Hong Kong protesters attack Britain's response to erosion of rights as government shuts offices

Sophia Yan
A pro-democracy legislator reacts to riot police officers as he walks toward the Government House following a day of violence over the extradition bill - REUTERS

Hong Kong demonstrators are calling on the UK to voice stronger opposition against the controversial extradition that triggered mass protests and rare scenes of violence.

On the day after hundreds of thousands took to the streets to block parliament from debating the proposed laws, some protesters turned their ire to their former colonial rulers.

“Is Britain going to honour its promise to the Hong Kong people that our way of life will not be threatened after they handed us over to the Chinese?” Jessica Yeung, 50, a university professor on a hunger strike by the city’s main government building, told The Telegraph.

“Britain told us to trust them, so we trusted them,” she said, as rows of riot police watched a few metres away. But the UK “has let us down terribly.”

Protesters surrounded the Hong Kong parliament on Wednesday demanding city leaders scrap a plan to send individuals to face trial in mainland China’s murky legal system, where the ruling Communist Party controls the courts.

It’s the latest in a string of developments they worry are fast eroding liberties.

Hong Kong has long had a complicated relationship with the UK. Life under British rule for the Chinese could be harsh for some, but many have long attributed a robust capitalist system and strong rule of law to the British.    

Under the 1997 Sino-British Joint Declaration, the “one country, two systems” principle guaranteed the Communist system of China would not be practiced in Hong Kong, where things were meant to remain the same for “at least” 50 years.

The sticky notes recreate the democracy wall that started during the 2014 protests  Credit: Sophia Yan

But 22 years in, many say those rights are being infringed on by Beijing, and that the UK must take responsibility in holding China to account.

Some protesters waved the Union Jack flag in an act of defiance during Wednesday's protests.

“Definitely, we feel betrayed,” Phoebe Ng, 21, a university student, who had also participated in mass protests five years ago, told The Telegraph. “They [Britain] can do more, because it is important for the economy and freedoms,” said Wing Chan, 21, a university student.

“I don’t think it is good for the UK’s interests if the Chinese government completely controls the government of Hong Kong.” 

Ms Chan was among pockets of protesters that hung around on Thursday as sheets of rain and grey clouds cast a pall over the city, holding an umbrella that she prepared to use as a shield not against the rain, but the police.

The mood was sombre at the main protest site – the city’s government offices ­– overlooking a stormy Victoria Harbour.

Just a few hours earlier the police used tear gas, rubber bullets, bean bag rounds and batons to disperse the crowds the night before.

Some helped to clear rubbish while traffic resumed on main thoroughfares. The UK has repeatedly urged China to uphold the 1997 bilateral treaty.

On Wednesday, Theresa May sent again the same message, saying the UK was “concerned” and that “it is vital that those extradition agreements in Hong Kong are in line with the rights and freedoms that were set down in the Sino-British Joint Declaration.”

But some experts say a more robust response is now needed, particularly at a time when Xi Jinping, the leader of China’s Communist Party, has taken a strongman approach.

“The honourable thing to do is for the UK to say directly that this is a breach of the Joint Declaration,” Margaret Ng, a Hong Kong barrister and former lawmaker, told The Telegraph.

In 1842, China signed over Hong Kong to the British Empire after being defeated in war.

Over the next few years, the colony expanded as the British won more battles against Beijing, even gaining a 99-year-lease of an area called the New Territories.

As that lease drew to a close, then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping made clear that the whole of Hong Kong should be returned to Beijing kicking off years of talks, culminating in the bilateral treaty.

Since then, Hong Kong residents have periodically taken to the streets to demand their rights remain. In 2014, the Umbrella pro-democracy protests lasted 79 days.  

In 2017, the 20th anniversary of the handover, Chinese authorities said the bilateral agreement, “as a historical document, no longer has any practical significance.”

Since then Beijing has pressured Hong Kong authorities to squash dissent by expelling elected officials, jailing activists and even outlawing political parties.

Workers clear trash outside the Legislative Council building a day after violent clashes over a proposed extradition bill in Hong Kong, China Credit: Justin Chin/Bloomberg

Now MPs and experts alike have warned the UK must recalibrate its approach toward China, taking stock of other concerns over economic ties.

“We must recognise that there are hard limits to what cooperation can achieve; that the values and interests of the Chinese Communist Party, and therefore the Chinese state, are often very different from those of the United Kingdom,” said MP Tom Tugendhat, head of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, in April.

“As the Conservative Party gears up to choose the next prime minister, it is becoming apparent that a different kind of leadership is required, one that puts Britain’s principles and values back in the centre of the relationship with China,” wrote John Hemmings, deputy director of research at the Henry Jackson Society, a British think tank.

“The UK has, for too long, prioritised trade in the relationship.”    

For London, dealing with China over Hong Kong has meant balancing a delicate relationship; with Brexit, UK officials have expressed interest in inking a trade deal with Beijing.

Hong Kong’s legislature will shut for a third day today, and rounds of debate over the extradition bill that were previous scheduled for this week have been suspended indefinitely. But a vote could still be rushed as early as next Thursday.

On Thursday protest leaders called for another city-wide strike to take place this Sunday; last Sunday's turnout was estimated at 1.03 million people, one of the largest public showing of dissent since the British handover.

The Telegraph contacted the British Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong but they declined to comment.