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Hong Kong

Volume 661: debated on Monday 10 June 2019

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the impact of the Hong Kong extradition law on the Sino-British joint declaration.

The UK Government remain acutely aware of our enduring responsibility towards Hong Kong as one of the joint signatories to the 1984 joint declaration that established the principle of “one country, two systems”. This principle, underpinned by the common law system, provides Hong Kong with the foundations for its continued success as a truly global financial centre and prosperous world city.

Let me turn to the current issues around the ramifications of the Hong Kong Government’s contentious proposals to change their extradition laws. Yesterday’s huge protest march—peaceful right up until the end—was a clear demonstration of the strength of feeling in Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, has insisted that new legislation is needed to close a loophole that has prevented a Hong Kong national accused of murdering another Hong Kong national in Taiwan from facing justice, yet the Taiwanese Administration also oppose the changes, while civil society and business and legal groups in Hong Kong have expressed the strongest concerns about the content of the proposals and the very short consultation period.

Many fear above all that Hong Kong nationals and residents risk being pulled into China’s legal system, which can involve lengthy pre-trial detentions, televised confessions and an absence of many of the judicial safeguards that we see in Hong Kong and in the UK. While we welcome recent efforts by the Hong Kong Government to react to the unprecedented level of public concern—of the 7 million people living in Hong Kong, between 300,000 and 1 million were on the streets yesterday—the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is clear that the changes proposed fail to address fully some core issues that we and others have raised.

The UK Government have been unequivocal in their views. From the outset, the consul general, Andy Heyn, and my officials have been raising concerns with the Hong Kong Government, members of the Hong Kong Legislative Council and the Executive Council at all levels. We have also had full and detailed discussions with Chief Executive Carrie Lam, both bilaterally and as part of an EU démarche. On 30 May, the Foreign Secretary issued a joint statement with his Canadian counterpart on the potential impact of the proposals on our citizens in Hong Kong, including on business confidence and on Hong Kong’s international reputation.

Some Hong Kong lawmakers have proposed an array of alternative solutions, including that additional legally binding human rights safeguards be included in the proposed legislation. In my meeting in London on 20 May with Hong Kong Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, Edward Yau, I made it clear that proper consideration must be given to all these suggestions as part of a wider and more comprehensive consultation. More time for consultation would allow for a more adequate consensus to be built.

As the House will be aware, the operation of the court system on mainland China is very different from that which applies in Hong Kong. There are widespread concerns that fear of extradition to China might have a chilling effect on Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms and result in increased self-censorship. We shall continue to stress to the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities that for confidence in the “one country, two systems” policy to be maintained, Hong Kong must enjoy the full measure of its high degree of autonomy and rule of law as set out in the joint declaration and enshrined in the Basic Law.

It is very disappointing that the Secretary of State could not make it to the Chamber for the 1 million Hong Kong residents who took to the streets yesterday to protest against their Government’s proposed extradition Bill. If enacted, the law would allow suspected criminals to be extradited to mainland China, bypassing Hong Kong’s independent legal system. Over the past few weeks, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the business community, civil society organisations, the Hong Kong Bar Association and the International Chamber of Commerce have all expressed deep concern that the Bill will further erode the “one country, two systems” model.

The law courts on mainland China are seen as an arm of the state. Forced confession is frequently practised and activists often fear imprisonment for crimes they have not committed. Hong Kong’s common law system is not open to such abuse, as the Minister mentioned in his introductory remarks, and although it is under pressure, the separation of powers remains more or less intact. The amendments to the extradition law would significantly compromise the firewall that separates the sharply different systems.

In recent times, we have watched with great unease as political and civic freedoms have been put under increasing strain. Those freedoms are guaranteed under the Basic Law, a core component of the Sino-British joint declaration. As the co-signatory to that treaty, which is registered at the United Nations, the Government have a legal duty to ensure that it is upheld.

The last Governor of Hong Kong, Lord Patten of Barnes, said that this Bill’s provisions were

“an assault on Hong Kong’s values, stability and security. They create fear and uncertainty…at a time when we should all be working to safeguard Hong Kong’s reputation as one of the world’s greatest business”

and cultural centres. Does the Minister agree with his colleague’s assessment, and will he outline how the Government intend to address this issue in the immediate future, alongside long-standing concerns about the erosion of democratic principles in Hong Kong?

We have a long and enduring history with Hong Kong, and we have lasting political, economic and cultural ties. As we mark the 21st anniversary of the handover next month, it is crucial for us to keep our promise that “Hong Kong will never walk alone”.

I thank the hon. Lady for the tone of her comments. She will be aware from discussions that we have had—and I have visited Hong Kong twice already during my time as a Minister—that we understand many of the concerns which have been raised by Lord Patten and, indeed, by her. In particular, we understand the concerns raised in the most recent six-monthly report—not without some controversy do we continue to have a six-monthly report—which states that, while we believe that one country, two systems is working well, in the sphere of civil and political freedoms Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy is being reduced.

Let me say this in relation to the joint declaration as a whole. Three years ago, in 2016, we called on a breach of the declaration following the involuntary removal of the Causeway Bay booksellers from Hong Kong to the mainland. That was the first and, to date, the only time that we have called upon a breach. However, it is clear that these events are becoming close to breaching not just the spirit but the letter of the joint declaration. I fear that this is also a good example of tough cases making bad law. There is a potential loophole, but it is interesting to note that it is not one that the Taiwanese authorities have asked to be sorted out.

A Hong Kong national is being accused of a very serious crime—murder—and there is clearly no extradition prospect, but, as the hon. Lady rightly pointed out, this opens up a potentially much broader extradition-related concern. As I mentioned in my initial comments, one of the biggest concerns is that, particularly at a time when President Xi has a strong anti-corruption campaign in place, there is a risk that individuals could be caught up in this in a very inadvertent way. While there are proposed safeguards—it is proposed to raise the extradition level from a three-year custodial sentence to one of at least seven years—the situation none the less still raises the deep concerns to which the hon. Lady referred.

Lord Patten has said that the decision to exclude any extradition agreement between Hong Kong and mainland China in 1997 was not a loophole, but a deliberate decision that was made in order to protect the autonomy of Hong Kong and the firewall between it and China. Does the Minister agree that if countries speak with one voice in expressing concerns about this issue, there is likely to be more of an impact? What is the UK doing to join like-minded countries in expressing such concerns?

I thank my hon. Friend, who takes a great interest in matters to do broadly with China but also specifically with Hong Kong, and I pay tribute to her for her detailed and steadfast work in that regard. Yes, she is right: we need to work together as an international community on this. It is perhaps fair to put it on record that there are already some extradition arrangements between some countries and Hong Kong, but obviously we are deeply concerned that this particular law provides a much more general overview, particularly as it engages the Chinese mainland. But I will, if I may, reiterate what my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and his Canadian counterpart, Christina Freeland, said as recently as 30 May:

“It is vital that extradition arrangements in Hong Kong are in line with ‘one country, two systems’ and fully respect Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy.”

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. I also want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) on securing it. I share her profound concern about these extradition laws, as evidently do hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong citizens who took to the streets over the weekend. These laws constitute not just an erosion but a fundamental breach of the Sino-British declaration and the one country, two systems principle it enshrines. They threaten the judicial independence of Hong Kong.

The warning signs have been coming for several years now: we have seen an increasing crackdown on dissent and protest. Now we face the prospect of a direct line between Beijing and Hong Kong’s courts that could see Hong Kongers sent thousands of miles away to face trial in mainland China’s flawed criminal justice system.

The UK does not have an extradition treaty with China, so why have the Government done next to nothing? The joint declaration is a legally binding treaty registered with the United Nations, and the British Government are the joint guarantor with China of the rights of Hong Kong citizens. Moreover, there are 170,000 British national overseas passport holders, many of whom reside in Hong Kong.

The concessions offered by the Hong Kong Government in the last few hours have no legal force, so I have one question for the Minister: will he make every effort to persuade the Executive in Hong Kong to halt the progress of these highly dangerous extradition amendments before Wednesday’s crunch votes?

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments, although I think some of them are a little unkind to officials, Ministers and also more particularly our excellent consul general, Andy Heyn, who has been out in Hong Kong, as we have recognised that this issue has been emerging for quite some time. As I mentioned in my earlier comments, it is also fair to say that we have consistently, certainly in my two years as a Minister, at every six-monthly report expressed ongoing concerns about the deterioration, as we have seen it, in political and civil rights.

It is probably fair to say that these proposals—the proposed extradition law—did not originate at China’s instigation, but there is no doubt that the Hong Kong Government are now under distinct pressure from Beijing. We believe that some opportunities to climb down have been missed, but even the huge public display of defiance yesterday—as I have said, up until the last few moments it was very peaceable—combined with concerted opposition from the international business and legal communities has not been able to turn the tide.

I say to the hon. Lady that of course we will do all we can. Andy Heyn is I believe in London this week, but his very able assistant Esther Blythe is back in Hong Kong, and we will do all we can to make further urgent representations to the Hong Kong Government.

This issue has highlighted that it is not the Chief Executive and not even the Legislative Council that can provide an effective check to external influence in Hong Kong; it is the presence and continuation of an independent judicial system. Obviously, again as the hon. Lady rightly alluded to, it now looks as though we are heading towards a potential pitting of the Hong Kong judicial system squarely against that of Beijing.

I agree with the Minister: the United Kingdom has a serious and special obligation to defend civil liberties in Hong Kong. One of the leaders of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement said in a note last week that these new extradition amendments and this Bill will, if passed,

“have destructive effects on our civil liberties as well as on our economy.”

Does the Minister agree with that assessment, and does he feel we are discharging our obligation to defend civil liberties in Hong Kong as fully as we can at the present time?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question and I broadly agree with what has been said. I hope that the work of democracy and diplomacy will ensure that we are able to do our best not only to push back but to advise and express our deep concerns. We have only to look at the recent six-monthly reports to recognise the increasing buzz of concern on our side and indeed from many in Hong Kong in relation to this matter. In particular, the extradition treaty has engaged many in the business community, many of whom have felt broadly positive over the past 22 years. One of the messages we put to our counterparts in Beijing is that a strong Hong Kong is required for their own plans, whether on the belt and road or other economic initiatives, to be fully successful. Hong Kong’s unique legal system provides an opportunity for substantial capital markets. The great success of Hong Kong therefore relies on its high degree of autonomy being maintained.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) on securing this urgent question and I thank you for granting it, Mr Speaker.

Anyone who saw last week’s remarkable documentary by Kate Adie to mark the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre will not need to be reminded what respect for human rights means to the Government of China. Although people will say that China has moved on since then, it has not moved on enough even to admit that Tiananmen Square happened, never mind to apologise to the relatives of all those who were killed. Most people in China do not know that the weekend’s protests in Hong Kong happened because the Chinese Government made absolutely sure that they were not allowed to know about them. That is the extent of the ongoing repression of human rights in China and we should all be concerned that a similar repression of human rights will start to be inflicted on the people of Hong Kong as well.

Normally, under an extradition treaty, a person cannot be extradited for an offence that is not a crime in the country they would be extradited from. That will not apply in these circumstances, however, because China will not respect the terms of any treaty with Hong Kong. Also, a person cannot normally be extradited to a country where they would not get a fair trial, but does anyone seriously believe that that protection would be respected for anyone in Hong Kong? I welcome some of the assurances that the Minister has given, but will he say a bit more about what action the United Kingdom is taking just now—through the United Nations, for example—to ensure that all possible international diplomatic pressure is brought to bear, not just in Hong Kong but, more importantly, in China to ensure that this law never becomes effective? Also, given that China is one of the countries that we are supposed to be looking keenly towards for a trade deal, may we have an assurance that in no circumstances will the prospect of a trade deal allow the voice of the United Kingdom and our allies in Europe to be silenced when it comes to speaking up in defence of the rights of people to whom the United Kingdom continues to owe a legal and moral responsibility?

I thank the hon. Gentleman from the Scottish National party for his comments and I will try to answer his questions. It is obviously not my place as a Minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to comment on the specifics of trade deals other than to say that we will continue relentlessly to express any concerns about human rights with any country with which we are looking to strike a trade deal. That said, this is a particular circumstance because of the nature of the joint declaration. The hon. Gentleman rightly suggested that that document, which was signed by China and the United Kingdom in 1984, is now lodged with the United Nations and that is clearly one mechanism by which we could try to stand up for its terms. Back in 2016, there was a particular episode in which we thought the joint declaration was being abused and, if we feel that we are not getting the changes we are looking for on this extradition law, we will use whatever means we can.

The Hong Kong Government released a statement at 11 o’clock last night, Hong Kong time, noting the people’s right to freedom of expression and assembly, but insisting that the Bill would continue to its Second Reading on Wednesday. Chief Executive Carrie Lam reiterated that message on television this morning, again Hong Kong time, and we are obviously looking to try to ensure that the safeguards put in place over the next two or three days are as watertight as possible. However, this is an ongoing discussion and I hope the hon. Gentleman will recognise that we want to leave all our options open.

I thank my right hon. Friend, as ever, for his charming and succinct question. He has obviously been to the same school as you, Mr Speaker, in that regard. The reality of the situation is that there is an international agreement that was signed with the UN, and we and many other international partners take it seriously. I hope that my right hon. Friend was reassured when he heard what I had to say about our discussions with our Canadian counterparts—a significant number of Canadian nationals live and work in Hong Kong—which happened as recently as 30 May. The message that is coming out loud and clear is that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) said earlier, we need the international community to work together. This is clearly a crucial point in Hong Kong’s history, and our legal leverage may be more limited than we would wish, but we can maximise it by working together.

The worries about this breaking of the firewall and the possible intrusion into one country, two systems would not exist if there were not serious concerns about egregious breaches of human rights in China. What further information can the Minister provide about the discussions between the UK Government and the Chinese Government about improving human rights in China more generally?

As I have pointed out to the hon. Lady in our previous exchanges, we never stint from making our concerns clear in relation to issues in Xinjiang in the north-west of the country or more general issues around human rights. We have a strong diplomatic relationship with China that involves working together in a productive way in a range of areas, including tackling money laundering, people trafficking and, increasingly, climate change. Building up that body of trust also involves being able to have robust conversations about human rights matters. At the highest possible level, when the Prime Minister spoke to President Xi and when I speak to my counterparts in Beijing and other cities, we do not stint from making clear particular concerns where there are concerns, either on consular matters or, indeed, more generally on human rights.

Coincidentally, earlier this afternoon, I met a group of students from Hong Kong who are studying here. They are British national (overseas) passport holders, and they are obviously concerned about the recent developments in relation to China. What consideration has the Department given to the effect that the proposed changes would have on BN(O) passport holders in Hong Kong? What steps is the Foreign Office taking to provide ongoing support and advice to BN(O) passport holders in Hong Kong?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He is absolutely right that we have significant obligations to British national (overseas) passport holders. He will be aware that the right of abode in the UK was defined by the Immigration Act 1971, so there are immigration controls to which BN(O) passport holders are subject. The rights they have are not the full rights of British citizens. None the less, they are British nationals from Hong Kong. It is something that we do take very seriously. I hope that he will forgive me if say that I will write to him in due course to try to answer his specific issues, with particular regard to any changes to the rights of such individuals since 1997.

The Second Reading of the Bill to implement these changes will take place on Wednesday. Legislators in Hong Kong have told me today that they anticipate that, thereafter, the remaining stages of the Bill could be completed as early as the middle of the week after next. If that happens, clearly the Minister’s aspiration for more consultation will be dead in the water. What will he do then?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he says. It would clearly be of grave concern. There is an almost universal view, and not just from those who were on the streets of Hong Kong yesterday. Increasingly, business organisations based in Hong Kong and, indeed, around the world are asking for greater consultation. I would rather not speculate as to where we might be if the path he describes is taken over the next 10 days, and I sincerely hope that will not come to pass.

Mr Speaker, you may be aware that the right hon. Gentleman has the Adjournment debate, in which we will be covering a little of this ground. I hope he will forgive me—I will want to talk more generally later about the relations between the UK, Hong Kong and China.

I am most grateful for that public information announcement. It is potentially of interest to people observing our proceedings that this debate will indeed be resumed in the form of tonight’s Adjournment debate, under the auspices of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), specifically on UK foreign policy in relation to China and Hong Kong.

Moreover, I will have the great honour and privilege tomorrow night of hosting a dinner in support of Hong Kong Watch, which, to put it bluntly, is a splendid organisation that has been set up to keep an eye on what the Chinese Government are up to in relation to Hong Kong. That organisation is magnificently led on a day-to-day basis by the estimable Ben Rogers, who as I speak might well be in our midst.