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Hong Kong Extradition Bill

Volume 798: debated on Tuesday 11 June 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question asked in another place yesterday on the impact of the Hong Kong Extradition Bill on the Sino-British joint declaration. The Statement is as follows:

“The UK Government remain acutely aware of our enduring responsibility towards Hong Kong as one of the joint signatories to the 1984 joint declaration that established the principle of ‘one country, two systems’. This principle, underpinned by the common law system, provides Hong Kong with the foundations for its continued success as a truly global financial centre and prosperous world city.

Let me turn to the current issues around the ramifications of the Hong Kong Government’s contentious proposals to change their extradition laws. The huge protest march on 9 June—peaceful right up until the end—was a clear demonstration of the strength of feeling in Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, has insisted that new legislation is needed to close a loophole that has prevented a Hong Kong national accused of murdering another Hong Kong national in Taiwan from facing justice, yet the Taiwanese Administration also oppose the changes, while civil society and business and legal groups in Hong Kong have expressed the strongest concerns about the content of the proposals and the very short consultation period.

Many fear above all that Hong Kong nationals and residents risk being pulled into China’s legal system, which can involve lengthy pre-trial detentions, televised confessions and an absence of many of the judicial safeguards that we see in Hong Kong and in the UK. While we welcome recent efforts by the Hong Kong Government to react to the unprecedented level of public concern—of the 7 million people living in Hong Kong, between 300,000 and 1 million were on the streets on Sunday—the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is clear that the changes proposed fail to address fully some core issues that we and others have raised.

The UK Government have been unequivocal in their views. From the outset, the consul-general, Andy Heyn, and officials have been raising concerns with the Hong Kong Government, members of the Hong Kong Legislative Council and the Executive Council at all levels. We have also had full and detailed discussions with Chief Executive Carrie Lam, both bilaterally and as part of an EU démarche. On 30 May, the Foreign Secretary issued a joint statement with his Canadian counterpart on the potential impact of the proposals on our citizens in Hong Kong, including on business confidence and on Hong Kong’s international reputation.

Some Hong Kong lawmakers have proposed an array of alternative solutions, including that additional legally binding human rights safeguards be included in the proposed legislation. The FCO Minister for Asia and the Pacific, the right honourable Mark Field MP, meeting Hong Kong Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau in London on 20 May, made it clear that proper consideration must be given to all these suggestions as part of a wider and more comprehensive consultation. More time for consultation would allow for a more adequate consensus to be built.

As the House will be aware, the operation of the court system on mainland China is very different from that which applies in Hong Kong. There are widespread concerns that fear of extradition to China might have a chilling effect on Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms and result in increased self-censorship. We shall continue to stress to the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities that for confidence in the ‘one country, two systems’ policy to be maintained, Hong Kong must enjoy the full measure of its high degree of autonomy and rule of law as set out in the joint declaration and enshrined in the Basic Law”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the response to the Urgent Question from yesterday. The situation is changing day by day, and the Legislative Council is considering the matter again tomorrow. I hope we will have an opportunity to return to the subject. Mark Field said yesterday that we remain seriously committed to our international agreement and take it seriously, and so do our international partners. The Minister referred to the discussions with the Canadian Government but clearly, we need to do more. What is the Government’s assessment of China’s assertion in 2017 that the Sino-British joint declaration is just a “historical document” with no “practical significance” and is “not … binding”? More importantly, what diplomatic steps are the Government taking to build international co-operation and solidarity to ensure that the Sino-British joint declaration remains vital to the future of Hong Kong?

On the latter part of the noble Lord’s question, there has been a consistent exchange of views with the Hong Kong Government. As I said in repeating the Statement, the consul-general has been active in that respect. We have made clear our concerns. In response to the first part of the noble Lord’s question, it is certainly the UK Government’s view that the joint declaration remains as valid today as when it was signed over 30 years ago. It is a legally binding treaty registered with the United Nations and continues to be in force. Since the comments to which the noble Lord referred were made, in June 2017, a senior official from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has publicly clarified its position to some extent, explicitly recognising that the joint declaration remains an important document registered with the United Nations and commenting along the lines that it is “not without binding effect”. One hopes that the Chinese authorities are fully cognisant of their responsibilities under the joint declaration and will be in no doubt whatever about the global interest in and reaction to what is happening in Hong Kong.

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that in 1997, Hong Kong represented 30% of Hong Kong and China’s GDP but now represents 3% because of the growth of China? Does she agree that this reflects on Hong Kong’s influence and leverage here? Does she note that the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, said that the provisions of this Bill are,

“an assault on Hong Kong’s values, stability and security”?

Further, does she note that its Second Reading may be held regardless of people’s protests tomorrow, and that within a few days—perhaps 10 days—it may pass all its stages? What further action can the Government take?

The noble Baroness raises an interesting point. I would observe that I think it is globally acknowledged that Hong Kong remains a very important source of business and financial activity; there is clearly a very dynamic business presence within Hong Kong. The concern has to be that these proposals could damage that activity, prejudice the ability of people in Hong Kong to carry out business successfully— which both we and Hong Kong want to see—or damage Hong Kong’s justly earned reputation as a very successful business centre.

In so far as what we can do, this Bill is to be revisited tomorrow, and the UK Government take the view that the Hong Kong Government should provide additional time for consultation. We think it is very important that the many views being expressed in Hong Kong, from very authoritative sources and across a wide spectrum of activity, are taken into account in the hope that some sort of consensus can be built. If the Bill as currently structured were to include an additional legally binding human rights safeguard in respect of the powers proposed in it, that certainly would be a welcome development.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a patron of Hong Kong Watch. Does the noble Baroness agree that, as an architect of the Basic Law, “one country, two systems”, the United Kingdom Government have a moral as well as legal responsibility to ensure that Hong Kong retains its autonomy, and a duty to articulate clearly that for 25 years Hong Kong has topped the Heritage Foundation’s annual index of economic freedom because of the rule of law and autonomy? Does she agree that by removing protection from arbitrary arrest, the new extradition law threatens businesses with staff in Hong Kong, as well as the rights of millions of people who are rightly fearful of this proposal, not least while fundamental freedoms in mainland China are being systematically eroded, as is perhaps best exemplified by last week’s decision by Germany to provide refugee status to two young democracy activists from Hong Kong? We have reached a sorry state of affairs when that becomes necessary.

The noble Lord is absolutely correct. The United Kingdom takes that agreement very seriously and is committed to monitoring it and observing our obligations under that declaration. We do that, and have been doing that, in the most forceful way that we can. An important point has been raised about Hong Kong, and I suggest that we should draw comfort from two things. It is without question that the rule of law in Hong Kong remains robust. That is, of course, thanks largely to its world-class independent judiciary, which is a very important component of the Hong Kong justice system. Yes, there are concerns; yes, we are representing these concerns; and yes, we share the apprehension voiced by others, particularly within Hong Kong. We are doing everything we can to urge the Hong Kong Government to look at this more closely and ensure proper scrutiny of this legislation before it is enacted.

My Lords, has the Foreign Secretary pointed out clearly to the Chinese ambassador, “one country, two systems” was a remarkable achievement? As one who led the last British parliamentary delegation to Hong Kong before this came about, I know that we were apprehensive, but it came about and it has been a remarkable success. But “one country, one system” would destroy it, and the whole business is in jeopardy now. Can that be gently but firmly pointed out to the Chinese ambassador at the Court of St James?

I thank my noble friend for his comment. He is right that this structure pivots on the duality of one country, two systems. It is fundamental to the structure of the joint declaration. We monitor what is happening. He will be aware that in the recent six-monthly report to Parliament, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary said:

“It is very welcome that in the areas of business and the independence of the judiciary, the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ model is working well. However, I am concerned that on civil and political freedoms, Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy is being reduced”.

I can reassure my noble friend that the UK Government represent their concerns consistently.

Does the Minister not agree that this sad situation is symptomatic of the reality of the political situation in China: that, as well as justice issues, this raises the most profound human rights issues, so it is high time the Government made a statement on how they reconcile their commitment to human rights in foreign policy with their economic relationships with China?

I can assure the noble Lord that we do it frequently, robustly, through the normal diplomatic channels and at the United Nations.

My Lords, clearly this draft legislation is causing a great deal of concern in Hong Kong and I am sure that the Hong Kong Government will wish to take account of that. That said, does the Minister agree that there is nothing in the draft legislation which offends against either the joint declaration between ourselves and China on the future of Hong Kong or the Basic Law, which is the constitution for Hong Kong? Does he further agree that the provisions do not in themselves offend against the independence of the judiciary in Hong Kong, which remains as important now as it ever was and always will be?

That is an important observation. We do not believe that the proposed legislative changes in themselves are a breach of the joint declaration. However, there is a risk that future abuse of provisions made possible by that legislation could be. That is where the absence of specific safeguards on the face of the proposed legislation causes concern.