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Hong Kong Update

Volume 736: debated on Thursday 13 July 2023

With permission Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to update the House on recent developments in Hong Kong.

Last week, I came to the House to speak on the egregious arrest warrants and bounties issued by the Hong Kong police against eight individuals for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Some of those individuals now reside in the UK. As I said at the time, that is completely unacceptable. Since then, the authorities in Hong Kong have taken further steps to silence and intimidate those individuals by targeting their families and alleged associates who remain in Hong Kong.

Last week, five individuals were arrested by the Hong Kong police. On Monday, family members of one of the named individuals, Nathan Law, were detained for questioning by the Hong Kong police, and have since been released. That is a very worrying development. It is a campaign of fear intended to intimidate and silence those who seek to speak out peacefully against oppression and the erosion of rights and freedoms. It is a choice that the Hong Kong authorities have taken, no doubt emboldened by the Chinese Government’s imposition of the national security law. It will only further damage Hong Kong’s international reputation and standing.

The UK declared the national security law a breach of the Sino-British joint declaration, and brought together the international community to condemn its imposition. We introduced the bespoke visa route for British nationals overseas. Hongkongers have since made the UK their home and are making a valuable contribution to our communities. We suspended the UK-Hong Kong extradition treaty immediately and indefinitely. We also announced the extension to Hong Kong of the arms embargo that has applied to mainland China since 1989, as updated in 1998.

I would like to make it exceptionally clear that we will not tolerate attempts by the Chinese or Hong Kong authorities to intimidate or silence any individuals in the UK. Any attempt by any foreign power to intimidate, harass or harm individuals or communities in the UK will not be tolerated. That is an insidious threat to our democracy and fundamental human rights.

On 3 July, the Foreign Secretary called on the Hong Kong authorities to end their targeting of those who stand up for freedom and democracy. They have not heeded that call. At the instruction of the Foreign Secretary, his senior official will formally protest recent actions by the Hong Kong authorities with the Chinese ambassador. We have consistently made clear our objections to the Beijing-imposed national security law with the Chinese Government, and will continue to do so. It has stifled opposition and criminalised dissent. The authorities claim that it has brought stability to Hong Kong, but what it has really done is stifle the unique character of the city, diminishing its pluralism and vibrancy. If that course of action continues, it will alienate business and the city’s international financial status will be at risk.

The Hong Kong and Chinese authorities repeatedly condemn comments in this House and by the Government as interfering in their internal affairs. As a co-signatory to the joint declaration, we have the right to make clear our position. We will not be deterred from doing that. We will also make it clear that, as a co-signatory to that declaration, China is breaching agreements that it signed up to uphold. The national security law should never have been imposed in 2020, and should be removed. The independent UN Human Rights Council concurred with that in its report on Hong Kong last year, as have many of our partners in the international community. No one living in the UK should feel inhibited by that law in any way. We will always stand up for the right of freedom of expression.

This is not what the UK wants for Hong Kong’s future. Hong Kong’s way of life, prosperity and stability rely on respect for fundamental freedoms, an independent judiciary and the rule of law. We will continue 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. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Minister for advance sight of her statement.

Once again, we are here in response to the actions of the Chinese Government in flagrant breach of the legally binding promises under the Sino-British agreement. The handover agreement promised Hong Kong certain liberties and freedoms, with a clear separation between the judicial systems of Hong Kong and the mainland, and the expectation of a move towards full democracy and universal suffrage for the election of a chief executive in the territory of Hong Kong. However, those freedoms have now been comprehensively eroded, with the system in Hong Kong barely distinguishable from that on the mainland and the levels of repression ever increasing.

The implementation of the national security law is only truly beginning to be felt. It is clear that Beijing is attempting to ensure that its writ is felt not just in Hong Kong but around the world. Just days after the announcement of arrest warrants for Hongkongers abroad—including some who have sought refuge here in the UK—the Chinese Government have again demonstrated their intent to harass and intimidate those who bravely resist their steady erosion of the rights promised to the people of Hong Kong in 1997.

This latest move is particularly chilling. Targeting activists’ families is a sinister step, and it is incumbent on us to renew our condemnation of those actions as one unified voice across this House. However, it is not a surprising move, given that the actions of the Chinese Government have been ratcheting up in the past year, including the beating of demonstrators outside the consulate in Manchester, the bellicose language used against the state’s opponents and growing accusations of Chinese espionage in the UK. The fear of the many thousands of Hongkongers who have come to this country to seek safety is growing. The knowledge that their families in Hong Kong are seen as fair game by the authorities there demands stringent and urgent action.

It is over a year since I first urged the Foreign Secretary to bring about cross-Government work to ensure the safety of Hong Kong dissidents here. We have had two further urgent questions on that point, but today I do not believe the House is satisfied by the Government’s actions. The complacency cannot continue, given the reports that a Chinese spy attended a briefing here in Parliament just this week. Could the Minister clarify her assessment of that urgent situation? Given the activities of the last week, will she outline what consideration she has given to a sanctioning regime that fits the ratcheting up of pressure on dissidents and those trying to live their lives here in the UK in safety?

There are steps that the Government should and could take today to send a clear signal to Beijing that those actions will not be tolerated. The Minister should take them. I said it last week and I will say it again: it is time for the Government to grow a backbone.

I thank the hon. Lady for her support. I think we are all in agreement in our condemnation of the behaviour we are seeing. On the security of individuals here, colleagues will understand that it is a matter of long-standing policy not to comment on the detail of any operational matters. We would not wish to compromise the integrity of arrangements being put into place, which might impact the security of those whose safety we are looking to provide. As the hon. Lady said, reports of political interference in the UK and here in Parliament are very concerning, and we take them seriously. Of course, the security of the parliamentary estate is a matter for Parliament, and I would not wish to try to answer that on behalf of Mr Speaker.

I must say it is quite ironic that this morning I was granted a UQ about this very issue, only to find minutes later that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office had decided it had a statement to make. I assumed it was going to say something really important, but I should have known better.

It has taken 11 days for the Foreign Office to come to the Dispatch Box—11 days after the bounties were placed on the heads of eight people, three of whom are here in the United Kingdom. Nathan Law’s family had their house raided and were taken into the police station. I do not know how much more we need to know about what is going on in Hong Kong and the abuses to take some action.

I have some very simple questions to ask my right hon. Friend. Will the Foreign Secretary finally meet Nathan Law, Finn Lau and Chris Mung, the three people the FCDO have refused to meet throughout the whole time they have been here escaping the clutches of the security forces in Hong Kong? Why will it not meet them? Will the Government now sanction John Lee, the chief executive of Hong Kong? America has sanctioned something like 10 officials in Hong Kong. We were the ones who jointly ran the place and we have sanctioned zero people. Let us get something going here to show them what is going on.

Will the Government tell us whether they are able to block Interpol red notices for Hongkongers from third countries? That is vital—they are scared stiff about what will happen to them if they move anywhere. After the lack of support for Jimmy Lai—who is a British citizen, not a joint national, and the Government will not simply say that—do not the Government agree that our approach to joint nationality now needs to change? We need to be clear that British citizens have the right to be protected by us.

It is time we stopped worrying about upsetting the Chinese Government, and started defending those who are in our protection and representing British citizens properly. It is time to act, not come here to make fake statements.

I am pleased that we were able to make a statement. The question in an urgent question is always to ask whether a Department will make a statement. I am pleased that Mr Speaker granted me the opportunity to do just that, so we can, for the second time in two weeks, sadly, discuss these entirely shocking and unacceptable behaviours by the Chinese Government.

In answer to my right hon. Friend’s questions, on sanctions, as the House knows too well—sadly, as we have to sanction often, we say this often—it is not appropriate for me to speculate on who may be designated in future, so as to avoid reducing the impact of any designations. We will continue to keep all issues of potential individual or enterprise sanctions under review. That relates not just to China, but to all such countries across the world. As colleagues know, we are using our sanctions powers extensively to ensure we degrade as much as we can Putin’s illegal war.

On Mr Lai, who is a dual British national, I have raised, as do our teams in Beijing, consular access for Mr Lai. The challenge we are faced with is that under the Vienna convention it is for the resident country to determine whether a dual national is entitled to that. Sadly, in China and Hong Kong, it is not given. We continue to press for that. The Foreign Secretary, the consulate and I raise that question and the health and safety of others at every opportunity.

I am grateful to the Minister for advance sight of the statement, although I would have liked it to have gone a bit further. However, I think we are all in agreement that the imposition of the bounties is an unacceptable and dangerous precedent, as is the barely veiled threat to the families of the Hong Kong activists living abroad. That is also intolerable.

On behalf of my party, I welcome that the Governments of the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia have all called for the bounties to be withdrawn. We support those calls. We remain deeply concerned by the continuing erosion of Hong Kong’s fundamental rights, freedoms and autonomy. The disturbing and worrying announcement of the bounties can be seen as the most drastic law enforcement action since the initial arrests that followed the introduction of the national security law in June 2020. Already, the eight activists are living in self-imposed exile, and the announcement of warrants and bounties makes their lives immediately all the more stressful. I hope that the Minister can help to reduce some of that stress.

Can the Minister confirm that it is illegal to issue and pursue bounties in the UK and that the Government will prosecute anyone who takes up those bounties? Can the Minister confirm whether the UK will co-operate with Australia and the US on an Interpol early warning system to protect pro-democracy activists living overseas? When the bounties were issued 10 days ago, the UK Government did not summon the Chinese ambassador to express their concerns face to face. Why did they not do so at that time? I am also concerned about the lack of Government action on holding Hong Kong and Chinese officials accountable for their ongoing crackdown on human rights. When will Ministers finally sanction those responsible, such as Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee?

We work very closely with our international partners on all those matters, including on sanctions, through international forums where we can work together to use the tools that are available for us to do that. We will be working with them on how Interpol may be able to assist. We absolutely condemn the bounties. There is no authority for any of the bounties on citizens or anyone in the UK. They have no validity and we absolutely—I will say it again—condemn them. We ask that they be removed, that all those who have had these targets put on them can understand that that is not the case, and that the intimidation and harassment of their friends and family stop immediately. As I say, the Foreign Secretary has asked a senior official to call in the Chinese ambassador. We will, I hope, be able to provide an update to the House next week during oral questions.

Another Thursday, another opportunity to condemn China missed by the Government. I am afraid that the Minister has just parroted the words of the Foreign Secretary when he said:

“We will not tolerate any attempts by China to intimidate and silence individuals in the UK”.

Since when China’s Foreign Ministry has accused the UK of “harbouring criminals”, since when the Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee has said that the democracy activists they want to arrest should be treated like “rats in the street”, and since when, two days ago, the family of Nathan Law were arrested and intimidated, on top of everything else.

When I and six parliamentary colleagues were sanctioned in this House just for speaking in defence of Uyghurs and Tibetans, we had our assets in China frozen—if they could find them. Chinese Government officials have said and done so much worse, so why has not one of them in Hong Kong been sanctioned? Why has none of them in Hong Kong had their assets frozen? Why have we not suspended the remaining extradition treaties with Hong Kong, let alone called in the ambassador to tell him face to face that this is completely unacceptable and there will be implications? When this morning the Intelligence and Security Committee concluded that the UK has no strategy to tackle the threat posed by Beijing, it was right, wasn’t it?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I have not had a chance to read the ISC’s report, which I understand has come out this morning, but I will do so and, with officials, assess the statements made. My hon. Friend is a long-standing and incredibly brave advocate for those who find themselves under duress in China, and his campaigning for the Uyghurs is commendable.

Both the Foreign Secretary and I raise at every meeting we have the matter of MPs in this House who are sanctioned by the Chinese Government, and we ask that those sanctions be lifted. It is an unacceptable situation. The wider challenge around the national security law, which we continue to call to be lifted, is simply that it highlights the unacceptability of the Hong Kong authorities’ decision to target leading pro-democracy figures who are here under the safety that the UK provides them with. We continue to make those objections absolutely clear. Indeed, diplomats—our team from the consulate general in Hong Kong—attend NSL47 court proceedings and will continue to do so, despite the limitations on their ability to do that.

The lyrics from “Glory to Hong Kong” say:

“For Hong Kong, may freedom reign”.

Unfortunately, that freedom is increasingly threatened not just in Hong Kong but, as is seen with the bounties issued on Nathan Law, Finn Lau and many others, for Hongkongers in the UK. I am shocked that the Minister did not choose to respond on why it is that they have not yet met Nathan Law and Finn Lau. I hope she will come to the Dispatch Box to explain why that is and when Ministers will meet them. What, if any, additional immediate and practical steps will the Government take to protect the Hong Kong community in our country from further attempts by Beijing to target them? If the Government are not going to issue any sanctions, at least keep the Hongkongers who are in this country safe.

I think we are all agreed that that is exactly what we want. Indeed, our police and security authorities do that, and have done so successfully, for many vulnerable groups whenever it is required. As I said, I will not discuss anything that may be in place for the particular British nationals overseas who are here, and the three in particular who are bravely speaking up and using their voices to challenge, so that we cannot in any way compromise the integrity of the support that is being provided.

My right hon. Friend will know that I have long taken an interest in strategic thinking in Government, where there is widely perceived to be a lack of capability and consistency. That is underlined by the ISC report that came out today. It states:

“While we sought to examine whether the Government’s strategy for dealing with such a large adversary was up to the task, they”—

that is, all the witnesses—

“felt very strongly that HMG did not have any strategy on China, let alone an effective one, and that it was singularly failing to deploy a ‘whole-of-government’ approach when countering the threat from China—a damning appraisal indeed.”

Will the Minister contribute to the Liaison Committee’s inquiry into the scrutiny of national strategy and strategic thinking of Government, which we are now undertaking?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. As I say, over the weekend, I will read in detail the report from a Committee that always has a depth of wisdom, because it includes those who have spent many years in this House and who understand the workings of our democracy and Parliament. We will continue to work with it, but I dispute that there is not clarity. The Foreign Secretary’s speech at Chatham House a few months ago set out a very clear framework around protecting our assets, aligning our interests where we can, engaging on many issues—many of which will be beyond our borders—and working together on issues such as development and climate change challenges. That was very clear. The integrated review refresh, which was published a couple of months ago, set out in more detail what that means. We have a clear direction of travel in which we are very comfortable working, and the whole of Government is aligning around that to deliver positives, where necessary, and to protect UK interests as required.

This is indeed a sorry state of affairs. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) reminded us that the Government said last week:

“we will not tolerate any attempts by the Chinese authorities to intimidate individuals in the UK.”—[Official Report, 6 July 2023; Vol. 735, c. 946.]

May I press the Government a little further on what specifically we are doing, or have done? For instance, what discussions has the Foreign Office had with Five Eyes and, possibly, European partners regarding the cancellation of extradition treaties with Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China, and the proper establishment of a safe corridor for pro-democracy activists overseas? We need to get to the core of this issue.

The Government and those from the FCDO more widely have discussions with our Five Eyes partners on a regular basis about all these matters, as the House would expect. As I say, on a domestic level, I would not want to put any of those we are looking to provide protection for at risk. Obviously, the Home Office deals with all those matters on a domestic level.

On the extradition treaties, there are, I think, only two European countries that have not suspended their extradition treaty with Hong Kong. Others have, and we continue always to lobby, across all our posts and in our discussions, for other countries to ensure that they also hold China to account for the national security law.

Hongkongers make a contribution to communities up and down the UK, including in my constituency. It is outrageous that they should face any intimidation from the Chinese Government. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the conversations that there have been about Chinese overseas police service stations in this country? That has been raised in the House before. Does she have a categorical assurance that they are no longer functioning in the UK?

I thank my hon. Friend for his questions. The reports of undeclared police stations in parts of the UK were very concerning and were taken very seriously, because any foreign country operating on UK soil must always abide by UK law. The police have done a substantial amount of work and have examined those allegations. They have not, to date, identified any evidence of illegal activity, but none the less, these so-called police service stations were established without our permission. Their presence, whatever the low level of administrative activity they were performing, has worried and intimidated many who have left China and sought safety here in the UK. We have made it clear to the Chinese authorities that the existence of undeclared sites in the UK is unacceptable and that their operation must cease. The Chinese authorities have confirmed that they have now been closed.

I recently met the Leeds Hong Kong community, who raised a number of concerns about their personal safety and security, as well as research by Hong Kong Watch estimating that more than £2.2 billion of Hongkongers’ pension savings has been detained by the Hong Kong Government, including funds held by UK-headquartered HSBC. What work has been done to ensure that pensioners, including BNOs and British citizens, regain their pensions from HSBC? Have the Government considered imposing fines on HSBC for non-compliance?

We are aware of the difficulties that BNOs are experiencing in seeking the early withdrawal of their pensions, which are held by the Mandatory Provident Fund in Hong Kong. We have urged the Hong Kong authorities to facilitate the early drawdown of those funds, especially for Hong Kong residents who have moved overseas permanently. The challenge, and the root of the problem, comes from the Chinese Government’s decision not to recognise the BNO passport, thereby creating the clear discrimination against BNOs. I have raised this matter personally with the Hong Kong Secretary for Financial Services. The Foreign Secretary has raised it in his discussions as well, and we will continue to do that. I have spoken with banks that are contained by those laws in that jurisdiction.

Threatening the families of Hong Kong pro-democracy campaigners living in the UK is beyond reprehensible, but we know that the Chinese Government are sending out warnings. Will the Minister explain to me what the Chinese Government are so afraid of?

The challenge we are seeing—the bounties placed on those who have chosen to seek safety here in the UK in order to continue using their voice to express their concerns—is something that the Chinese authorities wish to pursue. We condemn absolutely, and will continue to do so, their use of those tools. They have no validity here in the UK, and we will continue to raise the threatening behaviour that has been seen towards the family members of those who are here in the UK for their safety. When the Foreign Secretary’s senior official meets the Chinese ambassador, these issues will be raised very clearly.