Last October I was, very publicly, refused entry to Hong Kong, on the direct orders of Beijing. Recently, my case was once again raised in the House of Lords. Last night, as I tried to sleep, I began retracing my steps in Hong Kong. I am not setting out to cause a headache for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam, or China’s President Xi Jinping, honestly. I just wish they would read the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law.
After a hectic week in which Carrie Lam dismissed a report by the former Leader of the Liberal Democrats Paddy Ashdown as “foreign meddling”, a new report was published highlighting threats to academic freedom, I wrote an article summarising my concerns about Hong Kong’s direction, the House of Commons and the House of Lords debated Hong Kong, the British government’s response was reassuringly clear and we await now the next move by Beijing and Hong Kong. Unless there’s a breakthrough, I am faced with the possibility that I might never visit Hong Kong again. I very sincerely hope that isn’t the case, but it must be a possibility.
After all, the Director of Immigration has refused to give either an explanation for the decision to deny me entry on 11 October last year, or an answer to my question of whether or not it was a one-off incident or a permanent ban. Until I receive a clear answer, I cannot visit Hong Kong because – to paraphrase Oscar Wilde – to be denied entry once is unfortunate, twice is a little careless.
There was some good that came of my incident on 11 October because it shone a spotlight on the erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong, although it would not have been my choice. But there’d be no value in having that experience twice. So the only basis upon which I can visit Hong Kong – which was once a free and open city – in the future would be if I had some reassurance that last October was based on a profound misunderstanding and an unrepeatable error by the authorities concerned. Such an assurance would go some way towards restoring confidence in Hong Kong’s autonomy. A failure to do so would undermine confidence even further.
To take it a stage further, can Paddy Ashdown go back to Hong Kong, after what Carrie Lam has said in response to his report on his recent visit? It’s unclear. Could the Last Governor, Chris Patten, after Carrie Lam’s failure to reassure in his case? Both raised questions around this in the House of Lords yesterday.
On a personal level, as I reflect on the possibility that I might not revisit Hong Kong, I admit to a sense of melancholy. I lived in Hong Kong for five years. The first five years of my adult working life, I benefited from, and in a tiny way tried to give back to, one of the most beautiful, diverse, creative, vibrant, imaginative, energetic communities in the world.
When I first arrived in Hong Kong I was welcomed into the home of a British expat family whom I knew because I was at school with one of their daughters, and who gave me a roof and a bed and an introduction to this amazing city. After a week or two I moved into Happy Valley, where I lived for three years, sharing a flat with Chinese and expat flatmates. I then moved to a place of my own in South Horizons, or Ap Lei Chau. I commuted to work, first to Central and then to Kowloon. I belonged to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club, as a journalist, and I visited it several times a week, on the evenings when I wasn’t nearby in Lan Kwai Fong. I often sat across the room from the veteran journalist Clare Hollingworth, her in her nineties, me in my twenties, both of us deep in our newspapers. We rarely spoke to each other – I seldom dared – but as journalists of vastly different generations and calibres, hers vintage and top-notch, mine beginner and mediocre – we sometimes twinkled at each other.
At weekends I’d sometimes go for a walk up the Peak, or a day on Lamma or Lantau, or a weekend retreat at Bethany on Cheung Chau. Occasionally I’d visit friends in the New Territories. On Sundays I’d worship at St Andrew’s Church in Nathan Road, although sometimes I’d visit other churches. From time to time I’d pop over to Macau, sometimes for a break, sometimes to visit refugees from East Timor who were my concern at the time, sometimes just for dinner at Fernando’s.
It was in Hong Kong that I deepened my love of China. It was through Hong Kong that I deepend my love of Asia. It was from Hong Kong that I began my work in East Timor and Burma. I owe Hong Kong a lot, as the open city hub to the rest of Asia that it always was and always should be.
I left Hong Kong in 2002. I have returned several times since then. The thought that I might not be able to return again is one which at first I considered an impossibility, then I dismissed as a token sacrifice, but now I regard as a more serious loss. And if I am unable to return to Hong Kong, what about prominent politicians like Paddy Ashdown and Chris Patten and others? And yet being unable to visit Hong Kong is almost nothing compared with being jailed, in a prison cell, only able to see your family once a month, unable to access the tools of freedom of expression, or disqualified from running for the legislature, as is the fate of an increasing number of Hong Kong activists. And yet, their plight, infinitely worse than mine, is still little compared to the near-death experience endured by those abducted, imprisoned and tortured in mainland China.
So, just over twenty years after I moved to Hong Kong, and twenty years after its handover, I know that Hong Kong is not the same, China is not the same, the world is not the same. My question is, what are we – you and me – going to do to change it? Because I don’t like it the way it is – my friends are in prison in Hong Kong, my heroes are tortured in jail in China, and I cannot enter either. All I wanted to do is meet my friends for tea or coffee and in trying to do so I caused an international media and diplomatic incident. China’s state media called me “a threat to its sovereignty, safety and interests.” And I still don’t know why.
It is to address the increasing erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy that a new organisation, Hong Kong Watch, has been established: to monitor, and to speak out in defence of, the basic rights which were promised to the people of Hong Kong at the handover. Hong Kong Watch is entirely cross-party, with five Patrons including the former Conservative Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Paddy Ashdown, the Labour MP and former Shadow Foreign Minister Catherine West, the independent peer Lord Alton, and the barrister Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, who prosecuted Slobodan Milosevic. Together with our patrons and supporters, and with our friends in Hong Kong, we will continue to speak out. The Sino-British Joint Declaration is still valid for another thirty years, and we will work to ensure that Britain and China live up to their promises.
“With your audacious help, Hong Kong will never have to walk alone again!” was the message I received yesterday from a prominent Hong Konger. I’ll heed the words of Burma’s Cardinal Bo to me - “Please continue your good daring works along with your prayers”. I don’t feel particularly audacious or daring or good, but I’ll certainly keep going. Didn’t someone once talk about the ‘audacity of hope’? Let’s not lose it.