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UK Foreign Policy: China and Hong Kong

Volume 661: debated on Monday 10 June 2019

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jo Churchill.)

I am delighted to have the opportunity to bring this matter to the House for what has turned out to be a more topical debate than we had realised at the point when I was successful in obtaining it. I do not want to detain the House unnecessarily, but it is worth reminding ourselves about the particular, special legal and moral obligations that we in the United Kingdom have towards Hong Kong and its people. I will précis those briefly, and I do that not to insult the intelligence of the House, which will be well acquainted with them, as will those who are following our proceedings, but because it is sadly no longer universally accepted that these legal obligations subsist. The message should go from this Chamber that we in this House are very much of the view that they are continuing and subsisting legal obligations.

The Sino-British joint declaration enshrines the principle of one country, two systems. That was intended to guarantee a 50-year period, from the ending of colonial rule in 1997 to 2047, when the way of life of the people of Hong Kong would not change. As the Minister himself said today, it is a legally binding treaty which is registered with the United Nations and continues to be in force. The sad truth is that we in the United Kingdom have not always been as vigorous as we ought to be in the fulfilling of our obligations, legal or moral, towards the people of Hong Kong. For a second, I should pause to reflect on what view on this matter would be taken by the late Lord Ashdown, a man who was a doughty fighter in the cause for the people of Hong Kong.

As I was going over my notes in anticipation of tonight’s debate, an email dropped into my inbox. It does not come from a constituent so I shall not name the sender—in fact, it is addressed to another Member—but it highlights and articulates very well sentiments that I have seen expressed by many others in a similar position. The author writes:

“Before this Bill was tabled, as a BN(O)”—

British national overseas passport—

“holder residing in the UK and planning to naturalise in the near future, I thought I could go back to the country of my birth to see my family, especially my old parents. Once this Bill is passed, which the HKSAR and Chinese governments fully intend to do, I fear that I will not be able to visit my natal land and return to Britain because I took part in the Umbrella Revolution in 2014 and because of my active involvement in activist work in the past.”

He goes on to say:

“The handover has been done, and I fully understand that Her Majesty’s government does not have the power to undo this mistake. At the very least, the British government should start considering the possibility of rectifying the status of BN(O) holders—we are British subjects who are treated worse than any British subjects and other non-British nationals.”

He continues:

“I would like to share my personal experiences in this regard, if I may: The number of times I made myself clear to the immigration officers at Heathrow airport that I am British, the attitude I received from these officers was universally humiliating and soul-destroying. I was born British, and my British status was stripped away from me and my fate was left in the hands of a notoriously authoritarian regime, the PRC”—

the People’s Republic of China. That is the very human cost and the very human face of the matter that I bring to the House this evening.

Of course, this is not the first time that we have dealt with this issue today, and I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting to the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) the urgent question on the extradition arrangements that are up for amendment. At the end of his comments to the House earlier this afternoon, the Minister said in relation to this debate that he would want to speak

“more generally later about the relations between the UK, Hong Kong and China.”

I confess that that was very much what I had anticipated this debate would be about.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that China is a member of the UN P5 and of the World Trade Organisation and therefore does believe in an international rules-based system? Hong Kong has one of the strongest independent legal systems in the world and the extradition Bill is described as one of the worst threats to that legal system of any Bill introduced so far. As such, the Chinese Government would do well to heed the large number of protestors on the streets in the past few hours.

I differ from the hon. Gentleman only in the smallest grammatical sense, in that as a member of all those various international bodies, the Chinese Government ought to believe in, adhere to and demonstrate respect for international law. In this particular care, they are manifestly failing to do that.

The one country, two systems agreement between China and Britain is under threat. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the real need to balance our global human rights obligations with the need to secure a trade deal does not mean that we forget those obligations? Furthermore, does he agree that we can attempt to use our influence and trade to seek the better understanding of acceptable human rights standards throughout the world, and that the two can and must go hand in hand?

I absolutely agree with that. I am a strong advocate of human rights and often preach the gospel of their universality, but I am not starry-eyed about it, especially when it comes to working with countries that do not reach or have not yet reached the standards that we adhere to in this country. I will always engage with countries where I think there is an opportunity for improvement, but we have to see that improvement. As far as the People’s Republic of China is concerned, we are not seeing an improvement. In fact, if anything, we are going backwards: I think of the treatment of the Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang province; I think of the treatment of the people of Tibet; and I think of the treatment of religious minorities right across the People’s Republic of China and of the people of Hong Kong.

As I have said, I had anticipated that our debate tonight would rehearse a number of the areas that we have spoken about in the past. I was thinking about the treatment of the Umbrella Movement protesters; the closure of political parties; the expulsion of the Financial Times journalist, Victor Mallet; the creation of the new offence of insulting China’s national anthem without any effort to define what that insult might be and how it would be constituted; and the abduction of booksellers. In fact, when we consider all these things, it is impossible now, especially given the demonstration of support that we saw in Hong Kong at the weekend, to consider any of these things without considering the position in relation to the extradition arrangements and the Bill, which is currently coming towards the Legislative Council. These issues all tie in to this question of extradition.

You spoke earlier, Mr Speaker, about our mutual friend Benedict Rogers. In fact, in preparing for my debate tonight, I had recourse to an opinion piece that he had recently published. I want to read just a bit of it for the benefit of the House, because it illustrates perfectly how the position of the booksellers in particular and the other causes that I have mentioned all tie into this question of the extradition legislation. He wrote:

“‘If the extradition law is passed, it is a death sentence for Hong Kong,’ said Lam Wing-kee in a crowded coffee shop in Taipei. ‘Beijing will use this law to control Hong Kong completely. Freedom of speech will be lost. In the past, the regime kidnapped its critics like me illegally. With this law, they will abduct their critics legally.’

Yet Lam Wing-kee, 63, knows from first-hand experience what the consequences of this change to the extradition law could be, and how the Chinese Communist party behaves. On 24 October 2015, Lam, who managed a bookshop and publishing business in Causeway Bay that sold books critical of China’s leadership, was arrested as he crossed the border into mainland China in Shenzhen. There then followed an eight-month nightmare in which he was first imprisoned in Ningbo and then moved to Shaoguan, a small mountain town in Guangdong province where he was assigned to work in a library—better off than in prison, but still not free and completely cut off from the outside world.

‘I was not physically tortured, but mentally I was threatened and subjected to brainwashing,’ he said.

When he was first arrested, Lam was forced to sign two statements: surrendering his right to inform his family of his whereabouts and his right to a lawyer. Over the eight months he was held in China, he was forced to write confessions more than 20 times. Several times he was filmed, with an interrogator behind him whom he could not see, and these were then broadcast on national television—one of many forced televised confessions that have become a feature of Xi Jinping’s regime.

‘I didn’t write what they wanted me to write, they would write it for me,’ Lam said. ‘If my confession was not satisfactory, they would tell me what to write.’”

That is the reality of the criminal justice system to which we now countenance, or see Hong Kong countenancing, returning people from Hong Kong. That is exactly why it was decided, back at the time of the creation of the joint declaration, that matters such as this should be excluded from it, and that surely is why it is now wrong that we should sit back and just watch the People’s Republic of China ride roughshod over that agreement and the legal obligations into which it entered in 1984.

This afternoon, I was privileged to speak by telephone to Dennis Kwok from the Hong Kong Legislative Council, and he said to me that the Second Reading of this Bill will be on Wednesday—the Minister knows that. He accepts that the remaining stages will be done over the course of possibly the next two weeks at most. When I asked the Minister today what that would mean for the consultation to which our Government aspired, he declined to answer—unsurprisingly, perhaps—so let me ask him again. If the Hong Kong Executive go down this road and the Bill passes all its stages by, say, a week or a fortnight on Wednesday, what is the Government’s position going to be? How on earth will they possibly get the wider, longer, more meaningful consultation on which they have pinned so many hopes thus far? I just do not see it happening.

If the Minister will not answer that question, will he at least give the House some assurance that there is a plan B, that we are taking steps and that the message is going to the Chinese Government now that if that situation comes to pass, our Government will not just sit by and watch this tragedy—that is exactly what it would be—unfolding? Our Government need to do more. We need to assert the rights of the people of Hong Kong that we undertook to guarantee when we left in 1997.

I really appreciate the fact that we are having this debate because it is a pressing issue, as I know the Minister is aware. I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman agrees with me on two points. First, does he agree that we have a duty of care to the people of Hong Kong until 2047? Secondly—this is a very selfish concern, but I wonder if the Minister also shares it—does he agree that we have extradition treaties with Hong Kong, so it is possible that we could extradite someone for a fair trial in Hong Kong but that they could end up being tried in China?

That is absolutely the case. I hope that our Government would take assurances that that would not happen if they were to extradite anyone to Hong Kong. But, frankly, if the Government of Hong Kong are able to disregard the joint declaration in the way that they do, I am afraid that I do not set any great store by their willingness to abide by the assurances of the sort that we might expect in the normal course of things. It comes back to the point about adherence to and respect for the international rule of law and a rules-based order system.

There is a great deal more that I could say, but I know that the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) wants to speak for a couple of minutes and I am keen to ensure that the Minister has every opportunity to give the fullest explanation of the Government’s position, especially given the number of hon. Members who have stayed behind for this debate.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for calling this debate and for allowing me to speak very briefly in it.

Among other things, the agreed one country, two systems approach recognised the difference between the practice of common law in Hong Kong, and the rule of law under the control and guidance of the Communist party of China on the mainland. That is why there is currently no extradition treaty between Hong Kong or any common law jurisdiction and China. If the argument, therefore, is that things have changed, it is surely for the Hong Kong Government and Chief Executive—whose responsibility, as she reminded us this week, is to the people of Hong Kong—to make that case. The Foreign Office has, therefore, rightly expressed concern about the proposed changes. It said that they must be subject to the “highest levels of scrutiny” and called for time for

“proper consideration of all alternative options and safeguards.”

In practice, as the right hon. Gentleman has explained, the legislation could be pushed through in a fortnight, while several hundred thousand protesters may demonstrate again that their views are not being fully considered.

The irony is that this issue arose over the absence of an extradition treaty with Taiwan, and Taiwan Ministers have said that this proposal will not solve the required extradition of the man from Hong Kong who is currently in Taiwan. Therefore, what was urgent is not going to be resolved, what was not urgent is being rushed through, and what is at risk is the confidence of business and the freedoms of speech that have made Hong Kong so successful and its financial markets so important. When the UK, the EU, Canada and the US—all great supporters of Hong Kong—are concerned, Hong Kong should worry that its exemption from the US-China trade wars may not continue unchallenged. I therefore urge the Minister to talk directly with Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, who is well known to us all, and to urge her to reconsider the Government’s approach to this business.

My hon. Friend refers to business in Hong Kong. Does he agree that, if the new extradition treaty goes through, Hong Kong’s reputation as a safe place to do business could be seriously undermined to the point that major international businesses may consider relocating their bases in other jurisdictions? Is that not a concern that we should be addressing?

It is certainly true that the British chamber of commerce in Hong Kong has privately expressed considerable concern over the proposals, and the American chamber has been more outspoken still—so, yes, there are concerns.

I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for initiating this debate and for continually highlighting developments in Hong Kong. I also express my gratitude for the contributions and sincere interest—perhaps silent interest in some cases—expressed by a number of hon. Members here, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham). Clarifying with the Hong Kong Government what these proposals will mean is clearly something that I intend to do in very quick order.

This was billed as a slightly more general debate, and given that we had an urgent question earlier, I do not wish to spend this time entirely by simply covering the same old ground, important though that ground is, but let me start with a few words about the UK’s relationship with China. We believe that we have a constructive relationship based on a strong economic partnership but also our position as leading nations of the world. The UK and China are both, of course, P5 nations of the United Nations. Trade and investment links are at record levels, and people-to-people links, particularly among Chinese students—the largest single cohort in the UK—are thriving.

The UK’s approach to China is pragmatic. It maximises the benefits of co-operation while doing its best to protect our national security. As G20 members with seats on the UN Security Council, the UK and China can do more than most to address a range of global challenges. From medical research to sustainable development, we have co-operated, and will continue to do so, for our mutual benefit in ways that support global prosperity, security and stability.

Of course, this partnership has its challenges. China’s growing influence is putting pressure on the global rules-based system, and we regularly express our very real concerns about issues, including its stance on human rights, its respect for certain international agreements and its failure fully to protect intellectual property. But we work with China where doing so is in line with our values and protects our national interests, including the security of our people and businesses. We are clear and direct where we believe that China’s actions are incompatible with those values.

The UK Government are acutely and continually aware of our historical responsibility towards Hong Kong, specifically as one of the joint signatories of the 1984 joint declaration that established the principle of one country, two systems. That joint declaration is a legally binding treaty registered, as I said, with the UN. Its objectives clearly apply to both signatories—the Government of the People’s Republic of China and the UK. It remains in force and remains relevant to the conduct of life in Hong Kong. We are absolutely committed to ensuring that it remains faithfully implemented for the period up to 2047, as the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) rightly mentioned.

The one country, two systems principle provides Hong Kong with the foundations for success as a truly global financial centre and prosperous world city, as touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). It safeguards Hong Kong’s capitalist economic system, its high degree of autonomy, its system of common law, its independent judiciary, and the rights and freedoms of its people and those who are lawfully residing there. However, as the Government’s most recent six-monthly reports have made clear, we believe that important areas of the one country, two systems framework are coming under increasing pressure. I take this opportunity to reassure the House that we engage in an ongoing and frank dialogue—a sometimes private, but frank dialogue—with the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities about the implementation of the joint declaration.

Turning to our relationship with the Hong Kong Government, I want to stress that we have warm, constructive and positive links across a wide range of other issues. As an example, just last month, I joined the start of the inaugural UK-Hong Kong Government-to-Government financial dialogue, led on our side by the Economic Secretary to the Treasury. This involved the two Governments discussing co-operation between our globally leading financial services centres, building on rich industry-to-industry links. I welcome the decision for the UK to be the partner country for Hong Kong’s Business of Design Week this year. It is the largest design festival in Asia and it is our pleasure to support Hong Kong in this area. It is also a great opportunity to showcase the global reputation of the UK’s creative sector.

It is also right that we take the opportunity to turn our minds collectively to the ramifications of the Hong Kong Government’s contentious proposals to change their extradition laws, following a highly publicised homicide in Taiwan, allegedly carried out by a Hong Kong national. Civil society groups, including organisations that represent legal professionals and businessfolk in Hong Kong, have aired deep concerns about both the content of the proposals and the short consultation period. They fear above all that Hong Kong nationals and residents risk being pulled into China’s legal system, which can, as the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland pointed out, involve lengthy pre-trial detentions, televised confessions and an absence of many of the judicial safeguards that we see in Hong Kong.

The element of the two systems arrangements that I think most people consider most important is the existence of an independent judiciary in Hong Kong. That is why, when people hear about so-called concessions being made on human rights protections, they insist that those protections are written into law, because they are then judicially enforceable. Is the Minister prepared to take that message back to the Executive?

Absolutely, and I entirely endorse what the right hon. Gentleman says.

We note that the Hong Kong Government have tried to provide reassurance that no one will be transferred to China for political, religious or ethnic reasons and welcome their recent efforts to react to the unprecedented level of public concern—we understand that roughly one seventh of the population of Hong Kong was on the streets, peacefully during much of yesterday afternoon. However, we are clear that those reassurances and the changes proposed fail to address fully a number of core issues that we have raised.

We have been and will remain unequivocal about our concerns. The Foreign Secretary recently issued a joint statement with his Canadian counterpart, setting out our concerns about the potential impact of the proposals on the large number of UK and Canadian citizens in Hong Kong, on business confidence and on Hong Kong’s international reputation, but of course it also applies to the many other non-Hong Kong nationals who are living and working on the island and the New Territories. The joint UK-Canadian statement noted that the proposals risk undermining the rights and freedoms set out in the joint declaration and are at odds with the spirit of one country, two systems.

Our consul general in Hong Kong, Andy Heyn, has made statements on this issue locally over recent months, including in a TV interview, where he set out our concerns. UK officials have had a number of conversations with the Hong Kong Government and other interested parties about the proposals at working, technical and senior levels. We have had full and detailed discussions with Chief Executive Carrie Lam, both bilaterally and as part of an EU démarche, and we will continue to have such discussions.

We have had a dialogue with a number of members of the Hong Kong Legislative Council and Executive Council. The issues we have raised include the potential implications for our bilateral extradition treaty with Hong Kong and the potential consequences for the UK business community and other British citizens living in Hong Kong. We have urged the Hong Kong Government to allow for a longer consultation period, given the fundamental importance of the issues raised. We believe that the proposals must undergo full and proper scrutiny, including in the Legislative Council, and I am as concerned as the right hon. Gentleman about the notion that they could be rushed through within the next fortnight or so.

I believe that Hong Kong’s lawmakers and members of civil society have put forward a number of alternative solutions, including the additional human rights safeguards, which must now be included in the proposed legislation. We believe that proper consideration must be given to all those alternative solutions as part of a comprehensive, ongoing consultation.

Despite those concerns, we do not assess that the proposals in themselves breach the joint declaration, although we will clearly keep that in mind, as the treaty did not explicitly deal with extradition arrangements. Nevertheless, the proposals undoubtedly would reduce the separation between the justice systems in Hong Kong and on the mainland and, therefore, would provide a very worrying precedent.

As the House will be aware, the operation of the court system in mainland China is very different from the one that applies in Hong Kong. Voices from within Hong Kong and the wider international community have expressed concern that fear of extradition to China could cause a chilling effect on Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms and, more insidiously, might result in increased self-censorship. Most recently, the Hong Kong chamber of commerce has called for wide-ranging protections in the legislation.

As Members have rightly pointed out, the rule of law is the absolute cornerstone of one country, two systems, and confidence in it is essential for sustaining and maintaining Hong Kong’s reputation as a global financial and professional services hub. That has been made abundantly clear to me in my two visits to Hong Kong as a Minister. I am hoping obviously to visit the island at some point later this year for a third time. Ultimately, I believe it is imperative that any changes to the extradition arrangements from Hong Kong to mainland China respect Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and will not impact on the rights and freedoms set down in the joint declaration.

It is now, as many of us will know, almost 22 years on from the handover of Hong Kong to China and the UK Government’s commitment to the joint declaration remains as robust as ever. We do issue six-monthly reports and, in the two years I have been a Minister, we have expressed concern, at each and every six-monthly report, that there has been a diminution in the exercise of one country, two systems, at least as far as too many political rights are concerned. We are committed to playing a rightful part in helping Hong Kong to prosper to go forward. Where we identify risks to Hong Kong’s continued success and autonomy, we will have no qualms in raising them. We shall continue to stress to the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities that, for confidence in that system to be maintained, Hong Kong must continue to enjoy a full measure of the high degree of autonomy and the rule of law as set out in the joint declaration.

I am grateful to all Members of the House, and particularly to the right hon. Gentleman, for the opportunity to state the Government’s position on this very important issue.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.