By Oliver August.
23 Juli 2003
If only Baghdadis could see Hong Kong today. Their fallen city is unlikely to resemble the moneyed former British territory of glittering skyscrapers any time soon. But liberal Iraqis could learn something about their future.
The first visit by Tony Blair to Hong Kong in five years illustrates what happens to those places where imperial Britain introduced freedom, sanitation and a vigorous press. Once Britain retreats, those who continue to fight for Western ideals are abandoned too.
The Blair Government merely looked on as hundreds of thousands demonstrated in Hong Kong this month. The pro-democracy campaigners are fighting draconian legislation that would allow Beijing-appointed leaders to outlaw and arrest opponents almost at will.
Given his dramatic speech at the handover six years ago, one would expect the Prime Minister to back these demonstrators. On that rainy night of June 30, 1997, he warned the city's new masters what would happen if they disregarded the Sino-British treaty, the guarantee of Hong Kong's freedoms. "China must know Hong Kong will be destroyed if they try to undermine the Joint Declaration," he declared.
Snubbing Beijing, he then took out his earpiece during the Chinese speeches before the bands played The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Has Ended, and the Last Post was sounded. At midnight, the Union Flag dipped and the audience sang Auld Lang Syne.
Today, Mr Blair returns to Hong Kong but his speeches will sound nothing like they did then.
After only six years, Beijing has breached the treaty supposed to protect the territory's freedoms for 50 years. A study by the Bar Council of England and Wales has confirmed what pro-democracy campaigners have long said. Beijing is imposing illiberal practices. Groups outlawed on the mainland may be banned in Hong Kong; journalists can be punished for publishing leaked documents deemed to be state secrets; and the homes of suspected subversives might be searched without warning or warrant.
During talks in Beijing on Monday, Mr Blair had the perfect opportunity to complain to China's leaders. After all, the Joint Declaration is an international treaty lodged with the UN and not a mere "internal matter", as the Chinese like to say to foreign critics on other subjects.
Instead, he merely welcomed the hold-up of the legislation, which was forced by the protesters. When Mr Blair called the delay a "sensible way to proceed", no Chinese leader would have disagreed with him. The statements from his Government have been equally meek. Bill Rammell, the Foreign Office Minister, has endorsed, welcomed, supported and agreed with various developments. Verbs such as oppose, disagree, differ or condemn are missing from his vocabulary.
The Foreign Office's defence is that what we see is not a breach of the Joint Declaration but an inconsistency with the spirit of the treaty. But did anybody hear Mr Blair and Chris Patten, the last Governor, say the Chinese had only to stick to the letter of the declaration after July 1, 1997?
While the Foreign Office insists that observing niceties is in the national interest, democracy campaigners such as Martin Lee rightly point to Britain's loss of credibility. He will tell Mr Blair at a reception tonight that other countries look to Britain for leadership. Why should the French or Germans stick their necks out when the former colonial masters don't?
Equally, why should Iraqis trust that Britain will support freedom for longer than its colonial footprint is visible after the withdrawal of its troops?
The author is Beijing correspondent of The Times.