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Hong Kong: Democracy Movement

Volume 810: debated on Monday 8 March 2021

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they are making to the government of Hong Kong regarding the mass arrests of leaders of the Hong Kong democracy movement.

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

My Lords, as my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary made clear in a Statement on 1 March, the decision to charge 47 politicians and activists under the national security law is another deeply disturbing step. It demonstrates in the starkest way that the law is being used to stifle political dissent rather than restore security, which China claimed was the law’s intended purpose. Officials in Hong Kong raised our concerns with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 2 March, and with the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government on 5 March.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. The 47 which he has just referred to brings to more than 100 the arrests now made under the Chinese Communist Party’s draconian national security law, and all of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy leaders are either in jail, in exile or on trial. Does he agree with the noble Lord, Lord Patten, who said that this wave of mass arrests is

“a continuing and brutal danger to all who believe in free and open speech”,

and will he relay to the Foreign Secretary that this House wants sanctions imposed on those responsible, whether Magnitsky-style sanctions or a bespoke regime such as that developed for Myanmar, even before the military coup there? The time for words is over; the time is now surely for action.

My Lords, let me assure the noble Lord that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary is very much aware of the strong sentiments and views of your Lordships’ House. I update my colleagues in the FCDO regularly on our debates and discussions, not just on this issue but on every issue. Specific to the noble Lord’s point about sanctions, he will of course know that I cannot comment on future designations. But we have taken specific steps on the situation in Hong Kong, as I am sure he will note, including the provision, which I believe was first proposed in your Lordships’ House, on the important issue of BNOs.

My Lords, British judges have continued to sit as non-permanent judges in the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal as recently as January of this year, and the Chinese Government continue to point to them as proof that the Hong Kong legal system is fair and independent. In view of increasingly repressive legislation and arrests under it, what is Her Majesty’s Government’s present view of the appropriateness of our judges continuing to sit in that court?

My Lords, as the noble Baroness acknowledges, British judges have played an important role in supporting the independence of Hong Kong’s judiciary over many years, and we hope that this can continue. However, as she also rightly points out—and I agree—the national security law now poses real questions for the rule of law in Hong Kong and the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms. It is therefore right that the Supreme Court continues to assess the situation in Hong Kong, and it is doing so in direct discussion with the Government.

Does the Minister agree with his colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, when he says:

“This completely destroys the pledge of one-country, two-systems”?

Will the Government now consider offering a bespoke scheme for young human rights activists from Hong Kong who are not covered by the BNO scheme?

My Lords, irrespective of where we sit in your Lordships’ House, I believe we all acknowledge the immense insight and expertise of my noble friend Lord Patten on matters pertaining to Hong Kong. On the noble Baroness’s proposal, we are currently focused on the important issue of BNOs. That scheme has started and is running well. On the broader issue, we call out for the continued freedoms of all citizens in Hong Kong.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alton. The Government have, in the past month, announced asset freezes and travel bans on 19 senior military and government figures in Myanmar, following the military coup earlier last month. Why are we not doing at least as much in response to the human rights and rule of law abuses by China in Hong Kong? Sanctions will and must come, and when they do, does my noble friend agree that it will not be a moment too early?

My Lords, on the issue of sanctions more generally, I am pleased that we have moved forward on the important issue of not just transferring the sanctions regimes after we left the European Union but the global human rights sanctions regimes that we have brought forward. Those have been focused on those who commit abuses of human rights being held to account—individuals, organisations and institutions. As I have already said, I cannot speculate on any future designation, but I share my noble and learned friend’s view that sanctions are an important tool.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Will he list those of our allies which he believes will publicly support us when we are defending the right of people to leave Hong Kong to come to freedom in the West?

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord himself has insights into the number of our key partners who have already indicated through international fora their support for the position of the United Kingdom and for the human rights situation of everyone in Hong Kong. They continue to be supportive of various schemes, including our current one around BNOs.

My Lords, perhaps I may pick up on the last point made by the Minister. I have previously asked about a co-ordinated response and, from the comments of the Five Eyes leaders, our allies are determined to act. Can the Minister advise us on what action the United Kingdom is now taking to co-ordinate a Five Eyes alliance response to the latest arrests?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that our partnerships are important. As I have said, the Five Eyes partnership on issues of security is particularly key. On 18 November, we worked with our Five Eyes partners to issue a statement, and of course we are looking at the situation, in particular the recent announcements, although they are in draft and have not yet been published, about the decisions of the China national congress on the future legislative body in Hong Kong. We will be co-ordinating our response, including that with our key partners.

My Lords, what is the Minister’s assessment of the implications of national security education in Hong Kong schools for children as young as six? There are widespread concerns that this is indoctrination of Chinese communist propaganda at the heart of the curriculum. What steps have been or are being taken by Her Majesty’s Government to respond to these very serious concerns?

My Lords, the noble Baroness has raised another important point about education and teaching in the various institutions in Hong Kong. Of course, we take this very seriously and we continue to implore not only the Hong Kong special administrative region authority but also the Government of China themselves to ensure an inclusive educational curriculum for all in Hong Kong.

My Lords, what assessment have the Government made of the plans announced last week to extend Beijing’s power of appointment to the Hong Kong parliament and be granted a veto over all of the candidates? This could prevent democracy activists standing in elections and has been described by the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, as

“the biggest step so far to obliterate Hong Kong’s freedoms and aspirations for greater democracy under the rule of law.”?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to point to the recent announcement made by the National People’s Congress of China, to which I have already referred. Following the current session, we expect the deliberations and debates to finish around 11 March. The next step will be for the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress to formally enact the changes at a subsequent meeting. While there has been media reporting, no specific details have yet been put forward. These proposals are in draft and, while no decisions are being taken, we are monitoring the situation closely.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his answer to my noble friend Lady Mallalieu to her question in relation to our judges and their participation in the highest court in Hong Kong. Are the Government aware of the recent decision in the case of Jimmy Lai, where his refusal for bail went all the way to the highest court, and a decision was made that no law in Hong Kong has more meaning than the Chinese national security law which has been passed? The national security law is superior to any law, be it common law or international law, in Hong Kong. Should this not be the turning point in urging our judiciary to think again?

My Lords, the noble Baroness speaks with great insight about the law and she is right to point out the statements that were made in the appeal case on this issue, and indeed what we have seen on the bail hearings for the 47 individuals currently being held. As I have said, we are in direct discussions with the Supreme Court and the Government on the issue of judges in Hong Kong.

My Lords, while in complete agreement with the Government’s actions, I want to highlight the length of British involvement in Hong Kong and our close connections with its political and business leaders, many of whom were educated in this country. In order to fulfil our responsibilities and maintain our valuable friendship, has the time come to invite an official delegation from Hong Kong to this country both to express our concerns and to hear from them how they see the future and how we can establish a sensible relationship that benefits both sides going forward?

My Lords, I note the suggestion of the noble Lord, but from what we have seen of the National People’s Congress about future legislative control within Hong Kong, and indeed the actions that have been taken recently, I wonder how much leverage we would gain from such an interaction. However, I have noted carefully what the noble Lord has said and I will certainly consider it with colleagues in the FCDO.

My Lords, I declare my position as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong. The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, just referred to business leaders. My question notes the behaviour of a number of financial institutions that are either based in the UK or with very close links here that are essentially backing unconditionally the illegal behaviour of the Chinese Government, notably HSBC. What steps are the Government taking to consider the impact on our own financial stake in Hong Kong and the damage to their reputation?

My Lords, let me assure the noble Baroness that we are in close contact with a wide range of businesses in Hong Kong, but as I have said before, it is for businesses to make their own judgment calls. However, we are concerned that a number of recent decisions taken by the authorities in Hong Kong are further evidence of their determined campaign to stifle opposition and silence dissent. We will certainly continue to pursue an approach in Hong Kong that is rooted in our values and defends our rights, and we will continue to advise on and discuss with business the current serious situation in Hong Kong that we have been seeing in recent days.

My Lords, we have heard comparisons being made with Myanmar and other unhappy positions where people’s rights are being affected. However, surely the fact that China’s actions in Hong Kong are in clear contravention of the Sino-British joint declaration makes this particular case unique. How can we trust our future negotiations with a country which has actually broken its word? Does this not add to the demands made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for further action?

I agree entirely with the noble Lord’s first point. We continue to engage with China on a raft of different issues, including the environment and climate change. However, it is important that the statements of trust which are made by the Chinese authorities are ones that can stand scrutiny. From what we have seen in Hong Kong, that is not the case.

My Lords, those Hong Kongers who hold BNO status and are veterans of Her Majesty’s Hong Kong Military Service Corps have long pressed for grant of full British citizenship, which was given to a large number of their colleagues before 1997. Does the Minister agree that in view of the current developments, the time is right for their applications to be decided, having been under active consideration by the Government for over six years?

My Lords, I pay tribute to the focus of the noble and gallant Lord on this campaign, which he has again drawn to the attention of your Lordships’ House and the Government. As we look at BNO status and its application, I will certainly take back once again the long-standing position on this issue of the noble and gallant Lord and I will write to him.

House adjourned.