EU – Hong Kong Relations: We Connect?
“We connect” was the campaign slogan used by the current Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-Ngor, during the 2017 election. Today it is used ironically to describe the various age groups and sectors of society uniting together and forming an alliance opposing the so-called “police state”.
Over the past seven months, Hongkongers have witnessed unprecedented protests and the most incompetent government since the handover from British colonial rule. The present approval rating of Lam is 19.5%, based on the latest public opinion poll conducted by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute. This is a record-low compared with her predecessors.
This number is echoed in other record-breaking statistics – around 8 out of 10 citizens interviewed are dissatisfied with the government’s performance, and more than half of the interviewees from another poll agreed that the Hong Kong Police Force must be held accountable for their actions.
Alarmingly, the police has fired crowd control weapons more than 30,000 times and arrested at least 6,000 people, 40% of which are students. At least one journalist from Indonesia and a local woman suffered severe eye injuries due to police misuse of force. It is hard to deny that Hong Kong is now a ticking bomb with no bomb specialists.
Under these precarious circumstances, the European Union (EU) has publically commented on the situation in Hong Kong at least nine times. The European Parliament adopted a resolution regarding the issue on 18th July 2019. The Parliament “calls for the EU, its Member States and the international community to work towards the imposition of appropriate export control mechanisms to deny China, and in particular Hong Kong, access to technologies used to violate basic rights”. Sadly, neither the tone of this statement nor the calls for instrument or export controls are strong enough to push for constructive change.
From a strategic perspective, Hong Kong is one of the most popular foreign direct investment destinations and an important trading partner for the EU. More than 2,200 EU companies have branches located in Hong Kong. One out of two of these EU companies select Hong Kong as their regional office or headquarter. Unquestionably, Europeans will also suffer from the turbulence Hongkongers are now experiencing and deserve a more decisive response.
Apart from the statement from the European Parliament, and a few other relatively “soft” foreign policy instruments, such as the annual Structured Dialogue between the EU and the Government of Hong Kong, the EU should adopt more restrictive measures for defending human rights and democratic principles.
EU-wide arms embargoes and trade restrictions for arms and ammunition would be appropriate. Companies in the United Kingdom and Germany manufacture the tear gas grenades being used against the protesters. The UK supplies rubber bullets used by the Hong Kong Police Force. The water cannons are imported from a French company claiming to be specialised in crowd management vehicles. Member states of the EU are playing a role in the fighting on the ground.
On 9th December 2019, the Foreign Affairs Council of the EU announced the start of preparatory work on a new sanctions framework, a European “Magnitsky Act”, including travel bans and the freezing of assets. The act targets individuals perpetrating human rights violations around the globe. If the proposed list does not include government officials and politicians from Hong Kong, it would be a mistake.
Every time someone asks me about the situation in Hong Kong, I always conclude with “I am not sure how this will all end” as the stupidity of the government officials and the brutality of the police are for most of us unimaginable. Undoubtedly, the EU should connect, and stand with Hongkongers to defend the values we share, and “may people reign, proud and free, now and evermore”.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the platform.
Kwan Lok Alan HO – A student from Hong Kong, currently studying the Master of European Studies (Governance and Regulation) at the Centre for European Integration Studies of the University of Bonn in Germany.