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House of Lords Hansard
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25 November 2014
Volume 757

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the impact of recent events in Hong Kong on the prospects for democracy in that region.

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My Lords, Hong Kong’s future is best served through a transition to universal suffrage in line with the Basic Law that meets the aspirations of the people of Hong Kong. As noted in our repeated statements, we call for rights and freedoms to be respected, and we urge all sides to engage in constructive dialogue and to work to build a consensus that allows a meaningful advance for democracy.

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My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong have very genuine concerns about the pushback from the joint declaration of 1984, particularly with regard to judicial independence and elections? He will be aware that the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary China Group has just been denied a visa for China for the mere act of instigating a debate in the other place on the Hong Kong situation. Does my noble friend agree that the actions of the Chinese Government are imperilling Hong Kong’s status and stability, as well as destabilising the whole region?

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My Lords, there were several questions there and I shall try to answer at least two of them. Hong Kong plays a very important part in Britain’s relations with China. It is also one of the most sensitive issues in Britain’s relationship with China. We regret the Chinese Government’s refusal to allow Richard Graham, the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary China Group, to take part in what would have been a very valuable exchange between Members of both Houses of Parliament and their Chinese equivalents, and we have made that clear to the Chinese Government at a very senior level.

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My Lords, since it is in China’s, Britain’s and Hong Kong’s interests to do nothing to undermine the 1984 declaration, which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, helped to negotiate, and since universal suffrage is on offer for the first time, is not the most important thing that the people of Hong Kong should engage in constructive dialogue with the Chief Executive of Hong Kong to ensure that the next time there is an election for Chief Executive, there is a reasonable and wide range of choice of candidates?

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I thank the noble Lord for that detailed and constructive question. We are talking about the Basic Law of 1997 and not the joint declaration of 1984, and we are talking about the commitment to universal suffrage. The issue at stake regarding the demonstrations is how open the nomination of the Chief Executive should be. The question of judicial independence came up with regard to a Chinese Government White Paper of June 2014. It is the British Government’s view that judicial independence in Hong Kong has not been compromised by that White Paper.

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My Lords, the Basic Law of Hong Kong, which the Minister has already referred to, dealing with the introduction of universal suffrage, also affirms rights to freedom of speech, press freedom and freedom of association. I am sure that the Minister will agree that the Basic Law of Hong Kong is crucial in the present circumstances and that it must continue to be pursued in practice.

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My Lords, I entirely agree with that. On the whole, the demonstrations in Hong Kong have been handled well and they have continued peacefully. Recently, some of the student leaders of the demonstrations conducted discussions with the executives of Hong Kong on television. There are not that many countries in the world where that would be possible on quite such a peaceful basis. Therefore, there are aspects of the joint declaration and the Basic Law that are very fully observed.

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My Lords, I think I understood my noble friend to say that he believed that the British Government did not feel that judicial independence had been jeopardised through the White Paper. Would he like to tell the House how requiring judges to be patriotic without defining patriotism is upholding judicial independence?

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My Lords, there may be people inside the Chinese Government whose sense of the importance of the distinction between the different aspects of government—legislature, Executive and judiciary—is a little less highly developed than it is in the UK. However, I suspect that in some aspects of British politics, and possibly some newspapers, there are those who would think that judges who could not describe themselves at patriotic were not appropriate judges, even in the UK. I am not at all saying that Her Majesty’s Government are pleased with that.

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My Lords, is there not a striking contrast between the passion for democracy among the people of Hong Kong and the democratic inertia and cynicism of so many people in this country who are entitled to vote and do not do so?

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My Lords, I can only agree, but it is up to all of us and the Members of the other place, as well as all those involved in democratic politics, to re-enthuse the British public with democratic politics as far as we can and, in particular, in the next five months.

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My Lords, bearing in mind that the noble Baroness’s question refers to democracy in the region, will the Minister take the opportunity to pay tribute to the people of Taiwan, who change their Governments regularly through the ballot box, and whose parliamentary system is very close to our own, unlike that of mainland China? I declare an interest as co-chair of the British-Taiwanese All-Party Parliamentary Group.

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My Lords, there are a number of states across east, south-east and southern Asia that have made successful transitions to democracy. There are others that have some way to go. We welcome the evidence in a range of Governments there of the rule of law, open elections and the transition from one head of Government to another, all of which are fundamental. These are principles to which good Governments and well run economies should adhere.

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My Lords, we must welcome the statement in the Wales Bill last week that the electoral registration officers in Wales—all 22 of them—are to encourage new ways of registering young voters. Can we ask whether this might also apply to all electoral registration officers throughout the United Kingdom?

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My Lords, I hesitate to suggest that Her Majesty’s Government should bring that to the attention of the Chinese Government. I accept the noble Lord’s point that all of us, in every way, including the many Members of this House who go out on school visits, should be doing our utmost to raise the level of interest of people of all ages in the democratic process.