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Editorial: The push for a confrontation over Hong Kong is misleading – and dangerous

THE call from seven former foreign secretaries for Britain to lead an international alliance against China over events in Hong Kong is dangerous.

The letter refers positively to the West’s role in the wars that broke up the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

The former ministers, four Labour (in office), three Tory, aim at rebuilding a foreign policy consensus around aggressive interventions abroad that was weakened during Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-imperialist leadership of the Labour Party. 

To do so they hark back to a mythical golden age of “humanitarian intervention,” before the term was discredited by the bloody catastrophe of Iraq.

They are unlikely to push for a military confrontation with China, though the risk of heightening tension when relations between Beijing and Washington are breaking down is clear. 

So the left’s attitude should be based on a sober assessment of what is happening in Hong Kong, what motivates the Magnificent Seven ex-foreign secretaries and what the consequences of their policy would be.

The new security law in Hong Kong — actually the long-delayed implementation of Hong Kong’s own Basic Law which incorporates Chinese national security laws — comes after a year in which the city has been rocked by often violent protests.

Shops and restaurants have been smashed, public transport infrastructure destroyed. Rioters have knifed pro-mainland politicians, set other Hong Kong residents alight and beaten many of them up, killed an elderly man with a brick and hurled incendiary bombs at police and civilians.

While most protesters have been peaceful, a violent fringe has been moving towards open adoption of terrorist methods.

They often accuse the police of brutality in turn. In some cases they may be right, but the huge attention given to Hong Kong authorities’ actions last year certainly contrasted sharply with the near-silence on the far larger-scale violence being deployed by the French state against the yellow vests, which saw several fatalities and hundreds of people maimed and blinded by police.

The retired ministers’ lack of concern over the brutal attacks on protesters occurring right now across the United States is familiar.

Western narratives assume justice on the side of protesters who initially targeted an extradition reform which would have allowed people accused of crimes on the mainland to be deported there for trial.

It was seldom mentioned that the prompt for the reform was the case of a man who had murdered his girlfriend in Taiwan and, having fled to Hong Kong, could not be legally extradited because the territory has extradition agreements with so few other places.

The size of the protests reveals deep suspicion of mainland China among many in Hong Kong, but counter-protests also attracted hundreds of thousands, meaning the reality is of a divided territory rather than one whose people are united against Beijing.

The navigation of these divisions is not helped by a crass intervention from the former colonial authorities.

The proposal involves lining up behind Donald Trump’s aggressive attacks on China, which are motivated solely by the need to maintain US global supremacy and resentment of the goodwill China has won through the medical assistance it has provided to countries hit by Covid-19.

Trump’s posturing carries a real risk of war, and Britain’s peace movement should make it clear that we expect our government to do what it can to ease tensions rather than inflame them.

On the left, the issue carries a subtler significance.

Under Corbyn the Labour right used the EU as a “wedge” issue, taking advantage of pro-EU sentiment among Corbyn-supporting Labour members to undermine his leadership.

China can play an analogous role in reshaping Labour foreign policy, as understanding of its politics and history is generally poor in the West.

By making a humanitarian cause of Hong Kong, Labour’s rightwingers can rehabilitate an Atlanticist outlook comfortable with Britain’s role as junior partner to the United States and committed to supporting US aggression abroad.

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