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Hong Kong Security Legislation

Volume 747: debated on Wednesday 20 March 2024

(Urgent Question): To ask the Foreign Secretary if he will make a statement on the security and human rights implications of Article 23 in Hong Kong.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his urgent question. Yesterday, Hong Kong’s Legislative Council passed new national security legislation unanimously under article 23 of the Basic Law. The Bill, which rushed through the legislative process, and is likely incompatible with international human rights law, will come into force on Saturday. Since 2020, we have seen Hongkongers’ rights and freedoms deliberately eroded as a result of the Beijing-imposed national security law, and this law continues that pattern.

Yesterday, His Majesty’s Government made it clear that the law’s overall impact will be to further damage the rights and freedoms enjoyed throughout Hong Kong. It will enable the authorities to continue their clampdown on freedoms, including freedom of speech, assembly and the media. It will further entrench the culture of self-censorship dominating Hong Kong’s social and political landscape. It fails to provide certainty for international organisations, including diplomatic missions, operating there. Broad definitions will negatively affect those who live, work and do business there.

Although Britain recognises the right of all jurisdictions to implement national security legislation, Hong Kong is also required to ensure that laws align with international standards, rights and norms as set out in UN treaties, the Sino-British joint declaration and its Basic Law. Hong Kong is an international city. Respect for the rule of law, its high degree of autonomy and the independence of its well-respected institutions have always been critical to its success. The British Government have urged the Hong Kong authorities to respect rights and freedoms, uphold Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and the rule of law, and act in accordance with its international commitments and legal obligations.

Let me conclude by welcoming the contribution our growing Hong Kong diaspora make to life in the UK; they are safe to live here, and exercise the rights and freedoms that all other British residents enjoy. We will not tolerate any attempt by any foreign power to intimidate, harass or harm individuals or communities in the UK. This law has no effect in the UK, and we have no active extradition treaty with Hong Kong.

I welcome the Government’s statement, but it does not go far enough. Article 23 allows sentences of up to 14 years’ imprisonment if an individual fails to disclose that another person indicated an “intention to commit treason”, which includes peaceful protest or voicing discontent. If a journalist discloses information deemed to be a “national secret”, they will be jailed for 10 years. Since the passage of the national security law in 2020, the people of Hong Kong have endured relentless oppression, in contravention of the Sino-British agreement, yet the UK has done very little to hold those responsible to account. I remind my right hon. Friend that the United States, which did not sign that agreement, has sanctioned 42 people, including senior individuals, in Hong Kong, whereas the UK has sanctioned none.

I have two questions as a result. This legislation harmonises Hong Kong’s and China’s national security systems, with devastating consequences for human rights; it also changes business and legal arrangements. Last year, the US Government warned US businesses that they can no longer rely on the protection that the rule of English common law affords in Hong Kong. Why have the UK Government not done the same for our businesses? Secondly, we now know that Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office internal documents show that the Department paused targeted sanctions against Chinese officials in November 2023. One document states:

“FCDO has paused consideration of this work indefinitely”.

As one of the parliamentarians whom China has sanctioned, I must say that that is a terrible decision, and it flies in the face of the evidence. Will the Government publish those documents, and make a statement explaining why they no longer wish to sanction Chinese officials?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments, which I will deal with as best I can. He indicated just two or three of the defects in this appalling legislation. He was right to identify them. He did not ask me whether the legislation is in breach of the Sino-British joint declaration. In fact, it is not; the Hong Kong Government are legislating for themselves. The British Government declared in 2021 that China is in ongoing breach of the Sino-British joint declaration.

My right hon. Friend asked about the rule of English common law and the warnings given by the Government of the United States. The British business community is extremely experienced and well able to reach conclusions for itself, but if ever the British Government’s advice were sought, we would always give it. He talked about targeted sanctions. I know that he is sanctioned; I hope that he will bear that with the necessary fortitude. It is outrageous that he and others should be sanctioned in that way. We do not discuss our approach to sanctions on the Floor of the House, but my right hon. Friend may rest assured that we are keeping all such matters under regular review.

Hong Kong’s new national security law is the latest degradation of the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong. It is causing fear and unease not only to Hongkongers, but to UK and other foreign nationals living and working in Hong Kong, as well as international businesses and organisations operating there, and many outside Hong Kong. Article 23’s provisions apply to Hong Kong residents and businesses anywhere in the UK. We have seen where that can lead; there was the frankly appalling attack on a protester in Manchester in December 2022. What steps are the UK Government taking to counter the threat of transnational repression, especially towards the 160,000 Hongkongers who have come to the UK via the British national overseas passport route? Many will feel unsafe and unprotected, and are denied access even to their own pensions. I ask on their behalf, does the Minister accept that the law not only “undermines” the legally binding Sino-British joint declaration, as the Foreign Secretary put it, but represents a clear breach? If so, will he say that to his Chinese counterparts?

The Minister says that he does not talk about sanctions, but it is of concern that although the US thinks sanctions are appropriate, the UK Government seem to be sitting on their hands. In the constant absence of the Foreign Secretary, can I ask the Minister whether the Foreign Secretary accepts that his “golden era” with China was a strategic mistake that undermined British influence over Hong Kong, set us on a rodeo of inconsistency towards China and failed to stand up for the UK’s national security interests? Can we expect the Foreign Secretary to deliver the strong, clear-eyed and consistent approach that is needed?

I thank the shadow Foreign Secretary for his comments. I agree entirely with what he said about article 23. He chides me for not saying more on the issue of sanctions. The point I was making—I hope that he will accept that this is common to both parties when in government—is that we do not discuss our application or consideration of sanctions, or sanctions policy, on the Floor of the House, but when we feel it is necessary to act, we certainly do.

The right hon. Gentleman asks me about the view of the Foreign Secretary, given his long career and understanding of China from his time as Prime Minister. The Foreign Secretary has spoken out very clearly on the change that has taken place since he was Prime Minister. The right hon. Gentleman asks me whether the legislation is a breach of the Sino-British joint declaration; as I have said, we decided in 2021 that China was in ongoing breach of that. On the issue of whether it is a breach of international law, the Bill specifically says that it will be compliant with international law. I suspect that the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

The shadow Foreign Secretary slightly stole my script about the “golden era” of Sino-British relations trumpeted by then Prime Minister Cameron. While the Minister says that things have changed since then, one thing has not changed: communist China was a totalitarian state then, and it is a totalitarian state now. Is it not about time that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office learned that lesson?

My right hon. Friend speaks with great experience on these matters from his time on the Intelligence and Security Committee. I agree with him about the nature of China. The question was whether China would respect the Sino-British joint declaration and recognise the uniquely brilliant features of Hong Kong as an international trading city. It is a matter of great regret that politics have trumped economics in that respect, as perhaps it always will in the case of China.

I thank the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for securing the urgent question. Let me try to get some answers from the Government about a response to what communist China has done, and critically what we can do in the UK about Confucius Institutes. Back in May 2022, the Open University bragged about being the first online Confucius Institute. Until 2023, the Government were allocating at least £27 million to Mandarin-language teaching, channelled through university-based Confucius Institutes. Will the Minister confirm that that has stopped? There is some confusion about that.

In relation to the comments made by the shadow Foreign Secretary, the Governments of countries such as the United States and others believe that sanctions are possible. The Netherlands and Germany have discouraged their universities from engaging with the Confucius Institutes; Sweden has gone as far as I would, by banning them. On providing answers, there are practical things that the United Kingdom can do about what is going on in Hong Kong. Will the Government consider ending the rights of Confucius Institutes in the UK? And will the Minister clarify the Government’s allocation of funding to Mandarin-language teaching through those institutes?

We are very much aware of the Confucius Institutes and the way in which they operate. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we always keep such matters under review. If we have any changes to make to what we are doing, we will be sure to announce them in the House.

There is no doubt that article 23 will have a chilling effect on freedom and human rights in Hong Kong. It is designed to further stifle all criticism of the Chinese regime and its policies, both inside and outside Hong Kong. Given the number of UK dual nationals in Hong Kong, what plans do the Government have to protect UK citizens from political persecution by China, both here and in Hong Kong? Will the Minister look again at extending the BNO passport scheme to children born before 1997?

I thank the Chair of the International Development Committee for her comments. As she knows, we created the British national overseas route in 2020, which creates a pathway to permanent citizenship for British national overseas passport holders. It is working extremely well. Of course, we always keep it under review, but we have no current plans to change it.

It was supposed to be “one country, two systems”, but that has clearly disappeared. The bigger picture is that it is increasingly clear that China is openly pursuing a competing interpretation of the international rules-based order. Nowhere is that more evident than in Hong Kong. The independence of the judiciary has disappeared, along with freedom of speech and of the press. Hong Kong’s own democratic structures have been severely challenged and eroded. The new national security legislation will see the introduction of closed-door trials, detention for up to 16 days without charge, and the lowering of the bar of when life sentences can be imposed. I believe my right hon. Friend the Minister has business experience in Hong Kong, so what impact does he think these new draconian measures will have on the international community doing business with Hong Kong in the future?

I thank the former Chair of the Defence Committee for his question. During my business career, I was in and out of Hong Kong very regularly. It is quite extraordinary how Hong Kong’s brilliant pre-eminence in business is being undermined by this legislation and, indeed, by much other legislation and acts by the Chinese Government. Hong Kong was built on independent institutions, a high degree of autonomy and openness to the world. All those things help to increase the economic activity, the living standards and the wealth of a country or a city, and it is deeply regrettable that this does not appear to be recognised by the Government of China.

This is yet another nail in the coffin of Hong Kong democracy, and I cannot believe that we are here yet again talking about the matter. My thoughts are with the families of Hongkongers who are here. They must be looking at this and wondering what it means for them. The Trade (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) Bill was passed in this place yesterday, and, given that China is next in line to join, we did not get a cast-iron assurance during the debate that Britain would stop it from joining the CPTPP. In his role as Foreign Minister, would the right hon. Gentleman care to give that assurance now? Should China be joining the CPTPP while it is doing things such as this?

The hon. Lady is an extremely experienced parliamentarian and knows that I will not add to what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business and Trade said here yesterday. She did, however, talk about the threats to citizens in Hong Kong and here. I will add to what I said earlier that we suspended our extradition treaty with Hong Kong in 2020, and that was absolutely the right thing to do.

I do not recognise the point that my hon. Friend makes. We have relations with many regimes whose values and views we do not share. That is the nature of international diplomacy and international business. None the less, I can assure him that British Ministers are forthright in their interactions with their Chinese counterparts, as he would expect.

I have some sympathy for the Minister, because I think he shares my sense of shame. I was one of the parliamentary delegations that went to Hong Kong after the one country, two systems deal went through. Our job as parliamentarians was to find out what local people thought of the agreement. I can remember these all-party groups assuring the people of Hong Kong that they would be safe and secure in their democracy and that it would not be challenged. What the Minister says is not very encouraging. This is not just a totalitarian, communist dictatorship, but a ruthless dictatorship. There are sanctions that we could be taking. Some of us in the House have begged the Government to do an audit of the extent of Chinese influence in this country, including how many companies they have taken over. How big is their influence? It is massive. The whole of the electrical distribution in London and the south-east is directly owned by a Chinese company. Surely we can take real sanctions against that country, which has gone back on everything it promised over Hong Kong.

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his opening sympathy and support, which is always very welcome. In respect of the audit of Chinese involvement, much of that work is effectively done by brilliant British investigative journalists. He will have read, as I have, many of the reports that they have published. It is one of the differences between China and Britain: we have an open, free and democratic system, which enables us to scrutinise and pursue these matters in a way that is not possible in China.

The message that this legislation sends out is that political control trumps all else, including the economy. Bearing that in mind, what assessment has the deputy Foreign Secretary made of this national security law both in relation to economic stability, competitiveness and performance in the city of Hong Kong, not least in relation to the confidence of foreign investors, and the potential impact on social cohesion?

My hon. and learned Friend makes an extremely shrewd point. The impact of this legislation is, of course, devastating in the areas that he identifies. This is not legislation that is scrutinised in the way that we understand legislation to be scrutinised. It is not subject to consultation or scrutiny by genuinely democratically elected Members, but that is merely one of the defects that has been identified during this session.

The all-party parliamentary group on Hong Kong, which I chair, heard very powerful testimony this morning from a young Hongkonger who had been a political prisoner in Hong Kong. We will now see more people enduring the indignity of political imprisonment, and the BNO passport visa can be withheld on the basis of the applicant having been in prison. Surely that is something that must be reviewed.

That is not a matter, as the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate, only for us. But he is right in his fundamental understanding, as he has set out, about the breach of the law that is going on. As he might have seen, Volker Türk, the UN human rights lead, has said that it looks, on the face of it, incompatible with international humanitarian law.

Having also been at the Hong Kong all-party group meeting this morning, I, too, heard the powerful testimony given by those pro-democracy activists who have suffered so much in advocating their cause.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. In his opening, he said that the law does not apply here; of course it does not, but that is not how the Chinese see it. It is for them an extraterritorial law. It outlaws external interference that intends to interfere in Hong Kong affairs, bans the work of non-governmental organisations advocating for human rights and civil liberties and might also affect those Hongkongers in the UK who are working in the UK civil service or the UK armed forces. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that active discussions are happening across government, with the Home Office, the Ministry of Defence and others, to ensure that Hongkongers living in the UK have the protections necessary against any future Chinese prosecution?

My hon. Friend knows a great deal about these matters and speaks with great wisdom on them. He is right to speculate that these discussions are taking place across government. They take place through formal mechanisms most of the time. But I suspect that he is concerned about the possible misuse of Interpol, which is an issue that has been raised, and which we take extremely seriously in the requirement to protect individual rights and uphold article 3 of Interpol’s constitution. He may rest assured that we continue to watch over these matters with all possible concern and rigour.

I thank the Minister, as always, for his answers. As has been stated today, the action is in clear breach of the Sino-British joint declaration and of human rights laws, in which I and others in this House take a particular interest. I have heard clearly what the Minister has said, but a number of concerned Asian constituents in my area have contacted me about the message that this sends to those who have left the Chinese regime. They raise concerns about the protection of those who live and work here. If we cannot hold the Chinese to their word, we have to ask whether anyone is safe. What message does the Minister have for my constituents?

At the end of his interesting contribution, the hon. Gentleman asked a philosophical question, and I think he seeks a rhetorical answer. By the very way in which he expressed his question he made clear precisely what the dangers are. We have seen throughout the trial of Jimmy Lai that this is a political prosecution. Once again, we call for his immediate release. Finally, the hon. Gentleman talked about this being a breach of the Sino-British joint declaration, a point that was made earlier. As the Hong Kong Government are legislating for themselves, it may or may not be a breach technically, but we have been perfectly clear since 2021 that China is in ongoing breach of the declaration.

I thank the Minister for responding to the urgent question and the questions of others present.

Bills Presented

Tobacco and Vapes Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Secretary Victoria Atkins, supported by the Prime Minister, Secretary Oliver Dowden, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary James Cleverly, Secretary Gillian Keegan, Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, Secretary Alister Jack, Secretary David T. C. Davies, Michael Tomlinson, Andrea Leadsom and Gareth Davies, presented a Bill to make provision about the supply of tobacco, vapes and other products, including provision prohibiting the sale of tobacco to people born on or after 1 January 2009; and to enable product requirements to be imposed in connection with tobacco, vapes and other products.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 189) with explanatory notes (Bill 189-EN).

Private Parking (Regulator) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Emma Hardy presented a Bill to establish a regulator of privately-owned car parks; to make provision about the powers and duties of that regulator; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 14 June, and to be printed (Bill 185).