SCOTLAND can lead pressure on China to restore democracy in Hong Kong – but it must be prepared to face inevitable consequences, campaigners have warned.

The heads of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong, a pressure group formed last year to fight for justice in the former British colony, have said Scotland can become a “safe haven” for pro-democracy activists fleeing the Chinese state’s illiberal crackdown on the region.

The National:

Mark Clifford (above) was the former editor-in-chief of the pro-democracy English-language newspaper the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, where he lived for nearly 20 years.

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His friend and former colleague Jimmy Lai is among a number of journalists currently imprisoned for publishing pro-democracy news articles. 

He told The National the world is “moving into an illiberal period” following President Xi Jinping’s brutal attacks on liberals in Hong Kong – which was a British colony until it was returned to China in 1997.

Xi will be emboldened by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, he said but the Russian President’s war will “harden attitudes” in the West against China.

The National:

It should make Scots worried, he added – but stressed Holyrood, while not having the powers to create foreign policy, could still put pressure on the UK Government to take tougher action against a “bullying” Chinese state.

He and the committee’s director of UK and EU advocacy and public affairs Mark Sabah were in Edinburgh this week to speak with MSPs they hope will back their calls for the West to take a stand against China.

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And he warned anti-democratic movements abroad make a “move away from democracy” in countries like the UK “more plausible”.

Asked about whether anti-democratic moves from countries like Xi’s China or Putin’s Russia emboldened authoritarian impulses in the West, Clifford said: “As an American, we’re incredibly concerned about that in the States.

“I think we are entering into a much more illiberal period.

“Illiberal regimes provoke a reaction even in open societies.

“The lessons [from Hong Kong] are pretty grim. In your case, the parallel would be Westminster if they decided they wanted to put total control over Scotland.

The National:

A demonstration at a shopping mall popular with traders from mainland China in Hong Kong, December 2019/AP

“That’s not a bad parallel, you guys are pretty autonomous, if they decided, as they did in Hong Kong, to completely redraw the rules… I don’t know what the lessons are but the people of Hong Kong fought really hard but they were destroyed.

The Committee hope to emphasise Scotland’s historical ties to Hong Kong; one of its last governors was Alloa-born David Wilson.

“Scottish people helped build Hong Kong,” said Clifford.

“The populations are similar, the semi-autonomous status both have is similar – the ties between them are very strong.

“And now Scotland is home to increasing numbers of Hong Kongers who are moving here.”

The National:

Scottish universities take millions from Chinese students and the knock-on effect to local economies are substantial, Clifford said.

But the “bullying” influence of Confucius Institutes at Scottish universities is “trying to end the freedoms we have as an open society”.

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Clifford said the institutes are guilty of promoting pro-regime propaganda and attempting to silence pro-democracy elements within and outwith Chinese student populations.

Universities need to probe their activities, according to Clifford, and stop them from operating in a cloud of secrecy.

And Scotland can stand in solidarity with Hong Kongers despite the restrictions of devolution according to Sabah.

He said: “Scotland has a role to play today.

“It can monitor what’s happening at its universities and what’s happening with civil societies.

“It can make itself open to Hong Kongers who come to the UK – there is more to the UK than London.

“Scotland can say, ‘You belong here too.’”

Seven of Clifford’s former colleagues from his time at Apple Daily, a newspaper closed by the Hong Kong authorities after a 26-year run, have been in jail for more than seven months.

The authoritarian National Security Law – which has tightened Chinese control over Hong Kong – means they have no right to a trial by jury and can be detained without bail indefinitely.

His new book, Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow the World: What China's Crackdown Reveals About Its Plans to End Freedom Everywhere is out now.