Emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
Before I call the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee to move his motion, it may be for the convenience of the House to know that I intend to call the Front-Bench speakers to wind up the debate. The thrust of the debate is in the ownership of the House, and I think that we shall want to hear from Back-Bench Members, led by the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Sir Richard Ottaway.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the ban by China on the Foreign Affairs Committee visit to Hong Kong.
As one who travels more than most, I have become only too aware of the high regard that the world has for the United Kingdom—for what this iconic building stands for, what the Chamber stands for, and what those who sit in it stand for. It is, in a phrase, freedom and democracy: a respect for human rights around the world, and an abhorrence of tyranny. The decision by the Government of China to ban the Foreign Affairs Committee’s visit to Hong Kong is a mistake. It is an attack on the men and women of the free world.
It is nearly five years since the House did me the great honour of electing me Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. During that time, I have been ably supported by my colleagues. We have visited some of the most troubled parts of the world—places where democracy is all but non-existent, or an illusion—but in none has anyone ever sought to deny us access, or accused us of
“meddling in the internal affairs of another country”,
as the Chinese ambassador did during a meeting with me on 15 August. That is an accusation unsupported by any evidence.
Between the end of the first opium war with China in 1842 and withdrawal in 1997, the Union flag flew over the island of Hong Kong. In 1898, the Chinese authorities granted a 99-year lease of the new territories on the mainland. The looming expiration of that lease began to exercise diplomats in the 1970s and 1980s. The Chinese made it clear that they wanted the return of the new territories, without which Hong Kong was not a viable entity. A course of action and a handover were carefully planned, and the Sino-British joint declaration was agreed. The declaration was signed in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on 19 December 1984 by Margaret Thatcher and the Chinese premier, Zhao Ziyang. It was deposited with the United Nations a few months later.
I am afraid to say that I am old enough to have been a member of the House of Commons at the time of the signing. The reaction then was that this was not a bad deal at all. It was as good as we were going to get, and it was either this or no deal at all. At its heart was a commitment to a “one country, two system” style of government, and a pledge that the socialist system of China would not be practised in Hong Kong, that Hong Kong would retain its status as an international finance centre, and that its previous capitalist system, its rights, its freedoms and its way of life would remain unchanged for 50 years. The joint declaration provides that those undertakings shall be set out in the Hong Kong Basic Law, and—critically—stipulates that the Chief Executive may be elected. Article 45 of the Basic Law states:
“The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”
The flashpoint for the current protests in Hong Kong was the publication in August of a decision by the standing committee of the National People’s Congress in Beijing on procedures for the election of the Chief Executive in 2017. Aware of the forthcoming decision, two key pro-democracy campaigners, Anson Chan and Martin Lee, told our Committee in July that their main concern was that the “broadly representative nominating committee”, which approves candidates for the post of Chief Executive, would be “dominated” by Beijing loyalists. Martin Lee said that anyone who was not trusted by Beijing would be
“screened out ...even though they were trusted by the Hong Kong people”.
That is the problem that has given rise to unrest, and to the peaceful protests that have received global attention.
Let me clarify for the record, and for those who are not familiar with the workings of the British constitution and the House, that a Select Committee is not part of the United Kingdom Government. On the contrary, the job of the Foreign Affairs Committee is to exercise oversight of the Foreign Office and its policies, and we operate totally independently.
Since the handover in 1997, the Foreign Office has published a report to Parliament on Hong Kong every six months. In its report of 12 July this year, it said of the growing constitutional arguments:
“the important thing is that the people of Hong Kong have a genuine choice and feel that they have a real stake in the outcome.”
“But it is clear that there is still some way to go for consensus to be reached.”
Given the hundreds of thousands of protesters who were on the streets, that was a wonderful British understatement by the then Foreign Secretary, who I am pleased to see is in the Chamber today.
In response to growing concern here and abroad, the Foreign Affairs Committee decided to conduct an inquiry into the strength, accuracy and veracity of the Foreign Office reports. Our terms of reference are simple: to investigate not just the six-monthly reports and the political and constitutional issues that are raised, but the bilateral relationship in terms of trade, business and culture, and the work of the British Council. The most important point is that we embarked upon our report with an open mind. We have no preconceived conclusions, and we invited all interested parties to give evidence, including the Hong Kong and Chinese Governments.
However, shortly after we announced our inquiry, the Chinese ambassador to London wrote to me on 14 July stating that
“The affairs of Hong Kong SAR”—
Special Administrative Region—
“are purely China's internal affairs”,
and that he was
“firmly opposed to any interference in Hong Kong…by any foreign country and by any means.”
He concluded with the advice that the Committee should not make its planned visit to Hong Kong in December. We rejected that advice, because we believed that it would be an abrogation of our responsibilities to the House if we accepted it.
In a letter to me dated 22 November, Mr Song Zhe, China's commissioner to Hong Kong—that is, its representative in Hong Kong—went further, saying that our visit would be viewed as
“support to ‘Occupy Central’ and other illegal activities”.
Occupy Central is the name of the protesters’ campaign on the streets of Hong Kong. In response to the letter, the Committee simply stated it was still our intention to visit. As a result, the deputy ambassador to the Chinese Embassy came to see me in the House on Friday afternoon, and informed me that the Committee would not be allowed entry into Hong Kong for the purposes of our inquiry. The meeting took place in a Committee Room on the Upper Committee Corridor. Fortunately, for the purpose of greater accuracy, I invited the editor of Hansard to attend to ensure that there would be a verbatim record of the conversation. I am grateful to her for her efforts.
At the heart of the Chinese argument, conveyed to me at the meeting, is that the joint declaration signed by China and the United Kingdom is now void and only covered the period from the signing in 1984 until the handover in 1997. Given that the Chinese Government gave an undertaking that the policies enshrined in the agreement would remain unchanged for 50 years, this is a manifestly irresponsible and incorrect position to take. It is a live agreement, which is why the Foreign Office rightly continues to produce its six-monthly reports on Hong Kong. Britain is a party to over 18,000 international treaties and agreements. To suggest that we have no right to assess the performance of our counter-parties to such agreements is ridiculous.
The second point made is the old Aunt Sally—which was made not once, but twice—that we are not a colonial power any more and must not behave like one. I only mention this to enable the House to assess the mindset inside the Chinese Government.
I believe that the decision to ban the Committee is wrong and will have a profound impact. First, decisions on entry to Hong Kong are devolved under the Basic Law and are clearly a matter for the Hong Kong Administration, not the Chinese Government. This sends a clear signal that the pledge that Hong Kong would
“enjoy a high degree of autonomy”,
as set out in paragraph 3(2) of the joint agreement, is now under threat. That the ban on the Committee clearly came from the Chinese Government brings into question whether the key principle of “one country, two systems” still has any meaning.
Secondly, we are China’s partners, not a distant third party. This decision will do nothing but damage Anglo-Chinese relations, something I regret. China is a fellow member of the G20. We have a free flow of parliamentarians, officials, businessmen and those involved in cultural exchanges. I say to China, “If you want to be a member of the G20, you have to behave like a member of the G20.” We have Chinese delegations here all the time. It should not be a one-way street. The Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), is, in fact, due to visit Hong Kong in a few weeks’ time; are they going to ban him, too?
I fully support what the right hon. Gentleman has said today. He has put his case in a very measured and eloquent way and I am sure the whole House supports the position taken by the Foreign Affairs Committee, which of course has implications for other Select Committees, should they wish to visit other countries.
Of course, Select Committees are separate from the Government, but were any representations made by the Government to the Chinese Government about the refusal to grant a visa and allow the FAC to go to China?
As a fellow Select Committee Chairman, I am very grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s support and he will fully understand the position the Committee finds itself in. If he does not mind, I will leave it to the Minister to answer his question, perhaps when he winds up, but I would say that the Foreign Office has been nothing but supportive of the Committee throughout this unhappy episode.
Thirdly, and most importantly, this decision points to China’s direction of travel. If there is a commitment to democracy in Hong Kong, one first has to understand democracy. Democracy embraces criticism, and constructive criticism is the most valuable thing democracy can provide. If China blatantly blocks well-wishers like this Parliament, that raises big, unanswered questions which will alarm the people of Hong Kong and the region. This decision will not go unnoticed in Taiwan.
May I say that it is a pleasure to serve on the FAC under my right hon. Friend’s chairmanship? Does he agree that the Chinese Government have already concluded that they know what our report will say, which is unwise, and they have forfeited the opportunity to put their case to the Committee?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I value his support on the Committee. We have approached this inquiry with an open mind, and I think the Chinese Government and the Hong Kong authorities are missing a real opportunity by declining to give evidence to us. Indeed they do not even recognise the Committee as they continue to call this a “so-called inquiry.”
Finally, Hong Kong is the largest stock market in China and its main financial services hub, supporting a fifth of the world’s population. It currently has free flows of money, goods and services. What sort of message does this send to future investors? This arbitrary action can only harm China’s reputation and financial interests in an increasingly global world. In Asia, a stable Singapore looks a much better place to do business at the moment.
I have been listening with great interest to the right hon. Gentleman’s speech, which I think is absolutely spot-on. Does he agree that the Chinese are looking at this in the following way: “Well, there was all that fuss about Tibet and we just got on with it, and there was all that fuss about our appalling human rights record but we have just got on with it. So over time, this too, will all go away and we’ll continue to trade and be able to sell our goods around the world and nobody will take a blind bit of notice”?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. After the spat over the Dalai Lama, Anglo-Chinese relations were on the right trajectory, and I think this is a very serious hiccup now, which will give a lot of people reason to pause and reflect.
We will continue with our inquiry, but this decision cannot go unchallenged. As Members of this House are well aware, as we enter this Chamber we pass under the archway which has been deliberately left with the damage inflicted by a bomb in the second world war. It is a reminder of the damage that can ultimately be caused by the enemies of freedom. The anchor in our world today is freedom. It gives us our sense of direction. It is how we decide between right and wrong. I invite the Government to condemn this action in the strongest possible terms.
I hope that China will, even at this late stage, change its mind. I say that because 26 years ago, as a Member of this House, I went with a delegation to Hong Kong. We stayed there for a week, and then at the end of the week we booked through a tourist organisation a visit to mainland China. We got as far as Macau and got on a tourist bus ready to cross the border into China, but at the border three of us—three British MPs—were asked to get off the bus. We questioned at the time why we were asked to get off the bus when we had tickets for a three-day visit to China. The tour operator said he could not answer the question, but we were welcome to stay at their expense in Macau for the weekend. That, of course, was not the idea. It was not until we got back to London and I visited the Chinese ambassador that I was told what the reason was: it was that one of our MP members had “journalist” written in his passport. Because it was 26 years ago and around the time of Tiananmen square, the ambassador said they were afraid that if they let us into China we would create some bother. However, he then apologised and said it had all been a bad mistake, and offered us a visit to China at the expense of the Chinese Government, which we took him up on, and there followed a very interesting visit to China. I hope that, if the Chinese Government are listening to these speeches, there is still time for them to admit they have made a mistake and that we should be allowed in.
I support the views of the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), who has eloquently presented the case.
While I have the opportunity, I want to talk about freedom of the press. The Chairman talked about the importance of freedom of speech and of the press. Under article 27 of the Basic Law, residents of Hong Kong
“shall have freedom of speech, of the press and publication; freedom of association, of assembly, of procession and demonstration”,
and the right to join trade unions and to strike.
In recent years, however, there has been an increasing number of complaints from Hong Kong that the freedom of the press, in particular, is being undermined in a number of different ways. For instance, this year, Hong Kong fell to a record low of 61st in the annual global ranking for press freedom complied by Reporters Without Borders. The 2014 annual report of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, entitled “Press Freedom Under Siege”, calls 2014
“the darkest year for press freedom for several decades, with the media coming under relentless assault from several directions.”
The report also argued that the suppression of press freedom was happening
“despite the existence of protection by law.”
Violence against journalists has also increased in Hong Kong as part of the growing intimidation of journalists. The most recent such incident was a knife attack carried out on 26 February against Kevin Lau, the former editor-in-chief of the popular daily, Ming Pao, which was often critical of Beijing. Mr Lau had been abruptly fired a month beforehand by the paper’s owner, a tycoon with major investments in China, and replaced by a new editor who was widely seen as more pro-Chinese. The attack drew widespread condemnation, including from the Hong Kong Government.
Attacks have also been carried out this year against senior figures in the Hong Kong Morning News Media Group and, in 2013, against the owner of the free newspaper am730, the publisher of iSun Affairs and the Next Media chairman Jimmy Lai. All the victims were connected with media outlets known for expressing critical views of Beijing.
Aside from the attacks, many of which have not been solved, other complaints about press freedom centre on issues such as self-censorship and personnel changes. Such complaints do not generally allege that the legal right to press freedom in Hong Kong is being challenged, but rather that journalists or media outlets that are known to criticise Beijing are increasingly facing problems such as the withdrawal of advertisers, the abrupt and unexplained sacking of outspoken management or editorial staff, and the denial of applications to renew broadcasting licences.
I am listening with great attention to my right hon. Friend’s speech, and we all deplore the events that she has described. Would it not, however, be naive to believe that a China controlled by the Communist party and determined to maintain its dictatorship is going to allow freedom of expression and the democratic rights in Hong Kong that we all wish to see?
The point that I was making earlier was that those rights are enshrined in law, and that the Chinese Government are therefore breaking the law if those rights are being violated.
These issues are creating a climate in which, although press freedom is respected according to the letter of the law, journalists are either being pressurised by advertisers and media owners to avoid criticising Beijing or being denied a platform from which to make such criticisms. The rise of the Chinese-owned media in Hong Kong, in tandem with China’s more general economic growth, also plays a role in debates over press freedom. Reporters Without Borders drew attention in its annual report to this fact, stating:
“China’s growing economic weight is allowing it to extend its influence over the media in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, which had largely been spared political censorship until recently. Media independence is now in jeopardy in these three territories, which are either ‘special administrative regions’ or claimed by Beijing.”
I would describe the situation for press and broadcasting freedom in Hong Kong as dire.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s six-monthly report on Hong Kong covering July to December 2013 included a section on press freedom and freedom of expression. It noted that there were “some concerns” that these freedoms were “under threat”. I think that is rather too mild. The report concluded that those rights were “generally well respected”, but detailed a number of controversies particularly relating to press freedom. It its six-monthly report covering January to June 2014, the FCO listed several similar incidents of controversy or demonstrations relating to concerns in Hong Kong about perceived infringements of press freedom. It noted that people in Hong Kong appeared to be increasingly worried about self-censorship. It also noted, however, that in April, the Chief Executive had spoken in support of press freedom because it was
“a cornerstone of a free society”.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office did not take a particular stand on the specific concerns it mentioned, stating:
“We believe that freedom of expression, including of the press, has played an important role in Hong Kong’s success. It is one of the fundamental freedoms protected by the Joint Declaration. As such, we take seriously concerns about press freedom, including fears about self-censorship. We welcome the Chief Executive’s clear statements on press freedom and we will continue to monitor the situation closely.”
As the Chairman of the Select Committee has said, our investigation is going to continue. I hope that the Chinese Government are listening to the points that are being made in this debate and that they will think again, as they did 26 years ago when they recognised that they had made a mistake by excluding three of us from China at that time.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Central to the concern that the House is expressing is the question of whether the United Kingdom can reasonably be accused of interfering in the internal affairs of China. I was privileged to serve as Foreign Secretary for the final two years of British sovereignty over Hong Kong and I was personally involved in the final stages of the negotiations. If the Committee had been trying to comment on matters that were irrelevant to either the joint declaration or the Basic Law, there could be a legitimate complaint that those were the internal affairs of China. However, the question of the franchise in Hong Kong goes to the very heart of the joint declaration and the Basic Law.
The Chairman of the Committee was entirely correct to say that it is patently absurd to suggest that the right—in fact, the obligation—of the United Kingdom Government to take an interest in the fulfilment of the commitments expired when sovereignty transferred to Hong Kong. Only 17 years have passed in the 50-year commitment by the Chinese Government to fulfil those obligations. That commitment was part of an international agreement reached with Her Majesty’s Government, and it is an obligation, not just an entitlement, for the British Government and the Committees of this House to monitor these matters and to express their views on them.
I genuinely believe that the Chinese Government have done themselves a disservice by taking this step. They have demonstrated not their strength but their weakness. The idea that vetoing the issue of visas would resolve the issue was simply wrong. I understand that the Committee is, quite rightly, going to continue its work, and all that has happened is that this action has created some very adverse publicity for the Chinese Government, which could easily have been avoided. They should have welcomed the Foreign Affairs Committee and used the visit as an opportunity to put forward their point of view. They could have explained that, under their own proposals, there would be a mass franchise. They could also have explained the justification for their belief that the selection of candidates should be under their control.
As to whether the Chinese Government would have persuaded the Committee, we cannot say one way or the other, but that is how they should have operated. They have done themselves a disservice in a much wider sense than simply the implications for Hong Kong, because part of the reason for the original commitment by Deng Xiaoping to two systems in one country was not just to find a solution to the issue of Hong Kong; infinitely more important to Chinese policy and Chinese national aspirations is whether Taiwan will one day agree to rejoin the motherland. Central to the Chinese Government’s position ever since Deng Xiaoping has been an attempt to reassure the people and the Government of Taiwan—now a democratic Government with a pluralist system and the rule of law—that their way of life would not be endangered by some agreement at some stage to peacefully join with China under the People’s Republic. The controversies that are convulsing Hong Kong at the moment do enormous damage to the credibility of the Chinese Government’s ability to put forward that argument. They should realise that, and it is astonishing that they still persist in the policy that we are debating.
Central to these issues is not just the question of democracy in Hong Kong, but the rule of law, which is not just about the number of political parties, the candidates or free elections. We all understand what the rule of law means. A fascinating speech was made by the current leader of China and a policy was implemented by the National People’s Congress just a few weeks ago, when the Chinese Government declared that the priority objective for the immediate future was the rule of law in China—but they described it in a specific way. They said that China would be utterly committed to the rule of law “with Chinese characteristics”. That is an interesting qualification. I recall the days of the Soviet Union, when people referred to “people’s democracies” and we knew that the addition of “people’s” was in practice a negation of the democracy itself. Once people start having to qualify democracy, it is an excuse to try to justify ignoring it. So when China is now committed to the rule of law “with Chinese characteristics”, it is worth asking what the characteristics are.
I have a reason to think I know what those characteristics mean and I wish to share it briefly with the House. When I was Foreign Secretary, one of my obligations was to have a series of negotiations with the then Chinese Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen, about the handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic. I vividly remember one meeting in Beijing when I said to him that what was important to the people of Hong Kong when they became part of China was not simply that they would have elections, a pluralist political system and so on, important though that was, but that they would also continue to enjoy the rule of law. I knew what I meant by that, as this House would, but I have never forgotten his response, which was, “Please don’t worry, Mr Rifkind. We in China also believe in the rule of law. In China, the people must obey the law.” I had to point out to him that when we and the people of Hong Kong talked about the rule of law, we were talking not just about the people obeying the law, but about the Government obeying the law—the Government had to be acting under the law and there had to be an independent legal and judicial system. Manifestly, the then Chinese Foreign Minister not only did not agree with me, but had not the faintest idea what I was saying; he could not understand that distinction, and we see that elsewhere; we see it in Putin’s Russia at the moment. The view is that Governments make laws and therefore, if they do not like them, they can either ignore them or change them with impunity, and that is a very serious matter.
It is now 17 years since the transition. I think we have to acknowledge that in many fundamental respects Hong Kong remains very different from China. Compared with the rest of the People’s Republic, it is an open and relatively free society, and we should commend the Chinese Government for the extent to which they have carried out not only much of the letter of the commitment, but a significant amount of its spirit. If they had not done so, Hong Kong would not be the open society that it still remains today. But this House, like the world as a whole, is conscious that these distinctions are being eroded, and in the short term the situation is rather grim if the Chinese Government are determined to nibble away wherever they can at the freedoms that the people of Hong Kong enjoy and are entitled to continue to enjoy.
In the medium to longer term, the difference between Hong Kong and the rest of China will erode, but not in the direction that the current Chinese Government would like; it will not be by Hong Kong becoming more like China, but in the longer term by China becoming more like Hong Kong. Already the pressures within China for a more open and more pluralist system, and for some choice in the election of its leaders, are becoming very significant. To be fair, the Chinese Government have already experimented in some local elections with allowing more than one candidate and a real element of choice, albeit in a very restricted way.
The final point I make is simply that the Chinese Government’s current assumption about pluralism, democracy and the rule of law is that they are western values, not Chinese ones. The evidence that discounts that, showing it to be worthless as an argument, is not what happens in the west; it is found by looking at the transformation of Taiwan, at Hong Kong and, to a significant degree, at Singapore—all Chinese communities that not only talk about democracy, but practise it. They practise pluralism and have independent judicial systems, and that clearly corresponds to the wishes of the people they govern. So we are talking about universal values, and the Chairman and members of the Foreign Affairs Committee have done a great service, not just to this House, but to Hong Kong and to China as a whole, by opening up this debate in the way that we are able to do today.
I hope the House will forgive me if I do not remain throughout this debate, as I have other commitments, although I very much wanted to be present for it.
I was in Hong Kong at the handover from the United Kingdom to the Chinese Government. I remember that Prince Charles gave a party aboard the royal yacht Britannia, but there was nothing to celebrate. I was there in an auditorium when Chinese troops goose-stepped along the stage, hauled down the Union flag and hoisted the Chinese flag, and I regarded it as a day of shame for Britain. There was never any obligation to hand over Hong Kong to China. Chris Patten, when he was governor of Hong Kong, belatedly tried to stop it, but by then it was too late because the then Government had decided that that was what should be done. I have no doubt that it was Foreign Office officials abiding by their usual custom of ingratiating themselves with a Foreign Government with whom we could have valuable trading relations, with democracy as the second consideration.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a point about trade. China is looking to deploy enormous amounts of capital in Europe and, clearly, a lot of investment is taking place in the UK, which I welcome. What more could be done to impress upon the Chinese Government that these incidents ultimately hit business confidence and that they need to get over this because we want to see more investment from China in Europe?
The problem is that the Foreign Office and other Departments such as the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills say, “In the end, human rights in China and in Hong Kong are secondary to the fact that China is now an immense economic power and a very important trading partner.” The problem is that the days when morality dictated foreign policy have diminished, and it is very important for us to understand what is going on there. I remember making a great mistake when I led a Labour party delegation to China as shadow Foreign Secretary. I said to the leaders of the Chinese Communist party that if they wanted China to be a capitalist country, which they clearly did, they would have to abandon autocracy and adopt democracy. I could not have been more wrong, because they have managed to create a capitalist economy without putting in place a democratic society.
This is a very important moment in our relationship with Hong Kong. I pay tribute to many of the things that were said at Foreign Office questions today, but the Government must take into account the fact that although trade and jobs are important, morality is also very important and we should stand up for it.
I have a painting in my house of the gate to Tiananmen square. When we look at what has happened in China, we should be more realistic about the situation. Okay, if we want to be brutal and say that trade matters more than anything else, we should understand that that is a point of view and a policy. But let us take into account the fact that China still has the death penalty, which it uses whenever it feels so inclined. It tortures and imprisons without trial—I saw a programme on television about an artist who was imprisoned for producing the wrong paintings. There is no genuine freedom of speech, and the state interferes with the social media whenever it feels so inclined. I am not saying that we can transform all of that; of course we cannot. I am just outlining what is happening.
The day may come when China, like the Soviet powers, suddenly becomes a democracy. I hope that I will live to see it. But at this moment, it is very, very important for this House to register its anger at what has taken place and at the insult to the Foreign Affairs Committee and therefore to this House of Commons. I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for calling on me to speak, because I did not wish this incident to go by without stating my experience and my view.
I am glad to follow the excellent opening speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, of which I have been a member since 1992.
When you, Mr Speaker, gave your most welcome consent to this debate yesterday, you were entirely correct in stating that the situation we face is entirely unprecedented. The Foreign Affairs Committee, during the long period in which I have been privileged to serve on it, has never before been refused entry to any country in the world. As the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee has already pointed out, this is a dangerous precedent for other Committees in the House and for the House as a whole.
In a previous visit to China in the last Parliament, we were subject to threats and a degree of intimidation, as the authorities tried to deter us from going to Tibet. I was privileged to lead the group that eventually went to Tibet, and we faced down those threats and attempts to intimidate us. At the end of the visit, we faced further intimidation and threats from the Chinese authorities when they found out that we were going from mainland China to Taiwan. That difficult situation was admirably handled by the then Chair of the Committee, the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes). Again, we faced down the Chinese authorities and went to Taiwan as planned.
I am sure that all parts of the House would regard this unprecedented situation as wholly unacceptable. What the Chinese are seeking to achieve by barring the FAC from Hong Kong escapes me. As the Chairman of the Committee made clear, we will not be deflected from our inquiry. We shall continue to take evidence for our inquiry, including from people in Hong Kong—we are capable of doing that without actually going to Hong Kong—and we shall make our report to the House in due course.
In political terms, the Chinese authorities have scored a spectacular own goal. They could not have given more eloquent credence to the case being made by the pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong that the joint declaration is under threat; they could not have made it clearer by the way in which they have dealt with the House of Commons’s Foreign Affairs Committee. Notwithstanding that, the issue of how the British Government respond is of key importance.
I must say to the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), and to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary that I have, thus far, been very disappointed with what I have seen in the public domain from the Foreign Office in its response to the situation in which this House and the FAC have been placed. As far as I can see, all they have said is that the Chinese authorities’ response and ban on the Foreign Affairs Committee is “regrettable”. That is nothing like good enough. The House and democracy in this country have been treated with contempt. I hope that the Minister of State will give us a robust response when he ends this debate.
As always, it is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) He will recall that I, as a newly elected Member of this House, joined him on the Foreign Affairs Committee in 1992. In my time as a member of the FAC, I made many visits to many different countries. We might have had some issues about who we were able to meet and the exact timings of visits, but we were never told—not even by Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan or China—that we were not welcome to come and that the authorities would stop us getting off aircraft. It is not, as some Members have said, a matter of visas; UK citizens do not need visas to go to Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Government determine their own internal arrangements, yet the people in Beijing and their diplomatic representatives in London have told us that we are not welcome in Hong Kong, which is, as the Chair of the Committee so ably put it, a breach of the undertakings given by the Chinese to the people of Hong Kong and to our representatives in the negotiations that led to the joint declaration.
Members have asked why China is doing this. I suspect—and this really surprises me—that they are afraid that the presence of a handful of British parliamentarians is somehow going to change the internal dynamics in Hong Kong and China. They must be very nervous and worried. What is happening in Hong Kong is not being broadcast in the Chinese media. We can see it covered in the rest of the world and we can see it in Taiwan, but the Chinese authorities have rigorously censored communications about events in Hong Kong. That also happens when the people of Hong Kong protest on the anniversary of the massacre in Tiananmen square—not a word of it is broadcast by the Chinese state authorities. This is an indication that the Chinese regime is prepared to use a ruthless power because it is afraid. That augurs badly for what might happen in Hong Kong in the coming weeks and months.
I do not want to spend too long talking about that, but I did want to talk about the issues about Parliament and the Committee’s inquiry. Let me go back to the previous time we visited China. In May 2006, the previous Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, which I had the great honour of chairing, went to Hong Kong and from there to Beijing. The group then split into two. One went to Tibet, to Lhasa, and the other, which I led, went to Shanghai. We then met up again in Hong Kong and went to Taiwan. One of the interesting episodes, to which the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling just referred, was the meeting we had with Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing. He was very pleasant to begin with and asked me how my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett), the then Foreign Secretary, was doing as he had had amicable discussions with her in the United Nations Security Council meetings. After 10 minutes, he switched completely to tell us, “I understand that you intend to go to our 19th province”—that is, Taiwan. “We have no objection to your going, but only after the reunification of our country.”
He then said, “You are all diplomats.” We said, “No, we are parliamentarians. You don’t understand. We are not here representing the British Government but doing an inquiry and our presence and visit will not in any way change the British Government’s policy. We are doing this because we need to investigate Taiwan and its relationship with China.” He said, “If you do this, there will be serious consequences.” We wondered what those serious consequences were. As the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling said, the visit continued and we went to Tibet and to Shanghai, went back to Hong Kong and then to Taiwan. There were no serious consequences for the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Later on in the previous Parliament, when the Committee was considering human rights issues globally, we decided as a Committee to receive the Dalai Lama for a public evidence session, which I chaired. At that point, I received a very long and vitriolic letter from the National People’s Congress in Beijing and a visit from the then Chinese ambassador, who subsequently became a deputy Foreign Minister, bringing lots of different materials including piles of books about the CIA’s role in Tibet and other documentation. The Chinese are obviously very sensitive, as they always have been, about issues to do with their status and the respect others have for China in the world. We can have a robust exchange about such issues, but there has never been a ban on parliamentarians from this House as a result of those differences. That tells me that there is something happening internally in China that is worrying.
In our report after the inquiry in the previous Parliament, we commented on the situation in Hong Kong. In one of our conclusions, we recommended that
“the Government urge the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to make significant, major steps towards representative democracy and to agree with Beijing a timetable by which direct election of the Chief Executive and LegCo by universal suffrage will be achieved.”
I hope that that is a position to which we all, including Members on the Government and Opposition Front Benches, could agree today. It is of course a matter for the people of Hong Kong and China to make proposals using the arrangements set out in the Basic Law, but the aspiration for representative democracy and universal suffrage should apply for all people as soon as possible, including in Hong Kong.
The Committee also commented on the internal situation in Hong Kong with civil liberties, humanitarian issues and the rule of law. Our conclusion in 2006 was that
“despite some concerns, overall Hong Kong remains a vibrant, dynamic, open and liberal society with a generally free press and an independent judiciary, subject to the rule of law.”
I hope that we can say the same about Hong Kong today. Obviously, our report will have to be published in due course when we have finished taking evidence, but I think that the behaviour of the Chinese authorities towards our Committee as well as other issues that have been raised with us so far in the evidence we have received prompt concern about whether those principles and values are under threat today.
Let me conclude with a more general point, which has been mentioned in passing. Some people believe that we should turn a blind eye to this and some people believe that the economic imperative should determine everything. Those of us who have been to Taiwan, however, or to other countries around the world with significant Chinese populations, know that there is nothing inherently authoritarian, Stalinist, Leninist or Maoist in the Chinese character. What is communist about China today? Only the name of the ruling party. It has a state capitalist economic system run by an elite that holds political power through a one-party system and suppresses and controls dissent. How sustainable is that in the future? I do not know. China’s economy is turning down and the rate of growth is slowing. China has a major demographic problem long term and its ability to meet the aspirations of its people, which it has done, taking hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in recent years, is not necessarily sustainable indefinitely under its current political model.
There are clearly big questions for the rest of the world about how we deal with a growing China. People have talked about China’s rise and Martin Jacques, an author who is very well informed although I do not agree with his rose-tinted conclusions, has written a book called, “When China Rules the World”. Frankly, if China were to become the most important country in the world politically that would raise serious questions about what kind of universal values it would have and what kind of rule of law and humanitarian law there would be.
It might be a small point for some people that a Committee of the House of Commons has been prevented from going to Hong Kong, but it raises fundamental questions.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the banning of the visit is symptomatic of China’s attitude to the rest of the world, particularly her near neighbours, considering the aggression over the Senkaku islands, the adventurism in the South China sea and the intransigence she has demonstrated in the Security Council?
I would be fairer to China, because it has played a positive role in some international matters, such as climate change, and certainly on international security, so I do not think that all its actions have been on the bad side. However, there are concerns about its attitude and, as the hon. Lady has highlighted, there are a number of territorial disputes around the coast and in east Asia, where a number of states are in contention for territories that have the potential for gas and oil exploration. I do not want to go down that track now and so will conclude by talking about democracy.
In our 2006 report, the Committee came to an important conclusion. We were commenting on the Chinese military build-up across the Taiwan straits and the possible threat to peace and stability in east Asia. Relations between Taiwan and China have since improved significantly: there are now far more direct flights, there is massive investment, and millions of mainland Chinese tourists visit Taiwan, as I saw last new year—the hotel I was staying in was full of mainland Chinese. Nevertheless, there is still great sensitivity in China about what is happening in Taiwan. The Taiwanese people, as they have shown in recent local elections, are very committed to democracy. They throw politicians out and reject incumbent parties and Governments regularly.
Our 2006 report—I think that this is still pertinent today—concluded:
“the growth and development of democracy in Taiwan is of the greatest importance, both for the island itself and for the population of greater China, since it demonstrates incontrovertibly that Chinese people can develop democratic institutions and thrive under them.”
That is also relevant to Hong Kong, which is why what is happening there matters and why our Committee is absolutely right to continue our inquiry and, in due course, produce a report. The Government will then have to respond to that report, hopefully before the next election, so that the House can have a further debate about developments in Hong Kong and China over the coming months.
The House debates today in unusual, if not unprecedented, circumstances. It is a matter of deep frustration, disappointment and regret to me not only that are we here to do that, but that I am here as an individual who has played a part in the events leading up to the debate. For it is not only the Foreign Affairs Committee that has been effectively prevented from visiting Hong Kong: a week ago my visa application to join the UK-China leadership forum in Shanghai was rejected, as a result of which the entire parliamentary delegation has pulled out of the forum.
We must ask ourselves why that has happened. The underlying answer, of course, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway) rightly said, is that we have a serious disagreement with China over our ability to discuss and debate issues in Hong Kong. As other Members have said, it is sad that even before the Committee’s report has been drafted, let alone completed, China has concluded that it must be negative in principle because of its existence, rather than its content, which is as yet unknown.
In the same way, I was clearly penalised for having the temerity to organise a debate on Hong Kong on 22 October. In my speech on that day, I congratulated Britain and China’s leaders in 1984 on finding
“a formula, and later the trust, that maintained confidence within Hong Kong and by the world in Hong Kong. Thirty years on, the architects can congratulate themselves. Broadly, Hong Kong has thrived and remains special and successful.”
I concluded my speech thus:
“For the people of Hong Kong and we”—
meaning all of us in Parliament—
“have no interest, no advantage or no conceivable selfish purpose in any form of car crash with Hong Kong’s sovereign master, China. Rather, it is in all our interests, but particularly those of Britain and China in fulfilling the joint declaration, that Hong Kong continues to thrive and prosper, in a different world from that of 1984 or even 1997.”—[Official Report, 22 October 2014; Vol. 586, c. 276-81WH.]
I do not believe that anyone in this House, or indeed anywhere, could take violent objection to the thoughts and beliefs behind that statement. However, I am afraid that there was an objection, which I received today in hard copy—it had insufficient postage and so arrived only today—from Ambassador Liu of the People’s Republic of China. He expressed severe displeasure and disappointment about a letter I had written to him some 10 days before the debate, outlining my reasons for holding it.
I will recap the crucial part of the reason. As chair of the all-party China group, I believe that I have two main responsibilities, as outlined on our writing paper and clearly laid out on our website: first, to provide a forum for debate on all matters of bilateral interest; and secondly, to help to inform parliamentarians through regular visits to China. I believe that by holding the debate on Hong Kong I was fulfilling the first objective.
Ambassador Liu wrote:
‘Matters related to Hong Kong are none but China’s internal affairs, where China is firmly opposed to intervention or interference of any kind by any country or any individual, including the House of Commons’ inquiry, debate and investigation involving Hong Kong. Your insistence on having the aforementioned debate in the House of Commons has in effect meddled in such internal matters of Hong Kong and sent out a wrong signal. Such moves, exploited by the opposition in Hong Kong, will only create an impression that Britain supports unlawful activities such as ‘occupy Central’.”
I have read out excerpts from my speech, and I do not believe that any objective reader could reach any of the conclusions reached by Ambassador Liu, least of all an impression that Britain supports unlawful activities such as those of Occupy Central, which did not feature in my speech at all.
Ambassador Liu’s letter went on to state that I, as chair of the all-party China group,
“charged with the responsibility and mission of advancing China-UK relations”—
that is not strictly my mission, as I have just explained—should
“refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of Hong Kong as well as China. I urge you to do more things to promote China-UK relationship, rather than disrupt or undermine its healthy development.”
It is true that relations between our two countries have improved considerably. My right hon. Friend the Minister and I were both part of the very successful delegation led by the Prime Minister to China a year ago, and earlier this summer we had a very successful visit by the Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, to the UK. All of us here want to see positive relations between Britain and China for precisely the reasons I have outlined. We have much that is to our mutual benefit, much in the way of mutual challenges and much that we are doing together to make the world a better place.
I genuinely believe that the role of diplomats is to build bridges, not barriers; to solve problems, not to create them; to help bring our two countries closer together; and to strengthen the relationships between this Parliament and the National People’s Congress in Beijing. Let me, for the record, respond to Ambassador Liu’s comment that I should
“do more things to promote”
the China-UK relationship. For three years, I was this country’s British trade commissioner to China, and also our consul to Macau. Later, I opened the first merchant banking group office in China and listed the first Chinese company on the London stock exchange. In 1993, I was part of the Anglo-Chinese expedition to make the first ever crossing of the Taklamakan desert. During that expedition, I should, by rights, have died from amoebic dysentery. I was saved by some unbelievably strong antibiotics that meant I could not eat for five days while walking some 25 miles a day in the heat of that hitherto uncrossed desert, so every day since the winter of 1993 has, to some extent, been an extra day in my life. When I came out of the desert—so thin that my trousers fell down when I tried to pull them up—and went straight to Shanghai to open the office of my employers, I vowed that I would dedicate a chunk of my life to doing things that would continue to help relations between Britain and China.
Some two years later, my wife, Anthea, made me aware of what was happening in Chinese orphanages in Shanghai. She was, at the time, the person in charge of the welfare team of the Shanghai Expatriate Association. Many Members will know that, largely because of the one-child system, huge numbers of orphans, often predominantly female, were dumped on the doorsteps of orphanages and would spend the rest of their lives in an institution. This was a human tragedy. My wife’s dedication to helping two or three individual orphans led me to create a charitable company in Hong Kong called Children First and to get pledges of significant amounts of money from businesses in Hong Kong to support the creation of what would effectively become a foster care system in Shanghai.
At that time, talks with the Shanghai municipal government fell through, largely on the issue of trust about who would have control of the money. However, the relationship with the civil affairs bureau was so strong that when a British citizen, Robert Glover, arrived in Shanghai and was introduced to the bureau by my wife, he was able to take forward our original vision and create what is now Care For Children—the first ever joint venture Sino-British charity, now joint ventured with the central Government’s civil affairs bureau. To date, it has taken between 250,000 and 300,000 orphans out of orphanages and put them in foster homes. It is a remarkable success. I pay tribute to Rob Glover, who is in London this week, and all that the charity has achieved. I am proud to have been first its adviser and later a director.
That is one example of a personal commitment to improving things between Britain and China that I hope will show the House that far from doing things to disrupt and undermine the healthy development of the relationships between our two countries, I have consistently tried to enhance them.
In that context, I am deeply disappointed by what happened this summer when the Foreign Affairs Committee rightly decided, owing to the events in Hong Kong and to the six-monthly update report on Hong Kong by Her Majesty’s Government, that it was time for it to write a report on the state of the relations between the UK and Hong Kong. It is very disappointing that a China that is now in every way stronger, more confident and more robust than it was 35 years ago, when first I visited, has been unable to recognise that this should be seen as a positive and encouraging development that opens doors rather than closes them, and to welcome a report that, in many ways, may turn out to be a lot more positive than it expects.
Today’s debate is unfortunate in many ways. When my visa was rejected 10 days ago, I decided not to say anything about it because I did not want to contribute to a worsening situation. It was already, to me, a huge disappointment that a body like the UK-China leadership forum—which exists precisely to have the dialogue that two countries with different histories, cultures and systems of government and parliament must have in order to overcome their differences of opinion and views on the world at large—was having to be disrupted on the simple principle that China chooses its delegation and we choose ours.
This debate is essentially about the freedom that this House must have to fulfil our duties and obligations to our constituents. Our constituents are interested in a strong relationship with China. Of course, business and the economy are a vital part of that, but our constituents are deeply interested in other aspects of the relationship, many of which relate to human rights and animal rights. We must raise those issues and they must be debated and discussed. The all-party group cannot and should not avoid them; it must discuss them. We must recognise that there will be differences of opinion, but they should be aired in a sensible, responsible way that recognises the cultural differences. This debate is all about the ability of our House to discuss and debate—and ultimately to enhance, not disrupt—relations between these two great countries.
It is a pleasure to speak after the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), who made a very moving and sombre speech about his experiences in China and how sad it is that China has chosen to reject his arrival. The Chairman of the Committee, the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), gave a very full and effective explanation of what he called this unfortunate and unhappy episode—I am sure we all agree with that.
I am pleased that we have the opportunity in this emergency debate to highlight how unacceptable the actions of the Chinese Government have been in banning the entry to Hong Kong of democratically elected representatives and hampering our ability to scrutinise our own Government’s actions, as is our role as the Foreign Affairs Committee. It is very important to emphasise, as others have, that we are totally separate from Government. I think that is sometimes misunderstood by some foreign Governments, and certainly by the Chinese Government. We do not take orders from our own Government, so we are certainly not going to be deterred from carrying out our duties by any foreign Government, from whatever part of the globe.
I cannot honestly say that I am surprised about what has happened, because I was present when the Foreign Affairs Committee went to China during the last Parliament, as outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes). It was quite an experience. I recollect that we received a friendly welcome and had meetings with many representatives of the Chinese Government. However, as my hon. Friend said, when it became clear that we intended to visit Taiwan, we were told in no uncertain terms that this would lead to “serious consequences”. My recollection of the meeting that he described is that we were more or less thrown out; “asked to leave” would be a more polite way of putting it. As he said, the serious consequences did not arise for us, but it was an illustration of the kind of overreaction we can expect from a Government who do not understand the concept of transparency and democracy, not to mention scrutiny and accountability.
Taking the unprecedented step of refusing entry to a Select Committee takes the whole matter much further. I believe that this amounts to a diplomatic crisis. It is more than regrettable, as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has publicly stated—it is totally unacceptable. I hope that the FCO will make the strongest representations on the matter and take it further with a view to seeking a change of position on the part of the Chinese Government forthwith. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about what the Government intend to do.
We as a Committee have been working hard on this inquiry for some time and taken extensive evidence to date. However, there is no real substitute for finding the facts on the ground, as we have often found in some of the most dangerous places in the world, which often lack democracy. Under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), we have sought to conduct the inquiry in a responsible manner and as inclusively as possible, preferably with the full co-operation of the Hong Kong authorities. Of course, our concern for human rights and democracy is part of that, but our inquiry is wide ranging and we believe it is timely to look at how the Sino-British joint declaration is being implemented 30 years after it was agreed by both parties.
Contrary to the views of the Chinese Government, Lord Patten told us that the terms of the 1984 joint declaration between the UK and China, agreeing the transfer of sovereignty to China and setting out “one country, two systems” principles of governance, explicitly gave the UK a legitimate interest in Hong Kong’s future. When China asserts that what is happening in Hong Kong is nothing to do with us, we should make it absolutely clear, publicly and privately, that that is not the case. We are not interfering in China’s internal affairs.
Notwithstanding all that, we have the right and the remit to scrutinise the work of the FCO throughout the world, which, of course, we do. This snub by the Chinese Government and the confrontational manner with which they have conducted themselves is an insult not only to the Committee, but to the whole House. We cannot accept it, especially from a Government with whom we have friendly and mutually beneficial relations. The FCO has pointed to the visit of the Chinese premier in June as an example of the positive trend in UK-China relations, but it is fundamental to our democratic system that we reserve the right to criticise our friends, and that should not have come as a surprise to the Chinese Government.
Mr Speaker, I hope you will be able to find it in your power to draw to the attention of the Chinese Government the role of Back-Bench MPs and the House’s disapproval of what has happened. If in refusing us entry to Hong Kong it was their intention to shut us up, they have achieved the exact opposite and shown to the whole world what their agenda is for Hong Kong in a way we will not be able to achieve in our report. However, we have postponed, not cancelled, our visit, so I look forward to the Committee engaging with all parties in Hong Kong in due course.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) and my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), who made a typically well-informed and moving speech.
I will start on a slightly sober note with a touch of realism. We in this Parliament are obviously not in a very strong position to influence events in Hong Kong. Nevertheless, it is absolutely right that we should support human rights and democracy for the people of Hong Kong and support the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway) and his Committee in stating very clearly that the accusation of unjustified meddling in the internal affairs of China is not justified. Indeed, it is not justified either to try to inhibit the work of the all-party group on China, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester.
My hon. Friend is being generous, both in what he says and in giving way, but I want to make a tiny point. He said that we may not have much influence over Hong Kong, but the whole point of this debate, of course, is that we are not trying to influence Hong Kong. We are trying to discuss the issues, but we are not trying to interfere, meddle, influence or anything else.
I understand my hon. Friend’s point and I will come back to it. There is an argument for us to comment on universal human rights and thereby try to influence their conduct throughout the world. To that extent, I think we are trying to influence events, but my hon. Friend is right to say that the focus of this debate is on, in a sense, the opposite situation, which is the Chinese Government’s unjustified attempt to curtail a parliamentary inquiry. It is true that we are not seeking in this debate to change anything in Hong Kong immediately.
The accusation of unjustified interference is wrong on two counts. First, as many hon. and right hon. Members have pointed out, we are party to an international agreement—the 1984 joint declaration—which refers in article 3(12) to the
“basic policies of the People’s Republic of China regarding Hong Kong”.
Article 3(4) states:
“The chief executive will be appointed by the Central People’s Government on the basis of the results of elections or consultations to be held locally.”
That is not the strongest wording in the world, but it is repeated in the Basic Law that was also implemented by the joint agreement. Article 3(12) goes on to state that those policies would
“remain unchanged for 50 years.”
We are clearly within that time scale, so the British Parliament has a perfectly legitimate right to look at how the Basic Law and joint agreement are being interpreted in practice in Hong Kong, particularly in the light of the Beijing Government’s announcements in August.
The second reason it is wrong to criticise the Foreign Affairs Committee is that we are all party to the United Nations universal declaration of human rights, which affirms that human rights—from Iran to Colombia and from China to Britain itself—are inalienable for all members of the human family. It is legitimate for any member of the United Nations to look at, comment on and take an interest in the conduct of human rights worldwide, and no Parliament or democratic assembly anywhere in the world should feel inhibited from doing so. It is common for this Parliament to comment on human rights in a variety of countries. Indeed, the Government publish an annual human rights report, in which they comment on human rights in many countries around the world.
As Lenin once said, what is to be done? First, we have to be clear that the Foreign Affairs Committee should continue to highlight the issues raised by events in Hong Kong, to investigate them thoroughly and to draw reasonable conclusions without fear of intimidation. We need to be clear that everyone in this Parliament supports its right to do that and encourages it to continue its inquiry.
Secondly, it is important that the British Government continue to raise concerns about China’s interpretation of the Basic Law and the joint declaration, and in doing so draw on the expertise of the Foreign Affairs Committee and its eventual report.
Thirdly, this country needs to adopt a deeper and more sophisticated policy towards China. Parliament and Government have tended to address China as if the only important thing we want it to do is buy and sell more widgets. The view has been that trade and capital investment are important, but almost to the exclusion of other considerations, and many hon. Members have reinforced the point that that is not the case. Trade and capital investment are important, but policies have to be wider and more sophisticated than that.
Part of that policy has to be an understanding from our side of China, its sensitivities and history, and the progress it has made. That means acknowledging that our shared history with China has not been particularly glorious on the British side on many occasions. We have to acknowledge that our role as a colonial power in events such as the opium wars was, in retrospect, disgraceful. We have undervalued contributions such as that of the 96,000 members of the Chinese Labour Corps during the first world war. They behaved with complete heroism and lost thousands of their number, but they were treated pretty disgracefully at the time and, equally disgracefully, their heroism and contribution to this country during the first world war have been neglected. A broad-based campaign is seeking to rectify that omission and obtain a memorial in this country to the Chinese Labour Corps. I hope that will attract Government support.
We have to acknowledge our own failure to deliver democracy in Hong Kong. We were the administrators and rulers of Hong Kong for many years, and we never delivered a Chief Executive who was elected by the people of Hong Kong without interference. We appointed colonial governors, and I am sure that some of them were very skilled, talented and caring, but in a sense it was a benign colonial dictatorship. It is difficult for us now to turn around and criticise China on how it behaves towards Hong Kong, and we have to be sensitive to that.
I completely accept that point, which the hon. Lady is right to emphasise. I am talking in a wider context about how we need a sophisticated approach to China. We should not constantly hector the Chinese for any failings we detect on their side, without acknowledging that over the long period of history—their approach is very much to look at the long picture—there have also been historical failings, injustices and omissions on our side. We have to be honest and acknowledge that.
A sophisticated policy towards China must include firmness in the face both of contraventions of human rights on Chinese territory, and of the militarisation and the sometimes unjustified indulgence of dictatorships in different parts of the world. That firmness should include the way in which the Chinese allow the perpetuation of wildlife crime in pursuit of markets for things such as ivory, which the International Fund for Animal Welfare has highlighted in the House of Commons only this week. In our pursuit of trade and investment, there is a risk that not only the UK but democracies all over the world will find ourselves divided and perhaps to some extent ruled by a Chinese foreign policy that seeks to intimidate smaller democracies and to influence our discussion of their affairs.
It just so happens that I had an opportunity to speak to a chief superintendent from the Hong Kong police this week. In our conversation, he confirmed that 6,500 demonstrations take place in Hong Kong. We are very fond of demonstrations in Northern Ireland, as the hon. Gentleman probably knows. Does he share my concern to ensure that demonstrations commemorating workers’ rights and other events should continue in the way they have until now, with no bother, actions or friction?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, which underlines the fact that it is sometimes difficult to deal with the idea of free protest. It is fine in principle, but in practice even in our own country—even in Northern Ireland—it is sometimes a difficult challenge for policy makers and the authorities. The right of free protest is enormously important. It has been a hard-fought and hard-won right in countries all over the world, and we should certainly try to defend it in Hong Kong.
I was making the point that the free countries of the world risk being subject to a kind of divide-and-rule approach by the Chinese, with the Chinese Government using the rather intimidating tactics of trying to suppress inquiries and to inhibit activities, even those of all-party groups that are nothing to do with the British Government and are not part of this country’s Executive.
Part of the relationship building has to be to try to communicate to the Chinese Government what we understand not just by the rule of law, as has been mentioned, but by the separation of powers. In democracies such as ours, the Executive, the judiciary and the legislature are completely separate, and they have their own rights against each other, let alone in relation to other countries.
The democracies of the world must start to develop a more sophisticated approach to China, so that we can present a united front and say, “It is quite clear that you are the emerging new superpower of the world, an enormous economic force and probably a growing political force, and that you have an enormously rich and important history and a fabulous civilisation, but that does not give you the right to take smaller countries, democracies and economies and inhibit them from carrying out their proper business.”
Our links with China should be emphasised. Historically, the first ambassador to Beijing hailed from Ballymoney—his name was Macartney—but today that link between my constituency and Hong Kong continues through the Kowloon Motor Bus Company, with Wrightbus manufacturing buses not only for London but for Hong Kong. Such economic links should be used as influence, saying, “Look, we have an economic driver that brings us closer together. Let us not be separated by this division that is currently preventing Members of Parliament from entering Hong Kong.”
I am happy that the hon. Gentleman has intervened on that point, which emphasises our strong cultural and human links with Hong Kong and with China as a whole.
Countries such as the UK must support democracies in the region, such as Taiwan. The example of Hong Kong is very important to Taiwan’s security and confidence. The language that Beijing is using about Taiwan has changed subtly in the past year or so. It is talking about the problem of Taiwan not being handed down from generation to generation, as though there ought to be some conclusion to the perpetual debate about Taiwan’s possible independence, its reintegration into the Republic of China or its continuation with its current status. That is potentially threatening to the democracy of Taiwan, as we must acknowledge. We must understand that how the one country, two systems approach has worked in Hong Kong is vital, and that that example is being watched very carefully in Taiwan.
The underlying message of this debate must be that we have to understand and respect China, but that we equally want China to understand and respect how our democracy works, including how we separate powers between parliamentary inquiries and the Executive, and how a Select Committee’s right to look into a legitimate area of concern—in terms not only of British foreign policy but of universal human rights—is something that we can and must defend.
May I first thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing this important—not just important but, quite frankly, unprecedented—debate to take place? The question that has been asked is: why should Parliament allow another nation to determine the way in which we work on behalf of the people we represent? The answer is that we should not just allow that to happen without a proper debate and without making sure that our views are known.
Our Committee agreed on 22 July to hold an inquiry into the United Kingdom’s relations with Hong Kong 30 years after the signing of the joint declaration in 1984. The inquiry’s terms of reference were wide-ranging, with four pillars. The Committee planned to assess, first, the FCO’s monitoring of the joint declaration via its six-monthly reports; secondly, the Government’s relationship with the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region; thirdly, business, trade and cultural links; and fourthly, the work of the British Council.
The Committee received letters from the Chinese ambassador, the Chinese Parliament and Hong Kong Government representation in London urging us to cancel our inquiry. They argued that the inquiry would constitute interference in their internal affairs and provide a platform for “unlawful propositions” on democratic reform. Indeed, the ambassador warned that our inquiry would
“ultimately harm the interests of Britain.”
As our Chairman, the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), so ably said, he informed the Chinese that we understood the sensitivities involved in our inquiry, but intended to continue with it and with the visit that we planned to make to Hong Kong at the end of the month.
The visit would have been an important opportunity to meet a range of people in Hong Kong—not just politicians or those at the top of the tree, but business people, ordinary working people and, yes, probably student protesters. The students have a point of view, and they deserve to have it heard. We would also have spoken to the people in our hotel and the people we met in the street. We were not hoping to have some high-level, closed-door discussion.
The Chinese Government have all but accused us of providing support and a platform for the protesters. That is not what the inquiry is about and it is not what our visit would have been about. Unfortunately, that is where it is beginning to head. We had never mentioned Occupy Central. We announced that we were holding the inquiry in July. The announcement about the elections in Hong Kong was not made until 31 August. That is when the demonstrations started.
At every point along the way, we have made it clear that we want the inquiry to be balanced, objective and, most importantly, evidence-based. We want to hear a range of views and perspectives from all sides, including the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities—I repeat, including the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities. We have made it clear that we have no intention of meddling in China’s internal affairs. That is not why we were elected as parliamentarians. However, we are focused on doing our job, which is to scrutinise our Foreign and Commonwealth Office—to scrutinise the work of the men and women of the FCO and the job that they do for the United Kingdom.
The hon. Gentleman is referring to the reasons why the Chinese authorities were not happy about the visit of the Select Committee. They said that it
“may send the wrong signals to the figures of ‘Occupy Central’”.
Can he allay the fears of the Hong Kong authorities by saying that in visiting and talking to people who are demonstrating, we are not necessarily indicating that we support them?
That is exactly what we had hoped to do. We had hoped to speak to as many people as possible and hear as many views as possible. We wanted to ensure that no matter what our inquiry said at the end, it was evidence-based. We were not going there to be a cheerleader for Occupy Central, but we were not going there to ignore it either.
Unfortunately, on Friday last week, we were told directly that the Chinese Government would not allow us to enter the territory of Hong Kong. As I said earlier, that is unprecedented. During this Parliament alone, the Foreign Affairs Committee has visited countries such as Saudi Arabia and Russia, which have had internal problems and which would not have been too happy about the Committee doing an inquiry. Regardless of their opinions, we were allowed to visit, to meet people and to publish our reports. In previous Parliaments, as we have heard, the Committee has visited China, including Tibet. We have never been denied entry to any country. In fact, no Committee of this House has ever been denied entry to any country.
The hon. Gentleman says that the Select Committee has been denied entry into Hong Kong. Has the Committee considered going ahead with its proposed visit and being turned away by the Chinese authorities to show the significance of what has taken place? That would clearly show the international community the contempt with which the Foreign Affairs Committee is being treated. What hope can the demonstrators have of how they will be treated by those same authorities?
Absolutely. Think of the uproar there would be if we suddenly said to Chinese parliamentarians, “You are not coming to this country. You are not coming into this building.” It does not take a huge brain to work out the uproar that would result from such a ban if it were the other way around.
If they are coming this week, I am sure that I speak on behalf of the whole House in saying that they are most welcome to attend Parliament and to have a full and frank discussion on any subject they wish to raise with any politician.
I was talking about areas that we have visited where one would imagine that there could have been problems. Several Members recently returned from the Kurdistan region of Iraq, which we visited in connection with our current inquiry into Kurdistan. Like Hong Kong, it is a sub-region within a sovereign country. Kurdistan is constitutionally very sensitive for the Iraqi Government, but the Iraqis were welcoming and helpful. They understood that we were travelling there not to build on discord or to start a row, but to do a job on behalf of the people we represent and ultimately, we hope, to make more people understand the problems that there are in Iraq and Kurdistan.
The Prime Minister’s spokesperson said yesterday that the Prime Minister believed that the decision was mistaken. He said that it served only to
“amplify concerns about the situation in Hong Kong, rather than diminish them.”
As the Chairman of the Select Committee said so eloquently, China’s decision to deny us entry sends a worrying signal about its direction of travel regarding Hong Kong. It is also a worrying signal for the people of Taiwan and the Government of Taipei. We must be under no illusion: the people of Taiwan and the Government of Taipei will be watching this situation and asking, “Is this where we could go? Is this what could happen to us?” Who could blame them if they did?
I will be grateful if the Minister answers five questions when he sums up. First, how do the Government intend to respond to this unprecedented ban? Secondly, what meetings and conversations have Ministers sought or held with their counterparts in China in the past five days to discuss this issue? Thirdly, has the FCO called in the ambassador? Fourthly, has the United Kingdom’s embassy in China protested formally to the Chinese Government about the ban, and if not, why not? Lastly, what does the Minister think the ban says about China’s approach to the United Kingdom and the work of democratically elected parliamentarians?
The decision to ban our Select Committee is wrong and totally undemocratic. It must not go unchallenged.
I commend my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway) for his robust defence of the right of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Parliament of the United Kingdom to carry out an inquiry into a subject that it has every reason and right to examine.
The shameful action by the Government of the People’s Republic of China to deny the Select Committee the ability to visit Hong Kong in order to conduct our legitimate business is a demonstration to the entire world that China has little respect for freedom, free speech and democracy. It is a sad state of affairs, which will have grave implications for British-Chinese relations for a long time to come.
I first visited Hong Kong in 1996, when Lord Patten of Barnes was the Governor of the Crown colony. It was indeed then one of Her Majesty’s Crown colonies. The people of Hong Kong did not choose to have that status taken from them, of course; that was imposed upon them without their consent. Two years earlier, in 1982, the people of the Falkland Islands had their right to freedom and self-determination upheld by Her Majesty’s Government. Although the circumstances were very different, it cannot be denied that the people of Hong Kong were not accorded the same rights.
Today, 30 years later, the streets of Hong Kong are filled with young people who, understandably, demand freedom and democracy—basic rights that the People’s Republic of China continues to deny them. The Sino-British joint declaration made clear the expectations between the United Kingdom and the People’s Republic of China regarding the sovereignty of Hong Kong and how it should be governed. I am deeply saddened that over recent weeks and months, the assurances given to Her Majesty’s Government at that time have been forced into question by Beijing’s actions.
Over the past three decades, Britain and China have enjoyed a growing partnership, in which trade and bilateral relations have been strengthened. China’s behaviour this week is wholly inconsistent with the positive diplomatic trend that our two nations have observed since 1984. It is nothing short of an outrage that the Foreign Affairs Committee of this democratic House of Commons, the mother of Parliaments, should be treated in such a way by an undemocratic Chinese Government. I am gravely concerned about the aggressive and confrontational position that China has taken on a matter of such importance. In the 21st century, there is no place for such an attitude. It is an unjustified attack not only on elected British parliamentarians but on transparency and on democracy itself.
What exactly is China trying to hide from us? It is the right of the Committee to carry out an inquiry into relations with Hong Kong and to formulate its report. It is beyond question that it is within the gift of the British Foreign Affairs Committee to examine not only British-Hong Kong relations but adherence to the joint declaration. As a joint signatory, we must of course have the right to look at whether that agreement is being upheld, both in the letter and the spirit of the accord.
Denying the Committee the right to visit Hong Kong does not close the door on the issue at all, as China may have hoped. In fact, it has brought it to the world’s attention. The Foreign Affairs Committee will not back down. We still intend to visit Hong Kong, and our inquiry continues. By its actions, what China has actually achieved is to raise many serious questions in the eyes of this House and the British people—questions that must now be answered. The British Government must show no hesitation in demanding an immediate response. Will the Minister insist that the Chinese ambassador be called to the Foreign Office to explain his Government’s actions. I certainly hope that he will.
As many of my colleagues have stated, Britain has no interest in interfering in the internal politics of China. However, Hong Kong is different. Britain has a duty to the people of Hong Kong, and we must not abandon them. The United Kingdom owes them an allegiance—many of them served bravely in Her Majesty’s armed forces, and it is imperative that we do not back down from such an important commitment to them.
Today, there are still many former Hong Kong servicemen living in the territory, and they are seeking British citizenship. They are people who fought, and were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, for this country, and we should care deeply for their well-being and status. They are servicemen from the Hong Kong Military Service Corps and the Hong Kong Royal Naval Service who did not receive a UK passport following the handover of Hong Kong to China. Those men and their ancestors served British commitments in south-east Asia greatly. They stood shoulder to shoulder with Britain through two world wars, and in France, Burma, Korea, Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong and China, and they served the United Kingdom—King, Queen, empire, Commonwealth and country—for all those years. The British Government must surely now recognise that the decision not to give all those servicemen a right to British nationality was unjust and an error of judgment that should be rectified.
I had hoped that the Foreign Affairs Committee would be able to meet some of those loyal ex-servicemen while we were in Hong Kong, but alas, that will now not happen. The actions of the Chinese Government have highlighted why Her Majesty’s Government should now be prepared to offer all those Hong Kong ex-servicemen the right to a British passport. I ask the Minister directly whether Her Majesty’s Government will urgently review their policy on that issue.
Moreover, I believe that we are at a crossroads. We are in a position where serious decisions must be taken. Britain has to decide whether we tolerate and simply accept China’s behaviour or whether we demonstrate that we are prepared fundamentally to reconsider what until now has been a positive bilateral relationship that we share with China.
The Home Secretary recently announced that 25,000 visas would be given free to Chinese nationals. Of course we must strengthen and embolden links between Britain and China, but it is now clear that China has the ability to behave in an irrational and confrontational manner, so such special arrangements must surely be brought into question.
Alternatively, China could, even at this stage, draw back from the brink, accept that Hong Kong is different and allow the people of that territory the right to make their own choices about their own future. It must be made clear that China cannot take British co-operation for granted. Britain is a strong nation—we have the sixth-largest economy in the world, and our trade with China is largely one-sided. So we must not be afraid to stand firm for our national interests and the interests of people who were part of our British family, whom we have pledged to support, simply in fear of potential trade repercussions.
Britain cannot and will not be bullied. If China is not prepared to honour the spirit of the 1984 joint declaration, Britain will have no choice but to conclude that the hand of friendship and trust that Margaret Thatcher held out to China 30 years ago has been betrayed.
It is a pleasure to follow the passionate and robust speech of the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), which showed the concern among Members of all parties, and all Select Committees, about how the Foreign Affairs Committee has been treated. All but two members of that Committee have spoken in today’s debate, and I am sure that others will want to catch your eye, Mr Speaker. I wanted to speak after they had had the opportunity to express their views, and I am grateful to you for calling me.
I am also grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this Standing Order No. 24 debate to allow the House to discuss this matter. I have been in the House for 27 years, and I know that the standard response of most occupants of the Chair when right hon. and hon. Members ask for such a debate is to say no. You said yes, which must have come as a surprise to the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. It is the only time this year that an emergency debate has been granted, and although I had originally planned to come to the Chamber and speak on the Second Reading of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, I can well understand your desire to allow the House to debate the Hong Kong issue, which is urgent and important and should take precedence over all other activities and debates in the House. Thank you for allowing the debate.
I pay tribute to the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, who is normally a quiet, modest individual. It is rare for him to use the House as a platform to prosecute a case on behalf of his Committee. The last time he did so, as I recall, was over the attempts to close the World Service. He led the debate on that and there was a successful outcome. I hope he will have similar success, having asked for the present debate. We wait with bated breath to see what the Chinese Government decide to do.
This is an important debate not just for the Foreign Affairs Committee, but for every Committee of the House. I hope the Foreign Office will take note of it. I do not think the House understands the huge amount of time and effort invested by the Clerks and the Chairs of Committees when we decide to travel abroad. I chair the Home Affairs Committee. By its nature it does not do much travelling, although we will be going as far as Calais on Friday; I hope very much that we will be allowed to enter Calais when we get there.
No, by Eurostar.
A huge amount of time is spent organising such travel by a Committee, involving everyone from the Clerk of the Committee and the operation manager in the Clerks Department to a more senior Clerk, and ending up with the most senior Clerk of all—some of the most senior Clerks sit in front of you, Mr Speaker. Then the bid comes back to the Chair because the cost is too high, and the bid has to be re-entered and we have to change all the arrangements. A huge amount of work must have gone into the bid by the Chair of the Select Committee and it must have taken months to put the arrangements together. To be knocked back at the end for no good reason is extremely depressing and distressing for members of the Committee.
I want to ensure that we set a precedent today and that we send out a strong and powerful message, not so much to the Chinese Government—I am not so arrogant as to believe that the entire Chinese Cabinet is sitting in Beijing watching the proceedings of the House today—but to the Foreign Office. That message was put powerfully from either side of the House, most recently by the hon. Member for Romford. When we arrange these visits, we always do so with the encouragement and support of the Foreign Office. We cannot, as Committees of this House, organise a visit to a place such as China, or even to Calais, without informing the posts abroad. In our case, in France, we have a first-class ambassador, Peter Ricketts, who has organised an incredible programme in the space of just 10 days.
I do not know our current ambassador to Beijing, but I am sure that embassy staff would have put as much effort into the proposed programme of the Foreign Affairs Committee. It is not enough for the Government to say, “Well, this is Parliament, and Parliament is separate from the Government, and you must do this on your own.” I am not sure, because I did not read the press release put out by the Foreign Office, if the word “regrettable” was used. That would probably be quite serious, in the context of the words used by the Foreign Office. It is so long since I have been there that I have forgotten the hierarchy of words and which term constitutes a condemnation from the British Foreign Office, but to the public it would not seem strong enough.
A Select Committee of this House wishes to visit a country that is a friendly country and that has been visited so many times by Ministers—I think more Ministers have visited China than any other country in the world, apart from India. The Prime Minister has been there recently, encouraging many, many Chinese students to come to this country. We have 80,000 Chinese students studying in the United Kingdom. The number of applications from China since the Prime Minister’s visit has shot up, whereas the number of applications from India has gone down. Chinese graduate students make up 25% of all graduates from overseas studying in our country.
We want a very clear response from the Foreign Office. I hope the Minister can use his best endeavours to try to persuade the Chinese Government to change their mind. After all, is the Committee going to interfere with the proper running of the Chinese Government? I have looked down the list of members of the Committee. I see no known troublemakers on the list. I see three distinguished knights of the realm among the 11 members. Even my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), who might be considered a troublemaker, is actually a very reasonable man. He was trying to buy a slice of cake in the Tea Room earlier on. I persuaded him to take a banana so that he would not get diabetes and he readily agreed to do so. Members of the Committee are all Members who would want to make a positive contribution through their visit.
Select Committee visits are not about taking the flag and planting it in the middle of the biggest piazza in Hong Kong. That is not what they are about. The aim of such visits is fact-finding. The Committee is going to find out the facts about what is happening so that members can come back and write their report. That is what all Select Committees do when we travel. It is important that Select Committees travel, even though we are sometimes criticised by the press, and the number of visits and the amount of money spent are publicised. The best way to find out what is happening abroad is to go there, speak to people and ask them what is happening.
We were criticised because the Home Affairs Committee was conducting an inquiry into drugs and we decided to go to Colombia. One or two of the usual suspects in the Press Gallery wanted to know what the Home Affairs Committee was doing in Colombia. We were going to look at cocaine production and see what the Colombian Government were doing to try to stop cocaine entering Europe. Some 60% of all the cocaine that enters Europe comes into the United Kingdom. That is why we went, and our report was so much better for our doing so. That is all the Foreign Affairs Committee wants to do.
On behalf of my Committee and, I hope, other Committees and other Chairs, I can say that the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee and its members have our full support. Even at this late stage, I hope the Minister can persuade the Chinese Government, through the ambassador or by other means, to change their mind and allow the Committee to visit so that it can produce a good, fair and balanced report, as the Foreign Affairs Committee has always done.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me to catch your eye in this important debate. I am pleased to follow the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz)—I would almost call him my right hon. Friend; he just happens to be in a different party.
We have had a sober and reflective debate and I want to add one or two points.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), I first visited Hong Kong just before the handover in 1996. I met Chris Patten, the then Governor, and his two dogs, and we had a cordial and productive meeting. I am chairman of the Conservative Friends of the Chinese and I chair Chinese breakfasts in the House and have had frequent high-level meetings with Chinese diplomats. I therefore have some insight into the Chinese character and psyche.
I have recently been conducting a quiet campaign to see whether we can align British visas with Schengen visas, not in any way weakening the British biometric visa system but aligning the two systems so that a family coming from China does not have to undergo two separate applications. I have been patiently negotiating with the Home Secretary over this issue. If we could resolve it we would get many more Chinese visitors to this country.
The right hon. Member for Leicester East mentioned that there were 80,000 Chinese students in this country. I believe the figure is over 100,000. They represent one of the largest student blocs from any country. That shows how welcoming we are to Chinese students in this country. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the number of Chinese post-graduates in the UK. Some of those students are at the university in my constituency, the Royal Agricultural university. The principal says that he likes Chinese students because not only do they pay well, but they work hard and teach his other students how to work. There is a lot of synergy.
At the time of the handover I discovered that the wise negotiations between Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher in 1984 recognised a number of things, including that the way of life in Hong Kong should broadly be preserved for the next 50 years. The Chinese and the National People’s Congress adopted their own system of Basic Law, and my right hon. Friend the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee cited the most important article, article 45. It is worth repeating that because it is the Chinese Government’s Basic Law—they adopted it, not us, and it states:
“The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”
That was the Chinese Government’s own process.
Since then, there has been progress in Hong Kong. I visited just a fortnight ago, and I walked down Nathan road and saw the protesters. I have been there many times since 1996, and each time I cannot help marvelling at its progress. It is an amazingly dynamic place. Progress has been made on the democratic front with the election of Legislative Council members and there is now the aspiration to elect the new Chief Executive by universal suffrage, going from a nomination committee first of 400 people, then 800, and now 1,200. The process is going in the right direction.
Hong Kong is an important national asset for this country, and others, and the links between the economies and people of Hong Kong and the UK are huge. Some 40% of British investment in Asia goes directly to Hong Kong. That was just under £36 billion at the end of 2012, and there was £7 billion of trade with Hong Kong last year. As I know from my discussions with them, British companies are always welcome in Hong Kong and it is a fantastic place to do business. Indeed, it is reckoned to be the second easiest place to do business, whereas this country is in 8th place. One reason for that is that Hong Kong has a system of low bureaucracy, low taxation and an independent judiciary based on English law. Around 130 British companies have regional bases in Hong Kong, and many countries around the world see it through that light. Hong Kong is the economic jewel in China’s crown, and it is in China’s interest to ensure that it continues to prosper. Large businesses and capital are very portable in the 21st century and could easily move to other centres such as Singapore if financiers and other businessmen feel that the governance of Hong Kong is not going in the right direction. The importance of Hong Kong could diminish, and other competitors will overtake it.
My hon. Friend is speaking about the attraction of Hong Kong for young people who want to set up a business and the business environment there, but in the 1984 declaration Hong Kong was intended to be “one country” with “two systems”. Does my hon. Friend believe that that principle is exemplified by the actions of the Chinese authorities in this instance?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting intervention and I will address his point directly in a minute.
It is unfortunate that we have to debate this situation, following the news that the Foreign Affairs Committee will not be granted entry to Hong Kong. As I said, I visited Hong Kong recently and paid visits to Mong Kok. I walked down Nathan road where I saw relatively few tents and protesters, and numbers were beginning to dwindle. Whether by coincidence or not, the situation seems to have flared up again in the last few days in conjunction with the proposed Foreign Affairs Committee visit.
Demonstrations have throughout been largely peaceful and without interference from the Hong Kong or Chinese authorities, and it is a tribute to both sides that they have managed to keep the protests within peaceful bounds. I absolutely understand the aims and aspirations of the demonstrators. My neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) secured a debate on Hong Kong in Westminster Hall the other day, in which I outlined the disparity between those in Hong Kong who have, and those who have not. People are finding it difficult to get on the housing ladder or get decent jobs, and in some cases it is difficult to get a decent education. The authorities in Hong Kong need to address those issues. It is not that Hong Kong is not dynamic or successful economically, it is that it is not benefiting everybody. There is a class—particularly some of the younger people—who are being left behind, and that is leading to demonstrations. People want a greater say in the way Hong Kong is run.
Wanting to ensure that relations between this country and China were not damaged, I met high-level representatives from the Chinese embassy in Parliament last week. I tried hard to convey to them a number of things, including that we have a separation of powers in this country, that right hon. and hon. Members of the House are representatives of the people and able to do exactly what they like and can form Committees to investigate matters around the world, and that my right hon. Friend’s Foreign Affairs Committee is entitled to investigate any matter in which the British Government have an interest, including Hong Kong.
I think I failed in that part of my discussions. It is hard for those in a Government run by a communist system, who say to representatives in the Communist party, “You will not do that”, to understand that Members of Her Majesty’s Government—I welcome the Minister to his place—cannot simply say to a Committee or Member of the House, “You will not do this; you will do that.”
Order. Pursuant to what the hon. Gentleman has just said, perhaps it would be helpful for the Chinese to realise, by being told in terms, that the decision to grant this debate is the decision of the Chair, and it is not interfered with or commented on, or the subject of representations by the Government one way or the other. I cannot be clearer than that. I know that, the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) knows that, the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the House know that, and it is time the Chinese Government knew it as well.
I was trying to explain to the Chinese authorities how our parliamentary system works, and your intervention, Mr Speaker, has more than amply demonstrated the true situation.
The second point that I tried to explain to senior Chinese representatives was that if they allowed my right hon. Friend’s Committee to visit Hong Kong, not only would the Committee see for itself that the demonstrations were dwindling, more importantly it would see the huge economic success and dynamism of Hong Kong. As the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) said, there is nothing like seeing with one’s own eyes the true situation on the ground, and it is more likely that the Committee’s report would have been more favourable to Hong Kong. By taking this action, the whole situation has been whipped up and made far worse.
The third thing I said was that it would be better if we could keep the whole matter as low key as possible, try to avoid it getting into the press, and discuss it behind the scenes and consider what measures could be taken to avoid the problem.
We are in limbo, but the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) hit the nail on the head when she said that the best thing—I suggested this to the Chinese authorities last week—would be for the visit to be postponed. I know I am slightly at odds with the House, but I have a hypothetical situation to put to it. Suppose the Chinese authorities were about to send a high-level delegation to the UK at the height of severe riots in Chinatown, with buildings being burned down. What if we said, “Please don’t send your delegation now, but we are very happy to see you in a month or two”? I believe from my discussions that, if quiet diplomacy goes on behind the scenes, the Foreign Affairs Committee will be allowed to visit Hong Kong some time next year. That might be after the end of the inquiry—I do not know—but it is important that quiet diplomacy takes place.
I was heavily involved in the Dalai Lama affair. In the light of that, I have learned—one needs to learn in life. Had the Dalai Lama situation been handled very slightly differently, our relationship with the Chinese would have been much easier in the past two or three years.
It is important that we have good relations with the Chinese. I believe a member of the royal family will visit China next year, and we have high-level leadership visits next year both in this country and in China. Rather than meeting each other head to head, we are more likely to achieve what we want to achieve in Hong Kong through good relationships. There has been substantial progress.
I am more than happy to do so, because I conveyed the response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway). The Chinese delegation said in terms that, if the Foreign Affairs Committee were to press ahead with its visit, it would be barred entry. When I went to Hong Kong a fortnight ago, I did not need a visa. Therefore, the Chinese have to take other action to bar entry, such as stopping my right hon. Friend and the Committee from getting on the plane. Bearing that in mind, this is an extremely serious occurrence. The Chinese made it clear that they understood that, because they said that there would be harm to British-Sino relations. That is the response I conveyed to my right hon. Friend. He rightly took his own decision after taking counsel from his Committee—they decided to press ahead with the visit. That is the state of affairs.
I say to the House that we should have quiet diplomacy. It is in everybody’s interest that this country has excellent relations with China. That does not mean to say that we should not criticise China quietly behind the scenes over human rights, animal rights and various aspects that we do not like. I would say this to the Chinese: please follow the dictum of Deng Xiaoping; please be an internationalist country; and please do not start closing in and becoming isolationist—one or two trends have emerged in the past two months since the change of leadership. After all, Deng Xiaoping said that a flow of water must be carefully channelled. A former Prime Minister of this country said we should trust the people. I say this to the Chinese authorities: let us trust the people of Hong Kong; let us keep Hong Kong the jewel that it is; and let us include everybody in that growth and increasing prosperity.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this important debate. As a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, I congratulate our Chairman on the measured and yet resolute manner in which he has dealt with the matter. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will acknowledge that.
I am almost tail-end Charlie, and time is beginning to press, so I will dwell on a couple of points that have not been covered in the debate. It has been said outside this place that China does not fully understand how our system works, and that the Foreign Affairs Committee is basically a part of the Government. Hon. Members know that that is clearly not the case. If anybody seriously believes that any member of the Committee is a mouthpiece for the Government, they have no idea how Parliament works. They need take only a cursory glance at what happens in Parliament to get a more accurate picture. That leads me to suggest that the situation is not a result of negligence, an accident or a simple misunderstanding, but a result of a fundamental wish to ignore the facts. A country with the size, wealth and intelligence of China cannot fail to understand that the Foreign Affairs Committee is not the mouthpiece of the Government or involved in the Government in any way. Our job is to scrutinise. Some of us take our responsibilities more seriously than others, but there is no doubt about the Committee’s role.
There are repercussions for both parties when a treaty is not respected. There is no doubt that the Sino-British joint declaration is an international agreement. It is a treaty and was lodged with the UN—if there is any doubt, the treaty number is 23391. This is therefore not about interfering or meddling in the internal affairs of China. China very willingly signed up to the agreement and is a counterparty. Let us be clear about what the agreement says. It mentions Hong Kong having a high degree of autonomy, and rights, freedoms and lifestyles remaining unchanged for 50 years. The fact that China has reneged on that treaty—there is no other way of putting it—has repercussions for both sides, because it takes two to sign a treaty.
As has been mentioned, the repercussions for the Chinese will be profound, although perhaps not immediate. What message does the situation send to the world? What message does it send to Taiwan? If China wants Taiwan to return to the fold, this is not the way to go about it. Not only reneging on the treaty but stopping us entering Hong Kong shows weakness rather than strength. China has shot itself in the foot.
There are also repercussions for the UK. I suggest that the UK has a moral responsibility to do what it can to ensure that China respects its commitments not only to the treaty and the spirit of that treaty, but to everything that follows. That includes allowing access by democratic bodies to visit Hong Kong.
The term “honourable” is an old-fashioned one, but I believe it remains a strong word, as I hope most hon. Members do. We should live our lives by it. We risk being dishonourable as a country if we do not hold China to its commitments. We know that the joint declaration lacks an arbitration clause and that, therefore, little process or recourse is allowed to check China if it transgresses, but there is little doubt what the treaty tries to achieve.
It is clear that China has reneged on the treaty, but we have that honourable responsibility to hold China to account. We must be clear that there is a danger that the term “dishonourable” could be applied if we are not careful. We need to look carefully at the UK Government’s response to events so far. Hong Kong 2020, a pro-democracy group, has described the UK as “sleeping on watch” with regard to the weakness of its response to the Chinese treaty transgressions. Human Rights Watch believes our response has been “shamefully weak” so far. I put it to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State that we need to look at how we are responding to China’s treaty transgressions. The treaty places obligations on both sides, and we must do what we can to ensure that we hold true to our end of the treaty and act in a totally honourable way.
My son is in Hong Kong working as a banker. He tells me pretty much the same thing: that there is concern that the British Government have perhaps been slower than they might have been. I accept the sensitivities around this issue, but is it not the case that the demonstrators have behaved in the most extraordinarily restrained fashion? I believe they have put up huge notices saying, “We apologise for the inconvenience caused” and cleaned up all the litter. This is not the sort of demonstration we are accustomed to in the western world.
Absolutely right—my hon. Friend makes an excellent point. This is not mob rule. The protests could not be described as any flagrant breach of the law. People are exercising the rights that we ourselves suggested they should have when we signed the Sino-British joint declaration. The action they have taken so far has been totally within the declaration, yet the Chinese have transgressed on that agreement. Our response has been very weak indeed. I would like to hear more from the Minister on what the British Government will do to make it clear that the Chinese entered the agreement in good faith, as did the British, and that all rights, responsibilities and freedoms under the law should be upheld by the Chinese authorities.
Just as China has shot itself in the foot by taking the action it has so far—not just with regard to banning the Committee from entering Hong Kong, but in transgressing on the agreement—we, too, have a downside risk in this affair. By not protesting enough—by not holding the Chinese Government to account and by continuing to be somewhat weak in our response in defence of the protesters who are operating within the law and the terms of the agreement—our reputation will suffer. We must not allow that to happen. This House must not allow it to happen. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how the British Government intend to toughen up their response to this outrage.
I echo my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) in thanking you, Mr Speaker, for granting this emergency debate, and in commending the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), for the way he has behaved throughout this inquiry, and as I am sure he will continue to do as it moves forward.
The Chinese Government have said that my Committee has no business being in Hong Kong. They are wrong on three counts, the first of which is legal. The United Kingdom has a treaty obligation to the people of Hong Kong, to which the People’s Republic of China is a signatory. We have heard that over and over in this debate. This is very much our business. The Sino-British joint declaration of 1984 is lodged with the UN and commits China to maintaining the Hong Kong way of life until 2047. Until the treaty expires, we have a duty to ensure that the Chinese are meeting their obligations, both to us as co-signatories and to the people of Hong Kong as beneficiaries of the joint declaration. China has shown that it is committed to upholding the international order and that it places great emphasis on the principle of national sovereignty. By undermining a treaty, signed with another sovereign state and registered with the UN, it is undermining the very international order to which it claims to belong.
Secondly, the Chinese Government are wrong to exclude us, because it is counter-productive to do so. My Committee is not just looking at the joint declaration, but considering UK-Hong Kong relations as a whole. The UK and Hong Kong have extremely close ties of history, culture and commerce. Other hon. Members have spoken eloquently on the first two, so I will confine my remarks to the third. We are Hong Kong’s eleventh biggest trading partner. More than 560 British companies operate there and the region accounts for 35% of all UK investment in Asia—although my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) has told me that the figure is 40%. This year, a record number of Hong Kong students—more than 4,000—received offers to study at British universities. As a major financial centre, we co-operate closely on global financial governance. Of course, we both have a key role to play in helping China internationalise its currency, the renminbi. This is a time when we should be deepening and strengthening that relationship, because all parties have so much to gain. We should be over there, meeting businesses and universities, asking what more we can do to increase our mutual prosperity. Instead, we are here, debating whether China is ready to be a responsible member of the international community.
The third reason why the ban is wrong is that it is misguided. The Chinese Government have decided that they do not like our conclusions before we have even had a chance to make them. That means that they will not have a chance to tell their side of the story. It also means they will not see a House of Commons Select Committee in action. That is a shame, because if the Chinese saw what we do, they might find that our Committee system had a useful application within their own Government. Independent committees, with the power to hold public bodies to account, could go a long way towards tackling China’s corruption problems, for example. Rather than a lecture, however, the inquiry could have been a genuine exchange of ideas.
We in this House have a lot to learn from Hong Kong and what can be achieved when backing business and getting behind free markets. Hong Kong is one of the best examples we have that Britain has been a force for good in the world. We signed the joint declaration because we believe in the rule of law, free speech and individual rights. With the important exception of representative democracy, Hong Kong is a living embodiment of our values. For that reason alone, we have a clear and legitimate interest in the future of the region. We do not seek to tell the Chinese how to run their country, but rather to ensure that they are holding up their side of an international agreement, an agreement which has been of great benefit to them. If we cannot be there in person, what we can do is send a clear message to the people of Hong Kong that this House believes in their aspirations, shares their commitment to liberty and the law, and calls on their Government to safeguard their way of life in line with their international obligations.
We are grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this debate, and grateful to the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway) for making the application for the debate under Standing Order No. 24.
As we have heard, the House is united in its concern—indeed, its unhappiness—that the Foreign Affairs Committee has been prevented from visiting Hong Kong. We have also heard that the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) was denied a visa for the all-party group on China’s visit to Shanghai, causing that visit to be abandoned at short notice too. The hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), among others, referred to what he described as the Dalai Lama affair, when there was concern about the Prime Minister being refused a visa to visit China after his meeting with the Dalai Lama.
Speakers in today’s debate have also raised wider concerns. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) highlighted issues relating to press freedom and the repression of journalists, and spoke of the problems she encountered on an earlier visit to China. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), a long-serving member of the Select Committee, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) spoke about their attempts to visit Taiwan. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) spoke of his apprehension about the future of Hong Kong when he was there at the time of the handover, and the hon. Member for Gloucester told us of his substantial experience of working in the region and on fostering Sino-British relations, including by setting up a charity. The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) focused on how we should not let our desire to trade with China, and the importance of China as a potential trading partner, deter us from raising other issues, such as human rights, animal welfare and wildlife crime.
Select Committees are an integral part of our parliamentary democracy. The FAC’s reports are always informative and make an invaluable contribution to the scrutiny of the Foreign Office, and as the Chair detailed, overseas visits are an important part of the Committee’s work in that they offer a greater insight into the countries being visited and the opportunity to foster bilateral relations. As stressed by several speakers, independence is a fundamental feature of Select Committees. It is not for the Government or the Opposition to seek to interfere with their inquiries or determine with whom they can or should meet—or indeed where they should visit.
Neither is it for other Governments to intervene or seek to ward off Committee members. Over the summer, I was therefore troubled to read the letters from the Hong Kong Government, the Chinese foreign affairs committee and His Excellency the Ambassador explicitly requesting that the Committee cease its inquiry and intimating there would be serious consequences for UK-China relations if it did not do so. The ambassador’s letter warned that the Committee’s inquiry
“will ultimately harm the interests of Britain”,
and the letter from the Chinese equivalent of the FAC advised Committee members to
“bear in mind the larger picture of China-UK relations”.
We value a strong relationship with China, as several speakers have said, and we do not believe that the independent decisions of the FAC should affect this. It is important to emphasise, as others have done, that its inquiry is in no way intended to interfere in the sovereign affairs of China. The operation of “one country, two systems” and the implementation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law are matters for the Governments of China and the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong, as I made clear to the Vice-Minister in the International Department of the Communist party of China’s Central Committee when I met him this morning. The Committee’s interest in Hong Kong does not signify any latent imperialist tendencies on the UK’s part. I think we are all very aware, when we take an interest in other countries’ affairs, particularly where there is a direct British colonial legacy, that we should avoid giving such an impression.
We should also recognise that the joint declaration specifically affords Hong Kong
“a high degree of autonomy”.
However, it is a matter for the UK, working with China, to ensure the continued success of the Sino-British joint declaration signed by our two countries 30 years ago, and it is also a matter for the UK to honour the joint commitments it made to the people of Hong Kong to facilitate the handover in 1997. Accordingly, the FAC decided to scrutinise the Foreign Office’s implementation of and respect for the agreement.
The joint declaration states:
“Rights and freedoms, including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, of strike, of choice of occupation, of academic research and of religious belief will be ensured by law in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.”
As a signatory to a binding, international treaty, the UK must speak up if the agreement is not fully upheld. It is deeply troubling to hear that the Chair of the Committee was told that China regarded the joint declaration as no longer in force and as having ended at the time of the handover. We all noted the contribution from the former Foreign Secretary, who made it clear that this was not the intention when the agreement was entered into.
We have all seen the scenes in Hong Kong: the clashes between protestors and the Hong Kong police and the authorities’ use of force. The protestors have sought discussions with the Chinese authorities and a resolution to the different views within Hong Kong on the best form of universal suffrage there. Reports indicate that their negotiating team has previously been prevented from travelling to China for talks—another worrying sign—and it should be noted that the joint declaration refers to freedom of travel being ensured by law in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
Following the violence in recent days, one of the student leaders has now announced a hunger strike in an attempt to secure talks with the Hong Kong Government. We believe this situation can only be resolved by dialogue involving the Chinese Government, the Hong Kong authorities and representatives of the pro-democracy campaigners. However, while the response is a matter for the Chinese and Hong Kong Governments, it is appropriate to raise our concerns. Members would be concerned by reports of pepper spray, batons and water hoses being used, whether in a city in this country or anywhere else around the world.
As the Opposition, we would also be calling on the Government to speak with their overseas counterparts if we had concerns that basic human rights were not being upheld, as we do now. The UK’s responsibilities under the joint declaration add to the imperative to do so. The Government were right to seek assurances from China regarding the police response over the past few months, and we hope that the Minister will continue to do so.
Parliament also has a particular interest, because we now know that the tear gas was supplied by British companies. Indeed, it seems that the Committees on Arms Export Controls have elicited a change in policy—or perhaps just a confused policy—from the Government. The Business Secretary wrote to the Chair of the Committees on 28 October to confirm that he had accepted the advice of the Foreign Secretary that the use of tear gas
“was an uncharacteristic response... not indicative of a wider pattern of behaviour”.
No licences were revoked or suspended. It has been reported, however, that the Business Secretary told the Committees yesterday that he would “urgently seek advice” on the issue. It is not clear why it has taken so long for him to investigate such a serious matter. We hope he will take it very seriously indeed.
The Government have a role in offering their support for dialogue and calling for the basic freedoms and rights of all people to be respected and protected. It is vital that Hong Kong can preserve these fundamental rights, and everyone in the House hopes to see all the parties in China and Hong Kong reach agreement on universal suffrage and deliver Hong Kong’s vision for democracy. That would be the most fitting way to celebrate 20 years of Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy within China in 2017. Well before then, however, we hope that the FAC will have the opportunity to renew and strengthen its friendly ties with the FAC of the National People’s Congress and that its members will have the opportunity to visit.
As the Prime Minister’s official spokesman has said, the travel ban
“only seeks to amplify concerns about the situation in Hong Kong, rather than diminishing concerns”.
We are all disturbed by these latest developments. UK-China relations are best served and strengthened by a spirit of transparency and co-operation, which I hope the Foreign Office will be able to promote. It would be hugely disappointing if the Committee’s inquiry was allowed to affect the bilateral relationship between the UK and China, and I hope the Minister will use his influence to bring this matter to a speedy and satisfactory resolution—one which allows the Committee to continue its inquiry unimpeded. I hope to visit Hong Kong in the near future.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this important debate, which no doubt will be watched closely here in London, in Beijing and in Hong Kong. The fact that this is only the fifth debate under Standing Order No. 24 to be granted in this Parliament shows the seriousness with which the House takes this issue and demonstrates a clear and strongly held concern that stretches right across party lines.
I share that concern. The decision to refuse the members of the Foreign Affairs Committee—all of whom, bar one, have been present this afternoon—entry into Hong Kong as part of their inquiry is wholly unjustified, counter-productive and, as the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr Roy) and others reminded us, unprecedented. It is also not consistent with the positive trend in UK-China relations over the past year and does not reflect the fact that the UK and China have considerable shared interests in respect of Hong Kong. Nor is it in the spirit of the Sino-British joint declaration. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), the Chair of the FAC, said, the declaration was signed in good faith in 1984 by the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the then Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang. It is lodged at the United Nations and still remains central to Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms.
The Chinese Government have made clear their opposition to the FAC inquiry on the basis of what they say is “interference” in China’s internal affairs. I am aware of the efforts of the FAC to establish a constructive dialogue with the Chinese embassy and the Hong Kong Trade Office, and the British Government have repeatedly explained to the Chinese authorities that Parliament is completely independent of the Government. As the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) rightly reminded us, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, as a Committee of this House, is also rightly completely independent of Government. The FAC inquiry scrutinised UK Government policy towards Hong Kong. Indeed, that is clear from its title: “The UK’s relations with Hong Kong: 30 years after the Joint Declaration”. It is the Committee’s role in our democracy to hold the Government to account.
I have made clear to the Chinese ambassador on more than one occasion that the Government would not and could not try to prevent the Committee’s inquiry or its visit to Hong Kong. There are numerous precedents for the FAC visiting Hong Kong—in 1998, 2000 and 2006, each time engaging with the broad range of society in a wholly constructive spirit. When I met Guo Yezhou, Vice-Minister of the Communist party international liaison department yesterday morning, I repeated my concerns. I pointed out again that barring the Committee from Hong Kong is unjustified and, as the Prime Minister has said, “counter-productive”. What is more, it runs counter to the positive trajectory in our bilateral relations over the past year, which have witnessed a welcome increase in dialogue, mutual respect and understanding.
It is perfectly reasonable for Members of Parliament to want to visit Hong Kong as they scrutinise the British Government’s policy and quite properly hold us to account over it. Barring them from going simply makes it more difficult for them to hear from all sides in order to make an accurate and fair assessment—a point well made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), a former Foreign Secretary.
In a little over two weeks, we will mark the 30th anniversary of the Sino-British joint declaration on the question of Hong Kong, which set out arrangements for the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong to China under the “one country, two systems” principle. It is, as its name implies, a joint declaration to which both parties made a solemn commitment. As a co-signatory, the United Kingdom has both a legal interest and a moral obligation in the monitoring and implementation of that treaty—a treaty that enshrined a high degree of autonomy and basic rights and freedoms for the people of Hong Kong. These are at the heart of Hong Kong’s way of life, and it is vital that they are fully upheld.
One thing the Minister might like to mention to the Chinese ambassador, or for that matter to any Chinese delegation on Hong Kong, is that in the early ’70s when China was not popular with the Nixon Administration, Coventry city council made visits to China and started to link up with the country, which resulted in trade deals.
I shall look to my hon. Friend for inspiration as we look forward to commemorating the signing in good faith of that declaration. I am sure he will be full of ideas.
As I said in the Westminster Hall debate on Hong Kong on 22 October, which my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) secured, we strongly believe that it is the “autonomy, rights and freedoms” guaranteed by the joint declaration that underpin Hong Kong’s success. He is right, by the way, to raise the regrettable incident recently when he, too, was refused a visa, this time to China itself, and when he and other members of the UK-China Leadership Forum felt they had no choice but to postpone their to visit Shanghai for talks with the Communist party. We again made it clear to the Chinese authorities our view that refusing visas is no kind of solution. It is clearly counter-productive that these talks have not now taken place. The important thing is to pursue dialogue on issues, even where we disagree.
I would equally emphasise my understanding that the FAC inquiry is focused on the promotion of economic, cultural and educational links, too. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) stressed the importance of the economy and trading links. Last year, Hong Kong was the UK’s second largest export market in Asia Pacific, and Hong Kong was the UK’s 12th largest investor. In addition, Hong Kong is an important factor in the UK’s dynamic relationship with mainland China—for instance, as Hong Kong and London work together to develop the financial service infrastructure for the internationalisation of the renminbi. These links are beneficial to the UK, China and Hong Kong, and absolutely deserve the attention of the FAC.
My hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) raised the issue of former British servicemen in Hong Kong, and we will look into this, although it is more properly a matter for the Home Department. It is the case, however, that around 250,000 British citizens live in Hong Kong, and a further 3.4 million people—approximately half the population—hold the status of British nationals overseas, giving us a clear consular interest.
For these reasons, I can assure the House and those following this debate that the Government have been emphasising the context and importance of the inquiry at senior levels through official channels in Beijing, Hong Kong and London. I am grateful for the suggestion made in the press today by the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) that the Foreign Office should be engaging with our Chinese counterparts on this matter. I can tell her and others who raise it that that is precisely what we have been doing: our ambassador in Beijing, our consul-general in Hong Kong, myself and the Foreign Secretary have done so repeatedly.
I must make progress, if my hon. Friend will forgive me.
We cannot, of course, ignore the context of political protests in Hong Kong, which have now been going on for over two months. We have publicly welcomed the Hong Kong police’s stated commitment to exercise tolerance and restraint. As I have said before, it is essential that Hong Kong citizens’ fundamental rights and freedoms, including of assembly and demonstration, continue to be respected, as guaranteed by the Sino-British joint declaration. We have consistently called on all sides to ensure that the demonstrations are peaceful and in accordance with the law.
The issue at the centre of the protests is of course Hong Kong’s democracy, and specifically the arrangements for election of the Chief Executive in 2017. We believe that a transition to universal suffrage will safeguard Hong Kong’s future prosperity and stability, in line with the Basic Law and the aspirations of the people of Hong Kong. That is why we continue to encourage the Governments of Hong Kong and China to find a consensus that offers a genuine choice to the people of Hong Kong and gives them a real stake in the 2017 election for the Chief Executive, and then in due course for the elections to the Legislative Council in 2020.
Of course, the detailed arrangements for reform are for the people of Hong Kong, and the Governments of Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China to determine. The United Kingdom has consistently called on all parties to engage in dialogue within the parameters of the August decision by the National People’s Congress. We believe that there is scope for a consensus that will deliver a meaningful advance for democracy in Hong Kong, consistent with the commitments that have been made.
As Premier Li himself has said, we have an “indispensable” relationship with China. We have many shared interests, from our bilateral trade to our co-operation on global challenges such as Ebola. It is important for that relationship to be conducted with mutual understanding and respect based on open and honest dialogue, and we will continue our endeavours to that end.
I am grateful to the House for the debate. Four things have emerged from it. First, the joint declaration is still alive and well, and this Parliament will continue to take an interest in it. Secondly, it is the view of Parliament that China is the loser in this situation, from both a commercial and a strategic point of view. Thirdly, although bilateral relations will suffer in the short term, we are quite capable of rebuilding them; the question for the Chinese is, are they? The Foreign Affairs Committee remains willing to visit Hong Kong if agreement can be reached. Fourthly, the hon. Member Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr Roy) posed a number of questions in his speech, and we should be grateful if the Minister could give us answers to them in writing.
Finally, Mr Speaker, I thank you for your unfailing support for this process. The winner in it is Parliament, and the quality of the debate has justified your decision.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the ban by China on the Foreign Affairs Committee visit to Hong Kong.