Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to move this Motion. There are major concerns for the people of Hong Kong. It is a pity that we have to raise issues affecting our former colony only when there is a crisis or two—whether the Covid-19 problems emanating from mainland China, which are now global and affecting our own country, or the problems concerning the anti-democratic, brutal measures being inflicted on the people of Hong Kong in their legitimate struggle for a return to the lives they enjoyed at the time of the Sino-British declaration of 1984 and the handover agreement of 1997.
I pray the indulgence of the House that the Motion before us is somewhat different from what I intended, but the world has moved on since I submitted it. Nevertheless, hopefully we can cover some of the main issues affecting Hong Kong today. Initially, I was concerned on hearing from some of my friends in Hong Kong about the difficulty of obtaining face masks, especially for the disabled, the elderly and low- income groups. They requested that I find out whether there was a surplus of face mask production in the United Kingdom in the hope that Hong Kong might be assisted in its plight.
In response, I put down a parliamentary Question on what steps the Government were pursuing to ensure sufficient face mask production for any such eventuality. The Minister—I hasten to add, not the Minister who will reply to this debate—answered:
“Face masks for the general public are not recommended to protect from infection, as there is no evidence of the benefit of their use outside healthcare environments.”
We cannot assist those in need in Hong Kong with that kind of answer. Happily, I have heard since that some considerable community initiatives in Hong Kong—from entrepreneurs, community groups and individuals—are together forcing the Hong Kong Government belatedly to be more positive in their response to the needs of the people they represent. Indeed, there was a flurry of companies and non-profit groups working together to combat this problem.
However, I wish to cover many of the other issues facing Hong Kong today. The United Kingdom was a co-signatory to the agreements of 1984 and 1997. The people of Hong Kong expect this country to stand shoulder to shoulder with them as they attempt to preserve their heartfelt rights. Those who have lived in Hong Kong—in my case, during my national service in the Royal Air Force in the late 1950s—have followed the slow but relentless attempt to democratise Hong Kong. Mainland China is now using its muscle to break that progress in its determination to have a dictatorial, bureaucratic regime. By so doing, it is rightfully demonstrating that the problems are of its making. As a country, we have to do something about that.
At the time of the Sino-British joint declaration of 1984, there seemed to be great hope that future progress would be made. The guarantees that were signed by the United Kingdom and China in 1984 and registered with the United Nations were the hope of those who are now demonstrating. The treaty contained undertakings that the previous Hong Kong capitalist system and lifestyle would remain unchanged for 50 years and that the Chinese and Hong Kong law would remain. That included the freedoms of speech, press, assembly and association, the forming of trade unions, et cetera.
It is clear that the abandonment of these freedoms is a direct contradiction of the declarations. The noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, went on the record so aptly at that time, saying:
“Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong. That is the promise—and that is the unshakable destiny.”
But that was in 1997—a far cry from 2020.
Since the handover, we have seen an unfulfilled promise of democratisation, a weakening of the judiciary, a legislature dominated by corporate factions and cronies of the Communist Party and, for the past year, bloodshed on the streets as the guardians of law become the weapons of the state. There is a recent development that I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Alton, will wish to refer to, as he and the noble Lord, Lord Patten, made strong representations about the arrest of three citizens in Hong Kong. One is the former chairman of the Hong Kong Labour Party and another the former chairman of the Hong Kong Democratic Party. I will leave that, because I am sure the noble Lord knows rather more about it than I do.
The important part of my Motion is for the United Kingdom to support those citizens in their efforts for their democratic rights to be restored and to enlist the support of the United Nations, which was present at the declarations and should be involved in finding solutions to overcome the current situation. After all, there has been a breach of these agreements and the United Nations, the custodian of international law, must be enlisted by the Government to bring the Chinese to the negotiating table with the aim of bringing a successful conclusion to this crisis.
This historical backdrop illustrates the challenging relationship our nation has to strike with China, a vital trade partner, and Hong Kong, for which we bear a historical responsibility. We must press the issues of Hong Kong’s autonomy and institutions, as laid out in the Sino-British joint declaration. The pro-democracy movement demonstrated at the very beginning its legitimate response to the failure of both the Chinese and Hong Kong Governments to deliver on the commitments in the 1984 and 1997 declarations. In my view, we are duty-bound to take a lead.
The important issue of citizenship has once more raised its head. Many of us who raised this in another place during the handover proceedings in 1997 called on the British Government to give the right of abode to BNO passport holders in the event of China reneging on the joint declaration agreement. We all know now that China has done just that. In a very timely intervention, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, a former Attorney-General in a previous Labour Government, states that there is nothing to prevent the UK Government extending free right of abode to those passport holders and that it would not be a breach of the joint declaration. It would certainly be a way of showing that we in this country are in accord with those anxious people in need of such an assurance at this time.
Another issue I raised in the last debate on Hong Kong is what is happening in our universities, where Hong Kong students are suffering at the hands of fellow students from mainland China. The universities of Sheffield, Oxford, Cambridge, Durham and others are reporting problems of abuse in this regard. No group to my knowledge has suffered more than UK Hong Kong students studying here. In Cambridge, for instance, students campaigning to revoke Carrie Lam’s Cambridge honorary fellowship were harassed repeatedly by email and physically, while students who supported Hong Kong demonstrators were also subject to such abuse. In Oxford, a social media group campaigned against fellow students supportive of Hong Kong after the student union passed a motion condemning police brutality in Hong Kong.
So I call again, as I have done before, for our Government to take the lead in defending the rights of Hong Kong students expressing the democratic rights that they hold so dearly, as we do for our students in the universities. In response to my plea in the last debate, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, said that it was
“unacceptable for anyone to be intimidated by any bullying. Universities have a duty of care to protect all students.”—[Official Report, 24/10/19; col. 768.]
I agree. He wished me to give him more information. If the Minister wishes to obtain more, I have evidence to give him. The Government must give a firm and positive plea to our universities to uphold their distinctive rights for academic freedom. The Government should encourage our universities to ensure that freedom of expression is not tarnished by the antics employed by students from mainland China in these cases.
There is also the area, as far as the Chinese Government are concerned, of what they think of as their rights in the economy. Chinese economic progress cannot possibly be fulfilled without a stable Hong Kong stock market. Now, according to that excellent document by Hong Kong Watch, Why Hong Kong Matters, around 70% of its capital is raised by Chinese firms, and that is their main source of foreign funding. The document makes the point that Hong Kong’s unique status in the eyes of the world is as China’s leading financial centre, adding that progress depends on the rule of law and freedom of movement. In my view, it would be sheer madness for China not to agree to an independent inquiry into the disruptions that flowed from the legitimate demands of the demonstrators for freedom and democracy.
On a visit to Hong Kong in the early 1970s I met a young lady fresh from college, then a journalist, by the name of Emily Lau, who then as now was a passionate advocate of democracy in Hong Kong. Today she is still actively pursuing necessary change. Until recently Emily was the chairperson of the Hong Kong Democratic Party. She gives an inspirational lead to many who think that democracy Hong Kong must be pursued. We must not let her and her colleagues down.
My Lords, in these challenging and difficult times, right across the House we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, for initiating today’s debate. It gives the House an opportunity to return to some of the issues that were raised on 24 October when we last debated this, when two former governors of Hong Kong, my noble friend Lord Wilson of Tillyorn and the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, also participated. Later in my remarks I will say something, as the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, has invited me to, about the arrests that have recently taken place. I should mention at the outset that I am a patron of Hong Kong Watch and vice-chair of the all-party groups on Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
We gather today against a sombre background of the coronavirus, which has claimed some 3,237 lives in China and a further four in Hong Kong. Outside China the number of deaths globally stands at 8,971. Since its emergence in Wuhan, some 81,928 people in China have become infected.
Initially, the Chinese Government delayed announcing the discovery of the virus and silenced those who sought to warn the world of what was unfolding, suppressing information rather than the virus. Every moment lost has set back the time required time to develop a vaccine.
One of the great heroes to emerge from this crisis is the ophthalmologist, Li Wenliang, who was forced to recant by the Communist authorities, and subsequently died, along with three other doctors, at his hospital in Wuhan, where he was ministering to his patients. Last week, in an interview with the Chinese magazine Renwu, meaning “people”, Ai Fen, director of the emergency at Wuhan Central Hospital, said that she too was reprimanded after alerting her superiors and colleagues of a SARS-like virus seen in patients in December. She said:
“If I had known what was to happen, I would not have cared about the reprimand. I would have … talked about it to whoever, where ever I could”.
In a move demonstrating all the hallmarks of a dictatorship, the interview has been removed from the magazine and deleted from social media sites.
You could argue that this virus of concealment—silencing of opinion or dissent, and the crushing of doctors trying to save lives—is a far more deadly disease than coronavirus itself. When this is over, as I hope it will be, China should reflect on a lethal system and an ideology which has brought enormous suffering on the world. It is little wonder that the people of Hong Kong fear for their future, not because of Covid-19 but because of the accelerated and worrying attempts to disembowel their fundamental freedoms, the rule of law and the liberties which they have long enjoyed under “one country, two systems”. Anyone who doubts the nature of this ideology should read Julia Lovell’s spellbinding book, Maoism: A Global History.
The arrival of coronavirus in January led to open dissent in Hong Kong, which would have been crushed on the mainland. But that strike by Hong Kong’s doctors and 3,000 medical workers, who urged borders to be sealed and other measures to be taken, was a wake-up call which has saved many lives. It is notable that free Taiwan, with just 48 confirmed cases and one death, has not sacrificed democracy in controlling this disease. Instead of forcing the WHO to exclude Taiwan, Beijing should have learned from Taipei.
As ordinary people in other parts of the world come out on to their balconies to applaud the people working to save their lives, how bitterly ironic it is that, in Hong Kong, the authorities have been actively targeting medics with the threat of disciplinary action for missing work. Beijing should show less contempt for the strengths of liberal democracy and return to Deng Xiaoping’s path of reform.
Recall too that the Hong Kong Government’s initial mishandling of the crisis further entrenched divisions across the city and ingrained a deep distrust in the already faltering rule of the Chief Executive, Carrie Lam. Despite the coronavirus enforcing a hiatus on the large-scale democracy protests that we saw in Hong Kong last year, the Chief Executive continues to use archaic public order laws to detain political activists on politically motivated charges. This includes the recent arrest of Jimmy Lai, the most prominent pro-democracy newspaper owner in Hong Kong, and the former democratic lawmakers Lee Cheuk-yan and Yeung Sum. These arrests call to mind the “knock on the door at the dead of night” and the rounding-up of opposition voices by the NKVD, the KGB, the Gestapo, the Securitate, the Stasi and the rest.
The methodology and practices of the Cultural Revolution, along with the totalitarianism and intolerance of authoritarian states, should be consigned to history, not mimicked in Hong Kong. The authorities there should be using all their energy and resources to fight the coronavirus, not to harass and intimidate proponents of democracy. I hope that the Government will use the Magnitsky powers and sanctions against those responsible for these appalling offences.
These arrests represent a truly shocking and very serious setback for “one country, two systems” and for Hong Kong’s freedoms. I hope that the Minister spells out what implications the arrests of three prominent mainstream pro-democracy leaders has for the prospects of “one country, two systems” and the protection of freedoms promised to the Hong Kong people under the Sino-British joint declaration and guaranteed under Basic Law. They should be galvanising the international community and urging the authorities to drop these charges.
If anything, under the cover of darkness, which this global pandemic is, we have witnessed a deepening of the attacks on Hong Kong’s basic freedoms; take, for example, the recent protests marking the six-month anniversary of the attack on commuters at the Prince Edward MTR station and the death of Chow Tsz-lok. The protests ended with the police pointing loaded guns, and pepper spraying and arresting unarmed protestors. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has repeatedly expressed concern that the continued application of what it calls “unlawful assembly” against Hong Kong protesters risks violating their basic human rights.
In the past nine months, over 7,000 protestors have been arrested and only one in seven has been charged. Some 40% of those arrested attend either university or high school; this includes 750 children, the youngest of whom is just 12 years of age. The decision last week to move the pro-democracy activist Edward Leung, who is serving a six-year sentence for “rioting”, to a maximum-security prison reserved for serious criminals is a further sign of the hard-line approach that the Hong Kong Government are seeking to take.
It is noteworthy that even Iran has been freeing prisoners during this dangerous time—but not Hong Kong. Carrie Lam is no doubt following the lead of the Communist Party in Beijing, which has used the coronavirus as cover to install two hard-line loyalists in key positions in Hong Kong to do its bidding. This includes Xia Baolong, an ally of President Xi Jinping, who received international condemnation for waging an ideological war against Christians in Zhejiang province in 2014-15, involving the destruction of thousands of crosses and churches. Despite the petitions of the Swedish Government, Beijing has also pushed ahead with the harsh sentencing of the Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai. Abducted in Thailand in 2016 to stand trial in a Chinese court, the former bookseller was handed a 10-year sentence for allegedly “illegally providing intelligence overseas”. His kidnapping and draconian sentence will do little to ease the fears of many Hong Kongers that any future extradition Bill between the city and the mainland could see them too facing the Chinese Communist Party’s brand of justice.
The Chinese Communist Party this week also took the unprecedented step of announcing the expulsion of United States citizens working for the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and New York Times from China, Hong Kong and Macau. It is a flagrant assault on press freedom and was roundly condemned by the noble Lord, Lord Patten, and others. At a moment when the world needs openness, transparency and accountability, this serves to remind us of the nature of Beijing’s regime, and demonstrates why the majority of Hong Kongers are so fearful as they gaze across the bamboo curtain at a society that does not uphold human rights and the rule of law, and is willing to break international treaty obligations.
Can the Minister tell the House what representations the Foreign Office has made to the Government in Beijing over this clear violation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law and the Sino-British joint declaration? Can he also tell us what discussions he has had with his United States counterparts about the possibility of our Governments taking joint action in response? After all, what is to stop the acolytes and apparatchiks of the Chinese Communist Party turning their gaze to target US journalists who work for British news publications in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau, or even British journalists as well?
Our country’s historic, legal and moral duty to Hong Kong, as a counterbalance to the encroachment of the Chinese Communist Party, is indisputable. That is why I am deeply saddened and disturbed by reports in last week’s Sunday Times that the Home Office and Scotland Yard have been collaborating with the Chinese Government to produce facial recognition software to identify and target protestors who wear masks. The Minister needs to tell us how much British taxpayers’ money has been spent on developing this software, the extent of the British Government’s collaboration, and whether participation will be suspended as a matter of urgency. Failing to do so risks reputational damage, accusations of complicity in human rights abuses of people in Hong Kong and China, and forfeiting our right to be seen as an honest broker.
In seeking to play a constructive role, the British Government must help to de-escalate tensions in Hong Kong as part of their obligations under the 1984 joint declaration. They should support calls for an independent inquiry—referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Pendry—into the policing of last year’s protests and the current state of the rule of law. This is vital to the restoration of the reputation of the Hong Kong Police Force, trust between Hong Kongers and the Chief Executive, and Hong Kong’s standing as a city governed by the rule of law. I hope the Minister will comment on the evidence given in Parliament by the Hong Kong surgeon Darren Mann—which I heard personally—about the appalling treatment of medical workers treating those caught up in the protests.
Perhaps he would also respond to the proposal put to the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, by 173 Members of both Houses for a Commonwealth initiative to guarantee second citizenship and a second right of abode to all Hong Kong citizens, should they need it, and on the UK’s special obligation to the 200,000 British national (overseas) passport holders, many of whom are living in a state of fear, uncertain about their long-term future in Hong Kong and feeling abandoned by the British Government.
As the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, said, the House will want to hear the Minister’s response to the recent legal advice published by the former Attorney-General, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, which makes it clear that the UK Government would not
“be in breach of any obligation undertaken in the joint declaration were it to resolve to extend full right of abode to BN(O) passport holders while continuing to honour their side of the Sino-British Joint Declaration.”
At the very minimum, we should offer Hong Kong students a right to remain in the UK after the completion of their studies and BNO passport holders preferential treatment under the Government’s new immigration system.
China needs the genius of Hong Kong’s people, but there will be a flight of people and capital if it continues to erode its freedoms, the rule of law and prosperity. From 2010 to 2018, Hong Kong was home to 73% of the initial public offerings of mainland Chinese companies—including Alibaba, which decided to list in Hong Kong at the height of the unrest last year. Similarly, the Hong Kong-Shanghai stock connect scheme is increasingly the preferred means by which western investors access the mainland stock market, and Hong Kong is the largest offshore centre for bond sales by Chinese companies.
Some mention Shanghai or Singapore as potential alternatives to Hong Kong, but the study by Hong Kong Watch that the noble Lord referred to found that neither is a reliable alternative in the short term. Shanghai and Hong Kong serve completely different markets and complement rather than compete with each other. Singapore’s stock market capitalisation is not in the same league and its business culture is starkly different.
The current deadlock between democracy protestors and the Hong Kong Government is unsustainable. Political reform, including universal suffrage, is the only way forward. As I saw while observing Hong Kong’s district council elections at the end of last year, its people want more democracy, not less. For as long as street protest is the only means of representation for Hong Kong’s disenfranchised populace, divisions within the city will remain and the threat of violence and escalating conflict will linger.
When he replies to this timely and very welcome debate, I hope the Minister will tell the House what conversations he has had with Chief Executive Carrie Lam about the introduction of universal suffrage, wider democratic reform and our obligations as a signatory and guarantor of the joint declaration. For now, our common humanity—whether in China or the United Kingdom, London or Hong Kong—should unite us in learning to better understand the deepest human needs and upholding the sanctity and dignity of every human life.
My Lords, I also commence by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, for initiating this debate. What a pleasure it is to follow the noble Lord, Lord Alton. He has been a stalwart defender of Hong Kong and its people’s rights for as long as I can remember, and that is a very long time. I also declare that I am a vice-president of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on China. I make my remarks today as someone who recognises the positive role that China can and sometimes does play in the world. In my criticisms of its role in Hong Kong today, I urge it to think of the longer term as a more confident leader in the world rather than an authoritarian one, which is where it is tending to in its actions in Hong Kong.
As many noble Lords have already alluded to, the arrival of Covid-19 has impacted Hong Kong in many ways as severely as Hubei province or other parts of China. I pay tribute to Hong Kong’s medical services, which are among the best in the world. The level of dedication of medics working in Hong Kong to its residents was seen during the worst of the clamp-down against protesters only a few months ago, when they risked their own safety to assist the wounded and those needing medical attention due to the disproportionate violence used against those protesters.
The good news is that after months on the front line of the Covid-19 pandemic, and despite Hong Kong’s numerous transport links with mainland China and cross-border commuting workers, its population of 7 million has had around 170 cases and only four deaths.
However, this crisis has also reinforced people’s mistrust of the Hong Kong Government. Their containment of the crisis has been thanks to their own efforts. Unlike in other countries, Hong Kongers did not wait for announcements from the Chief Executive to act against the spread of Covid-19. Instead, many elected to self-isolate weeks before they were formally asked to do so. They understood that the unique population density of Hong Kong required individual sacrifice in terms of their freedoms and their earnings, irrespective of the views of their Government.
Similarly, medical workers did not wait for the Hong Kong Government to shut the borders with the mainland to limit the spread of the virus. They went out on strike to ensure that the Government did so. In fact, much of Hong Kong’s response to Covid-19 has been precisely because the people of Hong Kong, after large, city-wide protests for months, do not trust the Government to act in their best interests.
In such a febrile environment, where images of protesters being brutalised by the police have become so widespread, the role a free press plays is particularly important and that is what I want to press the Minister on. While a free press is a paramount liberty everywhere, the freedom of the press in Hong Kong is vital, not only because it supports the free exchange of information, necessary for the city’s continuing survival as one of the largest financial centres in Asia, but as a safeguard for the rule of law and the freedoms that Hong Kong enjoys under the “one country, two systems” model. But, presumably under the instruction of Beijing, the Hong Kong Government continue to use public order ordinance laws to arrest pro-democracy activists, as has already been mentioned. This includes the Hong Kong police arresting Jimmy Lai, the most prominent pro-democracy newspaper owner in Hong Kong, as well as former lawmakers Lee Cheuk-yan and Yeung Sum, on politically motivated charges relating to illegal assembly last month.
Apropos Jimmy Lai, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes—with his extensive experience of Hong Kong—who has described these arrests as an attempt to frighten and intimidate the pro-democracy movement by targeting one of Hong Kong’s most notable newspaper proprietors. When people see the hand of Beijing behind these arrests, this is not a conspiracy theory; they can see the appointment of Xia Baolong as the new head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned. It is said that his appointment signals further controls by the Communist Party of China on Hong Kong and particularly on civil society.
This week has also seen the unprecedented decision by the Chinese foreign ministry to ban US journalists from the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, not only from mainland China, which started happening a few weeks ago, but from Hong Kong and Macau. This move is a flagrant attack on the freedom of the press and in direct contravention of Hong Kong’s Basic Law itself and China’s obligations under the Sino-British joint declaration. This comes at a time when, due to the spread of Covid-19, the world needs openness, transparency and accountability more than ever, which is not possible without a free press. As the UK is a co-signatory to the joint declaration, I ask the Minister what conversations he has had with the Chinese ambassador regarding these moves to clamp down on the independent media, not only for Hong Kong but to prevent the rest of the world knowing what is happening there.
It would be a dereliction of our duty to Hong Kong to allow the Chinese Government to take advantage of our distractions in the West to push through a more hard-line position on these basic freedoms.
Let me give an example of why it is in China’s own interests to keep Hong Kong functioning as a free and open society. Apart from the moral and legal position, we know that the reason why Hong Kong is one of the world’s pre-eminent financial and legal services centres is that the rule of law prevails there. Its courts are trusted and respected, and its financial regulators are part of the global effort and have high standards. But we have seen that the slow erosion of trust in the Hong Kong Government has taken its toll on business confidence in Hong Kong and may continue to have a dampening effect as we go forward.
So I urge HM Government to work with the Chinese Government to retain Hong Kong’s freedoms at this time of global upheaval. We are starting to see a dangerous erosion of the “one country, two systems” model to “one country, one system”, from which there can be only losers—no winners. I also want to press the Minister on what discussion he has had with other Governments—particularly the US, which is a permanent member of the UN Security Council—as these matters are a breach of the joint declaration, and we must therefore have a co-ordinated response to them.
Can the Minister confirm what expectation the Foreign Office has that UK citizens working on publications in China, Hong Kong and Macau will not be targeted? What steps are being taken to ensure that British journalists are protected and can do their work without fear of government harassment or threat of expulsion?
If the last nine months in Hong Kong have demonstrated anything, it is that the political deadlock will remain until there is a significant compromise between the democracy protesters and the Chief Executive. That compromise will inevitably involve some form of political reform that meets the original commitments under the joint declaration. The UK Government, as a co-signatory, have an indispensable role to play. I hope that the Government will listen to those who have spoken today and start living up to the UK’s legal and moral obligations to the people of Hong Kong.
My Lords, like others I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Pendry for calling this important debate today. I also want to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who has for so many years been an incredible inspiration and champion of human rights the world over.
While the coronavirus has catalysed a ceasefire in the political unrest in Hong Kong, none of the underlying tension has been resolved, and therefore it is likely that unrest will resurface. We must not lose sight of the importance of this issue. The ceasefire gives the Hong Kong Government an opportunity to de-escalate and promote reconciliation, and I hope that the Government are pressing them to do this rather than continue their crack-down.
As the director of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, I would like to make a few comments on the disturbing pressure that Hong Kong’s rule of law is under. The presiding justice of the Court of Final Appeal, Kemal Bokhary, recently said that Hong Kong’s rule of law was facing a “full force” storm. Given our shared legal heritage and common law system, and given the fact that the rule of law underpins Hong Kong’s position as an international business hub, I know that this will be a matter of concern for many in this House.
This House will recall that the protest movement began in 2019 precisely because the rule of law is cherished by the Hong Kong people. Civil society groups, businesses, lawyers and politicians united to condemn the extradition law because it would inevitably have resulted in Hong Kong citizens being extradited to face unjust trials in mainland China.
The institute I direct joined in with a statement from leading British and international legal bodies stating that Bill would fail to adequately protect human rights and fundamentally imperil the operation of the rule of law. We said:
“In so far as the proposals would introduce any human rights examination at all, they are vested in Hong Kong’s Chief Executive who, in view of her function and the nature of her appointment, would appear to lack the necessary impartiality and independence to adjudicate such issues.”
That of course was a veiled expression of concern about the way that Carrie Lam was carrying out her role.
While 2014’s political unrest in Hong Kong was about democratic reforms, the 2019 political unrest was primarily about the preservation of fundamental rights and the rule of law. The extradition Bill was the spark that lit the bonfire, and it was particularly toxic because it followed years of pressure on the rule of law and on fundamental rights. Victor Mallet, the Financial Times Asia editor who was expelled from Hong Kong, wrote an op ed piece before the protests broke out which stated:
“The popular myth about boiling a frog—that the animal jumps out of the pot if placed in boiling water but he will die when plonked in cold water and gradually cooked—should be recalled by anyone involved in politics, business or the law in Asia today. In most cases, freedom and the rule of law are being eroded only gradually, but the erosion is real and the cumulative effect substantial.”
The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, mentioned the undermining of press freedom. Given the commitment of this Government to media freedom, I hope that the issue is being raised with Hong Kong in our interactions with the Executive. From the abduction of booksellers in 2015 to the prosecution of political activists under anachronistic, colonial-era public order legislation, which has already been referred to; from the political screening of candidates for election following Beijing’s interpretation of the constitution to the banning of a political party, the temperature has been slowly rising for years. But with the extradition Bill, that temperature dialled up 1 degree higher than the people could stand and the protest movement was the result.
What is of most concern is that the protest movement has exposed the underlying rot in the system. The police have enjoyed impunity when using excessive force, which has eroded public trust in the system. I hope that the Minister agrees that it is vital that an independent inquiry is called into the events of recent months—other speakers have mentioned that—and,H if the Hong Kong Government are unwilling to initiate that themselves, we should urge the United Nations to do so and to initiate a truth and reconciliation commission.
Perhaps the biggest watershed moment for the judiciary went largely unnoticed around the world because of current events. After Hong Kong’s High Court rightly pronounced the Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s application of the emergency regulations ordinance as being unconstitutional, China’s National People’s Congress made an announcement which could, if translated into policy, signal the end of Hong Kong’s rule of law as we know it. I really emphasise that.
China’s constitution and the Basic Law jointly form the constitutional foundation of Hong Kong, but a spokesman for the National People’s Congress Legislative Affairs Committee said:
“Whether Hong Kong’s laws are consistent with the Basic Law can only be judged and decided by the National People’s Congress’ Standing Committee. No other authority has the right to make judgments and decisions.”
The statement also condemns the judgment of the Hong Kong court as severely weakening the legally enshrined power to govern enjoyed by the Chief Executive.
That statement makes clear where power lies and who determines, in the view of China, what the rule of law means. The statement is a naked power grab by the central government from the Hong Kong judiciary and is clearly in breach of existing Hong Kong case law and the terms of the Sino-British joint declaration. The Chinese are making it clear that they get to decide what the constitution says and what the Basic Law is, not the courts of Hong Kong. I hope the Minister agrees that any attempt to strip Hong Kong’s courts of their powers of final adjudication and constitutional interpretation would severely undermine the city’s common law system.
As elsewhere in the world, Hong Kong’s politics have paused to allow breathing space for the coronavirus. In fact, looking at the graphs, Hong Kong has been handling this emergency somewhat well, and for that we should be grateful, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, under the cover of the virus leaders around the world are taking the opportunity to override law. We have even seen President Trump doing it on his border, where people are not even allowed to claim asylum but are being turned back, so the international commitments on asylum are being abused. The events of 2019 have left the rule of law in Hong Kong in a storm of unprecedented ferocity, so will the Minister say what we are going to do to ensure that human rights are upheld and that the judicial system in Hong Kong retains its integrity?
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, for the opportunity afforded by this debate to review the situation in Hong Kong. I hope he will forgive me if I do not agree with everything he said.
Happily, to a considerable extent the Government and people of Hong Kong have taken effective measures to control the spread of the coronavirus, which is evidenced by the figures showing that, out of a population of 7 million, there have been 167 cases and four deaths so far, although fears remain of a second wave due to people returning to Hong Kong from overseas trips. I do not think this is the time to criticise measures taken by Hong Kong to control the virus, as all around the world this is a new and fast-changing challenge, which is evidenced by the experiences of Governments from the UK to the European countries to the United States.
The great issue that Hong Kong and other countries face is how to contain the economic damage done by the virus and to grow the economy in a way that satisfies the aspirations of the entire population. Alongside this process, it is very important for the people of Hong Kong to concentrate on the forthcoming LegCo elections in September. On the economic front, the Government have taken many fiscal measures targeted at some of the worst affected areas of the economy. I believe that the amount that will be received by the retail sector is 30 billion Hong Kong dollars. For tourism, I gather it is 20 billion Hong Kong dollars. Tourism, which is principally from the mainland, is down 90%. In fact, this time last year, there were 200,000 visitors a day; this year, it is down to 3,000 per day. There is also a plan to distribute 10,000 Hong Kong dollars to each permanent resident, although the timing of that payment depends on proof of residence.
I am pleased to observe that a good number of owners of Hong Kong property businesses have agreed to assist in the financing of affordable housing or have provided land for housing, and at the same time China has come up with the Greater Bay scheme, which is basically an economic zone which incorporates the southern provinces, with Hong Kong and Macau, creating job opportunities. Schools have been shut since Chinese New Year, but learning continues through online devices. Courts continue to function using videoconferencing facilities. Using coronavirus to criticise the Government is, to my mind, pointless and does not help.
All sides need to move on. Those who have been protesting should now direct their attention away from street demonstrations and towards the forthcoming LegCo elections. Their success at the November district council elections should certainly encourage their efforts. At the same time, they need to rethink their five demands and be prepared to sit down and negotiate with government. The demand for the withdrawal of the extradition law has already been accomplished. Other demands need to be moderated, particularly those that affect the trials of those who committed real crimes during the riots, leading to grievous injuries.
Similarly, the Government of Hong Kong need to reflect on their own competence. They need to ensure that any illegal police behaviour is investigated thoroughly and punished. They need to reflect heavily on their leadership as any Government, whatever their nature, anywhere in the world, ultimately depend on the will of the people. That said, in any society, freedom without discipline does not work. In the case of Hong Kong, we need to acknowledge that the police are the first and only line of civic defence. Without them, disorder, or much worse, would prevail.
Turning to China, I repeat what I have said before. It is not in China’s interests to renege on the Chinese-British joint declaration and the governing principle of “one country, two systems”; it has worked well for more than 20 years, and the Chinese Government have predominantly abided by its terms. Hong Kong continues to represent an important gateway into China and is responsible, as we have heard, for 70% of inward foreign direct investment going through its territory. Chinese private companies’ debt financing in Hong Kong has more than doubled in the last five years, so its importance for China as a financial centre has in no way diminished. This is possible only because there is international confidence in the legal system; as such, it is not in China’s interests to subvert that system.
Article 3 of the joint declaration sets out the rights and freedoms to be maintained. Overwhelmingly, they have been. For instance, look at the freedom of the press. Look at “Apple Daily”—by far the most popular Chinese local newspaper, with a circulation of over 1 million—or the South China Morning Post. They are scarcely voices of the Hong Kong or Chinese Governments. Destroying the “one country, two systems” formula would lead to massive riots in Hong Kong and a humanitarian disaster on an unimaginable scale, and would ensure that Taiwan never, ever accepts this solution—scarcely a desirable outcome for China. It is firmly in China’s interests to ensure that it works, and I can see no reason why it would not be extended for a further 50 years or more. But the fact remains that Hong Kong was born into China and will remain so; hence, the Chinese policy of banning the bad-mouthing of China and its leaders is therefore understandable.
In conclusion, I ask this: following the changed circumstances resulting from coronavirus in Hong Kong, what are the British Government doing to encourage the international community, including China, to unite in convincing both the people and the Government of Hong Kong to put aside confrontation and to work together on economic reforms which provide housing and jobs? At the same time, what are they doing to encourage realistic, reform-driven manifestos for the all-important forthcoming LegCo elections?
My Lords, I too welcome and thank the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, for giving us the opportunity to speak about problems facing the citizens of Hong Kong. Others have dealt with Covid-19. I will concentrate on a separate, much longer-standing issue. Responding on 8 January to the gracious Speech, I spoke about the unanswered request to Her Majesty’s Government from some veterans of the Hong Kong Military Service Corps. I will outline this issue.
Over five years ago, some 300 members of this group made requests for right of abode in the United Kingdom. The Home Office was initially dismissive, on the grounds that they were all locally enlisted and employed and so not even eligible for consideration. This assertion was inaccurate. These individuals were employed by the United Kingdom Government, serving full-time in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces and not employed by the Hong Kong Government. Their service took some of them to the United Kingdom or to jungle training in Borneo. Others served in UNFICYP in 1990-91 when they replaced UK servicemen required to take part in the first Gulf conflict. They are rightly categorised by the MoD as veterans of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, so should benefit from the undertaking of fair treatment in the military covenant.
In January 2016, our Home Office Minister—then the noble Lord, Lord Bates—in answer to a Written Question agreed
“to undertake a thorough assessment of the request that this group are offered right of abode in the United Kingdom”.
Since that date over four years ago, in spite of a series of further written and oral requests from Members of both Houses, there has been no resolution or agreement by the Government, merely a depressing series of responses, some even just repeats in the cut-in-paste manner saying that the matter was being carefully considered and a decision would be made as soon as practicable.
In my speech on 8 January, I described this, after four years without resolution, as repetitive indecision syndrome. Since then I have tabled two Questions for Written Answer. The first, on 3 February, received yet another indecisive reply. The second, tabled on 2 March, specifically asked when the assessment—started over four years ago in January 2016—would be completed. Another non-answer, just received, said,
“we continue to actively consider representations made on behalf of those former Hong Kong Military Service Corps”.
It seems that the Home Office does not wish to say yes, but will not say no. Maybe it is fearful of a judicial review, but is such indecision really fit for purpose?
The original 300 possible applicants have now been reduced in number by deaths and by some deciding to emigrate to Canada, Australia or elsewhere. There are now just 64. I have received copies of their applications, with a request that I forward them to the Home Secretary for consideration and decision. I am happy to do so. Indeed, I have them here in this envelope, addressed to the Home Secretary. Tomorrow they should be on her desk.
It is instructive to look back to a debate in this House on 20 January 1986 on the nationality provisions of the Hong Kong Act 1985. The issue of nationality of veteran servicemen was raised by several speakers, in particular Lord MacLehose, who was Governor of Hong Kong for over 10 and a half years:
“This brings me to the case of the veterans … At the end of this long era of British rule inevitably there are some debts to be paid. The legislative councillors say that this is such a debt. I am sure that they are right. I think the question of precedent or of opening up claims from elsewhere can be greatly overstated. It is just a matter of definition, and I suspect that the numbers will be found to be small … we must bear in mind the very special arrangements that we made in this respect for Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands. If exceptions can be made for them, surely an exception can be made for these people. In this case it is the gesture and the recognition of our responsibility that is so important, and I hope the gesture can be made.” —[Official Report, 20/1/1986; col. 91.]
The Minister winding up then acknowledged the strength of feeling across the House on this issue. After outlining some perceived complexities, he said:
“We shall need to look into these in a great deal more detail before we can say whether it would be appropriate or possible to meet the ex-servicemen’s request. But … I can assure your Lordships that we shall give this the most careful consideration.”—[Official Report, 20/1/1986; col. 102.]
That similar self-serving, evasive wording is still used today, 34 years on. The Government might argue that by grouping this cohort with those employed in the Hong Kong Disciplined Services, with the chance for some to be granted British citizenship among the negotiated figure of 50,000, they discharged their obligations. Some veterans did benefit, but it was wrong to group them with Hong Kong government employees. They were uniquely members of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. It is not fair that some benefited but others did not.
Under the military covenant, now is the time to correct this unfairness and allow the 64 members I mentioned earlier to be treated equally and fairly to right of abode. I have instanced the favourable treatment over nationality of Gurkhas who served in Her Majesty’s forces. That 1986 debate drew attention to a similar treatment of Gibraltarians and Falkland Islanders. Far from setting a precedent by granting these veterans’ requests, there seem to be several precedents already set, and the numbers are minimal. As Lord MacLehose so pointedly said, to act fairly in this would be a recognition of our national responsibility. So, will the Home Office and the Government now cure themselves of repetitive indecision syndrome, prove their fitness for purpose, and bring this decades-long issue to resolution?
My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lord Pendry for initiating this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, emailed me quite late last night, as is his wont, and reminded me that these debates are important because, while communities may be remote, they do follow these debates, particularly through new media such as Facebook and Twitter. It is important that we have continued, despite all the constraints upon us, to raise these vital issues.
Events are changing very fast. From the time that the noble Lord initiated this debate, we have seen a lot of changes. Carrie Lam announced on Tuesday that Hong Kong will quarantine all people arriving from abroad for 14 days; those restrictions will start today, Thursday. All entrants from mainland China already have to self-isolate. She said that the majority of cases had been imported, adding that strict measures were needed. As we heard in the debate about the number of cases, of the 57 new infections over the past two weeks, only seven were local cases; there are only 155 confirmed cases in the territory, which detected its first case in January.
Although it is difficult to understand the exact success of the Hong Kong response, given the incomplete testing figures, most agree that it has been at least in part successful—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington. I agree with that assessment. Although the approach of the Hong Kong Government differs from that of the UK, it has included greater social distancing measures and the closure of schools which, as the noble Lord said, we are now facing ourselves.
It is right that the United Kingdom engages with our international partners to share information on best practice. Gordon Brown was absolutely right on Radio 4 this morning: this is a global problem that requires a global response. It is no good saying “America first”, or “India first”; it is something that we all have to respond and come up with proper responses to. There is a very good reason why we should work particularly well and closely with Hong Kong on this issue. Can the Minister detail how the Government have engaged with the Hong Kong authorities and the non-governmental organisations of Hong Kong to better understand their approach to response?
As we find ourselves entering further into this crisis, the WHO has made clear above all that the Government must “test, test, test” all suspected cases. This is not a pandemic that we can fight blindfolded. We must keep abreast of the spread of those who have been affected. Of course, there is a physical capacity issue and there will be a limit as to how many individuals can be tested, but the Prime Minister has announced further plans to increase testing and increase the capacity. Although it is not his brief, I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some indication about what those plans mean in practice in terms of who will be further tested. What is the impact of better understanding the spread of the virus and the disease?
Along with the success of the Hong Kong authorities in tackling the virus, we have heard that we have to recognise the concerns raised relating to misinformation, much of which has circulated online and led to instances of panic. Can the Minister explain what lessons have been learned by the UK Government as a result of this? Throughout the pandemic, the feeling of distrust in the Hong Kong Government has remained. While larger demonstrations have scaled down, the police continue to disperse small-scale demonstrations, with reports of disproportionate force. Here, I too pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who has been absolutely committed to raising these abuses of human rights—however big or small they have been, he has been there and constantly pushing the Government to act. We have heard about the protesters who were pepper sprayed on 9 March. They had gathered to pay tribute to Alex Chow Tsz-lok, who died last November during the protest.
In the light of this continued crackdown, can the Minister confirm what steps the Government are taking to ensure that British national (overseas) passport holders can gain consular access in the British embassy should mistreatment of protesters continue? This is a really important point. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned up to 200,000 BNOs in Hong Kong. I have a figure of 170,000; irrespective of that, it is roughly in the same ballpark. Whatever we say their status is—the noble and gallant Lord made particular reference to this—this country has an obligation to those nationals. They are British nationals, even if they happen to be overseas. We have an absolute responsibility.
Previously, the Government claimed that the extension of the rights of BNO passport holders would contravene the joint declaration. As we have heard, they cited an immigration report by my noble and learned friend Lord Goldsmith, the former Attorney-General, as proof that it would be illegal. However, as my noble friend Lord Pendry and other noble Lords have referred to, in a recent letter to both the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary, my noble and learned friend Lord Goldsmith disputed the misrepresentation of this view and published fresh legal advice, stating that the UK Government would not
“be in breach of any obligation undertaken in the joint declaration were it to resolve to extend full right of abode to BN(O) passport holders while continuing to honour their side of the Sino-British Joint Declaration.”
I would like to hear from the Minister today whether the Government have given any consideration to extending the rights of BNO passport holders to include: working visas; or, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, the minor act of extending the length of time that Hong Kong students can stay in the United Kingdom after completing their studies; or, more importantly—because this is about the security of these people—offering them full right of abode in the United Kingdom.
I hope that the Minister will also respond to the long-outstanding issue raised by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, of servicemen who have served this country. We have a duty under the covenant to respond to them; I hope that he will do so today.
Of course, as noble Lords, including my noble friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, said, we must be concerned about what appear to be further politically motivated arrests, including of the newspaper owner Jimmy Lai and the legislators referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Alton: Lee Cheuk-yan and Yeung Sum. All of them were arrested last month by the Hong Kong police under archaic public ordinance laws. Like my noble friend Lady Kennedy, I hope that the Minister can confirm that we have made the strongest possible representations to the Hong Kong authorities regarding these arrests.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, emailed me late last night about his Written Question—to which the Minister responded yesterday, I think—on the assessment of Amnesty International’s report, Missing Truth, Missing Justice. In that response, the Minister raised the fact that the Government made their position clear on 27 February at the United Nations Human Rights Council. He said:
“A robust, credible and independent investigation into events in Hong Kong would be an important step in healing divisions and rebuilding trust that will support the process of dialogue and resolution.”
We need to know what has resulted from that support and whether the Government will continue to back the people and the elected representatives of Hong Kong.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, for tabling this timely debate. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, rightly mentioned, since the tabling of this debate, events have moved on apace, and it is right that, when we look at the challenges we face on the domestic front, we also cast our eye across the globe to see the how different parts of the world are meeting the challenge of Covid-19—the coronavirus—and the impacts of this, in the context of this debate, on the people of Hong Kong.
I totally concur with the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Carrington, who mentioned specifically—I mentioned it from the Dispatch Box only yesterday—that anyone involved in any shape or form, which means globally, with the challenge we now face, and, more importantly, the lessons being learned, cannot dispute that this is a global challenge requiring global solutions. That means that we share our experiences in this respect. To pick up on a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, on engagement with authorities and NGOs on this, as he will already be aware, we are engaging directly on an international front—I have been directly involved with such discussions—and, as I mentioned yesterday, we have already allocated a specific package of £241 million aid funding, which we are providing through various UN agencies as well as through the IMF. We have allocated a further £65 million on research, because this is a battle against time: we need to find an early solution to this crisis.
As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, noted, as of 19 March, the number of cases in Hong Kong has been quite limited, thankfully, because of actions taken. The latest statistics I have are that as of that date, there have been 192 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Hong Kong, including a British citizen who had recently visited Japan and London—again, that reinforces Carrie Lam’s point that some cases of coronavirus have occurred due to people arriving in Hong Kong. As the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, noted, four people have died, sadly, but also importantly, in this global challenge, 95 people have now recovered from that virus in Hong Kong.
I am sure that I speak for everyone in your Lordships’ House when I offer our heartfelt sympathies, and those of the whole UK Government, to all those who have been affected, in Hong Kong and elsewhere. We fully appreciate the challenges facing the Hong Kong Government and others across the world—particularly in Italy, South Korea, Iran and China—who are dealing with significant numbers of cases. We are also facing the task here of containing and delaying the spread of the virus. The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, mentioned the challenge. I know that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has spoken directly with the Chinese President, again reiterating our support for China and the sharing of best experience as we collectively face the challenge of Covid-19.
All Governments are having to make careful choices, as we are, about how to respond: weighing up the task of containing the spread of the virus against the social and economic disruption resulting from the measures taken to respond. The sustainability of those responses is also critical. If I may personalise some of the challenges, as a father of three, with my wife, only yesterday, after the decision taken by the Government, the prospect of having three children home-schooled for a number of months posed one’s own domestic challenge; the reality is very much at home. I assure all noble Lords that Her Majesty’s Government are clear that all the responses being taken are critical—and, yes, they should be well informed by the views of experts and led by the science. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has prioritised this approach in close co-ordination with international partners, including through the World Health Organization.
Specifically on Hong Kong, the number of new cases remains relatively low, as I said, with 25 new cases yesterday—although I add the cautionary note that that was the highest single daily increase so far. As several noble Lords mentioned, including the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, in his opening remarks, the Hong Kong Government have taken a series of measures to contain the spread of the virus. These have been backed up by a strong societal response conditioned by personal experiences of the SARS epidemic in 2002 and 2003.
After the first confirmed case in late January, over the course of February and March the Hong Kong Government introduced a number of significant measures, including: the suspension or scaling back of flights, trains, ferries and buses between Hong Kong and mainland China; the closure of most border crossings with mainland China; and from 19 March—as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, specifically mentioned—a compulsory 14-day quarantine for all travellers entering Hong Kong. This includes travellers into Hong Kong from the United Kingdom. For Hong Kong residents, including foreign nationals who live in Hong Kong, this quarantine can take place at home. For non-Hong Kong residents, such as tourists and business visitors, this will be in a Hong Kong government quarantine centre. The measures also include the prevention of entry of all non-Hong Kong residents who had been in Hubei province in mainland China or in South Korea in the previous 14 days. Individuals will also be expected to activate sharing of their real-time location with the Hong Kong Government as part of the requirement to report their location.
The noble Lord, Lord Pendry, mentioned face masks in his opening remarks. The Hong Kong Government have acknowledged public concern over the shortage in the supply of masks. I understand that they are working to increase the supply by sourcing masks globally, increasing local production and liaising with relevant authorities in mainland China to facilitate the swift delivery to Hong Kong of masks manufactured there. I have noticed updates on various news programmes, and the Chinese authorities are now shifting masks to other parts of the world as they look to contain their own outbreak.
The UK’s ability to replenish stocks of personal protective equipment, which includes fluid-repellent surgical masks, is severely constrained due to the significant increase in global demand. However, the UK Government support a collaborative approach to tackling the global challenge presented by Covid-19. The Department of Health and Social Care has strong, established links with key partners and countries to co-ordinate the response to Covid-19 across all public health issues.
The robust measures taken by the Hong Kong Government to respond to Covid-19 have inevitably had an impact on the Hong Kong economy, which was already in recession before the outbreak, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington. The tourism and retail sectors have been hit particularly hard. In this regard, the Hong Kong Government have announced an anti-epidemic fund worth 30 billion Hong Kong dollars to support businesses and safeguard jobs. The Hong Kong Government’s response demonstrates just how seriously they have taken the outbreak. It demonstrates that Hong Kong shares one of the key challenges faced by all jurisdictions.
The noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Carrington, asked specifically about UK action. The UK is of course closely monitoring the Covid-19 outbreak in Hong Kong. Our consulate-general is in frequent contact with the Government on their response. It is of course vital for the wider management of the outbreak that the UK and Hong Kong share our experiences and, to quote both noble Lords, work together. I assure noble Lords that we stand together with international partners to support Hong Kong as we deal with this global public health emergency. Our consulate-general continues to provide consular assistance to British nationals in Hong Kong who request and require it.
I turn specifically now to BNOs, raised by several noble Lords. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, raised specific issues relating to veterans in this respect as well. Let me say from the outset that the obligations of the UK Government towards Hong Kong residents with British national (overseas) status is something we take very seriously. As noble Lords will recall, British national (overseas) status was created in 1985 for people in Hong Kong who would lose their British dependent territory citizenship in 1997 when sovereignty was handed to China. As of February 2020, there were 349,881 British national (overseas) passport holders in Hong Kong, out of an estimated 2.9 million people eligible for such status. Individuals with this status are entitled to British consular assistance in third countries.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked specifically about consular assistance in Hong Kong for people with this status. As he may know—I am sure he is aware of this point, which has been raised before—there is no basis under the joint declaration, including in its memorandums, to provide such consular assistance to BNOs in Hong Kong itself. As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has said, the British national (overseas) status was part of the delicate balance and negotiations conducted and concluded at the time of the joint declaration. Full and continued respect for the provisions in the joint declaration are crucial to the future stability and prosperity of Hong Kong and to the rights, freedoms and autonomy of its people.
Several noble Lords including the noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked about Her Majesty’s Government’s position. As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary made clear in the other place towards the end of last year, we are not at this stage seeking to alter any one part of the package, including the consular status of British nationals (overseas).
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, asked about the 64 members of the Hong Kong police who have the right of abode in the UK. Under the British nationality selection scheme, which was introduced in 1990 and operated until 1 July 1997, a limited number of people were able to register as British citizens. I assure noble Lords that I will follow this up with the Home Office by letter, so that it is a matter of formal record that the issue has been raised again. I am aware that the Home Office is looking at this. I remember from my time there that it was being examined, but I will, as I say, formally write to my noble friend the Minister of State at the Home Office to see how we can progress the matter further and I will then respond accordingly to the noble and gallant Lord.
The noble Lords, Lord Pendry and Lord Alton, rightly talked about recent arrests in Hong Kong. The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, also raised this important issue. As noble Lords will know, I am acutely aware of the challenges not only in Hong Kong but in mainland China on human rights issues, whether we are talking about media freedom, freedom of religion or belief, or the general suppression of rights. Several noble Lords asked about raising this issue in international fora. During my last travels prior to the current challenges that we all now face, I specifically mentioned in the UK statement to the Human Rights Council the broader issue relating to the Uighur community. I assure noble Lords that this remains a personal priority, which I continue to take forward.
On the arrests of Jimmy Lai, Lee Cheuk-yan and Yeung Sum, we are following their cases closely. We are asking that due process be followed and that justice be applied fairly and transparently. We will continue to monitor the situation closely.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Falkner and Lady Kennedy, rightly spoke about the priority of media freedom. That is a priority campaign for Her Majesty’s Government, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, in particular, for her work on the legal panel. I assure all noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that we have consistently raised our concern about media freedoms in China. I agree with him that the Chinese Government’s announcement that they will prevent certain American journalists from working in China further restricts transparency at a particularly important time. The suggestion by the Chinese MFA that the measure may apply in Hong Kong is deeply concerning. As the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, said, the Sino-British joint declaration is clear. It sets out that immigration decisions are the sole responsibility of the Hong Kong special administrative region. She is right that freedom of the press is guaranteed. It is imperative that these rights and freedoms are fully respected. We take any allegations of the arrest and intimidation of journalists in Hong Kong extremely seriously, and we expect the Hong Kong authorities to abide by international human rights laws and practices.
Several noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, mentioned the importance of what we saw in Hong Kong prior to the Covid-19 outbreak. We continue to condemn any violence and make it clear that all protests should be policed and conducted within the law and that authorities should avoid actions that could inflame tensions. As the noble Baroness acknowledged, we have called specifically for a robust independent investigation into these events and will continue to do so.
The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, asked about raising these issues with the Chinese authorities. I assure her that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and others in the Government regularly raise our concerns about rights and freedoms with the Chinese Foreign Minister, the Hong Kong Chief Executive and the ambassador to the Court of St James. I assure noble Lords that the leadership in China and Hong Kong are in no doubt about the strength of UK concern over the current situation.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked a specific question about Home Office collaboration with Chinese authorities on facial recognition technology. I can inform him that the funding of this project was allocated by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, a publicly funded arm’s-length body that has formed part of UK Research and Innovation since April 2018. We ourselves as the Government are not involved in the actual funding decisions that this body makes, but I note the points that the noble Lord has raised on this issue.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, raised the issue of the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law. The rule of law and the independence of the judiciary are indeed foundations on which Hong Kong’s success and prosperity have been built. Indeed, up until recent events prior to Covid-19, “one country, two systems” had worked quite robustly and well. It is our view that it should be continue to be the basis of how Hong Kong can truly prosper and continue to progress and move forward.
I would like to conclude on the specific issue of Covid-19. The Hong Kong Government have taken what we believe are a number of robust measures—indeed, a number of noble Lords acknowledged that in their contributions—and that has resulted in proactive action. I think there is a lesson to be learned there. We have had other discussions in your Lordships’ House about lessons being learned, whether from the challenges that AIDS posed or indeed any crisis. The SARS crisis in that part of the world has resulted in people really acting and checking their own behaviour, and I think there are lessons to be learned there for all of us.
I assure noble Lords that we are in close and frequent contact with the Hong Kong Government. I give reassurance, again, that we stand ready to support them and share expertise to address the complex and global threat of Covid-19. On the wider issues that noble Lords have mentioned, such as media freedom, human rights and indeed the challenges that we have seen over the last 12 months or so in Hong Kong prior to Covid-19, I assure them that those things will remain very much a priority for Her Majesty’s Government.
My Lords, I began my remarks by asking the House to understand why the Motion put down some weeks ago was not necessarily what was going to be debated, and I was right. Because things that happen by the day in Hong Kong are so different from the day before, it was right that we had a wide-ranging debate on this issue. I thank everyone for taking part in it. I thank the Minister, with one exception: he did not address the question of the problems in our universities, which I have raised before. I would like him to reflect on what was said in this debate.
I apologise to the noble Lord; I think that was one of the many scribbles that I made. If he can provide me with specifics on that question, I will be very happy to take it up internally within the Government to make sure that it is raised with the appropriate university.
I thank the Minister for that. I wish to pick out one particular contribution, which is that of the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I am for ever grateful to him for taking part in debates that I am in because I learn so much from what he says, and I have done again today. The people of Hong Kong, who listen to these debates, are grateful for the interest that we show in their deliberations and, in many cases, their plights. Let us hope that we have more informed debates about that very important part of our history. I conclude with these few words: let us keep up our interest in that former colony of ours.