Lord Ashdown speaking at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong
Britain’s continued failure to her former colonial subjects, as exemplified by the Windrush scandal, is a national embarrassment. The last couple of weeks demonstrate that institutionalised racism, stimulated by Government policy – especially targets -, is alive and kicking within government departments, and has, with the almost certain knowledge of Ministers, been there for decades. Its consequence is that those from the Commonwealth have been treated as second class citizens and not as equals.
The scandal initially focused on the Windrush generation in the Caribbean, but it is increasingly clear that Britain has failed in its duty of care to Commonwealth citizens across the globe. Numerous cases involving non-Caribbean Commonwealth-born citizens from Kenya to Canada have now come into the open.
We are urgently in need of some soul-searching enquiry about our neglect of duty towards our former colonial subjects. This should not only focus on the cases of sudden deportation or denial of rights which are now coming to light, but should also consider the rights of other minorities such as British Nationals (Overseas) in Hong Kong.
Twenty one years ago Britain handed over her last colony, Hong Kong, to a burgeoning post-communist China. Although under British sovereignty for a century, the British and China decided that Hong Kongers would not be part of the Commonwealth or be given the right to self-determination, and therefore after 1997 Hong Kongers were given no special status in the eyes of the United Kingdom.
At that point, there were about 3 million British Dependent Territories Citizen (BDTC) passport holders (including people born before July 1, 1997 in Hong Kong, and naturalised British subjects) with right of abode in the UK. But against their wishes, Hong Kongers were stripped of their right of abode and many of the core rights which they desired and deserved, and given the option to apply for ‘British National (Overseas) Passports’ or the ‘BNO’ with their rights limited to holiday travel and the right to vote.
At the time, the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 was recent memory and many in Hong Kong felt their British citizenship was a vital lifeline in case China were not sincere in their handover commitment to give Hong Kong a ‘high degree of autonomy’ and uphold their ‘rights and freedoms’. I campaigned for Hong Kongers to be given the right to claim British citizenship as a last resort if China failed to live up to the promises enshrined in the international treaty to which Britain laid its hand. But the then Conservative government refused to consider this. The BNO, sarcastically referred to by Hong Kongers as ‘Britain says no’, was viewed as a betrayal as the UK just cancelled the citizenship of her former colonial subjects.
In the immediate aftermath of the handover, those who thought this move was justified felt vindicated as Hong Kong’s autonomy was respected and ‘one-country, two-systems’ functioned well. But in recent years things have taken an ominous turn for the worse.
In November, I visited Hong Kong and met with people from across the political spectrum. They shared that over the past five years, the freedoms guaranteed to the people of Hong Kong in its mini-constitution, the Basic Law, have been increasingly eroded. Booksellers have been abducted, press freedom is under pressure and many political activists are being jailed. Judges are complaining that rule of law, although intact, is creaking as the objectivity of the Department for Justice is in doubt and the city appears no closer to democracy.
While on that trip, Emily Lau, the previous leader of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, asked me if Britain would throw a lifeline to Hong Kong and give them the right of abode, “so that they can feel they have a home to go to, if things go desperately wrong here.”
Just as we failed those who travelled to the UK on the Windrush, we have also failed Hong Kong during the handover negotiations by stripping British citizens of their citizenship. The Windrush saga highlights that we have consistently neglected our former colonial subjects who have been used, abused, betrayed and disregarded. Britain’s honour has been dragged in the dirt over Windrush. We must not allow this to happen again over the British Nationals we left behind in Hong Kong.
Lord Ashdown of Norton Sub-Hamdon is the former leader of the Liberal Democrats and a patron of Hong Kong Watch. This piece was initially published in Politics Home.