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Hong Kong

Volume 662: debated on Tuesday 18 June 2019

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the subject of democracy and protests in Hong Kong.

The huge protest march this weekend was a further demonstration of the passionate strength of feeling among the people of Hong Kong about the proposed amendments to extradition laws. The people of Hong Kong have peacefully exercised their rights in recent days to freedom of speech, assembly and expression, all of which are guaranteed by the Sino-British joint declaration of 1984 and enshrined in Hong Kong Basic Law.

The most recent march was, thankfully, free of the scenes of violence witnessed during protests on 12 June. I note the allegations of inappropriate use of force by the Hong Kong police, which should, of course, be fully investigated by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government.

It is positive that, on 15 June, the Government committed to pause, reflect and consult widely before taking further action. However, it is clear that this commitment did not fully address the concerns of the people of Hong Kong. I welcome Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s statement today, in which she said that she would not proceed with the Second Reading of the Bill if the fears and anxieties of the people of Hong Kong could not now be addressed.

In considering the way forward, it is vital that Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and the rights and freedoms set out in the joint declaration are respected in full. Those principles, along with the commitment to one country, two systems underpin Hong Kong’s future success and prosperity. As a guarantor of the joint declaration, the UK has a responsibility to monitor its implementation. This is a responsibility that we all take very seriously.

The joint declaration is a legally binding international treaty between the United Kingdom and China, and it remains in force. It is as relevant today as it was at the time of the handover in 1997. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer both raised the situation in Hong Kong and the importance of upholding the joint declaration with Chinese Vice Premier Hu during the UK-China economic and financial dialogue that took place in London yesterday.

The permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office also held a meeting in the Foreign Office with the Chinese ambassador yesterday, reinforcing our view that the joint declaration is an extant document underpinning one country, two systems and it is guaranteed until 2047. It must be upheld. I can assure the House that the UK Government are, and will remain, fully committed to the preservation of Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy.

I am delighted that, in addressing this matter on the Floor of the House for the fourth time in six sitting days, there is such widespread support from all corners of Parliament for the rule of law, independence of the judiciary and the freedoms for the people of Hong Kong.

I thank the Minister for that answer and I thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing this urgent question. There are literally millions of people in Hong Kong who follow the proceedings in this House and who look to us for support in their fight to protect their human rights. It matters to them there that we here remember their position, and it is right that we should recognise your role, Mr Speaker, in getting this issue ventilated in the House.

The news that the Executive in Hong Kong had suspended the legislation for the extradition amendments was welcome as far as it went, but the message should go out from this House that it did not go far enough. We in this House stand with the 2 million people who took again to the streets in Hong Kong on Sunday to say that suspension is not enough. That legislation must be withdrawn for good. Will the Minister make it clear to the chief executive that that is the position of this country and that that is what her Administration must now do?

In recent weeks, the Chinese Foreign Ministry declared that the Sino-British joint declaration was meaningless and that it no longer had any realistic meaning. I welcome what the Minister has said on this today, but will he assure us that that will continue to be put forcefully to the Chinese Government at every opportunity, because for a fellow permanent member of the UN Security Council to take this view undermines the very idea of a rules-based international order. Will the Government now demand of the Chinese Government that they should resile from the view that they have previously expressed in relation to the joint declaration? It is a binding bilateral treaty registered with the United Nations. China cannot be allowed to pick and choose the obligations in international law that it will observe and honour.

People across the world were shocked to witness the violence used against peaceful protesters in Hong Kong last week. Legitimate democratic Governments do not use tear gas and rubber bullets against their own people when they choose to exercise their democratic right to protest. We hear that the Chief Executive is due to make an apology today to the people of Hong Kong for her handling of the affair. Does the Minister agree with me that that apology should extend to those who were harassed and injured as a result of what was done, and can we in this House send the message that we continue to watch what happens in Hong Kong and we will not sit mute as those who protested then are prosecuted when the spotlight of world attention has moved on?

The events of recent weeks in Hong Kong have been horrifying, but they should not have been surprising. For years now, the People’s Republic of China has been salami slicing the commitments it gave under the joint declaration. Sadly, the Executive Council has too often been complicit in that, but the commitments that have been broken are commitments to which this country has been a party. Will our Government now send the strongest possible message that we will not stand by and allow that process of salami slicing to continue?

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. As the House knows, it is not for the Chair to arbitrate between the Government and the Opposition—between the policies of one party and those of another—and I do not do so, but this question has been granted, and it is the third time the House has treated of this matter in the last week, precisely because I sense that the House of Commons is genuinely shocked and outraged by what is happening. We respect the position of those demonstrators and we utterly deplore the treatment of them. This matter will continue to be aired in this Chamber for so long as Members wish it to be aired here.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am grateful that the whole House has a similar view on these concerns. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) is absolutely right; we are addressing these matters, this debate will be shown in Hong Kong and it is important that we stand by the Hong Kong citizens whose rights are part of the duty that we have to uphold in order to ensure that one country, two systems is maintained.

We have called for the suspension of the extradition Bill and for further consultation. That is the right thing to do for two fundamental reasons. First and foremost, this must ultimately be a matter for the Hong Kong people. It is absolutely unacceptable for the UK Government to dictate terms, as it is for the Chinese Government to dictate terms in Hong Kong or other parts of the world. We are standing by the joint declaration and its terms, but ultimately it must be for the people of Hong Kong to determine. I am very well aware that, in diplomatic terms, it is important that we find a way for face to be maintained; that is important in the part of the world we are discussing. Therefore, the most desirable outcome would be a severe suspension sine die, but this is ultimately a matter for Hong Kong. Indeed, any judicial aspects of the matter are for an independent and free judiciary—a system that we believe is being upheld in Hong Kong, in contrast to what happens elsewhere.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point regarding the rules-based order. As he says, given that both the UK and China are permanent members of the UN Security Council, there are opportunities there to raise the specific concerns he mentioned. We have made it very clear that not only do we regard the joint declaration as extant—it will continue to be in place for the period of the one country, two systems approach—but we will also continue to have six-monthly reports. We have made this very clear to the Chinese ambassador to the UK and to other officials. We get criticised every six months and we will make very plain our concerns including that, although we think that one country, two systems is operating fairly well, there is clearly some strain, not least in relation to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Clearly, the next report will go into great detail once the dust has begun to settle on what has happened. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for continuing to express his strong interest, and I know he speaks for many in the House. The Foreign and Commonwealth office led with a statement last week, and we will continue to keep the House updated.

I hear what the Minister says about this being a matter for the Hong Kong Government, but does he agree that some 2 million people repeatedly taking to the streets in Hong Kong is a sign of wider concerns about Hong Kong’s increasing democratic deficit over the past few years—with booksellers being abducted, democratically elected representatives not being allowed to take their seats and academics being imprisoned over freedom of speech? It is not just about the proposed extradition Bill; there are concerns much more widely about freedoms in Hong Kong. Does the Minister agree that the Hong Kong Government should be initiating democratic reforms to avoid a repeat of such incidents?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Hongkongers are used to having rights, freedoms and the rule of law, but they do not have access to the political levers that citizens of other advanced economies take for granted, so when their Government try to push through a law that the great majority of the public bitterly oppose, they cannot simply vote that Government out of office; and because so many opposition legislators have been removed, they also cannot rely on their elected representatives to block the law. As a result, action on the streets has tended to be the only answer. We think there should and must be another way. Perhaps we will discuss later during this urgent question some of the democratic reforms that might be put in place.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question; I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing it.

Hong Kong is one of the most important international cities in the world, but in the past fortnight it has been plunged into utter chaos. Over the weekend, 2 million people took to the streets to protest against the extradition Bill. That is nearly one third of the entire population of Hong Kong. Although the Opposition welcome the suspension of this disastrous Bill, suspension is not enough. The Bill needs to die. It is an affront to democracy and the rule of law in Hong Kong, and a fundamental breach of the one country, two systems principle. A grovelling apology by Carrie Lam this morning and promises of greater consultation do not change this fact. The Hong Kong Executive now have a choice to make. If they listen to their citizens, the Bill will be scrapped. These protests should also prompt serious reflection on the condition of democracy in Hong Kong, and on the increasing crackdown on dissent and protest. It is time to put democratic reform back on the agenda in Hong Kong.

I am disappointed that the Minister does not feel able to take a view on the contents of the Bill. We do not have an extradition agreement with China, so why should Hong Kong? I raised my next point during the last urgent question on the subject, but did not get a very clear answer, so let me ask the Minister again: if the Hong Kong Executive decide to push on with the Bill’s implementation, will the Government review the UK’s extradition arrangements with Hong Kong?

The hon. Lady will be aware that extradition issues are a Home Office matter—that is not to try to get out of the issue, but clearly I do not want to step on the toes of another Government Department in making a firm commitment along the lines that she would have me make. We agree very much with her view that although the proposal is not necessarily in breach of the joint declaration, which is silent on the issue of extradition, it is clearly in breach of the notion of one country, two systems as well as the sense that there should be the rule of law and the idea of the common law system that is in place.

The Hong Kong Government have suspended the extradition Bill, and may withdraw it altogether, because of the freedoms of expression and assembly. That is the direct link to the joint declaration and its importance. It is a tribute to the people of Hong Kong that they have exercised their rights so effectively. I congratulate the Minister and the Secretary of State on their defence of the joint declaration and on their tone, for Hong Kong is a territory whose future we wish to be very bright. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Chinese ambassador has continued to be wrong in saying that the joint declaration is a document that is effectively past its sell-by date, and will he ensure that when, in due course, a new Chinese ambassador arrives at the Court of St James, this point is made very clear to him or her?

I thank my hon. Friend, who is, as Mr Speaker rightly says, a well-known Sinologist and has a lot of experience and knowledge of this matter. He will appreciate that diplomacy requires that I have discussions in private, but I felt it was unacceptable when we heard the ambassador, only last week on the BBC’s “Newsnight” programme, make the statement, which has been made in writing in the past, that this was a historical document that had no relevance to the future of Hong Kong. Nothing could be further from the truth. As I mentioned in my initial comments, the permanent under-secretary had a conversation with him in the Foreign Office only yesterday, making very clear the UK Government’s position on this matter.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing this urgent question. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) was right in his sentiments about the importance of this issue and in saying that the UK has a particular responsibility to Hong Kong. To be fair, the Minister has acknowledged that himself in maintaining the commitments in the joint declaration, and also in highlighting the importance of the international rules-based order to us all. I know that he agrees, but it would be good if he could reiterate that citizens of a free society must be able to express their views freely without any fear of violence. We need to send that message out from across this House. No protest must ever be met with violence, and any resolution to this crisis must have the protection of the rule of law at its heart. Does he agree that the rule of law and adhering to the rules-based system is going to be key to Hong Kong’s future prosperity as a society, but also to its economy?

I very much agree. I thank the hon. Gentleman, and indeed the SNP, for their very constructive views on this matter. It is very powerful that the House holds together on this issue. Of course there will be times when we have disagreements on the way in which we go about this, or other bits of business, but I think we are sending a very powerful message to our friends in Hong Kong, but also to the Chinese Government, about the unity of minds on this. Yes, we will very much stand up for the idea of the rule of law. That is vital for the success not just of Hong Kong but of China.

Let me turn to the economic dialogue. As I think hon. Members will understand, these things are organised many months in advance, and it is a coincidence that at the height of the Hong Kong crisis we were having an international economic dialogue here in London. One of the cases we made very robustly was about the importance for China of Hong Kong as a financial, and indeed professional, services centre reliant on a rules-based system but also on a UK legal system. That has provided much confidence for external investors. Without Hong Kong, the ambitions that China has for the belt and road initiative, and other bits of its infrastructure planning for the future, will be much more difficult to achieve. That is very much the case that we make to our Chinese counterparts—that having this special status for Hong Kong is in China’s interests as much as Hong Kong’s.

Whether in respecting one country, two systems or the Chinese constitution that supposedly respects and protects the cultural diversity of various regions within China’s borders, the Chinese regime, as it has consistently shown itself, is not to be trusted. One need only look at the 1 million Tibetans who have lost their lives since the Chinese invasion, the countless hundreds and thousands more who have disappeared or are languishing in Chinese jails well away from their families with no access from their families either, or the 1 million Uighurs currently in so-called re-education camps. I therefore welcome the robust position that the Government are taking and urge them to go further. Will the Minister also remember that it is not just Hong Kong where we need to have serious concerns about the Chinese human rights record?

I thank my hon. Friend for his great and long-standing interest in the proactive approach that we take to human rights, and the rule of law, in trying to influence these matters. We will raise, regularly and at all opportunities, broader human rights issues with the Chinese authorities. However, as he will be aware, Hong Kong has a special status. The nature of the joint declaration means that Hong Kong is in a different position. There are two systems as well as a single country at stake. While I very much accept what he says about the broader human rights issues, there are some fundamental, distinctive issues in relation to Hong Kong, and it is right that we take this opportunity to put them very firmly on the record.

Given previous reports of individuals who have disappeared from wherever they were only then to turn up in China facing charges, the whole House understands completely why the people of Hong Kong are so anxious about their rights and so opposed to this piece of extradition legislation. The best thing that Carrie Lam can do is to say that it is being scrapped altogether. What remedy is there if either of the parties, but in this case China, decides not to abide by commitments freely entered into in the joint declaration to protect the people of Hong Kong and the one country, two systems state in which they thought they were living?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point about remedy. There is not an arbitration process as part of the joint declaration, but it is none the less a document that is very publicly on the record after two leading members of the international community signed it freely some 35 years ago. On a direct legal remedy, I am afraid that I cannot provide the assurance that he might ideally be looking for. In 2016—he has alluded to this—we called out a breach of the joint declaration following the involuntary removal of the Causeway booksellers from Hong Kong to the mainland. This was, to date, the first and only time that we have called out a direct breach of the joint declaration. As he says, the issue of remedy is a complicated matter. However, at a time when China wishes to be trusted and to play a much broader role economically, militarily and diplomatically in the international community, I very much hope that the sense in which it is directly breaching aspects of a joint declaration made some 35 years ago will make it think twice.

Was the Minister struck, as I was, not just by the sheer size of the demonstrations in Hong Kong but by the incredibly peaceful and responsible way in which people protested, which makes the response of the Hong Kong authorities all the more shocking? Does he agree that the right to peacefully protest is one of those essential, cherished democratic freedoms that we believe in and that we believe should be in place for the people of Hong Kong?

As the House is aware, the three pillars of good foreign policy are national security, human rights and trade. Is the Minister completely sure that yesterday’s dialogue with Mr Hu, in which the economic relationship was debated, got the balance right between the human rights question, particularly in relation to Hong Kong, and trade? I ask that because we need to be strong with regard to the trade question, despite the position that we find ourselves in domestically, so that we can have the backbone and the strength to have good relationships on all these other matters. We also need to give assurances to the people of Hong Kong that they shall never walk alone.

I very much hope that we have given the latter assurances to which the hon. Lady refers. We do not see this as a choice between securing growth and investment for the UK and raising human rights—we will always do that. There will be a time to do it, perhaps quietly outside the public domain. I think it is respected more by many of our Chinese counterparts if we do not engage in megaphone diplomacy. Our experience, as we make very clear to our Chinese counterparts, is that political freedoms and the rule of law are vital underpinnings both for prosperity and for stability, and that by having a strong relationship with China, including over Hong Kong, we are able to have the more open discussions on a range of difficult issues, including human rights in other parts of mainland China.

For 2 million people to demonstrate out of a total of 7 million is a phenomenon in itself, and it would be invidious, in some ways, to pick any one hero out of those 2 million heroes. However, will my right hon. Friend join me in praising the work and bravery of a 22-year-old young man, Joshua Wong, who has spent more than half of the past seven years in prison because he believes in the rights and freedom of the people of Hong Kong? Further, will my right hon. Friend maintain that it is wrong to send him to prison for simply asking for the rights that are enshrined in the agreement?

As my hon. Friend rightly says, it would be invidious to pick out one individual. We do stand up for the independence of the Hong Kong judiciary, so the sense that there was anything improper in the legal proceedings is not something with which I would necessarily wish to associate myself. He makes a good case: there are some very brave people who recognise that this is a crossroads moment—a vital moment. It is one reason why it is important that we are standing up for Hong Kong. It would perhaps be easy for us to step back, and that signal would be misinterpreted by Beijing. We do not wish that to happen. We will stand up for one country, two systems as long as the joint declaration is in place, not least, as I have again said, because we believe it is in the interests of Beijing and China, as much as in the interests of the Hong Kong people.

The Minister has quite rightly set out the framework of rights that underpins the one country, two systems approach. Clearly, the reality on the ground is that democratic freedoms have been eroded, as of course has the right to privacy, with increasing covert surveillance. What practical steps can the Minister and the Government take to put democratic reform back on the agenda in Hong Kong?

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. He is right—we have mentioned in recent six-monthly reports that we have had a sense, as he said, that there has been an erosion of individual rights. There has not been an erosion of commercial rights. In many ways, the commercial thing continues at quite some pace.

Ultimately, it must be for the people of Hong Kong to determine the way in which they appoint both their Chief Executive and their Legislative Council. I think there will be a move towards reform in that regard. As the hon. Gentleman is well aware, there are safeguards, and within that there is an electoral system for groups. As for the election of a Chief Executive, that is largely led by Beijing. It is worth pointing out that we have worked closely with Carrie Lam. I have met her on a couple of occasions, and she is a dedicated public servant. To be candid about talk about removing her from office, one should be careful about one wishes for, because if someone else were appointed, particularly under the current rules, they could be a much more hard-line Beijing figure.

The words “rule of law”, are much used on both sides of the argument, both in Hong Kong and in the People’s Republic of China. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the rule of law is only there if one looks at the rules themselves, at how they are made, and at punishments? In addition, they should be underpinned by the universal declaration of human rights. That is what the rule of law means.

I would agree with what my hon. Friend says. He takes these matters seriously, and has dealings with leading figures from Taiwan who are based in London. He will be aware of the constraints that we are under in the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence in standing up for One China. Equally, there is a terrific amount of work that goes on in relation to trade and in educational exchanges with Taiwan. Taiwan is succeeding very rapidly as a country, not least because it stands up for the rule of law in the way in which my hon. Friend describes.[Official Report, 19 June 2019, Vol. 662, c. 5MC.]

Without true democracy there is no real accountability, so protest is all that the people of Hong Kong have. I hope that they feel the solidarity from all parts of the House. What can the Minister tell us about the worrying allegations of police violence? What more can he tell us about his inquiries, or inquiries by his Department, into the nature, extent and possible consequences of allegations of violence and whether any of the alleged victims are UK citizens? What more is he doing to impress on the Chinese that this is not an appropriate response to peaceful protest?

As far as I am aware, there are none who are UK citizens, and clearly there would be consul considerations if that were the case. It is worth pointing out to the hon. Lady that it really is not for us to dictate. We would like the Hong Kong authorities to recognise that it is their responsibility, as they did in relation to the Umbrella protests, in which some police who used brutality were fined and others were imprisoned as a consequence. It really is not for us—it is a dangerous line to tread if, as an outside Government, we try to dictate what should happen in Hong Kong when it comes to what is ultimately a judicial matter. We very much call on the Hong Kong authorities to take the allegations seriously and investigate them properly.

I confess that I have been moved by the passion with which Hong Kong citizens have sought to defend the sacred principle of the rule of law, and they have sent an incredibly powerful message across the world that has certainly been heard in London. The Minister anticipated my question in one of his answers, but does he agree that the one country, two systems principle is beneficial not just for the inhabitants of Hong Kong but for those in mainland China, because the legal certainty in Hong Kong offers them a commercial gateway through which to access the rest of the world? We do not need to find ourselves in conflict with Beijing in defending the territory’s unique characteristics.

I thank my hon. Friend. She is absolutely right, and that is a message that we try to put across. She will be aware that Hong Kong, along with Shenzhen and Guangzhou, is part of a greater bay area. One hopes that the experience will permeate that part of mainland China, so that people recognise the benefits of a one country, two systems approach. While the guarantee is in place until 2047, it is very much the UK Government’s hope that the benefits of one country, two systems in Hong Kong and perhaps a wider area will exist beyond that time, with benefits for China looking forward. It is important that we make that case to our Beijing counterparts in all that we do in relation to the issue of Hong Kong’s unique position.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing the urgent question. Does the Minister agree that the reality is that all that the People’s Republic of China is seeking to achieve in Hong Kong is the legalisation of what it has been doing for years, which is legally kidnapping people from Hong Kong and taking them to China?

As I have said, and as the hon. Gentleman will understand, we felt that there was a direct breach of the joint declaration in the episode to which he alludes, which happened some three years ago. This is unacceptable. Hong Kong citizens and British national overseas have particular rights that we will constantly stand up for. We feel that it is the wrong way forward—it is not something that we accept, and we feel that such episodes are absolutely in breach of the joint declaration.

The Minister will have seen reports from lawyers in Hong Kong that the police in Hong Kong have access to the health authority system to check whether injured protesters have been admitted to hospital. What representations has he made to ensure that the protesters’ civil and legal rights are respected?

I am very concerned by what the hon. Gentleman says on this matter. I think we all know there is great concern about what has been happening in Xinjiang state in north-west China. There is a sense that what is potentially happening for 1 million citizens may apply to many others. We are living in a world with more opportunity for electronic and other surveillance by authorities—and that applies to authorities in the west, as it does elsewhere. There are concerns, and we would be concerned if we heard that individuals who found their face on a CCTV camera were quietly arrested in the months ahead. We will keep an eagle eye on that development, and we hope as parliamentarians that we are made aware of any such breaches, because it is something that our consul general, Andy Heyn, and his team in Hong Kong would wish to make clear to the authorities would be totally unacceptable.

Bill Presented

Universal Credit Sanctions (Zero Hours Contracts) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Chris Stephens, supported by Frank Field, Neil Gray, Rosie Duffield, Mhairi Black, Ruth George, Hannah Bardell, Neil Coyle, Grahame Morris, Jonathan Edwards and Steve McCabe, presented a Bill to amend the Welfare Reform Act 2012 to provide that a Universal Credit claimant may not be sanctioned for refusing work on a zero hours contract; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 406).