Two-face UK: preaching freedom, stifling protest
Published: Feb 02, 2023 08:12 PM
Illustration: Chen Xia/Global Times

Illustration: Chen Xia/Global Times

The UK had plenty to say when China was dealing with riots in Hong Kong Special Administrative Region more than three years ago. It blamed Chinese central government for the civil unrest which caused destruction.   

It is ironic then that while accusing China of suppressing protestors in Hong Kong, the UK itself is now being accused of repressive behavior with a slew of new laws which threaten indiscriminate persecution and prosecution for anyone who speaks out against the government there.

It is doubly ironic that some of the voices raised against these draconian measures are the Hong Kongers who moved to the UK after the upheaval, and who are now finding to their horror the double standards of the former imperialist autocrats.  

The mass protests of 2019 were characterized in the West as "pro-democracy" gatherings ruthlessly put down by Hong Kong police. British politicians attacked China and lauded the protesters - even when peaceful demonstrations descended into violence. 

The colonial-minded legislators from the UK were indignantly critical, accusing China of stifling legitimate right to protest. They even created a special visa scheme to move Hong Kongers to the UK. Many have accepted, even though their status as a British National (overseas) is not the same as full British citizenship. It allows the UK to appear welcoming, but without giving the right of permanent residence. It is a kind of second class citizenship.

How strange then that some of the loudest opposition to the British government's efforts to restrict the right to protest has come from the Hong Kong diaspora in the UK. The Conservative government of Rishi Sunak is proposing astonishingly harsh measures. New laws could suffocate legitimate criticism of the government. Crucially, the protests do not have to be violent. If a demonstration becomes violent in the UK, there are already plenty of laws on the statute book to deal with it. The new laws are something more sinister. They can not only stop protests in progress, they permit action against anyone even suspected of planning to protest. It is both Orwellian and Kafkaesque, and demonstrates the British government's double standards.

One law currently passing through the British parliament is the repressive Public Order Bill which would allow politicians, almost at their own whim, to issue orders preventing individuals from protesting, even if they have committed no crime. The state would be able to stop them associating with certain individuals and even restrict their access to the internet. The state could make them subject to reporting restrictions and electronic tagging. All of this without having committed a crime. 

Extended stop and search powers would give police arbitrary authority to waylay almost anyone they wished. The government claims this is to let "law-abiding" people go about their daily business without interference by protesters. This overlooks the fact that, having committed no crimes, the protestors themselves are "law-abiding" people. This would have a chilling effect on protest.

The government has already increased its repressive anti-protest powers with the recent Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, which allows people to be prosecuted for being too noisy. For example, if someone tied their dog to a lamppost outside a shop and the animal barked until its owner returned, the pet owner could be liable. Workers going on strike to protect their pay, conditions or services could be accused of law breaking. The government has also changed election law to ban citizens from voting unless they have access to very limited forms of identity. Laws have changed to criminalize asylum seekers, against an international treaty, and send them to Rwanda for processing. 

The Public Order Bill is opposed not only by scores of civil rights groups, the police, fire and rescue services, and members of parliament's upper chamber, the House of Lords, who all say the measures are extreme and incompatible with defending human rights. Even the international campaigning group Human Rights Watch has warned that the United Kingdom is perilously close to being listed as a "human rights abuser" due to its flagrant and hypocritical disregard for the protections and rights of its own citizens. It makes Britain's stance on Hong Kong look a bit rich.  

This bill and the other laws are not about preserving the peace or protecting the public from disruption. They are about exercising and protecting power. It is the government's disreputable response to its own overwhelming unpopularity. By passing such laws, ministers hope to convey an impression of being in control when faced crises like mass discontent or the current widespread strikes. It also gives politicians a legal smokescreen to persecute legitimate protestors when those protestors are speaking out against the government. It is less about protecting the public and more about protecting the politicians.

The author is a journalist and lecturer living in Britain.opinion@globaltimes.com.cn