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Hong Kong: Legislative Council

Volume 807: debated on Thursday 12 November 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of reports that four pro-democracy legislators have been dismissed from the Hong Kong Legislative Council with immediate effect.

My Lords, yesterday was another sad day for the people of Hong Kong. China’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress imposed new restrictions, meaning that any Hong Kong legislator deemed to be supporting independence, refusing to recognise China’s sovereignty, seeking to support foreign forces’ interference or endangering Hong Kong’s national security would be disqualified. This decision led to the immediate removal of four elected members of the Legislative Council. Beijing’s actions breach both China’s commitment that Hong Kong will enjoy a high degree of autonomy and the right to freedom of speech, which is guaranteed under the Sino-British joint declaration.

My Lords, this is immensely serious for Hong Kong. What have the Government said directly to the Chinese Government about this major breach, as the Minister described it, of the Sino-British joint declaration? Will they consider taking China to the International Court of Justice for breaching its obligations under the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, or has the United Kingdom undermined its ability to do that by threatening to break international law when it suits us?

On the noble Baroness’s second question, we remain strong supporters of the ICJ but, as she will know, going to the ICJ requires the agreement of both parties. I very much doubt that China would do so. On the specific measures that we have taken since China’s action, only an hour or so ago, the Chinese ambassador was summoned to the FCDO to meet the Permanent Under-Secretary. I have not seen the read-out of that but we have taken immediate steps there.

I will; I am sorry. China’s dismissal of four members of the Legislative Council underlined the worst fears about the national security law and its impact on freedoms of expression and judicial independence in Hong Kong. The new law, which apparently applies to everyone everywhere in the world, is generating alarm among universities with students who will return to Hong Kong at some stage and could face the risk of arrest. It makes a nonsense of “one country, two systems”. What representations are being made to the Chinese ambassador about the disqualification of the four pro-democracy lawmakers? What progress is being made in identifying senior Chinese Government officials who have committed serious human rights abuses?

My Lords, the noble Lord is correct. We have summoned the Chinese ambassador to register our deep concern on this issue. The noble Lord talked about all members of the Legislative Council; four members were suspended and removed while they were in the Chamber. Others have left the council in solidarity.

On identification, the noble Lord was, I think, alluding to global human rights sanctions. As I have said before, we cannot speculate on future sanctions that we may apply through that regime. Nevertheless, since the national security laws initiated the continuing suppression of freedoms in Hong Kong, we have aired—and continue to air—our deep concerns.

What course can Her Majesty’s Government follow that is likely to improve the situation for freedom in Hong Kong?

My noble and learned friend raises an important issue. On 6 October, 39 countries issued a joint statement at the UN General Assembly expressing deep concern at the situation in Hong Kong, building on the Human Rights Council statement in June. We believe that this joint approach with other international partners is the best approach in pressing China to live up to its obligations.

My Lords, I declare my interests as a patron of Hong Kong Watch and vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong. What steps are the Government taking to co-ordinate an international response to the purge of democrats and the dismantling of democratic freedoms in Hong Kong? Does this include an international contact group, mobilising the G7, developing an alliance of democracies to co-ordinate targeted sanctions and a lifeboat rescue package, and working for the creation of a mechanism at the United Nations for a special rapporteur?

As I have already said, we are leading the international response on Hong Kong. An increasing number of countries are joining statements through UN human rights bodies, which underscores the success of this approach. We have no plans to establish an international contact group. The Foreign Secretary is leading the way on this issue as a priority.

My Lords, the Government have provided a way for citizens holding a BNO passport to take steps to come here. A high proportion of people will miss out on this scheme, particularly those born after 1997. What other immigration measures have the Government considered in the interests of safety for the people of Hong Kong?

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is right to raise BNO status. It will open for applications at the end of January 2021. On the specifics of people born after a given date, certainly where they are connected to those who qualify for BNO status, our policy is not to separate families—they will also be included in the scheme.

My Lords, given the clear breach of the joint declaration and international law, how can we enlist support from European Union countries when the Government persist with Part 5 of the Internal Market Bill? Is this not a clear illustration of the Government’s chickens coming home to roost?

I assure the noble Lord that there are no chickens in my response, per se. On this specific issue, the fact that Germany delivered the statement at the UN Third Committee underlines the strong support in the European Union for our position on Hong Kong.

My Lords, I welcome what the Minister said about his and the United Kingdom’s efforts at the United Nations and building support, but we obviously need to do more. The Minister failed to answer the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, about how we may build a better consensus through the use of the scheduled G7 meeting. Can he give a more specific answer?

Of course. We will continue to press this case, whether through the G7 or other multilateral fora. We are achieving success; I am sure that all noble Lords will acknowledge that the fact that we have seen an incremental increase in the number of countries supporting the UK’s position on Hong Kong illustrates the success of this policy.

My Lords, in view of this scandalous behaviour by the Chinese Government and their rejection of the criticism of western Governments, is it not time to encourage people not to support Chinese exports, as their economy is all-important to the Chinese?

My Lords, we have a strategic relationship with China. We continue to wish to strengthen that, but in a very clear-eyed way, and where there are abuses of human rights, whether in Hong Kong or indeed in mainland China, we will call them out.

The offence of the four lawmakers who were expelled without legal process from LegCo—two barristers, an accountant and a medical consultant—was that they had allegedly supported requests to the US to impose sanctions on China for its interference in Hong Kong. What about this country? The United Kingdom signed the bilateral joint declaration, which by Article 3 guarantees the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong citizens. Does the Minister agree that we have a moral and imperative duty to take action now, not just to wring our hands—to impose sanctions or to take China to the International Court of Justice, as my noble friend suggested earlier?

My Lords, the noble Lord raises Article 3, and that is exactly what we are pressing: that China must uphold its international obligations. I have already covered the point on the ICJ; we will continue to work on a multilateral basis and bilaterally in raising this issue with Chinese authorities and the Hong Kong special administrative region as well.

My Lords, what assessment has the Minister made of the likely impact that Beijing’s purging of pro-democracy voices in the legislature will have on the rule of law in Hong Kong? Does he share my concern about the threat to the continued independence of the judiciary, and do the Government have anything specific in mind to seek to avoid that?

My Lords, I totally concur with the noble Baroness. There has been an increasing decline, and this is the second major shift this year with the introduction of the national security law and the suspension of democratically elected legislators. She raises an important point about the independence of the judiciary. Again, the national security law raises real concerns, as under it the Chief Executive now has the right to appoint judges as well. We will continue to raise that issue and our concern with China directly.

My Lords, this is an extremely serious development and I am sure that Her Majesty’s Government are working hard with international partners to ensure that democracy and human rights—and indeed freedom of speech—are maintained in Hong Kong. I have previously raised the fact that two crucial events are coming up where China has a leading role to play. As well as the COP next year there is the equally important meeting on the Convention on Biological Diversity, which China is hosting. Does my noble friend think that the prospects of these two global events are in any way endangered by these events in Hong Kong?

My Lords, China is an important partner and my noble friend is quite right to raise the two events coming up next year. We continue to work strategically and importantly on the priorities of the environment as a key issue in the lead-up to COP 26. However, events like this indeed hinder the relationship that we are seeking to build bilaterally with China.

My Lords, I declare my position as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong. The noble Lord, Lord McColl of Dulwich, referred to people buying Chinese products. That is a large part of our retail sector but of course our financial sector, the City of London, is tightly enmeshed with banks that have expressed support for the Chinese government position and are heavily involved in the Hong Kong economy. What are the Government’s plans to tackle that issue?

My Lords, as I have already said, trade with China is important, but we must do so in a manner which reflects the importance that the Government attach to human rights. The noble Baroness raises the issue of financial services. It is for companies to make key decisions, but we remain very much committed that where there is a usurping of human rights we will raise those issues, whether that is happening in Hong Kong or mainland China.

My Lords, given the serious and continuing deterioration of human rights in Hong Kong and China, which government policy has been most effective: David Cameron’s toadying or Boris Johnson’s bombast?

That is an interesting question for the noble Lord to put to a Minister who has served under both Prime Ministers. We live in the present, and that is where we need to focus. We have seen a systematic abuse in recent years in mainland China, whether we are talking about the Uighurs or indeed other human rights abuses, which we have often debated in your Lordships’ House. Currently, the steps that have been taken this year alone in Hong Kong illustrate a hardening of the stance and a real test of the Sino-British joint agreement. We will continue to press for that and press China to stand up for its international obligations. However, at the same time, we will continue to raise the bar against the usurping of human rights, be it in Hong Kong or indeed in China.