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Hong Kong: Sentencing of Pro-democracy Activists

Volume 808: debated on Tuesday 8 December 2020

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 7 December.

“We are deeply concerned by recent developments in Hong Kong. As the Foreign Secretary made clear in the most recent six-monthly report on Hong Kong, this has been and continues to be the most concerning period in Hong Kong’s post-handover history. The apparent focus of the Hong Kong authorities now seems to be on retribution against political opposition and the silencing of dissent. In the light of our concerns, we have taken decisive action in relation to the erosions of rights, freedoms and autonomy in Hong Kong, specifically in response to the national security law. This has included a new immigration path for British nationals (overseas), suspending our extradition treaty with Hong Kong and extending our arms embargo on mainland China to Hong Kong.

We have made clear our concerns about a number of ongoing cases, and that includes the sentencing of the pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam on 2 December and the charges laid against the major media proprietor Jimmy Lai on the same day. We understand that the three sentenced on 2 December pleaded guilty to inciting people to take part in an unauthorised rally last year. They were not charged under the national security law. As the Foreign Secretary made clear in his statement of 2 December, prosecution decisions must be fair and impartial, and the rights and freedoms guaranteed to the people of Hong Kong under the joint declaration must be upheld. Hong Kong’s prosperity and way of life rely on respect for fundamental freedoms, an independent judiciary and the rule of law.

British judges have played an important role in supporting the independence of Hong Kong’s judiciary for many years. That independence is a critical factor underpinning Hong Kong’s success. We want it to, and hope that it will, continue; however, the national security law that was imposed on Hong Kong in July poses real questions for the rule of law in Hong Kong, and the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms promised by China in the joint declaration. It is therefore right that the UK Supreme Court continues to assess the situation in Hong Kong, and the position of British judges, in discussion with the Government.

We have raised our concerns about these and other cases with senior members of the Hong Kong Government and the Beijing authorities, and we will continue to do so. We urge the Hong Kong and Beijing authorities to bring an end to their apparent campaign to stifle legitimate opposition, and to reconsider their current course. The Government will continue to work with international partners to hold China to account, as we did recently at the UN Third Committee on 6 October, where 39 countries expressed deep concern at the situation in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet. The UK Government will continue to stand up for the people of Hong Kong and our historic responsibility.”

My Lords, I welcome this Answer. It is important that we send a united message opposing attempts to erode the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong. Yesterday, my honourable friend Lisa Nandy asked Nigel Adams about the development of a co-ordinated response involving our Five Eyes partners, including the new US Administration. Can the noble Lord say more than simply,

“the Foreign Secretary will … be having conversations with his counterpart”?—[Official Report, Commons, 7/12/20; col. 591.]

Have there been any direct discussions with the Biden transition team about the human rights situation in Hong Kong? My honourable friend Chris Bryant yesterday expressed his frustration at Ministers continuing to say that they could not speculate about future sanctions designations. I am sure that the noble Lord will follow the same mantra. If he cannot say who, will he at least commit to when? It is important that we act quickly.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for his remarks about a united response. I thank both him and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, for their continuing engagement—not just within the Chamber, but more widely—on this important issue of human rights and on our relationship with China and the situation there.

The noble Lord asked about the important area of our ongoing relationship with the US. As he will be aware, we came together with key partners, including the US, Australia and New Zealand, over the situation in Hong Kong. We valued their support. We are going through a transition period with the US. My honourable friend in the other place was correct; my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has engaged on this agenda with the incoming US Administration. I also assure the noble Lord that we are continuing with the operational elements of our approach. I have had some meaningful exchanges with the State Department, and we are working closely with our US partners even during this transition period.

The noble Lord again pressed me about the human rights sanctions regime. We are looking at situations across the globe. The intent behind this regime is to look not at a country as a whole but at specific individuals and organisations. I am sure we shall continue to keep those aspects in mind, whatever sanctions are brought forward in future. He asked about the timeline. Patience is a virtue, and I hope that his virtue will not be tested for too long.

My Lords, I also welcome the Statement. We all share the Government’s concerns. Joshua Wong has been imprisoned for more than a year. As my honourable friend Wendy Chamberlain flagged up yesterday, under the Government’s current Immigration Rules, that would mean that he was barred from claiming asylum. Will the Government commit to following the Canadian Government and ensure that those charges are not a barrier to vulnerable activists being able to claim asylum in the United Kingdom? The Minister in the Commons responded sympathetically to my honourable friend, but he did not have an answer. I am sure that the noble Lord has looked at Hansard to see what happened in the Commons yesterday. I hope he has a better answer. If he does not, perhaps he can write to us.

Eight students have been arrested for protesting peacefully on university campuses. This reinforces how young people are particularly vulnerable to arrest under the national security law. Therefore, will the Government amend its BNO visa scheme to allow those born after 1997 to apply?

My Lords, we have already clarified our position on the BNO status of those born after a given date but who have a direct relationship with someone with that status. They will be considered when the scheme becomes operational. As the noble Baroness knows, that will be from 31 January 2021. As she will appreciate, the three activists—Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam—have not been charged under the new national security law. They accepted the charges levelled against them. Inasmuch as I can at this juncture, I assure her that we look at any asylum application to the United Kingdom on the merits of the particular case. If I can provide her with further details, I will write to her, as she suggested.

My Lords, the Minister referred to the broader relationship with China. The Government were defeated twice in the House of Lords last night over trade deals with China. They have a piecemeal, open-handed approach to their relationship with a country that views democracies and free media as potential threats to its regime, and that is a master at leveraging economic statecraft to strategic effect. Will the Government therefore recognise that a new basis for managing this relationship should not include mutually hawkish policies, but rather be built on consistency, reciprocity and fairness, embracing relationship- building with a whole-government approach that is accepted as a necessity, not a luxury?

My Lords, it is important to look at our relationship with China from a strategic perspective. As I have said before from the Dispatch Box, the UK wants a mature, positive relationship with China. China is an important member of the international community and a P5 member of the UN Security Council. Its size, rising economic power and influence also make it an important partner in tackling some of the biggest global challenges. As we have already seen on Covid-19, there is an immense scope for co-operation. As we look forward to 2021, the recent announcements that have been made by the Chinese Government provide enormous scope for positive, constructive engagement and wide-ranging opportunities, from trade to co-operation on tackling climate change. China of course is important as we strive to achieve the goals and ambitions that we have set out for COP 26.

In that strategic relationship, it is absolutely right that we protect our own vital interests, including support and our sensitive infrastructure. Equally, we will not accept investment that compromises our national security. And, as we have repeatedly said, in international fora such as the UN Third Committee or the Human Rights Council, where we have direct concerns—whether on Xinjiang in China, or Hong Kong, as we are discussing today—we will raise them. We will raise them bilaterally, in multilateral fora and in partnership with key countries and other member states, because it is important that we speak up against the suppression of human rights, wherever it occurs.