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Trial of Jimmy Lai

Volume 742: debated on Monday 18 December 2023

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs what steps he is taking to support Jimmy Lai during his trial and if he will call for his immediate and unconditional release.

The Foreign Secretary has called on the Hong Kong authorities to end their prosecution of Jimmy Lai and release him. He also urged the Chinese authorities to repeal the national security law and end the prosecution of all individuals charged under it. The Foreign Secretary and I welcomed the opportunity to meet Mr Lai’s son, Sebastien, again last week and to listen to his concerns as the trial approached.

As the Foreign Secretary has made clear, Mr Lai’s prosecution is politically motivated. He has faced multiple charges to discredit and silence him. As an outspoken journalist and publisher, he has been targeted in a clear attempt to stop the peaceful exercise of his rights to freedom of expression and association. The Foreign Secretary raised Mr Lai’s prosecution with Foreign Minister Wang Yi on 5 December, as his predecessor did in Beijing on 30 August. We will continue to press for Mr Lai’s release with the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities.

Diplomats from our consulate general attended court today as a visible sign of the UK’s support, and they will continue to do so. We will continue to press for consular access to Mr Lai, which the Hong Kong prison authorities have repeatedly refused. China considers anyone of Chinese heritage born in China to be a Chinese national. It does not recognise other nationalities and therefore considers Mr Lai to be exclusively Chinese.

More broadly, we have made it clear that the national security law has damaged Hong Kong and its way of life. Rights and freedoms have been significantly eroded and arrests under the law have silenced opposition voices. It is a clear breach of the Sino-British joint declaration, the legally binding UN-registered treaty that China willingly entered into. Its continued existence and use is a demonstration of China breaking its international commitments. 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 thank my right hon. Friend for her response.

Jimmy Lai is and has always been a full British citizen and he has never held a Chinese passport, and therefore he should have been publicly recognised by the Government some time ago. However, I welcome the change in rhetoric by the Foreign Secretary, who said today that

“Jimmy Lai is a British citizen”

and called on the Chinese Government to release him. I am pleased that there seems to have been a shift in policy. Notwithstanding that, I and hon. Friends have raised the issue of his citizenship with the Foreign Office to no avail, until now.

At the heart of the issue lies the Sino-British agreement. I recall that at the time of its signing, the ambassador in Beijing, Percy Cradock, said of China’s leaders that they may be “thuggish dictators” but that they were “men of their word” and could be

“trusted to do what they promise”.

How history always shows us wrong. We cannot trust thuggish dictators, and they have trashed the Sino-British agreement without so much as a by-your-leave. Instead, we now have political persecution, destruction of press freedoms, forced confessions and the targeting of foreign nationals as a matter of course. The national security law is the key, because it has been stripping away their rights, and particularly those of Jimmy Lai, who faces a lifetime in prison.

A new axis of totalitarian states has formed, including China, North Korea, Russia, Iran and Syria. We must be on our toes and realise that their target is democracy itself. Given that, will the Government reconsider their words in the integrated review and reinstate the idea that China is a systemic threat, not just to us but to the very values that we seek?

I must tell the Government that an individual already known to me and some others is being used in the persecution of Jimmy Lai. We know that he has been tortured to give evidence, so, clearly, his evidence cannot be relied on. In the light of that, will the Government give a commitment today that if and when UK or other citizens are targeted through the evidence at Jimmy Lai’s trial, concrete actions will be taken to protect them, and that we will do so by working with our allies, including the US, Japan, and others in Europe? This is a very serious issue and it may yet erupt.

Will the Government now sanction John Lee and others responsible for Hong Kong’s national security law? After all, the US has sanctioned 10 people and we have sanctioned none. Are the UK Government considering how to allow Hong Kong asylum applications to switch to British National (Overseas) applications to save all the heartache? As we approach Christmas, Mr Speaker, this brave and devoted Christian will—

Order. I am sorry, but the right hon. Gentleman is way, way over time. I am sure that other hon. Members will bring in the other points.

I think we all agree with my right hon. Friend that the breaching of the Sino-British joint declaration is a great tragedy. As the Foreign Secretary set out, the national security law, which we are calling on the Hong Kong authorities to repeal, is breaching so many of those values that we understood that China was willing to maintain with Hong Kong after 1997.

My right hon. Friend mentions the integrated review refresh, in which the Prime Minister set out very clearly our perspective, which is that we consider China to be an epoch-defining challenge. It then sets out in great detail a number of areas of concern around China and economic coercive activity. We continue to work closely with the G7 and other partners around the world to tackle that and to work together to try to persuade China to reverse some of those policies.

Importantly—I say this a lot at the Dispatch Box as the sanctions Minister—I listen very closely, as do all of us here and our officials in the Foreign Office, on all issues related to potential future sanctions. We continue to look at those under the global human rights sanctions regulations in this arena, but we do not speculate about future sanctions designations, because of course that could reduce their impact.

The ongoing detention of Jimmy Lai, a British citizen, is a stark symbol of the decline of Hong Kong’s freedoms and China’s flagrant disregard for the legally binding Sino-British agreement, which promised a high degree of autonomy for Hongkongers for 50 years. Jimmy Lai’s trial is a further chapter in the erosion of the liberties promised then to the people of Hong Kong.

My right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary and I have met Jimmy’s son, Sebastien, regularly and made unequivocally clear Labour’s position that Jimmy must be released immediately and that the national security law under which he is being charged is abhorrent. I welcome the intervention by the new Foreign Secretary as Mr Lai’s trial begins today, but there must be sustained interest by the Government, in a way that has been sorely lacking until now.

We cannot sit idly by while British citizens experience a politically motivated trial and the authorities attempt to stifle freedom of expression. I urge the Minister to give a firm commitment right here that the Foreign Secretary’s intervention will not be a one-off, and that the Government will follow Labour’s lead in sustained, consistent and full-throated support for Mr Lai and his legal counsel, and in putting the freedoms promised to the people of Hong Kong at the top of her agenda.

As the Minister both for the Indo-Pacific region—China and Hong Kong are in my purview—and for sanctions, the issues of Jimmy Lai and others held in this way are very much at the top of my agenda. They always have been and always will remain so.

I have met Sebastien Lai on a number of occasions this year, and have worked closely with him and his team to understand the situation and to look at the support that we can provide. The frustration is that we are not able to provide consular access, because we are not allowed to visit him in prison. The Foreign Secretary set out yesterday that he has called for Jimmy Lai’s release, and we will continue to sustain that throughout the trial. At the moment, we expect the trial to last some 80 days, so we expect to see it wrap up in the summer. We will be working very closely with like-minded partners—US, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, European and Swiss representatives were also in court today—to make it clear that we all have one view, which is that this is a trial from which Jimmy Lai needs to be released.

I am interested in the question of Mr Lai’s nationality status. If he is a full British citizen, will my right hon. Friend confirm whether Hong Kong has unilaterally withdrawn consular rights for foreign missions to visit their citizens in prison, or is that specifically the case for those imprisoned under the national security law? Whichever it is, could she confirm that the Foreign Office has done everything possible to ensure that the Hong Kong Government realise that those rights of access for our citizens should not be violated lightly?

My hon. Friend is right that consular access should, in an ideal world, be provided to all those who find themselves in prison, whatever the country. The frustrating fact is that it is up to a country—not specifically China—whether it considers dual nationality acceptable. Obviously, we will consider such a dual national British; they will have a British passport. We have absolutely done everything, and we continue to ask for consular access for Jimmy Lai. I was able to help him get a new passport earlier in the year because his old one had run out; we worked with the Home Office to ensure that. We are very comfortable and certain that he is indeed a British citizen, but as I set out, the Hong Kong authorities consider a Hong Kong national born in mainland China to be a Chinese citizen—hence their view on dual nationality, and the impossibility of our authorities visiting him in prison at the moment.

I thank the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for securing this urgent question, and Lord Alton, Baroness Kennedy and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for their continuing and unwavering support for Jimmy Lai, who, as a UK national, is entitled to expect much more support from the Government than he has thus far received.

A 76-year-old pro-democracy campaigner in ailing health has been imprisoned for more than 1,000 days on trumped-up charges, yet it was only yesterday that his Government finally called for him to be released. I hope that I have misunderstood the Minister, but are we to believe that the UK’s influence is so diminished that we cannot get access to Mr Lai in prison? Will she detail what practical support is being given to him now that his show trial has started, and will she give a cast-iron guarantee that, in the event that Beijing gets the verdict that it is looking for, the Government will proactively come to this House to make a statement on what action they intend to take, rather than having it dragged out of them through another urgent question?

I will not reiterate my previous answer on the subject of consular access and the challenges that we face in being able to support Jimmy Lai in that way. I reiterate the hon. Member’s point that many colleagues across the House have been ardent champions and supporters of Jimmy Lai, and indeed of his family as they seek to ensure that his case is understood across the world. We will continue to call for Jimmy Lai’s release. The national security law needs to be repealed. Those are messages that we will continue to highlight with the authorities at every possible opportunity.

Can I thank you personally, Mr Speaker, for granting today’s urgent question? The pantomime trial of Jimmy Lai is just the tip of a huge iceberg of the Chinese Communist party’s industrial-scale abuse of human rights and indifference to the international rule of law. Today, Parliaments around the world are expressing their solidarity with Jimmy Lai and the oppressed, freedom-loving people of Hong Kong, but there must be consequences. It is no good just monitoring human rights sanctions across the globe; my right hon. Friend has had years to name some of the legal and other officials of the Chinese Government who are undermining and abusing human rights as we speak. When will we see action, and what is she doing to address the concerns about the continual erosion of the judicial process in Hong Kong, and the involvement there of British judges? We need action, not constant warm words.

We continue to use sanctions tools across the piece at every opportunity where the evidence comes to us and we can use it, bearing in mind that, as we always say—I am sorry that it is frustrating for colleagues—we will never discuss potential future sanctions designations, because it could reduce their impact. We will always listen to and look closely at the evidence brought to us, and indeed at the work that our teams across the world do, to try to bring to bear our sanctions regimes against the human rights violations that we are seeing.

Sadly, as we predicted, the people of Hong Kong have seen their freedoms systematically eroded since the national security law was introduced in 2020. Pro-democracy activists such as Jimmy Lai have been detained, public libraries have been emptied of books seen as promoting so-called bad ideologies and the recent “patriots only” local elections saw opposition candidates banned from standing. Can the Minister please explain how the UK Government plan to uphold their commitment to human rights and freedom for all Hongkongers?

The hon. Lady is right; it has been tragic to see the disintegration of all those freedoms, which, when both countries signed up to the Sino-British joint declaration, we considered that China would stand by. Of course, when we saw the national security law coming in, we responded very quickly and decisively, in particular with the new immigration path for British national overseas passport holders, so that we could provide that security for those who felt under most stress. We also suspended the extradition treaty with Hong Kong indefinitely to provide protection for those people and we have extended our arms embargo on mainland China to cover Hong Kong. This is a tragic situation, and we will continue to call for change and for the Hong Kong authorities to reverse the national security law and restore those freedoms that were part of Hong Kong’s extraordinary opportunity for economic success, as well as other things.

Given everything that is happening in China, including this pitiful show trial, is it not now time that the Government of this country developed a proper, coherent cross-Government strategy for dealing with China, since they are patently lacking one at the moment?

As we set out in the integrated review refresh published in March, China’s challenge to both economic and global security is one that we consider to be right at the heart of the challenges we face. We continue to work closely with officials and in concert with G7 and other partners around the world to tackle some of those challenges.

The Minister will be aware, I hope, that Timothy Owen KC, who is part of Jimmy Lai’s defence team, is currently in Hong Kong but, because of the failure to give him a visa to deal with Jimmy Lai’s case, is not able to appear for Jimmy Lai. Will she make representations to the local authorities as a matter of urgency saying that surely the right to appoint counsel of one’s own choosing is a fundamental in any fair legal system, and that we would expect that opportunity to be given to Mr Lai?

The interpretation by China’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of the national security law at the end of last year stated that the Chief Executive would have to certify whether an act or issue involved national security, including the question of overseas lawyers’ participation; otherwise, its statement was that the Chief Executive-led National Security Committee should make the decision. So, attempts to challenge that have sadly failed and the High Court has noted that Hong Kong courts have no jurisdiction over it, but we have called on the Chief Executive to respect those rights and freedoms in Hong Kong and to uphold the rule of law as we all understand it.

How many times must a totalitarian communist state behave like a totalitarian communist state before the Government will recognise it as a totalitarian communist state?

I do not quite know how to follow such an articulately put question. My right hon. Friend highlights one of the many challenges for those of us who believe in, uphold and want to allow other countries around the world to uphold those values and freedoms—freedom of speech, freedom of choice and freedom of association—and we will continue to work with allies and partners to highlight and to sanction, where we can and where we have the tools to do so, those who continue to breach those freedoms.

I pay tribute to Jimmy Lai’s UK-based legal team. However, they have been subject to incredible levels of cyber harassment and other forms of harassment and interference while working on his legal case. What is the Minister doing with other Departments to ensure that lawyers and journalists involved in promoting and advocating for freedom and democracy around the world are protected from such unacceptable levels of transnational repression?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right: there have been shocking attempts to dissuade, make fearful and stop Jimmy Lai’s legal teams here in the UK getting on with their job of defending his case and raising the issues that we have set out today. We work closely with the Home Office, as do his lawyers, to support it and other parts of Government to provide those teams with the technical support that they need. We will continue to do that. It is perhaps a question to pick up and discuss in more detail with the Minister for Security, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). I can ask him whether he will discuss it with the hon. Lady, should she so wish.

Ten days ago, on 8 December, Jimmy had his 76th birthday—it is not rude to say that he is not a young man. This House could send a message to the rest of the world through an early-day motion. An early-day motion was tabled on 13 December by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and more Members need to sign it. I will not give the honour to people outside this Chamber who decry early-day motions—although, in fact, there are not that many of them. If we want to send a message, there is a methodology, although it is not the only one. I know that lots of colleagues do not like signing early-day motions, but on this occasion, perhaps they should.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The tools that we have at our disposal here in the mother of Parliaments, which allow for freedom of speech and expression, are incredibly important. As a Minister who spends a lot of her time on the other side of the world in countries large and small, I am very conscious that the messaging from this Parliament is heard loud and clear in every other country. We perhaps forget just how important our voice is in standing up for the values that we believe in.

Mr Lai’s detention is a shocking symbol of the erosion not just of human rights but of freedom of expression in Hong Kong. Given everything that we are seeing unfolding, what steps is the Minister taking to ensure that we are supportive of what remains of a free press in Hong Kong?

Jimmy Lai has been an extraordinary champion of free speech, which he chose to continue, despite the changing landscape in Hong Kong. We continue to support people across the piece, many of whom have come to the UK for sanctuary, to be able to be able to speak out and use our freedom of press to share their concerns and highlight the abuses they are seeing.

I join the calls for Jimmy Lai’s release. He is a devout Catholic, and his faith motivates his courageous campaigning for democracy in Hong Kong. After the sustained dismantling in Hong Kong of freedoms of expression, of association, of the press, of judicial independence and others, does the Minister share my concerns that the threats to freedom of religion or belief in Hong Kong are now very real? If she does not, will she please read “Sell Out My Soul: The Impending Threats to Freedom of Religion or Belief in Hong Kong”, the new report by Hong Kong Watch?

My hon. Friend continues in her role to be an extraordinary champion for freedom of religion or belief, and I absolutely agree with her. We continue, of course, to monitor freedom of religion or belief in Hong Kong through our regular six-monthly reports to Parliament and through interactions with local faith leaders. The latest report, published on 19 September, noted that:

“Religious practice is generally not restricted,”

with a variety of

“religious practices coexisting across the territory.”

She is absolutely right: the strength that Jimmy Lai seeks and finds through his faith is extraordinary and it will help him in this very difficult time.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) on securing the urgent question. Jimmy Lai has many supporters in the UK, including Brits and those from Hong Kong, but many of them have experienced intimidation and harassment here in the UK from the Chinese Communist party. Those from Hong Kong face certain persecution, arrest and detention if they are forced to return. Twelve activists have recently been told by the UK Government that they are not at risk and have had their asylum claims rejected. Can the Minister explain UK Government policy on whether Hong Kong campaigners should qualify for asylum in the UK?

As I set out earlier, we brought forward the British nationals overseas route for Hong Kong residents to come to the UK. So far, approximately 191,000 applications have been processed, and 184,700 have been granted. The point the hon. Gentleman mentions is one that I am aware the Home Office is looking into. There has been a change in relation to age in the processing, and there is an issue there that I know it is looking at now. I will ask the Home Office to update him once it has finished its review.

A regime such as this has to be judged not on its words, but on its deeds. In its systematic demolition of the rule of law and now of the independence of the legal profession itself, which was such a lively part of an economically successful and prosperous Hong Kong, China is demonstrating its real intentions. What more can the Government do not only to take direct action by way of sanction against the individuals concerned, but to make the strong point that the Basic Law is not an historical document, but a living instrument, and that we expect it to be adhered to?

My right hon. and learned Friend highlights an issue with which he is very familiar—he practises the law—and, indeed, he is absolutely right. The judiciary, the legal profession and those who are servants of it assure the safety and the right outcome of cases, and we will continue to challenge the Hong Kong authorities on the failures of the national security law and call for it to be repealed.

The rule of law and how it is upheld across the world are absolutely essential to our global security and peace, and Mr Lai’s case shows how fragile they are, so what more can the Government do to reassert the importance of our all abiding by the rule of law?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and much of the work that our diplomatic teams across the world do is in countries where the rule of law is not necessarily adhered to, but where there are abuses, human rights violations and so on. We continue to highlight and challenge those, working alongside international partners to persuade those leaderships to change their ways, and to understand both the merits of a well-delivered legal system and the value that adds to the credibility of the political leadership of their nations. It is something we do week in, week out. Sadly, there are many countries across the world where these challenges continue, but it is right at the heart of the diplomatic service’s work.

The use of international lawyers has been a long-standing practice in Hong Kong, and we have failed Mr Lai. Will the Minister advise exactly what steps will be taken, and when, to secure or attempt to secure international legal representation of the British citizen Mr Lai?

As I set out in answer to an earlier question, Jimmy Lai obviously wanted to have his own choice of legal representation. He has a fantastic team of lawyers here in the UK supporting him. The challenge for those representing him at the trial is one that we continue to highlight, as I set out earlier. The frustration in the way this system works means that he does not have the international lawyer of his choosing with him. However, we will continue to highlight those failings and, as so many colleagues have highlighted, what we consider the right use of the legal system and such independent representation should be.

Every reasonable democrat will be happy to support the plea of the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) on behalf of Mr Lai. However, there is a whiff of hypocrisy in the air. In 2021, former ambassador Craig Murray was imprisoned on the fabricated conceit of jigsaw identification, and Julian Assange has been held in Belmarsh prison for 1,300 or more days. Will the Government lead by example and desist from harassing journalist Craig Murray and others, and free Julian Assange now?

While I am thankful that the Foreign Secretary publicly acknowledged the case of Jimmy Lai at the United Nations in February 2023, and reportedly raised the case with Chinese officials during his visit to Beijing, the fact is that a British citizen remains behind bars. May I gently remind right hon. and hon. Members of early-day motion 213, to which they might want to add their names, and ask that the Foreign Secretary, with the voice of the entire British Government, including our Prime Minister and this House, calls for the immediate and unconditional release of Jimmy Lai, who has spent 1,000 days behind bars? Will the Minister do that today, and follow it through tomorrow with the appropriate channels?

The hon. Gentleman is the most incredible champion for so many whose lives, and whose families’ lives, continue to be blighted by challenges to freedom of religion or belief. He is always willing to stand up for them. As a Minister, I do not think I am allowed to sign EDMs, but should you wish to change that rule, Mr Speaker, I would be extremely happy to sign this one. I think that all Members of the House who are able to sign it should do so.

I cannot sign EDMs either—even the girl guiding one—but I am sure that other Members will wish to do so. Let us move on.