On Monday, 27 November, at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong, Baron Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, GCMG, CH, KBE, PC – better known as Paddy Ashdown, a former leader of the UK’s Liberal Democratic Party – addressed a lunch meeting on the subject of the Thucydides Trap. Well, that was the title of his talk.
As it turned out, the noble lord disdained the subject, which had been the basis of his invitation, and addressed instead the bright prospects in China and the HKSAR of a democratic future.
On being prompted by audience questions about the Trap – a belief there is a high probability of war between a rising power, such as China, and a declining power such as the US – Lord Ashdown conceded there were many signs of potential stress internationally but did not believe that war would be the outcome.
Reverting to his favoured topic, he suggested a democratic future for China was highly likely, if not exactly a done deal, his assumption being that rising domestic wealth would lead to irresistible pressure for greater political participation.
His views on Hong Kong were more nuanced. He expressed regret that the UK was failing in its continuing responsibilities for the welfare of Hong Kong in order to seek closer relations with China and the possibility of trade deals once the country’s exit from the EU had been completed.
He expressed concern about political developments in Hong Kong.
He listed examples of Beijing’s increasing intrusion in the HKSAR’s domestic affairs, some genuinely disturbing – the booksellers affair – others less so – Mainland security police at the Kowloon railway terminus.
To help focus the UK government on the future of Hong Kong and ‘to hold China to account’ for any perceived mistreatment, he was engaged with efforts to set up an all-party political monitoring committee. What form such holding to account would take and the potential efficacy thereof was unclear.
He was, however, more precise in respect of his policy proposal should some political catastrophe or egregious form of repression occur in Hong Kong: he would support offering asylum in the UK to holders of BNO passports. He admitted there are approximately 15,000 such passport holders in the HKSAR, leaving more than 7,000,000 people without the assurance of British sanctuary. Not reassuring.
Even less reassuring, though unsurprising, was his concession that the UK Government, preoccupied with Brexit and the nation’s unclear economic future, would remain impervious to pressure for greater support for Hong Kong.
He concluded by stating his support for the work of young activists engaged in promoting democracy in Hong Kong.
In summary, Lord Ashdown was promoting the active pursuit of a form of democracy – universal suffrage based on an open field of candidates demanded by some activists, separatist options by others – that ignored the Basic Law, the city’s constitution, while offering supportive prescriptions that would provide protection for a tiny sliver of the HKSAR’s population.
And all the while he was aware that even such minimal support would never be forthcoming.
Without question, his speech was discourteous to both his hosts and his audience. He had been invited to address one topic but substituted another.
Whether his speech was cynical, frivolous or indifferent to its encouragement of policies that arguably have prompted Beijing’s intrusions into Hong Kong’s domestic affairs is a matter for individual judgment.
But undeniably the programmes of some activists to whom he offered warm support are unconstitutional. Article 1 of the Basic Law, for example, states that Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China.
It is fortunate that a Tiananmen type incident is highly unlikely in Hong Kong. Beijing’s influence is accepted by the HKSAR Government and supported by toadies in the DAB and former office holders such as Elsie Leung. The opposition in Legco is infantile and ineffective.
But foreign politicians should be more cautious about offering empty support and encouragement for activities that are counterproductive to their desired outcomes. A good starting point would be basic courtesies to one’s hosts when accepting invitations to speak at meetings.