We talk a lot about flag-waving in UK politics, mostly in negative terms. So it was ironic to see the Union flag become a potent political symbol, not of Brexit or Scottish Unionism, but on the other side of the world – one of liberty.
Some might think footage of a protester on the streets of Hong Kong waving red, white and blue of the UK in front of a line of riot police as tear gas canisters smoulder represents some kind of moral victory.
In reality, it ought to be seen as one of the UK’s most shaming failures.
The UK handed over Hong Kong to China in 1997 because it could no longer defend it militarily. Through a Joint Declaration with Beijing on the transfer of its last colony, the UK Government became the guarantor of a policy of ‘One Country, Two Systems’, that was supposed to ensure the continuation of the civic freedoms that Hong Kongese had enjoyed. Since 1997, the UK has proven to be unwilling to defend that, either.
Over the past 20 years, Chinese rule has tightened and freedoms have been eroded, with dissidents in Hong Kong facing an escalating campaign of harassment and imprisonment.
Not that Hong Kong was ever a proper democracy – the UK dragged its feet over reforms of the colony’s governance while still in charge, meaning it handed over an imperfect system that was far easier for the Chinese Communist Party to subvert. A double failure, then.
Perhaps a triple failure - western policy towards China has been deeply compromised for a generation. Last week saw the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, when soldiers fired into crowds of pro-democracy protesters. Within a handful of years, China was welcomed into the global capitalist system, transforming its economy – but at significant cost to workers in the developed world. Now the Chinese government is accused of systematically eradicating the culture of Muslim Uighurs, but its economic power puts it beyond accountability.
Like the rickshaw drivers who collected bodies from Tiananmen Square and asked foreign journalists to “tell the world”, the flag-waver on the streets of Hong Kong is making an appeal in vain.