The UK promised us Hong Kong would never walk alone – Theresa May has to keep that promise

In 1996, on the eve of handover, the British prime minister, John Major, vowed: “Hong Kong will never have to walk alone”.

With Xi Jinping refusing to respect the autonomy and freedoms Hong Kong was guaranteed after its return to Chinese control, it now falls to Major’s Conservative party heir, Theresa May, to make good on that pledge.

Let me explain why.

Two years ago, we founded our political party, Demosisto, hoping to strengthen Hong Kong’s youth democracy force that came together during 2014’s “umbrella movement” protests. The peaceful, 79-day demonstrations failed to win any major concessions from Beijing but they did show us the potential our generation had to make a meaningful difference.

To build on that momentum, we thought it was worth trying to enter the political establishment. And that was precisely what we did when our friend and chairperson, Nathan Law, was elected in September 2016 aged 23.

But two months later came Beijing’s use of its controversial power to “interpret” Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law. Two “localist” legislators accused of having separatist tendencies were barred from office for using vulgar language and waving “Hong Kong is not China” banners during the swearing-in ceremony.

The following year, four progressive legislators were also removed on the same grounds. Nathan was one of them: he had quoted Gandhi and declared his refusal to obey “a regime that murders its own people” before reading his oath.

The byelections, set to take place on 11 March, are supposed to fill the seats vacated by Beijing’s relentless crackdown. Nathan is unable to stand because of his recent sentencing on political charges related to the umbrella movement so Demosisto instead decided to field Agnes Chow, a fellow student activist leader.

Agnes met every requirement to stand in the election and looked set to break Nathan’s record as Hong Kong’s youngest legislator. But then, last Saturday, her candidacy was declared invalid due to her support for the idea of Hong Kong’s right to self-determination.

The decision was a textbook example of how unfair, uncompetitive elections – where only candidates pre-screened the government appears on the ballot – work.

What’s more, Demosisto does not even advocate separatism and has repeatedly emphasised the true meaning of “self-determination”: an opportunity for Hong Kongers to decide and determine, through democratic means, the territory’s political status and its future.

There’s no doubt that the Chinese government is waging a full-fledged crackdown on Demosisto. Our chairperson was already unreasonably removed from the legislature, while several of our most prominent figures have been imprisoned over the past year for participating in civil disobedience. Saturday’s decision gives us good reason to believe that no member of our party can take part in future elections.

With Beijing’s ever-tightening grip, the opposition camp in Hong Kong is left with less and less space to survive: the exact same stance deemed acceptable in 2016 is unacceptable in 2018. Agnes is hardly the first victim – and she will not be the last. As the remaining voices for civil disobedience are suppressed, the political spectrum narrows even further.

Theresa May must use her time with “Emperor Xi” this week to stand up for Hong Kong’s rights, before it is too late.

Joshua Wong is the secretary-general of Demosisto. Jeffrey Ngo, Demosisto’s chief researcher, is a visiting scholar at the University of Toronto

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