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Hong Kong Pro-democracy Activists

Volume 735: debated on Thursday 6 July 2023

(Urgent Question): To ask the Foreign Secretary if he will make a statement on the warrants and bounties issued against pro-democracy activists by Hong Kong national security police.

As the Foreign Secretary set out on Monday in response to this latest egregious action in Hong Kong, we will not tolerate any attempts by the Chinese authorities to intimidate individuals in the UK. The UK will always defend the universal right to freedom of expression and stand up for those who are targeted simply for exercising that right.

We strongly object to the national security law that China imposed on Hong Kong, including its extraterritorial reach, and declared it a breach of the legally binding Sino-British joint declaration when Beijing imposed it on Hong Kong in 2020. Let me be clear: that law has no jurisdiction here. In response to its imposition, the Government acted quickly and decisively to suspend our extradition agreement with Hong Kong indefinitely. We introduced a bespoke immigration route for holders of British national overseas status and their immediate family members, giving nearly 3 million people a path to British citizenship. We welcome the contribution that this growing diaspora makes to life in the UK, as we welcome the contribution of the diaspora with links to mainland China. They are all safe to live here and exercise the same rights and freedoms that all UK residents enjoy.

Three years on from the law’s imposition, we have seen how this opaque and sweeping law has undermined the liberties enshrined in the Sino-British joint declaration and in Hong Kong’s Basic Law. It has seen opposition stifled and dissent criminalised. Alternative voices across Hong Kong’s society have been all but extinguished, and changes to electoral rules have further eroded the ability of Hong Kong’s people to be legitimately represented at all levels of government. Hong Kong’s governance, rights and social systems are now closer to mainland norms.

The Foreign Secretary made plain our views on Hong Kong with Chinese Vice-President Han Zheng on 5 May and at the UN Human Rights Council on 27 February. The Hong Kong authorities are busy trying to attract the world back to Hong Kong following years of political disruption and covid. It is hard to see how that will be successful while they continue to pursue citizens who came out on the streets to do nothing more than to protest peacefully to protect their rights. We call on Beijing to remove the national security law and for China and the Hong Kong authorities to end the targeting of those who stand up for freedom and democracy. We will continue to act as a convening power, bringing together our international partners to stand up for the people of Hong Kong, to call out violations of their rights and freedoms and to hold China to its international obligations.

Finn Lau, Christopher Mung and Nathan Law are three incredibly brave individuals who stood up for democratic values while the Chinese Communist party rode roughshod over them in Hong Kong. They sought refuge in the UK because they thought they would be safe. Chillingly, Beijing is trying to do all it can to interfere in what should be their safe haven.

The Government have rightly said that they will not tolerate this intimidation, but I am afraid their words ring rather hollow. The danger to those individuals on these shores feels all too present. We saw it in Southampton in May, we saw it in Manchester at the consulate last October, and we see it in the reported secret police stations. We need more than just condemnation; we need action. Most urgently, that means ensuring that these individuals are safe. Tragically, Finn and Christopher have said that they do not feel safe. They have asked for a meeting with the Foreign Secretary. Can we have confirmation that that will happen?

Can the Minister clarify that it is illegal to bounty hunt in the UK, and that the Government will actively prosecute those who do? Does she agree with Lord Patten that it is now time for those UK judges who still remain on the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal to resign over this? Will the Government reconsider the Foreign Secretary’s planned visit to Beijing in the light of this blatant escalation by China of transnational repression? Finally, will the Government at last take meaningful action against those involved in these warrants, as well as those intent on snuffing out the flame of democracy in Hong Kong?

It is staggering that after everything that has happened, we are yet to sanction a single individual. Our allies acted years ago. We have existing obligations under the joint declaration, yet too often this Conservative Government choose constructive ambiguity rather than firm lines. What is clear on all sides of this House is that it is time for that to change.

I know the House will understand that as a matter of long-standing policy, we do not comment on the detail of operational matters. I hope colleagues will understand the risk of compromising the integrity of security arrangements for those who are here in the UK. As I say, we will continue to afford them the opportunity for freedom of speech and expression. Discussions are ongoing, but I am not able at the moment to give more details. I hope the hon. Lady will understand that. I am in regular contact, as are officials, with the Minister for Security and the Home Office on this matter.

In relation to the question on judges, they are private citizens. We therefore must allow them to reach their own decision in that particular situation. However, as I said—I will repeat this as many times as anyone wishes me to—I think that all of us in the House and everyone in the UK are clear that the UK will not tolerate any attempts to intimidate or silence individuals here on UK soil, and that we will do all we can to ensure their safety.

The bounties placed on the heads of those fleeing Chinese Communist party repression and autocracy are not just outrageous but a blatant violation of international law. They also expose the lies of Xi Jinping when he says that he is respecting freedoms within Hong Kong. We must take a stand against transnational repression to protect British nationals and those seeking refuge in the UK. Only last week, I wrote to HSBC to argue against how it is appallingly denying Hongkongers access to their own pensions. Given that three people seeking refuge in the UK have now had bounties put on their heads, has the Foreign Secretary or my right hon. Friend the Minister called in the Chinese ambassador this week in response? If not, why not?

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee that these bounties are extraterritorial and therefore have no rights or legitimacy here. As I have stated, we must always protect and allow the voices of those here with us to maintain that freedom of expression.

We speak regularly with Chinese colleagues. In fact, just a few weeks ago I had meetings with the visiting economic secretary and raised these issues—that was obviously before this bounty was raised. We will continue to work closely, including with the embassy, on a number of matters, including this one.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) on bringing forward this important question.

The issuing of these arrest warrants is a further repressive step by the Hong Kong Government. The national security law under which the warrants have been issued is itself a serious breach of the legally binding Sino-British agreement that set the terms for governing Hong Kong until 2047. Beijing’s attempts to bully and intimidate those who have already fled growing repression in Hong Kong are a symbol of the Chinese Government’s attempt to stifle any further dissent and undermine basic freedoms in the territory. They deserve clear and unified condemnation, and it is pleasing to see so many hon. Members in the House showing that.

Given that three of the eight named individuals are based here in the UK, the move by the authorities in Hong Kong will further compound the fears held by the British-based Hong Kong community that they are still not free of the long arm of Chinese state repression. We should be proud of the UK’s role in welcoming people here from Hong Kong to all our communities. We cannot tolerate efforts to harass or intimidate those who have come to the UK fleeing political persecution.

The Minister will know that protection for Hongkongers has been raised repeatedly by Labour. The Foreign Secretary’s dismissive response at the last Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office oral questions was simply not good enough. I will repeat the question asked by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns). Has the Minister met today, or does she intend to meet today, a representative of the Chinese Government here in the UK to underline the feelings in this Parliament? Secondly, will she reassess whether it is in order for sanctions to be placed on leading members of the Hong Kong Government? Thirdly, will the Government grow a backbone and live up to our moral and legal obligations to Hongkongers both here in the UK and in Hong Kong?

The whole House clearly agrees that any attempt by any foreign power to intimidate, harass or indeed harm individuals or our communities in the UK will not be tolerated. This is an insidious threat to our democracy and to those fundamental human rights that the UK always stands up for across the world.

As I said, Home Office officials work closely with the FCDO and other Departments to ensure that the UK is and continues to be a safe and welcoming place for those who choose to settle here. As I said in my statement, the BNO route is now available to up to 3 million, and so far about 160,000—those numbers might not be entirely correct—have taken up the opportunity. The door is very much open. I will also highlight that the Security Minister directed the defending democracy taskforce to review the UK’s approach to transnational repression to ensure that we have the most robust and joined-up response both across Government and with law enforcement, should—sadly—we need to make use of that.

Extending bounties and arrest warrants to people living in this country who have escaped Hong Kong is a particularly chilling extension of the Chinese Communist party’s tentacles across sovereign borders. Frankly, tough words need to be followed by tough actions. Just saying that we will not tolerate this—or we will not tolerate this again—is no deterrent.

Will my right hon. Friend now admit that her sitting down with Liu Jianchao, the head of the Chinese Government’s international liaison department—the chief dissident snatcher who had a role in issuing the warrants—and being photographed sitting next to him smiling, along with five other hon. Members of this House, was a bad idea? It sends out entirely the wrong message to the Chinese Government, which is why they think they can get away with it. When will see real sanctions, the calling back of judges and some real implications for what China is doing, rather than tough words that mean nothing?

As the Foreign Secretary set out in his recent speech on China, we consider it important to engage with our Chinese counterparts, where appropriate, to protect UK interests and to build those relationships. I therefore was comfortable sitting down with Liu Jianchao for a political dialogue when he visited at the invitation of the Great Britain-China Centre, because I believe it is important to have such conversations. In every diplomatic relationship, being frank is possible only if the parties are in the room together. Colleagues will be aware that I was extremely frank with the gentleman in question. He was able to hear directly from an FCDO Minister our many concerns about sanctioned MPs and about Hong Kong. The issues we are discussing today and others were raised. We consider that an important way to maintain the conversation.

On this latest, very worrying situation on bounties, most importantly we want to ensure the safety, security and freedom of expression of those who choose to be here, so that they are able to express their views clearly on these matters. As colleagues know, when the national security law was brought in, we declared that it was a breach of the Sino-British joint declaration. We continue to raise those issues to see whether they can be resolved, but we do not feel confident at the moment.

Using the Chinese national security law, authorities are seeking to prosecute critics of Hong Kong anywhere in the world. Extraterritorial warrants with outrageous bounties have now been issued for eight pro-democracy activists, former lawmakers and legal scholars, who have been attacked for speaking out against Chinese actions and campaigning for sanctions. At least three are known to live in the UK. If caught, they could face life sentences in China.

I welcome the Government’s suspension of the extradition treaty with Hong Kong, but after the incidents in Manchester and Southampton, how can those pro-democracy activists be protected? What actions are the Government taking to break up the secret police units across the UK? With China having broken every single commitment and guarantee to Hong Kong, what action will the Government actually take against China?

I have said it but I am happy to reiterate. Colleagues rightly have concerns for the safety of those on British soil, and we provide them that freedom of expression. I will not discuss ongoing operational matters, but the FCDO and the Home Office are working closely together on these matters, and will continue to do so.

I am extremely disturbed to hear that His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is passing on details of new bank accounts opened by Chinese people and Hongkongers in the UK to the Chinese Government as part of anti-money laundering efforts. Will my right hon. Friend please work with the Treasury to make sure that that loophole is not exploited by the Chinese Government, putting exposed Chinese people and Hongkongers here in the UK in danger?

I would be pleased to catch up with my hon. Friend after this urgent question to discuss that matter more fully. Absolutely, I will take it up with urgency.

There is a clear and present danger from the Chinese Government not just to the citizens of Hong Kong, but to citizens here in the United Kingdom. Is it not about time that we realised the pernicious influence of China on this country and Europe? With China having so many investments and so much influence in this country, is it not about time that we took sanctions against it—really rugged ones—because that is the only thing they will listen to. When will the Government act?

As colleagues know, we do not discuss potential future sanctions, as that could reduce their ability to have the impact we wish them to.

The Minister said that the United Kingdom will not tolerate these latest egregious acts and that they are a real threat to human rights. I note that she says she will not discuss future possible sanctions, but having been a Foreign Office sanctions Minister, may I ask her this specific question? Looking at the will of Parliament, will she ask the sanctions team to consider whether, given the real threat to human rights, the criteria passed by Parliament have been met, and update the House within the next 14 days?

It is always nice to have the chance to discuss sanctions with a former sanctions Minister. It is one of the most extraordinarily complex but impactful tools that the FCDO has to make clear the UK’s views and direction. I will happily take my hon. Friend’s comments away. The work is constant and ongoing. We have more than doubled the team in the sanctions directorate in the last year, but we will not discuss any new sanctions that might be brought forward.

Will the Minister tell the House what discussions she has had with the US and Australia about co-ordinating an Interpol early warning system to protect pro-democracy activists overseas?

Officials have regular conversations with allies and partners around the world. They work with Interpol to ensure that rules that need to be maintained are and to ensure that we can use international powers to protect those here from extra-territorial reach.

This recent development is yet another example of China’s outrageous disregard of fundamental human rights and freedoms. One can hardly imagine how the decent, honourable and brave young man Nathan Law is feeling now, a young man I had the privilege of meeting in this place. He and others affected need to know that we are doing everything we can to defend their freedoms. I am sure our like-minded international partners feel the same. What is the UK doing to show leadership following this announcement, and to work with our international partners to stand up for the people of Hong Kong, call out this particular violation of their rights and freedoms, and hold China to its international obligations?

My hon. Friend is always a champion and a strong voice. I thank her for the support she gives to those who are feeling under great strain. Some challenges remain. We suspended our extradition agreement with Hong Kong in July 2020, but 13 countries have still not done so, despite the national security law being brought in. They include two European countries, Czech Republic and Portugal, and 11 others, including Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea and India. We continue to work closely with them to ask that they reconsider their position so that those who need to be able to maintain their freedom of expression in their countries can do so safely.

My constituent Carlos Auyeung has written to me about significant distress and fear in the Hongkonger community caused by the exerting of extraterritorial enforcement on British soil, saying that it requires immediate attention and action. I listened carefully to the Minister’s responses to my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) and the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), both of whom asked her to call representatives of the Chinese Embassy in London into the Foreign Office to dress them down about the matter. She just did not answer their question. Will she answer it now, so that the House can be better informed?

The Foreign Secretary has many meetings during the week. I will take away that question, and I am sure that Foreign Office Ministers will have heard of the importance of these matters. We will continue our ongoing discussions, but we will also ensure that these concerns, which, rightly, are so clearly heard, are included in our annual human rights report, which will be published—I want to say “next week”, but I think the correct term is “imminently”, just in case the printers do not produce it on time—and in which China will, sadly, feature.

Last Thursday I had the privilege of meeting members of Hong Kong Watch, including representatives of the 3,000 BNOs who have recently come to settle in Warrington. What was very plain was the fear that they felt for the family members, many of them elderly, whom they had left behind in Hong Kong. They are now unable to return to see those family members. They requested that I ask the Minister to assure the House that she will continue to push for progress on human rights in China and particularly in Hong Kong, including the right to freedom of expression. Can she send that message to members of the BNO community in Warrington?

It is heartening to know that Members on both sides of the House are so closely involved with the BNOs who are coming to the UK to make their new homes here, and I thank my hon. Friend for his commitment to that. I can assure him that the Government will continue to make clear our disagreement with—in fact, our shocked objection to—the national security law and the impact it is having on freedoms.

This clearly constitutes a dangerous escalation of Beijing’s global war on dissent. Can the Minister confirm that it is illegal to issue and pursue bounties in the UK and that the UK Government will be actively seeking the prosecution of anyone who aims to take them up, and can she tell us what the UK Government’s thinking is in relation to financial sanctions targeting those in government in Hong Kong, about which she has been less than clear during this session? I find it concerning that she has also been less than clear about her intentions in respect of meeting officials and conveying the deep unhappiness of Members about this matter, and our significant concern for Hongkongers in the UK.

I can of course confirm that extranational bounties have no validity here. We have no extradition treaty with Hong Kong, because we have suspended it indefinitely, so there is no reach to those people here. Any attempt by a foreign power to intimidate, harass or harm individuals in the UK will not be tolerated. As I have said, the Security Minister is working through the defending democracy taskforce to review our approach, and to ensure that we have all the robust tools that we need to protect those who are here.

Last week I met a constituent who was deeply concerned about the erosion of democracy in Hong Kong. Will the Minister assure me, and the House, that the UK will always defend the universal right to freedom of expression, and stand up for those who are targeted in Hong Kong and around the world by China?

My hon. Friend is entirely right, and I give him that absolute assurance. I hope that when the human rights report is published shortly, all those who wish to read it will see clearly just how seriously the UK takes its obligations.

Bounties for people are the stuff of films, not the stuff of real life in this United Kingdom. However, the despicable behaviour of the Chinese Communist party towards those who dare to dissent from its thinking and to request freedom and liberty has become the norm. The world is united alongside those from Hong Kong who espouse and wish to enjoy freedom of expression. What further steps can the House, our Government and our Secretary of State take to support those Hongkongers who live in the United Kingdom? We have a moral obligation to speak up for them and not to be silent.

We continue to call on Beijing to remove the national security law and, indeed, on the Hong Kong authorities to end their targeting of those who stand up for freedom and democracy in the country. The terrible step this week will simply ensure that we continue to make it clear categorically, through our engagement in the UK and across our international partnerships, that we all stand for freedom of speech and expression for all citizens across Hong Kong.