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Hong Kong: National Security Law

Volume 809: debated on Thursday 7 January 2021

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the arrest of more than 50 people, including pro-democracy politicians and campaigners, under the national security law in Hong Kong.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and in so doing declare that I am vice-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong and a patron of Hong Kong Watch.

My Lords, as my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary made clear in his Statement on 6 January, the mass arrests of politicians and activists in Hong Kong are a grievous attack on Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms as protected under the joint declaration. These arrests demonstrate that the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities deliberately misled the world about the true purpose of the national security law, which is being used to crush dissent and opposing political views. The United Kingdom will not turn our backs on the people of Hong Kong and will continue to offer BNOs the right to live and work in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, as we have seen in the last 24 hours, there are many ways in which the precious gift of democracy can be trashed. Under the cover of such darkness, does the Minister agree that mass arrests by 1,000 security officers and police and the intimidation and arrest of lawyers, legislators and activists are the methods of a police state and a crushing and grievous attack on democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and require immediate, robust Magnitsky sanctions against those responsible and those who are collaborators? As we watch the unfolding tragedy of democracy being replaced by dictatorship, will the Minister spell out how, beyond the BNO scheme, we intend to honour our treaty obligations to uphold a high degree of autonomy in Hong Kong, now clearly violated under the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties?

The continued suppression of the right to protest and a real decrease in the rights to representation, through the actions against the legislative body and indeed the recent Acts and arrests, have been increasingly evident in Hong Kong. We will certainly look at Magnitsky sanctions in their broadest sense. I cannot speculate on the specifics, as the noble Lord will appreciate, but the UK has been clear that—whether in terms of a suspension of the extradition treaty or the imposition of an arms embargo—we are taking a comprehensive look to ensure that those who suppress the rights of the people of Hong Kong are dealt with in a manner reflective of the values that we stand for.

My Lords, I entirely support all that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said about the concerning situation in Hong Kong. I am glad to hear of the Minister’s deep concerns about what has been taking place. On Monday I met Ted Hui, one of the lawmakers who has fled from Hong Kong, concerned about his safety if he remained. He has had his assets frozen by HSBC, as have his wife and parents, who fled with him into exile. Is the Minister aware of any private meetings that have taken place between his ministerial colleagues and HSBC since the bank announced its support for the national security law? Are we concerned that Beijing is co-opting banks and international companies that have strong positions here in Britain into supporting the security law and freezing the assets of people who have been arrested? What can be done with our allies—

My Lords, we are acting in conjunction with our allies and have led international action in condemnation of the actions not just in Hong Kong but in mainland China. We regularly meet financial services organisations and remind them of their obligations to all their clients, but it would be inappropriate for me to comment on one specific case.

My Lords, we led in the EU on adopting human rights sanctions. Since the UK has refused the EU’s offer of a formal arrangement to address foreign affairs, when and if we introduce Magnitsky sanctions, how do we ensure that the EU follows suit?

My Lords, we are working closely with all our allies, including the EU. The noble Baroness will have noticed the recent statement made by the EU, but also by key countries such as Germany, condemning the actions in Hong Kong. On the specifics of sanctions and our human rights policy more generally, as I have assured her before, we will continue to work very closely with all our allies, including the European Union, on the important priorities that we give to human rights, not just in Hong Kong but across the world.

My Lords, as other noble Lords have said, democracy and respect for human rights in Hong Kong are being snuffed out in front of our very eyes. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that any further delay in deploying Magnitsky sanctions against those identifiable Chinese officials responsible for this will just be embarrassing?

My Lords, we will look at all instruments available to us. On the issue of Magnitsky sanctions, as I said, I cannot speculate on the specifics but we keep the issue under review. To my mind, sanctions work effectively only when we work with our allies specifically.

Let us turn to the Minister’s last point. The United States has been able to introduce Magnitsky-style sanctions against Chinese Communist Party officials and Hong Kong executive members who are responsible for imposing these restrictions. Is the Minister aware of any obstacles or reasons why the Government have not acted, despite the calls across this House for the last six months for such sanctions to be introduced?

My Lords, as the noble Lord will be aware, we look at the sanctions policy specifically to ensure that the evidence base and thresholds are met. As I said, while I cannot go into specifics, we will continue to keep the situation under review—and, yes, act in co-ordination with our allies, including the United States, whose actions we observe closely in this respect.

My Lords, Title XII in Part 3 of the UK’s new deal with the EU provides that if the UK has “denounced”—that is the word used—the European Convention on Human Rights, the whole of Part 3 and all the security provisions cease to have force. Will the Government make representations to the European Commission not to approve the EU-China trade deal now before it unless there is a similar provision requiring China to abide by the current Hong Kong bill of rights—specifically its Article 16, on freedom of expression, and Article 17, on freedom of assembly? Will the Government ensure a similar provision in any trade deal between the UK and China?

My Lords, let me assure the noble Lord that human rights will be paramount in our discussions on a range of trade deals around the world. On the specific issues of our work with the EU and the decision it has taken on its trade deal, of course we make representations with European colleagues and will continue to do so while working closely with them in this respect.

My Lords, does not this further egregious breach of the treaty between us show that China has wilfully broken the friendship that we have long nourished and is firmly set on a path to be not a friend but an adversary of this nation and all who wish to maintain a rules-based order in the decades ahead?

My Lords, China continues to be an important international and strategic partner, but where there are abuses of human rights or other challenges, issues and concerns, we will raise them candidly, both bilaterally and through international fora. If we look at issues around the environment and climate change, for example, it is important that China also acts in this respect.

My Lords, it is about time that we got realistic about China. It is on a course of expansionism where it is threatening not only Hong Kong but Taiwan, and fortifying islands. Will the Minister not work hard to build a common front, which includes not only our traditional allies but the frontier states of the former Soviet republics and Russia itself? Unless we can get them on board, we will not effectively contain China.

My noble friend makes an important point. Let me assure him that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and I are working hard, including in my capacity as Minister for Human Rights, to ensure that we broaden the alliance against the human rights situation that we see in Hong Kong and mainland China. We saw recently at the UN Third Committee an increase in the number of countries supporting the UK position, which I believe went from 28 to 39.

My Lords, will the Minister tell us what initiatives Her Majesty’s Government are taking to lead efforts to build international co-operation and establish multilateral mechanisms for response, including the establishment of a UN special rapporteur to monitor and report on the human rights situation, as called for by many serving and former UN independent experts last year?

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has been at the forefront of strengthening international alliances and action in this respect. I have already alluded to the progress we have made. The noble Baroness is right to raise the important issue of other representation within the context of human rights. I note in particular that the human rights commissioner recently put out a statement on the arrests. We continue to implore China to allow access for the human rights commissioner to China, to ensure that human rights can be respected and the world can see what is being done currently on many minorities within China.

My Lords, given the Minister’s response to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, will the Government consider lodging a case against China in the International Court of Justice on the grounds that its actions in Hong Kong constitute a violation of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties?

As the noble Baroness may know, an issue at the International Court of Justice requires both parties to consent. It would not, to my mind, be an option that we should pursue because it is highly unlikely that China would consent to such actions.

My Lords, I declare an interest in Hong Kong that goes back to 1961, when I first went to work there. Does my noble friend agree that one lesson that applies to China and the USA is that, in any civilised nation state, the exercise of authority needs both the support and consent of the people? Does he also agree that China must be well aware that it was fortunate to inherit from Britain the world’s third most important financial centre, and that to flourish, such a tender plant needs sensitive treatment?

I agree with my noble friend on his final point. As someone who worked in financial services for 20 years before joining the Government, I totally agree that Hong Kong has long been a centre for financial services. It is therefore appropriate that, in Hong Kong, the Chinese authorities look to create the conditions and environment that allow firms to flourish and that centre to progress. I equally share his views that we must ensure freedoms and protections. He cited his long experience since 1961; he has had more time in business than I have had on God’s earth. Nevertheless, I totally share his view and opinions in this respect.

My Lords, while supporting every move by the Government to condemn the actions of the Hong Kong Government and to build up international pressure on the Government of China, I would like to receive reassurance that the Government recognise their responsibility for the interests and well-being of all the people of Hong Kong, and that any action they take does not directly or indirectly affect the ongoing business and livelihoods of its people and companies.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that it is important that we consider our actions in the light of the situation in Hong Kong and, equally, the implications of our continuing relationship. However, it is right that, while we recognise China and Hong Kong as important financial centres and trade partners—and, as I have indicated already, an important international partner on issues such as climate change—it is also right that we call out human rights abuses wherever we see them, whether in mainland China, particularly in Xinjiang against the Uighurs, or as we currently see in the continuing suppression of democracy, human rights, freedom and the right to protest. It is right that we do so and we have a special obligation, particular to BNOs. I am proud of the fact that the Government are taking specific steps in this respect.