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Hong Kong

Volume 662: debated on Tuesday 2 July 2019

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the Government’s response to yesterday’s protests in Hong Kong.

For a number of weeks now, the world has been watching massive yet largely peaceful protests in Hong Kong in opposition to the proposed extradition legislation. Unfortunately, a small number of protesters chose to vandalise the premises of the Legislative Council yesterday. Her Majesty’s Government strongly condemn any such violence but also understand the deep-seated concerns that people in Hong Kong have about their rights and freedoms. The vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of people who took part in the 1 July march yesterday did so in a peaceful and lawful manner.

The UK is fully committed to upholding Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and rights and freedoms under the One country, two systems principle, which is guaranteed by the legally binding joint declaration of 1984. We reject the Chinese Government’s assertion that the joint declaration is an “historic document”, by which they mean that it is no longer valid, and that our rights and obligations under that treaty have ended. Our clear view is that the Sino-British joint declaration of 1984 obliges the Chinese Government to uphold Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, and its rights and freedoms, and we call on the Chinese Government to do so. In respect of the recent demonstrations, the main responsibility for addressing this tension rests with the Government of Hong Kong, including the Chief Executive.

I thank the Minister for that statement. May I also thank you, Mr Speaker, for again allowing an urgent question on this ever-increasing and serious matter, which is heard not just in this country, but throughout the world? Last night, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) organised a meeting in the House under the auspices of Hong Kong Watch, and she and I co-chaired it. It was a very well attended and, sadly, timely meeting, with more than 100 people, mostly Hong Kongers, present. The message from that meeting, especially from activists such as Tommy Cheung and Willis Ho, was clear: they worry that the Government of the People’s Republic of China will see yesterday’s events as an excuse for ever more direct intervention in Hong Kong’s affairs. They want to hear that this country will continue to stand with them against that threat.

Unfortunately, the images that dominated our television screens yesterday were those of the occupation of the Legislative Council building. There was much less coverage of the fact that on Monday, half a million families, young children and older people marched down major roads in peaceful protests. In his representations to Carrie Lam’s Administration, will the Minister make it as clear as possible that any consequences for the actions of the hundreds of protesters in the LegCo building should not be visited on the many thousands—in fact, millions—of people who have protested on Hong Kong’s streets in recent weeks?

The images broadcast around the world yesterday were ones of violence and vandalism, but they were also images of fear and frustration from people who are increasingly desperate that the world looks on at their plight and will do no more than wring its hands. Will the Minister make it clear to Carrie Lam that there is much more that she and her Administration can do to reassure her own population? It is surely clear to all that a suspension—even a suspension sine die—of the Bill to allow for the amendment of the extradition arrangements is not enough. The people of Hong Kong need to hear that the Bill has been abandoned completely.

The Hong Kong police have described the victims of police violence in recent weeks as rioters, when we know that they were peaceful protesters. Will the Minister impress on the Executive that such use of language must be withdrawn? Will the Executive instigate an independent inquiry into the police violence on 12 June?

Finally, the Chinese Foreign Ministry yesterday declared the Sino-British joint declaration to be meaningless. I welcome the Minister’s repudiation of that from the Dispatch Box, but will the Government now consider all meaningful sanctions at our disposal, including the possible use of Magnitsky powers, to ensure that those who infringe the human rights of the people of Hong Kong will have no hiding place in the United Kingdom?

First, I genuinely acknowledge and recognise the right hon. Gentleman’s interest in and deep knowledge of this issue, and I commend him for the activity that he generates in the House, which is shared in by so many other Members from all parties. I thank him for his analysis and for what I consider to be a measured series of questions that go very much to the point. We all agree with him that any actions taken in response to the vandalism that took place should be proportionate and within the rule of law, and should not be taken against larger numbers than those who were actually involved in that vandalism.

As the right hon. Gentleman recognises, and as I said in my opening remarks, a lot of the ability to address the tension rests with the Government of Hong Kong and the Chief Executive Carrie Lam, in respect of the extradition legislation that has generated so much protest. Whereas we fully agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the joint declaration remains valid—again, I said that in my opening remarks—we are not here to dictate and instruct either the Chinese Government, or that of Hong Kong itself, to do what we believe they should be doing within the autonomy that has properly been granted to them. I am sure the House will appreciate the delicacy of our wanting to uphold the rule of law while having to be careful not to instruct either Government about what they should do in specific detail.

It is good to see my right hon. Friend responding on this matter; his broad wingspan now covers yet more of the planet.

The disgraceful behaviour of the demonstrators who entered LegCo yesterday and the misuse of the Union flag should be noted by Parliament, as should the damage done to the case that they are making. I looked at the statement by the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, who said that

“the SAR government decided to suspend work on the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019.”

He also said:

“The Chinese Central Government expresses its support, respect and understanding for the SAR government's decision”.

Surely a period of dialogue and discussion is now required to try to reach a mutually agreed solution to this complex problem.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for pointing out that I am answering questions that do not normally fall within my responsibility. My wingspan has stretched wider than I or any Member would normally expect.

My right hon. Friend is far more expert on this issue than I am, but the one point on which we can all agree is that a period of de-escalation and dialogue would be far preferable to any continuing tension and violence. I very much hope that all those who are involved in this issue can pause for thought and try to plot a way through this without further escalating any kind of conflict.

The Hong Kong situation is spiralling out of control very fast now. It is unfortunate that, in the absence of a Minister with responsibility for the far east, the Foreign Secretary is not in his place. I agree with the remarks of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael). He set out well the events of yesterday. I want to concentrate on four questions for the Government. First, Hong Kongers have made it abundantly clear that they want the disastrous extradition laws to be abandoned for good. That is not an unreasonable request. Will the Government finally take the side of the Hong Kong people and call on Carrie Lam to scrap this legislation?

Secondly, I welcome and agree with the Foreign Secretary’s call for a public inquiry into the actions of the Hong Kong police force. Evidence has emerged that the order to fire tear gas on the protesters was given by Superintendent Justin Shave, a British expat now serving with the Hong Kong police, and that two other expat chief superintendents were two of the most senior officers in charge of crowd control on that day in June. What are Ministers doing to bring to book these British citizens who ordered the police brutality?

Thirdly, after firing rubber bullets on the protesters, the Hong Kong authorities accessed hospital data records in order to arrest them. That is random and unfair. Will the Minister join me in condemning this appalling behaviour? Clearly, yesterday the events in the Legislative Council were unacceptable, but the police tactics appeared to have been totally confused. Finally, the root cause of the chaos is the fundamental democratic deficit in Hong Kong. The rights enshrined in the Basic Law and the promises to move towards universal suffrage are being trampled on. When will the Government listen to the voices of the citizens of Hong Kong and put democratic reform back on the agenda?

First, let me point out to the hon. Lady that, of course, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary would like to be here, but there are compelling reasons for him not being here, given that there are hustings for the leadership after which I very much hope that he will be picked as our next Prime Minister. The hon. Lady’s first question is a matter for Hong Kong and its Government. In respect of an inquiry, my right hon. Friend has already urged the Hong Kong Government to establish a robust investigation into the events of 12 June. With regard to universal suffrage, we believe that the terms of the joint declaration should, of course, be fully upheld.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that it is not unknown for Communist regimes to insert agents provocateurs into popular movements in order to discredit them? Will he bear in mind that the messages that we send to Communist China—for example, in sucking up to it over issues such as Huawei and our telecommunications infrastructure—need to be looked at through the prism of its human rights abuses?

It is not for me to speculate on whether agents provocateurs have been going about such business. That is a matter for the Government of Hong Kong to investigate. In respect of the Chinese Government, the Prime Minister did speak to Chinese Vice Premier Hu on 17 June, and we do speak very directly to them about Hong Kong and, of course, about human rights in general.

I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for once again raising this issue, and I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. This is a deeply serious matter, and I think that that has been expressed by Members across the House. I welcome the remarks of the Foreign Secretary and of his deputy at the moment, the Minister for Europe and the Americas, that the authorities must engage in a meaningful dialogue and that the preservation of rights and freedoms are critical. I also welcome what was said by our partners in the European Union who have said that these rights need to be respected. There is never an excuse for violence—there cannot be an excuse for violence—but we must reflect on the concerns of non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch about the use of torture and also, as has been reflected on by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, the concerns of the overwhelming majority who have undertaken peaceful protest; their voices must not be drowned out over the coming days. It is more important than ever that Hong Kong’s autonomy and the independence of the judicial system are respected. It will be good to hear the Minister’s plans to put that case, and also to urge the Hong Kong authorities to listen to legitimate concerns. The Foreign Office must do what it can to facilitate that and to work, where appropriate, to de-escalate tensions. Now is the time for calm heads.

I think that I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has just said. The autonomy of Hong Kong is very important. Hence we have to strike a balance between seeing what is happening but not dictating to Hong Kong how it should respond. On listening to concerns, it is, of course, the responsibility of the Hong Kong Government to listen to the concerns being expressed by their own people, but in terms of us expressing our concerns to them, we do so very forcefully and properly through proper diplomatic channels.

The Minister has couched his response in sensibly balanced terms. Does he agree that the Hong Kong Government have said that the extradition Bill will not be brought back to the Legislative Council until it lapses and that it is, therefore, effectively dead? Does he also agree that, whatever the frustrations of some protesters, the vast majority of the half a million people who marched yesterday do not want to see the vandalism that happened at the Legislative Council; and that Her Majesty’s Government should continue to balance strong support for the six freedoms enshrined in the joint declaration with support for the rule of law against violence, and encourage efforts to rebuild trust between the Hong Kong Government and the people of Hong Kong so that that the territory can revert to its peaceful and successful path under the one country, two systems formula?

I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent and well-informed question. His experience in the far east is very well known and understood by this House. He mentioned the procedural definition of whether the legislation is suspended or effectively dead. That is not quite for me to speculate on. From our own experience, we know the importance of procedure in this House, particularly as we are dealing with certain big issues at the moment that rely on it. As for the freedoms, indeed, the autonomy under the joint declaration is something that must be respected and not in any way diluted.

May I reiterate the calls from around the House for a calm head and for the violence that started last night to stop? What is being done to try to encourage talks between the student protesters and the LegCo? In particular, how can the Government stress the importance of young people? With just 1,200 people having a say over the leader of the LegCo, how can the concept of democracy, or even a consultation about democracy, get on to the agenda so that young Hong Kong people can feel that they have some hope?

The Basic Law specifies that the ultimate aim is for both the Chief Executive and the Legislative Council to be elected by universal suffrage, and that objective would be in the best interests of Hong Kong. In the meantime, as the hon. Lady sensibly says, we want to see a cessation of violence and the emergence of a dialogue, which has already been mentioned. In terms of us trying to persuade people to take those steps, I very much hope that this very moment in this House will be noticed in Hong Kong and elsewhere, so that people can see that a wider voice across the world is calling for such things.

Both Carrie Lam and the Chinese Government have repeatedly referred to the importance of upholding the rule of law in response to the protests. The Minister himself has spoken about and affirmed that principle at the Dispatch Box this afternoon, but does he agree that upholding the rule of law cannot be used as a pretext for suppressing legitimate and peaceful protest, and that when we speak about the rule of law we mean respecting absolutely the principle of one country, two systems and protecting basic civil freedoms in Hong Kong?

Yes. In addition to one country, two systems, the same principles about the rule of law that we would apply here should apply in Hong Kong—that is, that peaceful protest is legitimate and violence is something that we condemn. We can quite understand the grievance felt, and the millions of people who have been taking to the streets show the intensity of that opinion, but in order to be effective protesters must, in their own interests, stick to peaceful protests and not allow a small number of people to destroy the credibility of their actions.

Behind the specifics of this incident, is there not a bigger, wider and more problematic concern, which is that the Chinese Communist party is fearful of losing its grip on its people? That is why it is tightening its grip—squeezing harder and harder—and Hong Kong is just a tiny aspect of that. Is there not an irony in the fact that China is trying to argue in favour of the rule of law when it constantly flouts the rule of law around the world, even though Hong Kong has done China proud over the last 50 years?

There is, of course, ample scope for analysing what is going on in Hong Kong within the broader question of what is happening in China and what role China wishes to play within China itself and across the world more widely, so the hon. Gentleman’s question is a valid one. However, with regards to the specific question we are addressing today, we should keep our focus on trying to de-escalate tension in Hong Kong itself so that a path forward can be mapped out for the benefit of everybody there.

We obviously call on China fully to adhere to the joint declaration. I hope that will lead to the implementation of the full details under the Basic Law.

I welcome the decision of the British Government to prohibit the sale of tear gas to Hong Kong. However, the South China Morning Post reports that approved British export licences of lethal weapons to Hong Kong include grenade launchers, mortar bombs, sniper rifles, machine guns and gun silencers. Are the British Government considering those export licences as well?

The primary focus of anything we have said so far in the context of these demonstrations has been about crowd control equipment. The Foreign Secretary announced on 25 June that we will not issue any further export licences for crowd control equipment to Hong Kong unless we are satisfied that our concerns raised on human rights and fundamental freedoms have been thoroughly addressed.

We all condemn the terrible violence that has occurred in Hong Kong over recent days. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is essential for Hong Kong’s future success that the full extent of its autonomy and rule of law as set out in the joint declaration and enshrined in the Basic Law is implemented? What more can my right hon. Friend do to encourage more dialogue between the parties in Hong Kong?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to focus on Hong Kong’s autonomy and upholding of the rule of law. It may well be that the most constructive way forward is to establish a dialogue in the next few days between the Government of Hong Kong and their own people that can help to reduce the tensions in Hong Kong that we have seen erupt on the streets over the past few weeks.

It is very good to see the Minister spreading his wings. In fact, I hope he will soon return to the Dispatch Box to say something about the disgraceful and disturbing decision by the Japanese to start whaling again—killing hundreds of whales this year.

On Hong Kong, the fact of the matter is that what we have seen in the last few days is out of character. My suspicion is, who is going to gain from instability in Hong Kong? Of course, the answer is the Chinese Government, not the Hong Kongese.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that China should see Hong Kong as something that can benefit China itself. A prosperous and stable Hong Kong is not only good for Hong Kong; it is also good for China. There is a symbiosis that can be mutually beneficial. I very much hope that in honouring the terms of the 1984 agreement in the years ahead, that mutual benefit can be put into practice and that everybody can win from it.

Hong Kong is a really important partner for the UK because of our past ties and Hong Kong’s potential future prosperity. Will the Minister therefore confirm to the House that freedom of speech will continue to be enshrined in Hong Kong’s basic law as part of the one country, two systems principle, as we would expect from any partner that we trade and work with?

The Basic Law will not change. It is there in the 1984 agreement. I hope that all its elements will be fully upheld, and that should include freedom of speech and the proper implementation of the rule of law.

At a time when democracy and human rights are under attack by authoritarian regimes across the world, it is critical that Britain sets out clearly whose side we are on. I welcome the Minister’s statement that the Sino-British agreement is still valid, but what steps is he taking to validate that validity, as it were? Does he agree with the last Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, that that might be more effective if we were not simultaneously trying to negotiate a post-Brexit trade agreement with China?

I do not think that it is really appropriate to link the two. We have the joint declaration in place; it is legally binding until 2047, and we expect China to uphold it. If there were to be a breach, we would pursue some resolution bilaterally, but in the meantime I hope that there can be an improvement of exchanges and dialogue between the Hong Kong Government and their own people to try to improve the situation that they are currently confronting.

What estimate does the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have of the number of Chinese People’s Liberation Army personnel in Hong Kong, and has there been any suggestion of an increase in that number?

I hope my hon. Friend will appreciate that I am not in a position to give him an exact number. In as much as we have such an estimate, I will certainly write to him and give him the benefit of what we believe we can pass on.

I welcome much of what the Minister has said today. Of course, we cannot in any way condone the vandalism or violence of recent days, but the Minister will be aware of assertions that those who are in control of the police have orchestrated the police response over the past 24 to 36 hours to aggravate the consequences of the situation. Will the Minister comment on whether he has any evidence that those assertions are true?

I am unable to confirm that I have any such evidence; I have not been advised as such. Obviously, it is very much our view that any police response should be proportional and lawful. Of course, if the demonstrations are peaceful, we hope that no such violent, or forceful, response is in any way needed, but if there are acts of vandalism, that would then put any such engagement into a different context.

While the escalation in violence in Hong Kong is deeply regrettable, and every effort should be made to de-escalate it, it is clear that there is continuous provocation by the Chinese side, particularly with regard to the repudiation of the validity of the 1984 Sino-British joint declaration that underpins the highly successful one country, two systems structure that has guaranteed Hong Kong’s success. Far from simply asserting Britain’s continued recognition of that declaration, what will we do to enforce it in practice?

We are not a position to, as the hon. Gentleman puts it, enforce it, but if there were a breach, as I said, we would engage China in a proper bilateral discussion. We speak very forcefully and loudly about upholding the 1984 agreement, and, in doing so, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in what he calls for.