Few incidents have brought more public scrutiny about the exercise of power in China than the abuse of tennis champion Peng Shuai. The former doubles world No1 spoke out about violence against women publicly and accused a senior Chinese government official of sexual assault. Then, with shocking predictability, disappeared.
Unlike the craven acquiescence to the interests of the Chinese government which has been shown by the International Olympic Committee and the NBA in the last couple of years, the tennis world has stood up on her behalf. Driven by Serena Williams and Andrew Murray, the hashtag #whereispengshuai has been trending. Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy is one of a handful of Western politicians calling for a boycott of the Olympic Winter Games in Beijing.
But the silencing of a young talented athlete by a powerful Communist Party apparatchik should also draw us to examine the coercive application of power in China more widely and to empathise with the victims – whether they are in Xinjiang, Tibet or Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s young people share many similarities with Peng Shuai. They are facing persecution for standing up for their rights. But unlike her, they do not have armies of international tennis stars to stand with them. Hundreds are imprisoned. They must not be forgotten.
Unfortunately, the British government’s offer of refuge to Hong Kongers with BNO passports does not apply to those under the age of 25 because they were born after the handover of the city to China, despite these young people being the most vulnerable to arrest.
Of the thousand or so people who face trial for activities during the 2019 protests, over 90 per cent are under the age of 25, according to research by Hong Kong watch.
They have nowhere to go.
A couple of hundred have taken the step of applying for asylum in the UK and trying to make their way through our tortuous process for asylum seekers.
Our Parliament is slowly waking up to the need to offer an alternative pathway. A string of Tory MPs, including former immigration minister Damien Green, Tom Tugendhat and Iain Duncan Smith, have backed an amendment to change the rules of the current BNO policy to offer a vital lifeline to these young people. It would allow people whose parents have BNO status to access the policy even if they arrive without their family members.
Green has said that he feels Britain has a “moral obligation” to help the young Hong Kongers by rationalising the unfair status quo.
He said recently: “I think it would be perfectly possible for the system to cope with this. And of course many of these people will otherwise claim asylum.”
He is right.
The Home Secretary is already grappling with the number of asylum seekers arriving in the English Channel.
A rule change would ensure our immigration system had enough flex to accommodate – and provide safe haven – for the people who have fought so hard for democracy.
The disappearance of Peng Shuai has once again thrown a spotlight on the systemic abuse of power the Chinese Communist Party exerts on its enemies.
If this is how it treats a national icon; just think what it will do to those threatening its autocratic power in Hong Kong.