The Hong Kong mass surveillance plan would make our Huawei deal untenable

After the brutal treatment Beijing has meted out to pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, the territory’s restless population is unlikely to be swayed by any reassurances offered by Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive. From abducting law-abiding booksellers, as happened in late 2015, to, more recently, dispatching elite units from the People’s Liberation Army to deal with the pro-democracy protests that erupted last year, China’s ruling communist party has made it abundantly clear it has scant regard for the constitutional rights of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million residents.

Now we discover that Beijing is trying to exploit the coronavirus pandemic to impose strict new security laws that will better enable Beijing to crush any future signs of dissent, as well as limiting the cherished freedoms of Hong Kongers.

Attempting to head off a fresh round of anti-government protests, Ms Lam yesterday sought to play down the significance of the new national security law that is to be rubber stamped by the National People’s Congress, China’s apology for a parliament. Far from being a measure aimed at curtailing the rights of Hong Kongers, Ms Lam insisted it was a “responsible” move designed to protect the law-abiding majority.

The big flaw in Ms Lam’s attempt to reassure the Hong Kong public is that, when the law comes into effect, it will enable Beijing to base its intelligence and security operations in the territory, a move that has hitherto been prevented by the Basic Law arrangements that were established when Hong Kong was handed to China from British control in 1997.

Many pro-democracy campaigners have already been on the receiving end of China’s uncompromising approach to its security concerns, where extrajudicial detentions are the norm, and anti-communist activitists are subjected to torture, a fate that is said to have befallen many of the pro-democracy demonstrators that were held at Hong Kong’s infamous San Uk Ling detention centre last year.

Moreover, when the new law is passed, China will be able to extend its intelligence and security operations in the territory by, for example, introducing the mass surveillance techniques that it has used so successfully to persecute the country’s minority Uighur community in Xinjiang province in northwest China. The Chinese authorities are understood to have used similar surveillance methods in cities like Wuhan to trace and track those infected by Covid-19.

One of the companies said to be making a major contribution to Beijing’s mass surveillance of the Uighurs is the Chinese technology giant Huawei, the very same company that the British Government has granted permission to build our new 5G telecoms network. Huawei has denied direct involvement in spying on the Uighurs, an act that has been likened to “mass ethnic persecution”. Yet the allegations are being taken sufficiently seriously in Britain for MPs to have called for Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to suspend the 5G agreement “until investigations have been conducted into Huawei’s work in Xinjiang and its relationship to the mass persecution”.

The demands for No 10 to ditch the Huawei deal are likely to intensify if, as now seems likely, China will soon be able to move its mass surveillance operations into Hong Kong, thereby enabling Beijing’s communist rulers to spy on Hong Kong’s inhabitants.

Apart from Britain’s moral obligation to safeguard the rights afforded Hong Kong citizens under the Basic Law, there are tens of thousands of Hong Kong citizens in possession of British national (overseas) passports. While lawyers continue to argue as to whether possession of this document affords the holder residency rights in Britain, the Government at the very least has an obligation to afford them some degree of protection. Thus any attempt by China to establish a mass surveillance operation in Hong Kong would put Britain on a collision course with Beijing, one that would make the Government’s current commitment to upholding the Huawei deal untenable.

Beijing’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, where it has sought to deny the virus originated in China, has already resulted in the Government coming under pressure to review the Huawei deal, so that the National Cyber Security Centre is in the process of reassessing the risk the Chinese company poses to Britain’s national security infrastructure.

This is a good start, although it is hard to believe that Downing Street can maintain its equivocal attitude towards Beijing if the country’s communist rulers compound their lamentable handling of the coronavirus crisis and use the same bully-boy tactics they have employed against their critics to crush pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.

From tackling coronavirus to silencing the voices of dissent, China has demonstrated that it has no regard for the norms of international behaviour. In such circumstances, therefore, it is inconceivable that Britain can continue to do business with a company like Huawei that is so closely associated with Beijing’s communist tyrants.

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