The trial of Jimmy Lai, the Hong Kong pro-democracy campaigner and media tycoon, which is due to begin this week, marks another low point in China’s relentless assault on individual and civil rights in Britain’s former colony – whose traditional freedoms Beijing is legally bound to uphold.
Lai, a UK citizen who founded the popular Apple Daily newspaper, faces charges of conspiracy to publish seditious material and collusion with foreign powers under Beijing’s draconian 2020 national security law. The accusations are offensive and ridiculous. In effect, China’s Communist party is mounting a show trial.
Like hundreds of others being held without bail, Lai, if found guilty by a hand-picked, three-judge panel acting without a jury, faces a life sentence. He is already in solitary confinement after an earlier conviction for unlawful assembly and fraud. Lai denies the charges. This political persecution must cease.
Hong Kong’s huge pro-democracy protests in 2019-20, which led to more than 10,000 arrests, were sparked by China’s introduction of an illiberal extradition bill. The foolishly violent response of the security forces transformed the demonstrations into a student-led mass movement challenging Beijing’s right to rule. For an authoritarian, one-party system, any such display of defiance, whether in Xinjiang, Tibet or in lockdown-stressed Shanghai, is unforgivable. For the insecure president, Xi Jinping, spreading dissent is more dangerous than spreading Covid. His Hong Kong policy now resembles a vendetta.
Last week’s conviction of Hong Kong’s respected Catholic leader, Cardinal Joseph Zen, and five other activists showed again how little respect Xi’s China has for personal liberties and legal obligations under the 1984 Sino-British joint declaration. Zen was fined for failing to register a support fund for detained protesters.Its arrogant and threatening behaviour on multiple fronts requires a robust response from Britain. Whether the issue is the violent antics of Chinese diplomats in Manchester or insidious threats to UK academic freedom, government dithering, indecision and pusillanimity cannot continue.
In 2020, the US imposed sanctions on officials involved in repression in Hong Kong. Britain has still to take any equivalent steps. Last week, Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael, who co-chairs the all-party parliamentary group on Hong Kong, demanded swift action. “It is vital that the government implements sanctions on individuals who have been identified as directly involved in the systemic violations of human rights... Legitimate targets for sanctions include former chief executive, Carrie Lam, and former deputy police commissioner, Chris Tang,” Carmichael wrote.
It is vital that Britain takes a stand when anti-democratic governments such as China tear up treaties, resort to threats and ignore international law. This is the case with China’s armed intimidation of Taiwan, its South China Sea bullying, and industrial and political espionage targeting the west.
China’s reported creation of “police stations” in European and US cities to monitor and pressurise overseas dissidents is another chilling example of unacceptable activity. The government was right to offer visas to thousands of Hongkongers. It was also right last week to block the takeover on security grounds of the UK’s largest producer of semiconductors by a China-owned business.
But its overall approach to relations with Beijing requires urgent clarification. What is British policy? No one really knows. Speaking in Bali, where a long-scheduled meeting with Xi was abruptly cancelled, Rishi Sunak appeared confused over whether China was a “threat” or a “systemic challenge”. He called it both. Some Tories call it an enemy.
Sunak must sort out his ideas. China is on the march – and Xi takes no prisoners.