Benedict Rogers: World Must “Wake Up” on Beijing’s Threat to HK

Conservative UK human rights activist Benedict Rogers, who worked as a journalist for five years in Hong Kong just after the 1997 handover, has recently been a regular media commentator on the erosion of political freedoms in Hong Kong, a vocal critic of Chinese encroachment on sovereignty in the semiautonomous region, and a public supporter of Hong Kong pro-democracy activists. This week, Rogers was barred from entering Hong Kong. Tom Phillips and Benjamin Haas report for The Guardian:

Benedict Rogers, the deputy chair of the Conservatives’ human rights commission, flew into Hong Kong on Wednesday morning on a Thai Airways flight from Bangkok but said he was stopped at immigration and refused entry.

[…] Rogers lived in Hong Kong from 1997 to 2002, and said he had been returning on a private visit to see friends, including a number of prominent democracy activists. “I wanted to come and meet people and learn about the current situation,” he said.

Rogers claimed he had been indirectly warned, through a third party, that the Chinese embassy in London was “extremely concerned” about his plans to visit Hong Kong.

[…] As he was escorted to his flight out of Hong Kong, Rogers said, he turned to the immigration officer taking him to the plane and thanked him for treating him well. “I said: ‘Does this mean “one country, two systems” is dead? Is it “one country, one system” now?’

“He looked at me actually very sadly, almost with tears in his eyes, and said: ‘I’m just doing my job. I can’t comment.’” […] [Source]

Rogers had reportedly been mulling a decision to visit Joshua Wong, the young democracy activist who along with several peers were handed prison sentences in August for their roles in the 2014 “Umbrella Movement”, but decided not to after realizing the Chinese Embassy in London strongly disapproved of such a visit. More on Rogers’ denial of entry by HK immigration officials from Kris Cheng at the Hong Kong Free Press:

Rogers’ lawyer, former lawmaker Albert Ho, told HKFP that he made contact with him at the airport. However, immigration officers refused to speak to him when Rogers passed the phone to them.

Ho then called the airport immigration hotline, but he was denied access to his client. He made seven further calls but was ignored: “They intentionally did not want me to see him, ignoring the request from his lawyer. The Immigration Department is turning into Chinese police.”

Democratic Party lawmaker Ted Hui, who met Rogers in the UK earlier this month, said he understood that the Chinese embassy has warned Rogers that he will not be allowed to enter Hong Kong, despite causing no security threat.

“Now the warning from the embassy has come true, it means that the Hong Kong government has given up its autonomy on immigration to the central government,” said Hui. [Source]

The move to block Rogers entry has elicited protest from pro-democracy HK legislators, human rights organizations, and UK foreign secretary and Rogers’ fellow Conservative Party member Boris Johnson. BBC News reports:

Mr Johnson said: “I am very concerned that a UK national has been denied entry to Hong Kong.

“The British government will be seeking an urgent explanation from the Hong Kong authorities and from the Chinese government.

“Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, and its rights and freedoms, are central to its way of life and should be fully respected.” [Source]

Responding to concerns on Thursday, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor declined to provide an explanation of why Rogers’ entry was denied, and also was ambiguous in answering a question concerning Beijing’s role in the decision. The South China Morning Post’s Phila Siu reports:

On Thursday, Lam said she could not reveal why Rogers was denied entry. But governments everywhere have discretion over who is allowed in and who is not, she said.

“Some commentators and politicians in Britain have been very unfair to Hong Kong,” she said on a radio programme.

“They have attacked our legal system, and said that the judges have been interfered with politically. They have totally forgotten that we have an independent judiciary.”

Asked if Beijing made the decision to bar Rogers from Hong Kong, Lam said: “I can’t reveal the details. But under the Basic Law, the central government is responsible for foreign affairs. I hope that everyone can understand that.”

She would not specifically say whether Rogers’ denial came under foreign affairs, but said the Basic Law does not guarantee Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy in every respect. […] [Source]

A follow-up article from The Guardian’s Phillips and Haas relays comments from China’s Foreign Ministry which suggest that Beijing was indeed involved:

[…] Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, said decisions about who was allowed to enter were a matter of Chinese sovereignty.

“Hong Kong has been back under Chinese control since 1997 so its affairs are an entirely domestic matter. The Chinese government is absolutely opposed to any foreign governments, organisations or individuals interfering with Chinese domestic affairs in any way. Our stance on this is unshakable,” Hua told reporters in Beijing.

Referring to Rogers, a vocal critic of China’s policies in Hong Kong, she added: “This man must have been very clear as to whether he intended to interfere with the affairs of the special administrative region and the independence of Hong Kong’s judiciary when … he flew into Hong Kong.”

Hua also rejected British criticism of the decision to bar Rogers, for which the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, said he was seeking an urgent explanation. “The Chinese government has lodged a solemn representation to its British counterparts,” Hua said. […] [Source]

The Guardian has also published commentary from Rogers following his denial at the Hong Kong border, in which the British rights activist called for the world to “wake up” to Beijing’s threat to the Hong Kong freedoms:

The first indication I had that there was a problem came last Friday, when I received a telephone call from a British MP whom I know well and respect greatly. He’d had calls from the Chinese embassy in London expressing concern that an attempt to visit these three student leaders would pose “a grave threat to Sino-British relations”. I asked him to reassure the embassy that I would not be attempting to visit any prisons. I also promised not to undertake any public engagements or media interviews while in Hong Kong, and to meet the embassy upon my return for a constructive discussion and to hear their perspectives. These offers were rebuffed and I received further threatening messages from the embassy, culminating in a warning that I would be denied entry.

It appears there was another factor too. I serve as deputy chair of the Conservative party’s human rights commission, a voluntary role, and I am on the Conservative candidates list. It appears that the Chinese authorities misunderstood my status and thought that I was an MP or a senior party or government official, and that my visit to Hong Kong would be in an official capacity. One could forgive them for that mistake, because in China a party member is a party member, come what may. Nevertheless I sought to reassure the embassy, via a third party, that I was not representing the party, and certainly not the government, and that my visit was a purely personal, private visit to meet old friends and new acquaintances in Hong Kong. Unfortunately that did not satisfy them either.

In consultation with others, I took the view that if I were to cave in to pressure from the embassy, sent through unofficial text messages via a third party, I would be doing exactly what I have criticized others of doing: kowtowing to China. My conscience would not allow me to do that. How could I look my activist friends in the eye if I caved at the first hurdle? I decided therefore that I had to put it to the test by going as planned to Hong Kong. If the Chinese were serious then they would have to refuse me entry publicly, exposing yet another example of the erosion of “one country, two systems”.

[…] This is not about me. It is about Hong Kong. And it is clear from this very stark, personal, first-hand and painful experience that if one country, two systems is not yet completely dead, it is dying rapidly, being rendered limb from limb with accelerating speed. The world, and especially the with its responsibilities under the Sino-British joint declaration, must wake up to this. I am no threat to Sino-British relations. But I believe the conduct of the Chinese regime, particularly in Hong Kong, is. [Source]

At the South China Morning Post, Danny Lee reports that Rogers is now planning to establish an NGO to monitor the situation in Hong Kong:

Rogers provided the Post with details of his plans for his London-based NGO focused on Hong Kong.

“Our aim would be to establish a new organisation that would provide more coordinated research and monitoring so we can have in-depth briefings and information for policymakers in London,” he explained, adding they would work closely with British parliamentarians and government officials.

“I think Hong Kong has reached a situation where it needs serious advocacy, particularly in London, because of its responsibility to the [Sino-British] Joint Declaration … our aim is to be international and a voice in other capitals in the EU and beyond.”

Full details of the group, its plans and supporters would be revealed at the end of the month, Rogers said. [Source]

Meanwhile, at The New York Times, Yi-Zheng Lian summarizes Beijing’s increasing control over speech and politics in Hong Kong. In the op-ed, Lian outlines a recent showdown over freedom of speech on Hong Kong campuses that resulted in 10 prominent universities issuing a joint statement condemning discussion of Hong Kong independence as an “abuse” of free speech that “contravenes the Basic Law.” Jian continues to note that political success in Hong Kong’s semiautonomous system increasingly depends on ideological loyalty to Beijing than it does on competence:

[…] Eddie Ng, the education secretary under the grossly unpopular previous chief executive C.Y. Leung, was nicknamed “Ng The Inept.” One of the first measures he undertook on the job was to push for so-called patriotic education modeled after the curriculum in mainland China. But the effort failed in the face of widespread opposition from the public.

Paul Chan, the current financial secretary, was the owner of a small accounting firm before joining the government. He lacks the deep understanding of economics and finance required of his post, but no matter: He has professed his patriotism and has diligently implemented Beijing’s economic policy to “fuse” Hong Kong and the motherland.

The police force, once the pride of the city, has fallen in residents’ esteem. It earned itself a black mark when, grotesquely, seven policemen ganged up on one harmless protester and beat him during the Umbrella Movement. The force became a laughingstock in 2015 after suing a female protester for allegedly using her breasts to assault a policeman.

It is in this climate of Chinese encroachment that the disillusioned youth of Hong Kong, led by university students, are now raising the banner of ultimate resistance: the call for full political independence.

But the immediate issue at stake, more basic than independence, is freedom of speech. […] [Source]

For more on mounting concerns about Beijing’s encroaching political control, and the erosion of press freedom and the freedom of speech in Hong Kong, see prior coverage via CDT.