up sticks and come to the UK, and that the visa extension would be for a year, not, at this stage, indefinite.

But above all, he said: 'It is a point of principle. If China revokes the freedoms guaranteed to Hong Kong by the treaty we jointly signed, we will not evade our responsibilities.'

Those are the words some of us hoped to hear more than 30 years ago.

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