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Good morning. I’m afraid you’ve got me filling Stephen’s big shoes today, and I thought I’d look at a relatively new bloc of voters with fascinating potential to shake up Britain’s electoral landscape. Jude Webber will chime in from Ireland on Monday.
‘Vote for Hong Kong 2024’
“Being a pro-democracy activist is increasingly self-isolating and marginalised. We’ve found it harder and harder to get in touch with the mass public to tell them that they are relevant to bringing democracy back to our society,” said Simon Cheng, a former British consulate staffer in Hong Kong who was granted asylum in the UK in 2020. A year before, he was allegedly detained and tortured by mainland Chinese authorities for 15 days while attempting to return to Hong Kong.
This sentiment is part of why the diaspora in the UK are rallying other Hongkongers to participate in democracy. Cheng founded the organisation “Hongkongers in Britain”, part of a consortium of civil society groups from the territory which last month launched the lobbying campaign “Vote for Hong Kong 2024”, targeting marginal seats with a high population of émigrés. By the end of next year, more than 180,000 Hongkongers are expected to settle in the UK via the British National (Overseas) programme, which was introduced to help those fleeing Beijing’s clampdown on liberties. Hong Kong Watch (HKW), an NGO on the campaign’s advisory board, predicts that 100,000-140,000 of them will be eligible to vote in the UK general election.
The campaign’s aim is to a) ensure the recent arrivals know how to register, b) mobilise their vote to get political weight behind things Hongkongers care about, and c) signal to policymakers that they could be swung out of their seat if they don’t play ball. For the first time HKW has mapped where Hongkongers are concentrated (using school and National Insurance registration data) and where active voters could wield political influence. Campaigners will then spread word of candidates who commit to tackling issues affecting the community, from China policy to policing.
High on the hit list are seats where the majority is slim enough for the local Hong Kong population to contribute to candidates losing, holding or gaining it. Take Sutton and Cheam. The leafy constituency is held by Conservative minister Paul Scully with a majority of 8,351 in 2019, but both the Liberal Democrats and Labour are well-placed challengers. As HKW argues, engaging the 2,000 BNO migrants expected to vote there will be a worthy pursuit.
With the visa route and government’s £43mn support package, the community has evidently secured backing within UK politics. The memory of Hong Kong as a British colony is relatively fresh in the minds of MPs, some of whom have lived or worked there. The BNO scheme scored virtually unanimous support from parliamentarians — while stoking fury from China — and many Hongkongers praised Boris Johnson for introducing it. (Tory MP Andrew Rosindell, who founded the “Conservative Friends of Hong Kong” to lobby government for tougher sanctions, has not attended parliament since he was arrested for sexual offences in May last year. He denies any wrongdoing and has not been charged.).
But some from Hong Kong urge the UK to toughen action precisely because of that special relationship. Eva CY Li, a global media researcher of the diaspora, said Beijing had unilaterally violated the Sino-British Joint Declaration and that the British government should have acted much earlier to hold China accountable for its breaches of the treaty. One case was the disappearance of then British citizen Lee Bo in 2016. The UK was late to react, says Cheng. There is still a gap in the coverage of the BNO visa. It excludes people born after the handover in 1997, whose parents do not have a BNO passport. Campaigners say there have been cases where people with a criminal record in Hong Kong have had their BNO visa application rejected.
Carmen Lau, a former Hong Kong district councillor in exile in London, who is also behind the non-partisan lobbying effort, said: “The UK government is using the recently expanded BNO visa scheme as an excuse for inaction on human rights abuses towards Hongkongers.” Last year a pro-democracy protester was dragged into China’s general consulate in Manchester and beaten up. The British government dithered. Two months later Beijing, which had refused to waive diplomatic immunity, voluntarily recalled six diplomats. Activists were also outraged by UK investment minister Dominic Johnson’s Hong Kong visit, which was intended to bolster business ties.
The Foreign Office’s half-year report charted the crackdown on freedoms since the National Security Law was imposed on the city in June 2020, condemning “attempts to intimidate and silence people in our country”. Lau, who faces non-NSL charges from the Hong Kong government and moves address constantly out of fear of being traced, said: “So what next? The report didn’t offer safety guarantees or promises.” You can imagine her shock when she discovered a contact she’d met in Westminster was later accused of spying for China.
Lau says while British sanctions would be “most efficient” as a safety guard for activists like her, a UK government review of Hong Kong trade institutions in London could also offer low hanging fruit. In July Hong Kong Democracy Council reported that in the US the Hong Kong Trade Development Council had paid nearly $15mn since 2014 for access to Washington power brokers through lobbying, legal and consulting firms.
Vote for Hong Kong 2024 organisers emphasise that empowering Hongkongers in politics is not only about advancing human rights; it is grounded in economic, trade and national security issues too. So Hongkongers will have an eye on Labour’s call to “audit UK-China relations”, parties’ approach to transnational repression — and indicators on foreign policy, should any arise in the run-up to the election.
Discussions about what the British government should do for Hong Kong are bound up in the UK bilateral agenda with China, and the escalating tension between the Five Eyes alliance nations and China, says sociology professor Michaela Benson (who has a great podcast). “The Hong Kong issue and the BNO visa route are inseparable from talk about bringing further sanctions against China, the Indo-Pacific tilt, the arms embargo . . . all these things come together as a package,” she said. One interesting question will be whether Hong Kong voters here (predominantly in their 30s and 40s with children) will be led by domestic concerns — education, for example — or by foreign policy issues, particularly given that many will want the British government to expand its visa programme and grant family members still in the territory a route to UK settlement.
Studies have found newer migrants are less likely to register to vote. But as Sam Goodman, HKW’s director of policy and advocacy, says, this group of Hongkongers — many of them university educated and politically literate — have lived through Beijing’s crackdown on civic rights and expression. “Hongkongers care about democracy and the rule of law, to the extent that many have been willing to become political refugees,” Goodman said. Still, some may be cautious about making waves; the most recent arrivals may wish to get their bearings before they think about a trip to the polling booths.
I asked Benson about Vote for Hong Kong 2024. She says the campaign may be “pushing at an open door” as there is already significant support for their cause. “I don’t want to be fatalistic about it, but even if there are large numbers of Hongkongers, that in and of itself isn’t necessarily going to translate into success.” Calls to expand the BNO visa, for example, may fall below the many other voter demands besetting MPs, such as the cost of living.
But we will have to wait to see if the lobbying turns up electoral surprises. Some Hong Kong activists are thinking about learning from the Indian community and how they have organised themselves electorally in Britain, adds Goodman. Given the campaign’s long-term goal of fostering civic activity among Hongkongers, and weaving the “increasingly marginalised” pro-democracy movement into its everyday fabric, as Simon says, Vote for Hong Kong 2024 is definitely worth watching.
Now try this
I’ve been enjoying the new album Black Classical Music from Yussef Dayes, and also Kelly Moran’s “Vesela”. At the end of the month, I’m looking forward to a weekend in Pembrokeshire. Our fail-safe and fun indoor pastime is the web game GeoGuessr: you are dropped in a random Google maps location and you have to guess where exactly you are. (Try the “Perfect Detective” map).
But please let me know your recommendations of what else to do in Pembrokeshire, if the weather ends up permitting us a bit more than mainly chilling in our cottage.