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House of Commons Hansard
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22 July 2019
Volume 663

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

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There have been a number of developments in Hong Kong over the weekend. On Friday evening, the police seized a quantity of explosives from a warehouse in the New Territories along with knives, petrol bombs, corrosive acids and T-shirts supporting Hong Kong independence. On Saturday, there was a large rally in the area known as Central in support of the Hong Kong police. Yesterday, hundreds of thousands of people took part in a largely peaceful march on Hong Kong island; however, some protesters diverted from the approved route and there were clashes with the police, including outside the Chinese Central Government liaison office. Last night, there were disturbing scenes in the New Territories town of Yuen Long: a group armed with chains and poles attacked pro-democracy protesters and other passengers at the metro station; 45 protesters were reportedly injured, one critically. We were all shocked to see such unacceptable scenes of violence.

There has been a great deal of speculation about the identity of the group who attacked people at Yuen Long metro station, but it is important that we do not jump to conclusions on their identity until a thorough investigation has taken place. I welcome Carrie Lam’s statement today saying that she has asked the commissioner of police to investigate this incident fully and pursue any law breakers. We will be keeping a close eye on this, as I know will hon. and right hon. Members.

I condemn all violent acts, but I stand by people’s right to protest peacefully and lawfully. We must not let the violent actions of a few overshadow the fact that hundreds of thousands of people took part in the march yesterday and did so in a peaceful and lawful manner. In doing so, they were exercising their right to peacefully protest and stand up for their freedoms. We fully support this right, which is guaranteed under the joint declaration. Successive six-monthly reports in this House have highlighted that Hong Kong’s political freedoms have been coming under increasing pressure, and the House is right to reflect this in its appetite for urgent questions, parliamentary questions and statements.

Let me assure the House that the Government remain fully committed to upholding Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, rights and freedoms under the one country, two systems principle. They are guaranteed by the legally binding joint declaration. We will continue to be unwavering in our support for the treaty and expect our co-signatory to behave in a like manner.

Rights and freedoms and the rule of law are vital for Hong Kong’s future success; for its people, we will continue to stand up and speak out.

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I agree with the Minister that the peaceful nature of the demonstrations must be paramount. Does he agree that there has been some doubt as to the wording of the governor of Hong Kong’s promise to suspend the plans around extradition, and that that could do with some clarification? Does he also agree that huge numbers of people are taking part, which reveals a deep concern about these ongoing proposals, and is there any way that he can use his office to assist in the clarification that the extradition plans will be 100% dropped?

Obviously this month saw the 22nd anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to Chinese rule, and the day was marked by real fear among many people in Hong Kong that the principle of one country, two systems is being reneged on. Media reports paint an alarming picture: 45 people were injured, and of significant concern is that one of those was a journalist, and there is a question over press freedoms and the fact that the police were very slow to respond.

Coupled with the escalation in violence, reports also came out this weekend that the UK Government approved an export license for £1.9 million-worth of telecommunications interception equipment to Hong Kong. Will the Minister tell the House what human rights assessment was made before the approval of that licence given the concerns raised previously about the Hong Kong authorities’ treatment of protesters during student protests in 2014, and how the Government intend to address the ongoing urgent concerns about the protests and the way they are being handled? Finally, will the Minister once more provide assurances that we stand with the people of Hong Kong in defending their democratic right to protest?

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I shall start with the hon. Lady’s last question, about our standing shoulder to shoulder with the people of Hong Kong in their right to protest. I know that it was a rhetorical question, but it is worth emphasising that of course this country stands shoulder to shoulder with the people of Hong Kong, as I laid out in my opening remarks. On her point about interception equipment, I could find evidence of one licence, but it was an extant licence connected to counter-narcotics, counter-trafficking, search and rescue and counter-terrorism. I would say to the hon. Lady with the greatest of respect that if you will the ends, you have to will the means. She will be familiar with the safeguards that this country has in relation to equipment that a country could use to disadvantage people internally or to pose a threat to its neighbours. They are well rehearsed, and I probably do not have time in responding to her question to rehearse them again.

The hon. Lady mentioned the governor, but I think she meant the Chief Executive. That was a Freudian slip and it is perfectly understandable that she would use that term, but it is important to understand the UK’s position in all this, because we are simply a co-signatory to the Sino-British joint declaration. We cannot impose things, as was perhaps the case in the past, and neither should we. It is important to understand Hong Kong’s autonomous behaviour, which we stand fully behind in accordance with the tenets of the joint agreement.

On the status of the extradition arrangements associated with Carrie Lam, I think that she has made it fairly clear that they are dead in the water. On the undertaking on one country, two systems, it of course remains our view that that is in the interests not only of Hong Kong but, I humbly suggest, of China as well. We will continue to point that out in our discourse with Beijing.

The hon. Lady rightly commented on press freedom. Of course that is at the forefront of the mind of Ministers in the FCO right now, given that we have recently hosted with Canada the media freedom conference, at which many of these issues were aired. I do not think anybody can be left in any doubt as to the position of the United Kingdom in this matter, which is four-square behind the journalists who serve us so well in articulating concerns and reflecting on world events in the manner that they do. The hon. Lady mentioned police behaviour. It is important that police behaviour in the UK or any country should be fully scrutinised. We have a proud tradition of that in this country, and we want to inculcate those norms and practices elsewhere.

In general, Hong Kong is a peaceful place with a good record for safety as a city. It has an independent judiciary who ultimately would be tasked with forming a view on whether the police have behaved appropriately, but before that, it is important that matters of concern are investigated internally, and I am pleased that the police commissioner and the Independent Police Complaints Council in Hong Kong have undertaken to do just that.

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Regarding Hong Kong citizens’ fundamental rights and freedoms, the Chinese Government have warned the UK to

“know its place and stop interfering”

in what is a

“purely internal affair”.

Does my right hon. Friend disagree with that assessment, and will he make that clear to the Chinese Government? Will he also make it clear to them that it is perfectly in order for parliamentarians here in the UK to engage on this issue? May I put it on record in this place, Mr Speaker, that UK parliamentarians will not be warned off doing that, no matter what warnings we receive individually?

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They certainly will not be. I am aware of such efforts, as the hon. Lady knows. Such efforts to silence Members of this House are both improper and extremely ill judged, and the sooner their authors realise that, so much the better.

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Indeed, and I hope that I made my views on the matter plain in my opening remarks. I agree with my hon. Friend that China and the United Kingdom are co-signatories and equally responsible for the Sino-British agreement, and we expect our co-signatory to honour it as we have done. In general, I believe that China has attempted to do that, and we will continue to impress on it the importance of that in our discourse with China, as I know the Prime Minister did in Downing Street with China’s Vice Premier on 17 June.

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I very much thank the Minister for what he has said.

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Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) on securing it. The situation in Hong Kong is getting more and more serious by the day. The temporary suspension of the extradition laws was never going to be enough to appease the protesters. Their demonstrations are the culmination of years of frustration and based on the fear of interference by Beijing in Hong Kong affairs. It is time for some significant change.

Yesterday’s vicious attack by a mysterious armed mob on pro-democracy protesters making their way home is a new and sickening low in this sorry chapter. It was nothing less than an attempt to bully and frighten peaceful protesters into submission. The Hong Kong police have come in for a lot of criticism since June for their heavy-handedness and brutality, but they were nowhere to be seen on this occasion, and over 40 people were injured in the attack. Why was it allowed to happen?

Our call for an independent inquiry has so far been met with a less than satisfactory response. I therefore wonder whether the Minister can update the House on the Foreign Secretary’s call for an independent judge-led inquiry into the conduct of the Hong Kong police. We do not know who these people were or who put them up to it, but it is vital to find out. Does the Minister have any information as to the identity of the attackers and from where their orders came?

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I share the hon. Lady’s assessment of the deteriorating political situation in Hong Kong. I also share her revulsion at the scenes we saw on our television screens over the weekend. We have called for an independent inquiry, and we would like to know what the scope of such an inquiry would be. That is important, particularly since the situation is evolving. When we originally called for such an inquiry some time ago, we were presented with certain facts, and we were calling for such an inquiry on the basis of what we knew at that time. Things have changed since then, and different things have happened, and we would like such things, including the weekend’s events, to form part of that inquiry.

This is a rapidly evolving piece, but we need to know to what extent the inquiry will be full, comprehensive and, as the hon. Lady is right to say, independent, which is crucial. It probably is not sufficient simply to have an internal police inquiry, which is what the IPCC would be in a Hong Kong context, and it really does need to involve Hong Kong’s excellent and well-respected judiciary.

I cannot really speculate on the nature of the individuals who are responsible for last night’s attacks, and it would be very premature to do so. Those things would need to be explored in any comprehensive inquiry, and the hon. Lady will understand that it would be unwise and unreasonable to speculate at this stage, although she will have seen the same press reports that I have.

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The Minister is absolutely right to say how much he deeply regrets the events in Tsuen Wan and Yuen Long in particular over the past couple of days. All of us who wish Hong Kong well will be dismayed at what has become the seventh consecutive weekend of protest and violence. In many ways, the proposed extradition bill has become a catalyst for deeper frustrations, and it is clear to all of us that the protesters’ five demands are going to have to be addressed, at least in part. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Hong Kong general chamber of commerce has now come out in favour of two of them—that the Hong Kong Government formally withdraw the extradition bill, even though they have acknowledged that it is effectively dead, and that there is a judge-led commission of inquiry into all the events? If so, does he agree that we should support such calls?

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My hon. Friend is an acknowledged expert in this House on Hong Kong, and the sense of his remarks is pretty spot on. On the extradition Bill being a catalyst for other things, it is a bit like uncorking a bottle. He is right to say that the Bill is important but has brought to a head wider unhappiness in relation to mounting events in Hong Kong. His judgment is spot on in that respect.

My hon. Friend asked about a judge-led commission, and our sense is that an inquiry needs to be independent, and needs to be seen to be independent by the international community. It would be wrong of me, from this Dispatch Box, to ordain the terms of reference of such an inquiry, although, as I have already said, the judiciary in Hong Kong is held in high regard and is generally regarded as being absolutely independent. One is perhaps drawn towards judicial involvement as a way of assuring the international community that these matters, in the fullness of time, will be investigated fully and comprehensively.

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The juxtaposition of this question with the statement later today on the Gulf illuminates what will be an increasingly geostrategic workload for the incoming Administration. The Minister should know that the entire House supports the Government’s standing up to China to ensure the rights of Hong Kongers, as guaranteed in the handover agreement, but if I may say so, previous attempts have been hindered by a lack of wider UK strategy in the Indo-Pacific region to address the weighty issues of the rise of China that our allies have been dealing with for more than a decade. Will the Minister therefore be willing, at some point, to bring forward a China strategy for debate on the Floor of the House, to stop the continual oscillation of successive UK Governments between “fill-yer-boots” appeasement and knee-jerk Trumpianism?

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I think that is very harsh. It is clearly our endeavour to work with the Chinese Government, and it would be bonkers not to do so, wouldn’t it? The hon. Gentleman is tempting me down a road that would cause all sorts of difficulties in trying to advance the human rights issues that he and I both hold dear.

We will be critical of China, if we think it appropriate, but the important thing is to insist on the tenets of the 1984 joint agreement and hold China’s feet to the fire as a co-signatory. We respect that agreement, and I know China would want to respect that agreement if it wants to continue working with the UK on a range of issues and common interests. On that basis, I hope we will move forward.

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Does the Minister agree that the rule of law is essential to the economic stability of Hong Kong? Does he also agree that our definition of the rule of law—the definition generally understood by the international community—is not the one that China always understands?

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I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that working together to ensure prosperity in Hong Kong is vital. On the rule of law, we have to work with a number of systems across the world, and we need to be a little careful about insisting on a particular model. I am proud of our norms and values, and I have no difficulty in trying to inculcate them, but we have to be respectful of our partners. Particularly when engaging on human rights, we need to make it clear where we are coming from and the importance we attach to them, including when we come to strike trade deals. It is perfectly legitimate for such agreements to contain reflections on human rights, but we also have to respect our interlocutors.

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One of the people injured at Yuen Long was a journalist. Just over a week ago, the Government set up a committee to protect journalists, which is clearly very welcome. Will the Minister set out how in future the committee might be able to help journalists in Hong Kong who want to cover this matter impartially?

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The right hon. Gentleman will, I hope, have admired the Foreign Secretary’s personal efforts in respect of media freedom, which came to a head with the conference to which the right hon. Gentleman refers. If it was in doubt before, Britain is now widely respected around the globe as being in the lead on this matter.

On the committee to which the right hon. Gentleman refers, it would be perfectly reasonable for such a body to take a view on the treatment of journalists who had been abused. There is currently a worrying tendency around the world for journalists who are doing their very best to promote an open and transparent society and world order to be abused in the way that they sadly have been in Hong Kong recently, as they have in other parts of the world. I share the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns. It is clearly up to the committee to work out how it is going to do its work, but no doubt it will take note of the particular abuse to which he refers.

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Hong Kong is a peaceful place, but there is growing evidence that the Chinese Government are quite prepared to throw their weight around. If these so-called triads were indeed triads, they would not have just gone around attacking people on the station. That does not happen unless they are instructed to do so. Does the Minister share my concern for the future of the island? If this sort of thing is happening now, what is going to happen in 2047, when the island is handed back to China full-time?

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My hon. Friend is right to say that in 2047 the formal period covered by the Sino-British joint agreement will come to an end. The Government hope that the good practice in that agreement, which we hope will continue during the timeline of this particular agreement, will continue thereafter. In particular, we hope that the commitment to the one country, two state system, and the basic law and everything that is contained within that, including measures to further democracy beyond that which currently exists, will continue. I do not necessarily share my hon. Friend’s pessimism, but there is real benefit in the special status of Hong Kong as far as China is concerned. I very much hope that if China wants Hong Kong to continue to be a place where business is done and foreign revenue is earned, it will insist on the continuation of human rights and democracy, which underpin the uniqueness of Hong Kong to the mutual advantage of Hong Kong and mainland China.

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The Minister will be aware of the horrendous level of artificial intelligence-enhanced digital surveillance under which Chinese citizens, and Uyghur Muslims in particular, are obliged to live. Does he know to what extent that applies to Hong Kong and whether it contravenes elements of the Sino-British agreement? Will he confirm that whoever is the next Prime Minister and however desperate they are for a trade agreement with China, Britain will always stand up for human rights in Hong Kong and China?

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The hon. Lady will forgive me if I do not comment directly on security matters.

On human rights, I hope I made it clear in my opening remarks that human rights and trade and prosperity are two sides of the same coin. I indicated that there is nothing to prevent human rights forming part of any agreement that we might have. That is not to say that any agreement would necessarily contain clauses along those lines, but there is nothing to prevent the United Kingdom from insisting, in such an agreement, on particular measures of the sort that I think she would find very acceptable.

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I am pleased that the Government have suspended the licences for sending riot control equipment to Hong Kong. Are there any indications that our diplomats or, indeed, the media are being restricted in their movements on the island of Hong Kong?

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My hon. Friend is right to say that on 25 June my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary gave an undertaking to ensure that the material to which my hon. Friend refers would not be the subject of any UK licences. Sometimes, the material that has been sold to Hong Kong has been misunderstood. For example, both my hon. Friend and I would agree that bomb disposal equipment and body armour are perfectly reasonable things to export to Hong Kong.

On the freedom of journalists, Hong Kong has been a place within the region where, historically, there has been a free press, and it would be very disturbing if there were a significant reversal of that. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) made reference to the deteriorating political situation in Hong Kong, and, in my answer, I agreed with her—that is my assessment as well. Clearly, that would include the situation with respect to a free press, as it is difficult to see how a deterioration in the way in which journalists go about their business would, in any way, be compatible with political freedom.

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Will the Minister consider referring the worsening democratic deficit in Hong Kong to the United Nations Human Rights Council?

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What I would like to see is greater attention being given to articles 45 and 68 of the Basic Law—that is to say a situation where we can look forward to an election of the Chief Executive and a fully democratic Legislative Assembly. I am an optimist. I would actually like to see democracy in Hong Kong greatly improved in the years ahead, and that has to be our ambition. Unfortunately, the events of the past few days have made that rather less likely.

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Given my right hon. Friend’s comments and the current situation, how has his thoughts changed on advancing democracy in Hong Kong?

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As I said to the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer), I am an optimist and I want to see democracy improved in Hong Kong. I would hope that China agrees that its special nature is good for China, too. It is good for Hong Kong, and it is good for China. It is good for China’s prosperity. Articles 45 and 68 of the Basic Law contain within them the seeds of advancing democracy. That is why they are there and were signed up to by both the Chinese and the UK Governments in 1984. That is where I would like to see the attention focused in the years ahead, running up to the end of the Sino-British agreement. If we can move towards that, I think China will come to see that it is to its advantage, as well as to the advantage of the people of Hong Kong, that we should advance democracy further in Hong Kong rather than see it pulled back. Unfortunately, that is, as the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland said in her remarks, the trajectory that we are on at the moment.

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In light of the increasing aggressiveness of the Chinese Government, the influence that the Chinese Government have had on Hong Kong, and even the Chinese Government’s condemnation of any comment by the UK Government on events in Hong Kong, many people rightly believe that the rights that they thought that they had under the joint declaration are being slowly strangled. The Minister has said that he is going to hold the Chinese Government’s feet to the fire on this issue. Will he tell us in what practical ways that is being done?

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The joint declaration was lodged with the United Nations: the primary cockpit of international affairs and the highest body that we can possibly lodge such an agreement with. The eyes of the international community are on China. It is true to say that, traditionally, China has been fairly reticent about making statements of the sort that the hon. Gentleman was expecting from Beijing, but I hope that I have made it clear in my remarks that we talk constantly with China, with our interlocutors; that we have a good and productive dialogue in the main with Beijing; and that we will continue to enforce the importance of that. That is the way that diplomacy is done. I am confident, because I am an optimist, that China will come to see that its interests, as well as the interests of the people of Hong Kong, are best served by preserving the one country, two systems status that was agreed in 1984.

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My right hon. Friend clearly understands the difference between protests and riots. Is he confident that the Chinese and Hong Kong Governments fully appreciate that distinction?

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It is very important that institutions such as this House and Governments such as the UK Government make it very clear that we see a clear distinction between a legitimate protest—which is something that we would all welcome as part of the way in which we carry out our affairs in a country such as this—and violence, bullying and subjugation of the sort that unfortunately we appear to have seen over the weekend. The two are very different, and it is important that legislatures such as this make that difference very clear indeed, as we are doing today.