I beg to move,
That this House has considered Hong Kong and the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Today is exactly the right moment for the House to consider this important issue. The debate is prompted by the most recent six-monthly report from the Foreign Office on Hong Kong, the 38th in a series of reports written every six months on the implementation of the 1984 joint declaration. One thing that I have been proud to introduce to the House since I became chairman of the all-party group on China is the fact that our group debates the reports and brings them to the House for debate, so that they are not just written, filed and forgotten. Every six months, members who are interested have the chance to discuss the reports and to express to the people of Hong Kong the objective British view on the maintenance of the joint declaration.
Today’s debate clashes, alas, with a number of other events in the House, as is often the way, and a large number of Members who said that they wanted to come and participate have unfortunately been unable to do so. However, I would not want anyone watching or listening to the debate, or reading the Hansard record later, to be confused by that and to think that there is little interest in the joint declaration or in the present and future of Hong Kong. It is a territory of huge significance to us and to China—and most importantly, of course, to its residents. It is therefore right that we should go through the exercise of reviewing what has happened, what changes there have been and whether they are broadly positive or negative.
The latest six-monthly report, which came out on 11 February, is, as so often with Foreign Office documents, a model of precision. It covers a wide range of subjects and is often as interesting for what it does not say as what it does say. I want to highlight first the overall themes of the report, secondly the areas of concern that it highlights, and thirdly the wider issue of the rule of law. The report deals with that final point in some detail, and it is what we should concern ourselves with today.
First, I want to talk about the overall tone of the report. It concludes that during the second half of 2015, the programme of one country, two systems, which the joint declaration committed itself to,
“has, in very many areas, continued to function well”,
but that there are specific grounds for serious concern, which
“revolve…around the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Joint Declaration, including academic freedom and the freedom of the press.”
The overall theme that the constitutional arrangement of one country, two systems has served Hong Kong well is repeated in the Foreign Secretary’s foreword to the report. He says that the constitutional arrangement continued to function well during the reporting period, but that there are areas of concern where we should reinforce the responsibilities on both our countries set out in the joint declaration. I will come back to the Foreign Secretary’s specific remarks on the case of Lee Po, a British citizen.
At this stage, I simply highlight the comments with which the Foreign Secretary finishes the foreword, which relate to the wider constitutional issue. He observes:
“The UK Government judges that constitutional reform will help, not hinder, the Hong Kong SAR Government…A more democratic and accountable system of government would help strengthen those rights and freedoms which have come under increasing pressure over the past two years…We encourage all parties to play their part in rebuilding constructive dialogue”.
That has to be right, because it is in our interests and those of China, Hong Kong and the wider world that Hong Kong continues to thrive and be the success that it has been in the almost 20 years since handover in 1997.
I come on to the areas of concern that have been highlighted during and since the second half of last year. I will first focus on the broader attitude to the rule of law and the separation of powers. I note from the report that on 12 September, the Central Government Liaison Office director, Zhang Xiaoming, argued in a speech
“that the existence of the executive, legislature and judiciary did not mean the separation of powers could be applied to Hong Kong in its entirety…he described the Chief Executive’s special legal position as ‘transcending’ the executive, legislature and judiciary.”
That statement is incompatible with the fundamental freedoms guaranteed under the one country, two systems philosophy that underpins the joint declaration. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on that speech by Zhang Xiaoming, which in many ways appeared to suggest that the Chief Executive can control the executive, legislature and judiciary with overweening powers.
The Chinese response to the six-monthly report again accused Her Majesty’s Government of interfering in Hong Kong affairs. That has always been a difficult and sensitive area, and we have to address it with a sensitivity that recognises that the sovereignty of Hong Kong lies entirely with the People’s Republic of China. As the Government have been accused of interfering in Hong Kong affairs, I think it is worth recapping the importance of British interest in Hong Kong. That is partly a commercial interest, as has often been noted, with more than 630 UK companies based in Hong Kong and UK investment there conservatively valued at about £35 billion, which makes up just over a third of the total UK investment in Asia.
However, our interest in Hong Kong is not simply the interest of a mercantile nation. It stretches much wider, starting with the human involvement—the fact that 3.7 million British passport holders live in Hong Kong—and continuing with the strong education links. The UK was the top overseas English-speaking study destination for Hong Kong higher education students in 2014-15, the last date for which we have complete data, and that has been the case for a long time.
British companies based in Hong Kong are not there simply to do business with Hong Kong itself, although that is often important. They often have headquarters in Hong Kong but use it as a gateway into China. Some 126 UK companies have regional headquarters and 220 have regional offices there. It has been a frustration of mine for many years that it is impossible to quantify accurately British trade with and investment in China, precisely because so much of it is routed through Hong Kong and therefore appears in the trade statistics as being of Hong Kong origin. The total two-way goods trade between the UK and mainland China, routed through Hong Kong, as far as we can estimate it, was valued at just over £5 billion at the last count in 2014-15.
Our stake in Hong Kong is wide. It starts with a very large number of British citizens—British passport holders and British overseas passport holders. It continues through education and an important trading and business relationship, which is important not just to us and to Hong Kong, but to China. The success of the British business relationship in Hong Kong underpins the fact that the freedoms established through the joint declaration are still there. They are succeeding, and they provide the core of the reasons why British firms enjoy doing business with Hong Kong. Were that ever to be damaged, it would not only be British trade and investment that would suffer from the change in Hong Kong’s reputation; investment and trade with a wide range of other countries, which underpins Hong Kong’s success, would also suffer. That investment and trade is critical to China as proof of the success of the joint declaration and the handover of Hong Kong, and of the fact that one country, two systems can thrive and offers precedents for its diplomacy in other parts of the world.
On the accusation of interference in Hong Kong affairs, I suggest that the rule of law—the absolute conviction that the judiciary in Hong Kong is independent, will make independent decisions and will not favour businesses of one type over others, other than through the process of a legal case—is absolutely essential to the success of Hong Kong and, ultimately, to the success of China itself. I hope the Minister will comment on that. It is therefore no surprise that when President Xi Jinping ascended to the chairmanship of the Chinese Communist party, his opening speech highlighted both the challenge of the dangers of corruption, and the opportunity to strengthen the rule of law in China. He said that he was committed to that, and that it was at the heart of his mission in the leadership of that great country.
It would be curious to hold this debate and discuss the six-monthly report on Hong Kong without making reference to what the Foreign Secretary described as
“a serious breach of the Sino-British joint declaration”,
“undermines the principle of ‘One Country, Two Systems,’ which assures Hong Kong residents of the protection of the Hong Kong legal system.”
I refer, of course, to the unexplained disappearance of five individuals associated with a Hong Kong bookstore and, in particular, the disappearance of Mr Lee Po from Hong Kong to mainland China.
None of us in this House has access to the true facts behind that curious situation, other than what we have read in the newspapers, what the Foreign Secretary said in a meeting with the Chinese Foreign Minister and the subsequent statements from the Foreign Office and the Chinese Government. An interview with Mr Lee Po, of which I have seen a translation, was shown on Chinese television. It suggests that he no longer wishes to be a British citizen and has renounced his citizenship—although clearly not in accordance with the rules for doing so.
Today is an opportunity for the Minister to brief the House on the latest situation and on whether he believes that the disappearance of Mr Lee Po, who has now reappeared in Guangdong, constitutes a serious breach of the joint declaration. What reaction has there been in discussions between the Foreign Secretary and the Chinese ambassador, my friend Mr Liu Xiaoming, here in London, and in other meetings in China and Hong Kong? Will he clarify the situation and explain how it will be resolved? Ultimately, it is about whether the freedoms that have been guaranteed are for real, and about the perception of whether China is adhering to those freedoms in Hong Kong. It is about whether this is a one-off incident that will not recur or the beginning of a seriously disturbing trend.
The most poignant thing, in a way, is how the people of Hong Kong have reacted to that issue. I received an email only an hour or so ago from a young resident of London who is a student here but is from Hong Kong. She expressed her own particular concerns. The long and the short of her email is that she has serious concerns about the future of Hong Kong and feels that the freedoms guaranteed under the joint declaration are being eroded. She wrote:
“As a Hong Kong citizen, I am concerned about the future of Hong Kong. And maybe you have heard…that the freedom and democracy in Hong Kong is deteriorating under the rule of Chinese government.”
She says that personally, she thinks that China
“have been violating the Joint Declaration and never kept their promises.”
That expression of concern is by no means unusual. There have been other letters and emails from Hong Kong citizens, resident either here in London or in Hong Kong itself. They are the future of Hong Kong. It is the young people who, with their energies, resources and commitment, will determine whether Hong Kong continues to thrive as one of the greatest examples in the modern world of a free marketplace enjoying growth and opportunity for all of its people, or whether their concerns will lead to a rather different situation—a sad, continual decline in Hong Kong’s importance. None of us wants to see that.
I am conscious that at least a couple of other Members wish to speak, so I will move on from the individual case of Mr Lee Po and touch briefly on the wider issue of the rule of law.
The rule of law in China, one of the two main driving points of Mr Xi Jinping’s leadership, has now been raised in other contexts as well as that of Hong Kong. I refer in particular to issues in the South China sea, where last October an arbitral tribunal under the United Nations convention on the law of the sea ruled that it had jurisdiction to consider the Philippines’ claim in its maritime dispute with China. I believe there will be a ruling from the tribunal soon; the Minister might want to comment on that. If there is, the reactions of all those involved will be important. Whatever the decision is, we will get a clear idea of the reactions of the Philippines, China and the United Kingdom. That will be a symbolic signpost of whether China is going to take forward the rule of law not just in the People’s Republic itself, but in a wider context and in how she engages with the world at large. China is one of the great nations of our time; of that there can be no doubt. Her aspirations and ambitions are considerable, and many of them are hugely positive things that can lead to the development of better standards of living in parts of the world, as she has enjoyed herself through the reforms of the past 35 years.
However, there are also dangers in China’s ambitions, particularly in the South China sea, where there is a risk of rising tensions over rival claims. China and other nations are strengthening their military capabilities and increasingly having clashes that could spiral out of control. We have seen another of those clashes in the past few days, this time on the edge of Borneo, or Kalimantan, involving the Indonesian Government. I believe the Indonesian Minister of Marine Affairs and Fisheries intends to launch a legal case against China. From Britain’s point of view, the escalation of such disagreements and China’s recent large-scale reclamation activity—it has even sited missiles on Woody Island in the Paracels—pose a serious risk of escalations that could cause greater problems. The United Kingdom would not wish to see that at all.
Will the Minister comment on the rule of law outside China’s own sovereignty and on her relationships with other nations in the South China sea? Will he also comment on how we in Britain—particularly the Government—can play a constructive role in helping with the peaceful settlement of all claims in line with international law? “In line with international law” is the part that matters.
The Minister commented recently that how China responds will be seen as a signal of its commitment to the rules-based international system. My friends in the Chinese embassy and the Chinese Government will not necessarily welcome this, but I believe that over the next five, 10, 20 years, the way in which China engages with the world, and whether it adopts rules-based international law as the starting point for its engagement with the wider world and its commercial and cultural advantages, will be the measure by which the world judges its advancement into being one of the handful of greatest nations.
In summary, today we have reviewed the most recent six-monthly report on Hong Kong, which confirms that in many ways the joint declaration continues, and that many, if not most, of the freedoms set out in it are in good shape and are being endorsed and carried out by all parties. There are, however, serious concerns to do with the rule of law, brought alive most vividly by the possible abduction of a British citizen from Hong Kong to China. The exercise of the rule of law in a wider, international context may indicate further problems with China’s adherence to a rules-based system. The House is absolutely entitled to discuss that, not least because of this country’s significant investment in and commitment to the future of Hong Kong.
China is our friend; we are in a partnership with it in a large number of fields. I am proud to be the chairman of such a large all-party group on China, with almost 400 members—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. You are correct, I was still on my feet, but I was moving swiftly to the climax of my contribution.
I was highlighting the huge steps that the People’s Republic of China has made in so many ways. Today, its partnership with us extends across a wide variety of sectors, areas and countries throughout the world. One example of a field in which China’s advances are important, particularly to British business, is intellectual property rights, which are now better protected in China than in many other countries in the world, not least because it has an interest in intellectual property rights for its own significant intellectual property.
We all want to be reassured that, as China engages in a partnership with us that extends into areas previously considered sensitive by many countries—for instance, nuclear power—the rule of law, sticking to agreements and standing by what has been signed and agreed to will be a cornerstone of the People’s Republic now and in future. I hope that the Minister will touch on that reassurance, and that he will address the concerns about a specific breach of the joint declaration—the first, let it be said, since the handover in 1997—and about China’s engagement with the rule of law as it applies internationally.
I am grateful for your forbearance, Mr Hollobone. I hope that Members from other parties will express their views on the latest Foreign Office report and on the importance of keeping to the freedoms and rights established under the one country, two systems philosophy, and that the Minister will shed light on his latest understanding of events.
The debate can now run to 6.14 pm. The recommended Front-Bencher speaking limits are five minutes for the Scottish National party, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister. Those are recommendations. In addition, one prominent Back Bencher has caught my eye—I call Jim Shannon.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Hollobone. It is a pleasure to be able to speak on this issue. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on setting a good scene and one that I agree with—I suspect that we will have consensus.
I was just saying to the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), that it is Groundhog Day this afternoon, with almost the same players—perhaps fewer in number—and the Minister in his place as well. I do not say this lightly, but the Minister was most responsive in the Burma debate this morning. I appreciated his comments; I think we all did. The shadow Minister, too, made a valuable contribution to that debate. It was good to have consensus.
Here we are now, all back to look at a different subject, and one that is close to my heart. Why is it close to my heart? Some of my constituents came to stay in Northern Ireland from Hong Kong. They did not go home again, but have contacts through relatives and families and business connections even today, so I thought I should make a contribution. I was not sure whether I could fit in with the timing, but we have made sure that I could do so.
Although Hong Kong was handed over almost two decades ago, tensions and Chinese intrusion remain rife. The hon. Member for Gloucester outlined that and I think other Members will do the same. The issue is more about finding solutions, co-operating better, having a better understanding of each other and how to move forward before 2047. Despite the handover, there will always be a paternal connection between us here in the home nations of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the citizens of Hong Kong and the British expats who are living out there, some of whom we know and some of whom we have direct contact with.
We have a tremendous sense of shared history and a shared way of life. In many ways, the Britishness we have here is still apparent in Hong Kong. Those characteristics and personality traits are real. We have a remarkably similar system and our aspiration and drive have helped Hong Kong and the United Kingdom, in stark contrast with the socialist system in the People’s Republic of China. The issue is how we retain that for the next number of years and how we make sure that Hong Kong can develop as we want it to develop, with our relationship remaining the same, and China understanding the line in the sand that it cannot go over.
The Sino-British joint declaration paved the way for Hong Kong’s bid to be recognised as a sovereign entity by the United Nations in 2047 as part of the unchanged status for five decades from 1997. That was agreed to by all parties and it is worrying to see continuous Chinese intrusion into Hong Kong’s affairs and the consequent tensions and unease.
Over the years, we in Northern Ireland have built up strong relations with the People’s Republic of China. We see things that we can work together on. That is how it should be. We have business contacts, economic contacts, educational contacts and student exchanges. Other Members will probably confirm that that is happening in other UK regions, but in Northern Ireland our Minister and the Department of Enterprise, Training and Investment have strengthened those relations and we want that to continue.
Hong Kong was supposed to have a democratic Government and an independent constitution, but instead we have seen mass protests and, in response to that, disturbingly expansive infringements of civil liberties. Last year, as part of the all-party armed forces group, I attended the Royal College of Defence Studies. The people there were in their third and final year of the course. A Hong Kong police chief was involved and he told me—it was a year ago, of course—that there were 3,000-plus protests on the streets of Hong Kong every year and that they were always peaceful. I wish we could say that the last years have been peaceful, but they have not been. There have been clear infringements of civil liberties. In his introduction, the hon. Member for Gloucester referred to the bookkeeper and shop owner who was arrested and we must be mindful of the breach of his civil liberties, his rights and his physical liberty, which China has ignored.
The protests had some undesirable elements, as every mass protest does, but the protestors must be commended because for a movement with such numbers and such spread the discipline was fantastic and the resulting pressure on Beijing can only be a good thing. We have had perhaps more than our share of protests on the streets in Northern Ireland—I sometimes took part—and they had the potential to get out of control, but the protests in Hong Kong have only been good.
Suspicion is the key feeling among those in Hong Kong. The Sino-British joint declaration paved the way for Hong Kong to be recognised as a sovereign entity, but instead, we see over-coercive tactics employed by Hong Kong’s law enforcement officials, while the Chinese mainland authorities pull the puppet strings. We have to express some concern at that and ask China to draw back and keep to the law on the Sino-British joint declaration.
Publishers disappearing is not my idea of advancement; it never can be. In relative terms, there are far greater sins in the world, but that is not what we signed up for or agreed to. We, the British, are pulling our weight when it comes to the future of Hong Kong. The Minister, I am sure, will confirm that. It is time for Beijing to get a reality check and realise that the resolve and determination of the Hong Kong people is one that it cannot beat or break.
In 1993, China’s chief negotiator on Hong Kong, Lu Ping, had the following to say:
“The method of universal suffrage should be reported to China’s Parliament for the record, whereas the central government’s agreement is not necessary. How Hong Kong develops its democracy is completely within the sphere of the autonomy of Hong Kong. The central government will not interfere.”
Those are the words he used in 1993, but here we are in 2016. Given the experiences in 2015, things are not exactly as he envisaged. Indeed, they have changed.
What has changed? We are 20 years into the declaration’s 50-year period. Surely Beijing should be moving forward and away from its shameful authoritarian past, not moving backward and seeking to impose its undemocratic and oppressive regime upon what is clearly an independent and notably different people. Let us recognise, as I am sure we will, the independence of the people of Hong Kong, their characteristics, their personalities and their culture.
Under the Chinese Government’s one China, two systems principle, Hong Kong and Macau should continue to possess their own Governments, multi-party legislatures, legal systems, police forces, monetary systems, customs territory, immigration policies, national sports teams, official languages, postal systems and academic and educational systems. They should have all those things, but do they? Is China adhering to the law on that?
To conclude, China is committed in law to affording at least this 50-year period of autonomy to Hong Kong, but I believe that it is reneging on some of its commitments. We need to pressure China at home and abroad to give the Hong Kong people the dignity of self-determination. It is our duty in this House to speak out for those who need help, as the hon. Gentleman said, as other Members will say in this House and as the shadow Minister will say. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. As I rise, I see on the green screens that the House is moving to Third Reading of the Scotland Bill; much as that tempts me to reflect upon the end of empire and last remaining colonial outposts, I shall contain the contents of my speech to the UK’s relationship with Hong Kong. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing this debate and recognise his deep and long-standing commitment to this issue. He has considerably greater experience than me, and I will not speak with anything like the authority he has today.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said we are having a bit of a re-run of the cast of characters who were here this morning for the Burma debate. Front-Bench Members and, indeed, the hon. Gentleman and the Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary will have heard me reflect on how I grew up hearing about the struggle of Aung San Suu Kyi and the fate of Hong Kong being a very live issue throughout the early days of my life. I do not quite remember the agreement itself being signed, but I definitely remember the deadline coming into force. It seemed like an incredibly long period in the future—some dim, far-off time in 1997—but of course more time has passed since then than between the declaration being signed and the handover taking place. It was remarkable that that agreement was made and the handover was secured with a reasonable and peaceful transition. Now a system for monitoring the success of that agreement exists in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s regular reports.
I want to touch briefly on three key themes: the importance of co-operation and mutual respect between the two parties to the declaration; the grounds on which engagement ought to take place, which are particularly with respect to human rights and the rule of law; and the message we want to put across when we are engaging, which is that human rights and equality in society are a fundamental part of achieving greater equality and economic growth, particularly in China. The ongoing commitment to work together to achieve the principles of the Sino-British declaration in a way that benefits all parties is vital and the scrutiny process is important in that.
We have heard a lot about the report’s detail, which is important to recognise, particularly when looking at the continuing progress made towards universal suffrage, but we must recognise that there is always more to do. I echo the concerns expressed about the disappearance of the individuals associated with the book store and in particular the situation that faces Mr Lee Po. Like the other Members, I hope we will hear an update from the Minister.
One of the guiding principles for engagement with China has to be around human rights and the rule of law. Last year, the First Minister of Scotland visited China and emphasised that upholding and respecting human rights in conjunction with economic growth is a twin track towards empowering people and lifting them out of poverty. Undoubtedly our countries can learn a lot from each other. We know that China is a key exporter that contributes more than £100 million a year to the Scottish economy through tourism, but economic growth and equality must be two sides of the same coin, so I stress the importance of people working together to tackle poverty and further the cause of women’s rights and equality in particular as well as human rights more broadly.
When the First Minister visited China, she made a point of raising human rights and stressing equality. I hope the UK Government will be prepared to follow that lead. Questions have been asked about whether the opportunities when the Chancellor visited China in September and when the Chinese President met with the Prime Minister here in October were fully utilised to stress the human rights agenda and the actions we discussed today. The situation in Hong Kong is a key manifestation of that. Many such concerns have been expressed by the Foreign Affairs Committee over the years, particularly when the hon. Member for Gloucester has been involved. I hope that the UK Government will continue to stress their commitment to human rights and work for the promotion of democracy in Hong Kong and across the whole of China.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I extend my congratulations to the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing the debate. Indeed, I recognise his record of being critical of China as regards Hong Kong and his recent intervention in the House on the case of Mr Lee Po, shortly after his disappearance.
When we balance the relationship with China, our great partner, we must recognise the importance of putting on record what we hold dear about human rights, equality and freedom. That is not always easy, but it is important to uphold. I am sure that hon. Members recognise the continued importance of Hong Kong to the UK. Our shared history, the development of economic ties and the fact that more than 3 million British citizens are currently resident in Hong Kong mean that the UK will continue to have a very special relationship with this special administrative region. With more than 600 UK businesses registered there, an export market worth £8.6 billion and a UK investment stake of more than £33 billion, the signs are clear that trade is healthy.
I will focus on two specific areas, both relating to the key issue of stability. The one country, two systems framework is crucial in underpinning confidence in Hong Kong—in the place of Hong Kong, which we all love. We all want reassurance that there is a robust and structured judicial framework and that the rule of law is upheld. The hon. Member for Gloucester is right to describe the importance of the rule of law as defined by the independence of the judiciary. He is also right to praise China for its robust approach to addressing corruption in the wider piece—not just in Hong Kong but in the wider country—and the zealousness with which corruption is being addressed demonstrates that there is an ability to uphold the rule of law where necessary. The rule of law can therefore be upheld in Hong Kong; it just takes political will to make that happen.
The joint declaration is crucial in upholding understanding and confidence in Hong Kong. We all know that many perceive Hong Kong as the gateway to the broader Chinese market and to China culturally, and it is perceived as a place where corporate structures can grow within a familiar system. The dynamic in Hong Kong and the Legislative Council is changing, and we have heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that there is a sense that whereas protest was peaceful several years ago, in the past few years it has started to become less peaceful. There is more use of police and certain tactics that are not welcome in controlling crowds, which is the sort of tone that needs to be underlined in this debate.
Equally, what we are seeing happen at constitutional level and in debates in the Legislative Council—the filibustering, the discussions, the lack of harmony—are all things that, in a sense, change the temperature in Hong Kong. They are the sorts of things that, as a partner of Hong Kong, we need to underline and draw to China’s attention. I would welcome the Minister’s assessment of the current situation in Hong Kong on constitutional reform, on the peacefulness or non-peacefulness of demonstrations and on how young people feel. The hon. Member for Gloucester was right to read out an email from a young person, and I have been approached both by British-born Chinese and by Hong Kong students who are studying here. They are concerned about their future in Hong Kong, and they want to enjoy in Hong Kong the kinds of freedoms that we enjoy here.
Upholding the one country, two systems principle goes beyond ensuring commercial interests. Members are right to mention the debate we had this morning, in which I talked about our triangle of aims in foreign affairs. The triangle has three parts: first, economy and trade; secondly, security—I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised the South China sea issue, because we do not speak about that as much as perhaps our partners would like—and thirdly, human rights. We cannot just have to ourselves the freedoms and rights that we enjoy here; we must hold them up abroad, too.
Upholding the one country, two systems principle goes beyond just ensuring commercial interests; it is about that triangular approach. I think particularly of our great collaborations on the rule of law. We share best practice in our legal teams with Hong Kong, and so on. The hon. Gentleman mentioned IP, but there are a number of other areas where there is so much to be shared, enjoyed and built on, and I worry that the human rights side could be slightly staining what our other excellent endeavours might achieve. We must ensure that we bring human rights and cases such as that of Lee Po to the fore so that we can all move at the same pace on the three elements of my triangle.
The hon. Lady is making a number of good points, as one would expect from someone who has been engaged on this issue for a long time. Does she agree that it is important that we offer constrictive criticism as friends in a partnership between two nations, and that we highlight what more China can do to win friends and, above all, trust as she goes increasingly global? The idea behind one country, two systems and the 50-year period of the joint declaration was that by the end of that period the systems in Hong Kong and China would be so similar that there would be no need for one country, two systems any longer. Does she think that things are heading in that direction at the moment and that the systems are getting more similar, or is there a risk, in the worst case scenario, of the two systems moving further apart?
Indeed, and that is where we need a balance. In China, they talk a lot about harmony and balance, and that is what we have to do. We must ensure that all our work streams come together at the same time. When we work on legal relations, technological advances, business and education—our wonderful collaboration between universities—we must not forget who we are. We are determined to promote human rights, equality and so on, and so we must bring all of those work streams together, including the important one that the hon. Gentleman mentioned—peace. We must maintain peaceful, open dialogue.
To digress slightly—I will be very brief, because I know the Minister wants to get away—[Interruption.] He is so busy. The tone in the all-party China group when Mr Liu was present recently was excellent. We had a very open discussion about best practice on anti-corruption and on a number of work streams to do with local business in various constituencies. We also had a robust discussion about a recent delegation to Hong Kong, and we raised our concerns about Mr Lee Po and other cases, and about the steel situation. I felt that it was a perfect meeting. Members of Parliament were able to discuss openly what we feel, and we had a wonderful conversation and dialogue. From my tiny knowledge of China—I lived there, but one never knows everything—I felt that we made progress in our dialogue. It is important to emphasise that.
In our meetings with China we must continue to be energetic in raising matters such as the cases of Mr Lee Po and Cheung Jiping and not shy from them. We must remember that Mr Po is a British citizen. Information and press freedom are crucial to democracies, so it is important that they are front and centre of our discussions. I will be grateful if the Minister can update Members on what further action he will take to investigate the nature of Mr Po’s recent public communication and whether it was genuine or made under duress.
We all want a stable Hong Kong. I remember stepping off an aeroplane there in 1974 and smelling the tropics and feeling the warmth. All of us who have been there, lived there and love that place want it to be stable. We want freedom, human rights, genuine democracy and all of those wonderful things to be kept going, and we want to maintain those international friendships. We do not want a closed Hong Kong whose young people are unhappy about their future. The joint declaration must be meaningful, and stability must allow economic life to flourish. We must also support freedom of expression, the rule of law and a peaceful future.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing the debate and pay, once again, tribute to his valuable work through his chairmanship of the all-party group on China, as well as to his deep personal interest in Hong Kong. I agree with his opening remarks in which he drew attention to all those who are following the debate outside this place. The rather thin attendance in no way reflects the level of continuing interest in Hong Kong, in the UK and in Parliament. It is purely the result of the timing of the debate being shifted, and of other competing demands on Members’ time.
To the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), I would say that this Minister is not at all in a hurry to get off. He is at the disposal of Members, although limited by time. I am anxious only to get on with the debate, to address some of the extremely important and interesting points raised by hon. Members this afternoon.
As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) reminded us, Hong Kong remains of great importance to the United Kingdom. There are more than 295,000 British citizens and 3.4 million British national overseas citizens living in the city. In 2015 approximately 530,000 visitors from the UK went to Hong Kong. Our bilateral trade continues to be one of the foundation stones of our partnership. UK investment in Hong Kong, conservatively valued at £33 billion, makes up about 35% of total British investment in Asia. I was slightly intrigued to hear the comparison that the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) sought to make in a rather roundabout way between Scotland and Hong Kong and England and Hong Kong. I would just point out that I believe the Scottish Government would do well to study the free market approach of the special administrative region in running a very successful financial enterprise. I have no doubt that even the First Minister, in her visit to Hong Kong last year, might have noticed the difference in the comparative financial positions of Scotland and Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is the regional headquarters for 126 British companies and, incidentally, some of the leading ones have a distinguished and strong Scottish heritage. Some 630 British companies operate in the city, reflecting its pivotal role as an international gateway to mainland China and as a global financial centre. Hong Kong also, as has been pointed out, has a key role in our wider bilateral relationship with China, where we are supporting economic growth and the rule of law.
The Government’s relationship with the Hong Kong SAR Government is also strong. I most recently visited Hong Kong in July and discussed a full range of UK-Hong Kong bilateral issues with the Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung, the Financial Secretary John Tsang and the Secretary for Housing and Transport, Anthony Cheung. I also saw legislators and investors, and met Fred Lam, the new chief executive of the airport authority, to explore opportunities for British companies in the third runway expansion of Hong Kong international airport. In October we welcomed CY Leung to London for his first official visit as Chief Executive. Both I and the Foreign Secretary discussed with him the importance of Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, and of preserving the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Sino-British joint declaration.
The United Kingdom strongly believes that it is those rights and freedoms that underpin Hong Kong’s continuing success. The joint declaration agreed the peaceful return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty under one country, two systems, and was one of the great successes of United Kingdom-China diplomacy. Some 31 years after its signature, our commitment to ensuring the faithful implementation of the joint declaration, and the protection of the rights and freedoms it guarantees, is as strong as ever.
It is in that context that the Government remain so concerned about the disappearance from Hong Kong of British citizen Lee Po and others associated with the Mighty Current publishing house. The Foreign Secretary made it clear on 11 February in his six-monthly report to the House that
“our current information indicates that Mr Lee was involuntarily removed to the mainland without any due process under Hong Kong SAR law.”
That constitutes a serious breach of the Sino-British joint declaration on Hong Kong. The United Kingdom and 11 other countries signed a US-led statement at the UN Human Rights Council on 10 March that made it clear that the disappearance of the Hong Kong booksellers was
“violation of the high degree of autonomy promised Hong Kong under its Basic Law”.
We have raised the case of Mr Lee with the Chinese and Hong Kong special administrative region Government at the highest level. I raised the case with the Chinese ambassador to the United Kingdom on 22 January, and I made clear the need for the Chinese authorities to return Mr Lee to Hong Kong immediately. The Foreign Secretary raised the case with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing on 5 January and in London on 4 February, and the Prime Minister raised the case with the Chinese ambassador on 8 February.
More recently, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer visited Beijing on 25 and 26 February, he raised the case with the chairman of China’s Politics and Law Commission, Meng Jianzhu. I understand that the delegation from the all-party group on China, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady), visited Hong Kong from 25 to 29 January and also raised the case with the Hong Kong special administrative region Government.
As we make clear in the six-monthly report,
“we have called, in our contacts with the Chinese government at the highest level, for Mr Lee's immediate return to Hong Kong. Moreover, we urge the Chinese and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Governments to reassure the people of Hong Kong that law enforcement in the Hong Kong SAR is exclusively the responsibility of the Hong Kong authorities, and that the fundamental rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents will continue to be fully protected, and respected by all, in accordance with the Joint Declaration and Basic Law.”
The debate has been focused on Hong Kong, but if Mr Po is now in China, will the Minister elucidate how the UK Government will use their influence when it is a question of mainland China rather than Hong Kong? There is perhaps more familiarity with how the judicial process works in the latter.
We believe that if Mr Lee Po is to face any kind of trial, that should be in Hong Kong. That is agreed by the SAR as well. I shall continue, but the hon. Lady may want to come back to me if I do not fully answer her question. I raised Mr Lee Po’s case on 16 March at an “Advancing the Rule of Law in China” seminar organised by the Great Britain-China Centre, where I made it clear that
“the rule of law has been fundamental to Hong Kong's continued economic success”.
On the issue of citizenship, I stress that Mr Lee remains a British citizen with the right of abode in the United Kingdom. Despite the formal requests that we continue to make, we have not been granted consular access. Let me be clear that the Chinese and Hong Kong Governments have been left in no doubt as to the importance we attach to this case. We call again for the immediate return of Mr Lee to Hong Kong.
I have rehearsed the high-level contacts and representations we have had with the Government in Beijing, not least those involving the Prime Minister, the ambassador and the Chancellor when he was in Beijing. We have raised the case at every level and will continue to do so until such a time as Mr Lee is returned to Hong Kong.
Several Members mentioned the South China sea. We support the Philippines’ right to peaceful arbitration. I stress that we take no view on the underlying sovereignty issues, although we do believe in a rules-based international system and the freedom and movement, and we do expect all others to abide by whatever ruling comes out of UNCLOSS through the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea settlement. We are concerned about the risk that some of the large-scale land reclamation in the South China sea could pose to maritime freedom of navigation and to the area’s stability.
The six-monthly report makes it clear that, while the implementation of one country, two systems has served Hong Kong well in the vast majority of cases, there are specific grounds for serious concern in some other areas, such as academic freedom and the freedom of the press. As the six-monthly report states,
“it is essential for continued confidence in ‘One Country, Two Systems’ both in Hong Kong and internationally, that Hong Kong continues to enjoy, and is seen to enjoy, the high degree of autonomy and the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Basic Law and guaranteed in international law by the Joint Declaration.”
I was asked specifically by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester about the comments that Zhang Xiaoming, the head of the Central Government Liaison Office, made in a speech. I welcome the comment by Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma, whom I have met, on judicial independence. He reiterated article 25 of the Basic Law, which states:
“All Hong Kong residents shall be equal before the law.”
At the recent National People’s Congress annual session in Beijing, the Chinese Government reiterated their commitment to one country, two systems, and I welcome that.
Continuing the theme, my hon. Friend also raised the issue of an independent judiciary. Our assessment is that, while there have been specific challenges, on the whole the rule of law continues to function and the judiciary continues to be independent. We are confident in Hong Kong’s legal and judicial system, which has been and will remain an essential foundation for Hong Kong’s success.
The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green properly raised the issue of constitutional reforms, which we were all involved in, one way or another, in the past year or so. I remind the House that in the last Westminster Hall debate on Hong Kong, which was in October 2014, we discussed that very issue. It remains a crucial issue, both to meet the aspirations of the people of Hong Kong and to ensure effective governance. As the six-monthly report makes clear:
“The UK Government judges that constitutional reform will help, not hinder, the Hong Kong SAR Government to deliver. A more democratic and accountable system of government would help strengthen those rights and freedoms which have come under increasing pressure over the past two years…We encourage all parties to play their part in rebuilding constructive dialogue to pave the way for the resumption of the process at the earliest opportunity.”
The Minister is explaining things well, and I thank him for that. We need to have continual economic contact, but within that, how can we persuade? The shadow Minister said that we do not see much evidence of how we can move the process forward for that British citizen to be returned. I am keen to have the economic contact. The Minister mentioned the airport. It is built with stone from my constituency, from Carryduff—believe it or not, that is what has been used. There are strong economic contacts between Hong Kong and my constituency and the whole of the United Kingdom. We want that to continue, but we want liberty and human rights to be enforced as well.
The hon. Gentleman is right. I never think these issues are binary and that it is either human rights or trade. Through trade, rules and an international rules-based system, human rights very often benefit, too. It is not about putting one of those to one side. We are very strong on human rights, which is why we produce a six-monthly report—it is not universally popular—and will continue to do so under our obligations in the Sino-British joint declaration and, further, under the Basic Law.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the protesters in Hong Kong. As we have said before, it is essential that Hong Kong’s fundamental rights and freedoms, including of assembly and demonstration and as guaranteed by the joint declaration, continue to be respected. Demonstrators should express views peacefully and in accordance with the law. Incidentally, I seem to remember saying that during my enjoyable two years as a Northern Ireland Minister, despite not coming across the hon. Gentleman at any particular demonstration during my time there.
All legal, of course.
The links between the United Kingdom and Hong Kong of course remain strong. Ours is a relationship that is not only based on history but is innovative, forward-looking and dynamic, with excellent prospects for the future. We continue to build on that. In that spirit, the Foreign Secretary hopes to visit Hong Kong in the near future.
Where we identify challenges, such as the case of Mr Lee and the other booksellers, this Government will continue to raise them with the authorities at the highest level in Hong Kong and in Beijing. It is important to address these concerns and thus ensure that the principle of one country, two systems is maintained, together with the sanctity of the rights, freedoms and values that it upholds.
I am once again indebted and grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester for giving me the opportunity to state the Government’s position on this important issue. He is a champion of Sino-British relations. Some may not always agree with the principled stance he takes, but he is absolutely right that, if we are to understand each other better, to learn to respect each other more, and to be partners in international trade and in underpinning the things that matter to us in terms of rights and responsibilities, we need to have these free and frank exchanges. I know that when he speaks he has the best interests of the people of the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and China at heart. So I thank him again for all his continuing work in furthering the relationship, and I am grateful to hon. Members this afternoon for adding to what has been an interesting debate.
You are kind to give me that chance, Mr Hollobone.
I will simply record my thanks to those who have contributed to the debate today, and to those who have given their apologies for being unable to join us but whose voices have been heard, I think, through comments made by those who have contributed. We have reached a high degree of consensus on the importance of the issues discussed and above all on the importance of the rule of law. I thank the Minister for his remarks, perhaps particularly those at the end about the importance of this in our ongoing, wider partnership, which now stretches to many countries.
Mr Hollobone, thank you for chairing what has been an extremely helpful debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Hong Kong and the Sino-British Joint Declaration.