David Cameron’s choice of the century: To confront or kowtow?

20 Aug 2014


For good or for ill, plenty has happened since I wrote for The Independent calling for Britain’s intervention in Hong Kong to secure democracy over a month ago.

Former governor Chris Patten broke his long silence over Hong Kong's future, as he slammed China’s assault on Hong Kong’s judicial independence. Shortly after, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg greeted veteran leading democrats from Hong Kong who were declined an audience with the Prime Minister, and criticised his coalition partners for their failure to stand up to China. In the media, The Economist published two articles on Hong Kong in the same issue; one investigates the contagious culture of self-censorship under Chinese rule, whereas the other recommends Cameron to serve Britain’s ‘broader interests’ by taking a lead in mobilising the international community against China.


In Britain, the mood is clearly changing. For too long, British intervention in Hong Kong has been dismissed and demonised as a few feeble activists’ reminiscence of the colonial past. This argument has not only been deployed by Beijing, but also London. Colony is a dirty word. China in the twenty-first century is our friend, not our foe. Hong Kong is nothing but a gold mine for reckless investors. Today, all these assumptions are in tatters. Britain’s policy on Hong Kong, and on China to an extent, begs radical amendment.

First, Cameron must accept that he has misjudged the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific. Despite economic growth, China is encircled politically and vulnerable to confrontation. China’s claim of territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea has backfired spectacularly, most notably in this year’s anti-China protests which erupted across Vietnam and the Philippines. Likewise, amid fear that it will follow the footsteps of Hong Kong, Taiwan’s elite was forced to reject closer economic ties with China after students occupied the legislature. Meanwhile, Japan abandoned its post-war pacifist policy, while swiftly shifting Australia away from China via free trade agreements. All these ‘coincide’ with President Obama’s agenda of American return to Asia as a Pacific power. None of these, however, moved our stubborn Prime Minister one iota from kowtowing to Beijing.

Second, as the editors of the Financial Times explained, ‘in its dealings with world leaders, China respects strength not weakness.’ When British diplomat George Macartney refused to kowtow to Emperor Qianlong in 1793, the Chinese flatly refused his requests to free trade. A century and two Opium Wars later, Britain was the leader among imperialist beneficiaries of the sick man of Asia’s demise. Do not be mistaken, a militarist ‘gunboat diplomacy’ was neither the right answer to deal with China then nor will it be now. But Cameron will not win himself any admirers in Beijing unless he begins to act like a statesman instead of a salesman. Hong Kong is a good place to start for that transformation.

Third, Hong Kong is the land of hope and Tories. The Joint Declaration, as Clegg rightly pointed out, is a treaty signed by Margaret Thatcher and honoured by two other Conservatives, Chris Patten and John Major. Cameron should follow the Tory tradition of championing democracy globally. Moreover, Hong Kong bares the fate of One Country Two Systems, an unprecedented experiment of self-government and local democracy that prides itself on the free market. Whether on immigration, education or economic policies, Cameron will find more of a friend in the people of Hong Kong than in some of his cabinet ministers.

Fourth, we must bust the myth that business is fine as usual. Such mindset fools us from the more subtle developments that are taking place, including self-censorship instigated by fears of the central government (as The Economist reports). Furthermore, as the Hong Kong government’s most recent report omits, proposals to a fully elected legislature are halted, and Beijing will retain its invisible hand in the 1,200-member selection committee, who will decide and put forward the candidates for the next election. Beijing’s grip on Hong Kong is tighter than ever.

Finally, this must not be confused as an imperialist impulse. Calls for Cameron to act have been ridiculed by cynics as unrealistic and contrary to common sense. As localism spreads like wild fire in Hong Kong, democrats too are losing hope and reason in foreign assistance. Yet in the face of an international giant like China, Hong Kong’s only prospect of genuine democracy lies with the international community. After all, Britain did not cause the chaos in Hong Kong; these are the repercussion of China’s violation of the Joint Declaration. And it will be the international community who shall decide if China’s actions stand serious scrutiny.

Mr. Cameron has a choice to make. Beijing will publish its report on Hong Kong’s political reforms next week. It is expected to maintain its current position. Either Britain gets off the fence and stands up for democracy in Hong Kong, or the city will integrate further into authoritarian China. The ramifications of the latter are far reaching, exposing British interests in the freest market on earth to enormous risks. Above all, if Britain would not even respect a pledge it signed and promised to honour thirty years ago, why should anyone respect, let alone trust Britain in the future?

By Noah Sin

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