The sight of young people anywhere being brutally stripped of their freedom is depressing. When that freedom was a legacy, however brief, from the British crown, it is more so. The ban on dissent now imposed by China on Hong Kong smashes the spirit and letter of the Sino-British treaty of 1984. It shows China for what it is, an unprincipled dictatorship.

When I reported in 1997 on the Hong Kong celebrations bidding farewell to British rule, there was one question on all lips. It was: how long would Beijing’s 50-year pledge of “one nation, two systems” survive? The guesses were five years, perhaps 10. China would surely milk the cash cow for all it was worth, but any sign of trouble and Beijing would instantly wipe this “imperialist pimple” off the map. No one dreamed China’s patience would last 23 years.

So it has proved. The ruthlessness of Beijing’s repression has surprised even hardened China-watchers. The former governor, Lord Patten, calls it Orwellian in its reach, not least in criminalising China’s critics everywhere abroad. A certain tolerance might have better served Beijing’s image. But every visitor to China knows that what matters to Beijing is how something looks in Beijing, not abroad. Authoritarianism validates its own rules.

The bravery of young Hongkongers in defying the new measures has been impressive. Their defence of the enclave’s even partial liberties is witness to a rarely cited legacy of British empire, the embedding of democratic values in indigenous politics. Back in the benign 1990s, when communist autocracy seemed in retreat, the idea of former western colonies serving as advance bases of global democracy seemed just plausible. Britain and America even fought wars to that end in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This ambition was fanciful. Hong Kong is part of China, and its attempted rebirth in 1997 as a liberal cuckoo in Beijing’s communist nest was absurd. Even the boldest dissident, the young Joshua Wong, gloomily admitted in his recent book Unfree Speech that he expected it eventually to become just another mainland Chinese city. The only question was when, and how.

Britain is now in a dither over how to react. We can almost hear Beijing’s apparatchiks laugh as London erupts in impotent fury. Perhaps Boris Johnson would care to refight the opium wars. Perhaps he wants to discuss the Yangtze incident. The regime of Xi Jinping is currently the most disciplined and powerful force on earth. The idea of it losing a minute’s sleep over virtue signalling on the far side of the globe is ridiculous. Yes, Xi tolerated the antics of Wong and his colleagues for a while. But it was certain that if they went too far, they would be silenced. Hong Kong’s soberer heads were right: the radicals should have lived with such freedoms as they were allowed. Now they have none.

The dull echo of British empire, shared with Washington, is a craving to tell the rest of the world how to order its affairs. The walls of the Foreign Office are lined with images of the four continents grovelling at the feet of Britannia. They seep into the psyche of British foreign ministers, year after year. This week, politicians of all parties have been dusting off the rusty weapons of yore. Johnson wants to send his unusable aircraft carrier to the South China Sea. There is talk of UN resolutions, trade embargoes, “targeted sanctions” and ostracism. The former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith wants to “show China that it can’t get away with tearing up international treaties and abusing human rights”.

It can, and it will. The reality is that modern China can do what it likes, and there is nothing Duncan Smith or anyone in Britain – or Europe – can do about it. Meanwhile, as Britain buys missiles and planes, Beijing surges into the 21st century armed with the weapons of cyberwar and intellectual theft. It hacks systems, throws switches, corrupts elections and moves vast sums of money round the world at will. It is out of our league.

The question of how to handle modern China clearly deserves the most careful attention. The veteran China-watcher Henry Kissinger has long contrasted the certainty of its internal command with the uncertainty, indeed immaturity, of its global outreach. The most pressing concern of its rulers is that its neighbours within the Pacific basin should not threaten its political stability. Hence the eye it keeps on Hong Kong, and over the horizon on South Korea and Taiwan. Relations between China and these countries are clearly unstable. But the idea that the west has any role in such potential conflicts, let alone a responsibility to police them, is madness.

The way for the west to promote global democracy remains, as always, by example. Just now, in states on both sides of the Atlantic, democracy badly needs a spring clean. As for China, Britain’s strongest suit is its soft power, in particular the popularity of its schools and colleges to the Chinese middle class. There are more than 100,000 Chinese students in Britain, many of dubious loyalty to their own regime and therefore now at risk. They need encouraging and protecting from the new laws.

One other debt of empire remains to be paid to Hong Kong, and Johnson was right this week to pay it. When Britain withdrew from the colony in 1997, it offered many of its people an overseas British passport, with the possible right of UK residency. Whatever treachery China may have perpetrated, Britain should keep its side of the bargain. We could never give Hong Kong democracy. We can at least give it refuge from democracy’s foes.

Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist

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