Tear gas fired at protestors in Hong Kong on 29th September. The situation has escalated in recent weeks.Anonymous

In the past five months, Hong Kong has been shrouded in tear gas fumes, with gunshots relentlessly punctuating the tides of determined resistance. The protests, stemming from the recent extradition bill, soon spiralled into widespread resistance against unchecked police brutality and a willful government that ignores any voices of dissent. As Hongkongers call for international support and express solidarity with resistance movements in other corners of the world, Benedict Rogers, a British human rights activist, is continuing his work in the UK, liaising with Parliament and calling for the enactment of Magnitsky law against China.

Late in the evening, following a talk in Queens’ College, Varsity sat down with Benedict Rogers, founder of NGO Hong Kong Watch and co-founder and deputy chairman of the Conservative Party’s human rights commission, to discuss Hong Kong, the values of overseas campaigning, and how state politics and Britain’s colonial legacy are enmeshed in the ongoing protests.

Greeted with great enthusiasm, Rogers started off by explaining the origins of his NGO Hong Kong Watch. In 2007, Rogers was barred entry to Hong Kong, having previously criticised China’s increasing threat to democracy in the city and spoken out against the detention of pro-democracy activists. The following day, Rogers announced his plans to set up the NGO as a way to make his ongoing pro-democracy efforts more sustainable and to raise more international awareness. “When I talked to people in parliament, in the media and elsewhere, the level of awareness about what was happening in Hong Kong was really low.”

“I was shocked by how little people knew about how Hong Kong’s freedoms were being eroded,” he said.

To Rogers, Hong Kong was initially an offshoot of his interest in China, which eventually became a personal cause of its own. He first visited Hong Kong after a six-month stint teaching English in Qingdao during his gap year, and then, between 1997 and 2002, began his career as a journalist in the city.

“I grew to love Hong Kong, it was a city that had all the freedoms that we enjoy, and was at the crossroads of Asia. When I realised that those freedoms are increasingly threatened over the last 5 or 10 years, I felt that I wanted to do something to help speak out for Hong Kong, partly because I believe in freedom and human rights, partly because I lived there, so there was a certain sense of personal responsibility for Hong Kong, and also because, as a British citizen, I felt Britain had both a moral and legal responsibility to speak out for Hong Kong, and I wanted to play my part to urge the British government to do that.”

There’s been a surge of discussion surrounding Hong Kong’s colonial legacy during the recent movement, as Hongkongers seek to redefine their identity internationally. Long gone are the days when Hong Kong brandished its gleaming skyscrapers and stock market for a place in the world. Narratives are being redrawn and recoloured, filling in the gaps between global trade and local identity. Britain inevitably comes into the picture for its colonial legacy, with the Sino-British Joint Declaration identified as the last thread entangling the two. For Rogers, the Declaration is of great importance, as the treaty “gives Britain specific responsibilities to ensure that the promises we made to the people of Hong Kong prior to the handover are kept”. It is this, in his view, which distinguishes the situation in Hong Kong from other international issues for Britain.

“For probably the first 15 years in the 22 years since the handover, Britain completely failed to live up to its responsibilities to speak up for Hong Kong. It’s partly because One Country Two Systems was working reasonably well, but still, I think if you look at the six monthly report that the Foreign Office publishes twice a year, up until a few years ago they were incredibly weak [...] and I think we placed too much emphasis on our commercial relationship with Hong Kong, and not enough on our responsibility to ensure that Hong Kong’s freedoms are protected.”

Featured on numerous headlines across the world, not only did Hong Kong’s protests take on an international dimension, but dived themselves headfirst into international politics. Hong Kong protestors have expressed solidarity with worldwide resistance movements, and been compared with those in Ukraine and Catalonia. There have been widespread calls for western governments to support Hong Kong through policy interventions. Proponents argue that this kind of “international support” might bear impact on China, and thus affect Hong Kong’s situation. Rogers emphasised that “it is the people of Hong Kong who are leading the struggle, but they deserve our support from outside in mobilising the international community to put pressure on the Hong Kong government and the Beijing government.”

Rogers envisions international support as involving pressure on both the Hong Kong and Beijing governments. This, he says, would come first through diplomatic pressures, with world leaders speaking out on the issue, then through policy measures such as the Magnitsky Act, a law passed in the United States in 2012, initially serving to impose visa bans and asset freezes on Russian officials linked to the death of a lawyer in a Moscow prison following complaints of mistreatment. According to Rogers, hostile policies and discourse can put vital pressure on governments committing human rights abuses, but with national interests considered a backbone in politics, it might be worth approaching these policies cautiously.

When asked whether conviction for Hong Kong’s future can survive amidst the political manoeuvres of powerful states worldwide, Rogers replied that there is a strong incentive to care about Hong Kong because the erosion of freedoms is no longer a territorially constrained issue.

“For the first 15 years since the handover, Britain completely failed to live up to its responsibilities to speak up for Hong Kong”

“There is growing evidence of China using its influence in universities around the world, in the corporate world, even in the political world, and I think people are waking up to this more and more, that China is no longer a far away dictatorship that represses its own people, it’s actually becoming a threat to our freedoms.”

He added: “That’s every reason why we should be standing up against it, not only to defend the rights of Hong Kong but the rights of our own countries.” Hong Kong’s paramount importance in the financial world furthers other countries’ vested interest in protecting the city, Rogers said.

With steadfast optimism, Rogers put forward that whether Hong Kong’s cause can remain on the table depends on states’ engagement with China. “If countries stand up together against China, it may have more effect.” A Magnitsky-style sanction, to him, will have powerful individuals “start to feel a direct impact on their pocket”, with the result that they are “more likely to take the international community seriously.” He stressed that “concrete policies are much more effective than just rhetoric.”

While agreeing that China’s human rights situation has worsened in recent years, Rogers pointed out that international engagement has only contributed to the problem. “I think we have not just engaged, we have kowtowed to China. The more you kowtow, the more they think they can get away with it.” For Rogers, replacing rhetoric with concrete policy responses should the way forward for foriegn governments grappling with powerful regimes committing serious human rights abuses.


Mountain View

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“Until now we’ve never really had sanctions or meaningful measures, we’ve just had talk. Or often, we haven’t had talk – governments have stayed silent. So that’s why concrete policies may have some effect we haven’t seen in recent years.”

The flame of molotov cocktails amid simmering tear gas canisters and well-positioned ammunition, all set against a backdrop of boiling rage under a mix of tear gas and smoke, have propelled Hong Kong into an international spotlight which it is at once so familiar and so foreign. When watching from afar, overarching networks of power may seem to be a path to reach those on the ground, yet speeches and policies can be lost in translation, and, at this point, real, tangible action is necessary.

Hong Kong’s battle is definitely not constrained to the city. As Rogers emphasised, international response is vital in keeping the movement on the table. In the future, we must figure out how to ensure that our solidarity stretches beyond simple words and reaches the ground with real impact.