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Attacks on children and their education are shocking and underline the need for urgent international action – we must impose Magnitsky-style sanctions on key figures complicit in eroding Hongkongers’ rights.
Away from the cut and thrust of Westminster, one of the joys of holding chairs and fellowships at universities has been the opportunity to hear intelligent young people freely express themselves and their ideas. I have even delivered a lecture in a Chinese university – and, although the controlled public questions were stilted, in private conversations, away from the lecture theatre, I encountered the same intellectual curiosity.
That same powerful energy, driven by a zest for learning, and an idealism not yet crushed by the stultifying behemoth of Communism, has also been a striking characteristic of the students I have met in Hong Kong – and other free societies such as Singapore and Taiwan.
Their UK counterparts have recently and understandably told me that being a student blighted by the uncertainties of Covid it is not an easy time to be a student – but at least the virus has not been able to crush their right to think and speak freely.
Sadly, the same cannot be said for young people in Hong Kong.
As one of Asia’s greatest cities plunges headlong into totalitarianism, children have become the new targets of the National Security Law.
In targeting the city’s youngest and most vulnerable Hong Kong’s police have weaponized the Chinese Communist Party’s new law, plummeting to a new low.
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, and her agents seem to have no understanding that targeting young pro-democracy campaigners will be completely counter-productive and will turn the fight for democratic rights into an inter-generational struggle which will inevitably ultimately prevail.
In this fight for freedom, horrifying video footage emerged last week of police officers tackling a 12-year-old girl to the ground and violently restraining her. Repeat: a twelve-year-old girl. I hope they are proud of their heroics.
That incident occurred at a protest to mark the date on which elections were due to take place, but which Carrie Lam has postponed for a year, ostensibly because of the Covid-19 outbreak. It comes after months of steadily increasing aggression by the police, the imposition of the draconian National Security Laws, severe restrictions and abuse of protesters.
Carrie Lam and her agents in Hong Kong have repeatedly shown that they would rather capitulate to China’s desire for oppression than to protect the rights of their people
The Hong Kong Police Force defended the brutal arrest of the 12-year-old girl, whom they claim required “subduing” by force because she was running “suspiciously”.
Few will be surprised by this complete lack of remorse.
Carrie Lam and her agents in Hong Kong have repeatedly shown that they would rather capitulate to China’s desire for oppression than to protect the rights of their people. The latest development only paves the way for a future where similarly shocking incidents will occur on a regular basis.
The attacks on Hong Kong’s children extends into the education system as well as on the streets.
The high school curriculum has already been rewritten to censor the mention of democracy and just this week a teenager was suspended for displaying a “free Hong Kong” slogan in his profile picture during an online class. Universities have recently stated that they will stop recording their lectures in an attempt to shield their students from academic censorship.
Defending education is a fundamental part of the fight for freedom. Nelson Mandela understood that better than most: “Education”, he said, “is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
The defence of academic freedom is central to the protest movement in Hong Kong and the next generation of Hongkongers well understand that standing up for principles like freedom, democracy, the rule of law and human rights is a central part of the city’s identity.
For now, the rights of Hongkongers to a proper education and freedom of thought are fading.
Students and young people have been at the forefront of the protest movement since the very beginning. But with fewer resources and tools to defend themselves, they are extremely vulnerable. If the international community does not rally behind them, children growing up in the city will never know what freedom feels like.
These attacks on children and their education are shocking and underline the need for urgent international action. This must include the imposition of Magnitsky-style sanctions on key figures who have been complicit in eroding Hongkongers’ rights. It is time to remind Carrie Lam and her agents that the world is watching and that I will act to protect the next generation’s right to safety and education.
Hong Kong’s students and young people can be inspired by the bravery of Malala Yusafzai the Nobel laureate who, as a 12-year-old girl wrote a blog challenging the Taliban.
At the age of 15 the Taliban, who so despise the idea of women receiving an education, shot her. After much suffering Malala recovered and has dedicated her young life to championing human rights. She famously remarked that “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world”. And she was right.
Lord Alton is a crossbench member of the House of Lords, vice chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong, and a member of the Lords Select Committee on International Relations and Defence.