UK Hong Kong report: Superficial and selective, but the truth will out

On Sept 15, Liz Truss replaced the hapless Dominic Raab as the United Kingdom’s foreign secretary. Raab’s removal became inevitable after he was condemned on all sides for holidaying in Greece while Afghanistan fell to the Taliban on Aug 15, saying “no one saw it coming”. It later emerged that he had evaded responsibility for calling Afghan officials to organize evacuations of British nationals, leaving many of them scrambling to get out of Kabul at the last minute. Indeed, his blunders are now the stuff of legend.

After, for example, the National Security Law for Hong Kong was enacted on June 30, 2020, he waxed lyrical about it having violated the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, without appreciating that it did not even mention national security. Then, on March 12, 2021, after the National People’s Congress had announced reforms to correct the deficiencies in the city’s electoral system and ensure the survival of the “one country, two systems” policy, he accused China of breaching the “legally binding” Joint Declaration. Again, this showed that he had not even read the document, which said nothing about the electoral arrangements to be applied in Hong Kong after the reunification in 1997.

Quite clearly, therefore, Raab should have been a very easy act for Truss to follow. Although her reputation was not much better, with judges still recalling her failure as justice secretary to defend them from scurrilous media attacks over their Brexit judgments, many people assumed that, with Raab gone, things could only improve. This, however, was not to be, and her “Six-Monthly Report on Hong Kong”, published on Dec 14 and covering the period of January to June 2021, is deeply disappointing, and shows her grasp of reality to be as shaky as Raab’s.

This latest report is the 49th in the British foreign office’s series on the implementation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, and by far the most jaundiced. In the early days, the reports were generally objective, with serious efforts being made to achieve balanced assessments of the city’s progress. Over time, however, this changed, and the reports have morphed into little more than propaganda tools. After Raab’s appointment in 2019, the reports no longer made any pretense of objectivity, and they simply became sticks with which to beat Beijing.

To be charitable, it is possible that Truss, like Raab before her, had not done her homework, and was unfamiliar with the contents of the security law

Although the latest report covers a time when Raab was still foreign secretary, it has gone out under Truss’ name, and she cannot evade responsibility for its flaws. It is unashamedly partisan, and reflects the animosity the British government has displayed toward Hong Kong in recent times. While parts are factual, others are a mishmash of half-truths, distortions and platitudes. Anybody hoping for a realistic assessment will not find it here, and the narrative panders to the worst prejudices of Truss’ partners in the Five Eyes alliance.

In her foreword, Truss trotted out the hoary old Raabian myth about the NPC’s electoral changes being “in breach of China’s legal obligations under the Joint Declaration”, which shows that, like her predecessor, she had not bothered to read it. She then came out with a sweeping assertion that national security prosecutions are “politically motivated”, for which, of course, she provided no evidence, and which, if true, would enable the courts to dismiss the charges. If cheap gibes of this sort are to characterize Truss’ foreign secretaryship, it promises to be even less distinguished than Raab’s, which would be no mean feat.

It is not, however, what Truss said that is the greatest concern, as this is easily rebutted, but what she has concealed. Vital information has been withheld, either because it is embarrassing or inconvenient. On Jan 16, for example, at the outset of the reporting period, Raab mounted an unprincipled assault on the city’s legal system, which had damaging consequences. After the distinguished British barrister, David Perry QC, had been briefed to prosecute a trial in Hong Kong, Raab denounced him on national television for having agreed to conduct a case involving the National Security Law, accusing him of acting in “a pretty mercenary way” and of handing Beijing “a serious PR coup”. This, of course, was a direct threat to the independence of the legal profession, and, under this crude pressure, Perry withdrew, with a replacement having to be found on short notice. What, however, astonished observers was the revelation that the case Perry was to have prosecuted had nothing to do with national security, and only concerned an unauthorized march on Hong Kong Island. This, of course, left Raab with egg all over his face, but, once his blunder was exposed, he failed, as common decency required, to apologize to Perry. Although Truss could have corrected matters by providing Perry with a belated apology, she has instead compounded the situation by airbrushing the entire incident out of her report, thereby adding insult to injury.

As if this was not bad enough, Truss then made the extraordinary claim that Hong Kong’s “judicial independence is increasingly finely balanced”. Although this will have played well in Washington, DC, it ignored the assessments of the British and Commonwealth judges who serve in the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal, and have firsthand experience. Whereas five of those judges, in a clear vote of confidence in the legal system, accepted new three-year appointments as non-permanent judges in 2021, the president of the UK Supreme Court, Lord (Robert) Reed, made it clear that neither he nor his deputy, Lord (Patrick) Hodge, would be resigning as non-permanent judges. Although Reed, on Aug 27, announced that “judicial decisions continue to be consistent with the rule of law”, Truss did not report this, presumably because it contradicted her alarmist narrative.

Although, in line with Five Eyes policy, Truss set about demonizing the National Security Law, she suppressed essential information that would have reassured the report’s readers. On March 18, for example, the eminent British jurist Lord Sumption, a non-permanent judge of the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal, made clear that the new law “contained guarantees of human rights”, and that there was no reason for any overseas judges to resign. He had in mind the provisions that incorporate into the National Security Law the rights and freedoms contained in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Art.4), and which ensure that fair trial guarantees apply in criminal trials brought under it (Art.5). To be charitable, it is possible that Truss, like Raab before her, had not done her homework, and was unfamiliar with the contents of the security law. If, however, she wishes to be taken seriously, she should ensure that elementary fact-checking is conducted before signing off on reports like this.

While, moreover, Truss worked herself into a lather over the prosecution of suspects accused of violating the National Security Law, she wholly neglected to highlight the basic protections they enjoy at trial. Just as in the UK, suspects are only prosecuted if there is a reasonable prospect of conviction on the available evidence. Once the trial gets underway, it is presided over by a judge who, as the Basic Law provides, exercises “judicial power independently, free from any interference” (Art.85). After the evidence has been presented, a suspect can only be convicted if guilt has been established “beyond reasonable doubt”, the same test that is applied throughout the common law world. Although this information would have been profoundly reassuring to observers, it is nowhere to be found in Truss’ report, and she came up instead with an ugly slur about politically motivated prosecutions.

In like vein, Truss referenced the high-level criticisms leveled against the chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association, Paul Harris, who, when elected last January, urged “modifications” of the National Security Law, parts of which left him “particularly concerned”. Without even attempting to explain why so many people were worried about Harris, she announced that it was essential that the city’s legal institutions are “able to operate independently free from political interference”. This, of course, was bizarre, as it was Harris’ political ties to the UK’s Liberal Democrats, an anti-China political party, that caused so much of the concern in the first place. Despite having been, until Jan 5, 2021, an elected official in Britain of the Liberal Democrats, a party that condemned the National Security Law, sought punitive sanctions on the chief executive of Hong Kong, and wanted the UK to boycott the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing, Harris took up the HKBA chairmanship that same month, and immediately set about slagging off the National Security Law and the Police Force. Since the HKBA is supposed to be an independent professional body, the decision to parachute a foreign politician into the chairmanship obviously shocked many people, yet Truss mentions none of this in her report.

What, however, sticks in the craw is Truss’ gloating over her government’s failure to stand with Hong Kong in its hour of need. In 2019-20, when black-clad mobs wrecked the Legislative Council building, brought death and destruction to the streets, mounted terror attacks on the police, their families and anybody who disagreed with them, and paralyzed the city’s operations, all that Raab, Truss and their colleagues could think of was posture politics and point-scoring. Thus, after Beijing acted decisively to end the mayhem and save the “one country, two systems” policy, the response of these fair-weather friends was to conspire with the US to compound Hong Kong’s misery by hitting it with punitive sanctions and disruptive measures. Whereas the extradition treaty was suspended, to the delight of criminal fugitives, and an arms embargo was imposed, to weaken the police force at a critical juncture, the city’s residents were encouraged to up sticks and leave, with a promise of British passports after six years, a ruse for which, as of September 2021, only 88,000 of the most gullible had fallen. On Sept 8, moreover, as a parting shot, Raab even slapped a hostile travel advisory on Hong Kong, hoping to damage its tourism industry, something Truss has yet to reverse.

In her report, Truss claims to be “proud” of selling Hong Kong out like this, which beggars belief. Her government’s hostility toward the city during the insurrection was a betrayal of an old friend, that expected far better, particularly as its very survival was at stake. But, however much she wants to please the US and irritate China, Truss needs to understand that, post-Brexit, British foreign policy must be based on honor and principle, not hypocrisy and subservience. If she cannot grasp this, she will end up keeping Raab company on the scrapheap of history, and deservedly so.

Quite clearly, Truss’ report, however much it may gratify the Five Eyes, reflects no credit on her or anybody else. It is superficial, tendentious and selective, and damages the UK’s long-standing reputation for fair dealing and honest reporting. However, provided constant vigilance is exercised, false reporting of this type cannot prevail, and the truth will out.

The author is a senior counsel and professor of law, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.