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Hong Kong: Electoral Reforms

Volume 810: debated on Thursday 11 March 2021

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 10 March.

“The United Kingdom is deeply concerned about the situation in Hong Kong and the erosion of rights enshrined under the Sino-British joint declaration. In response to these worrying developments, the United Kingdom has already taken decisive action. This includes offering a bespoke immigration path for British nationals overseas, suspending our extradition treaty with Hong Kong indefinitely and extending our arms embargo on mainland China to Hong Kong. The United Kingdom has led international action to hold China to account. As recently as 22 February, the Foreign Secretary addressed the UN Human Rights Council to call out the systematic violation of the rights of the people of Hong Kong, making it clear that free and fair legislative elections must take place with a range of opposition voices allowed to take part.

On the Question raised by the honourable Member for Oxford West and Abingdon, Layla Moran, this week meetings of China’s National People’s Congress are taking place behind closed doors. We understand that the agenda includes proposals for changes to Hong Kong’s election processes. Although the detail is yet to be revealed, these measures might include changes to the election of the Chief Executive, the removal of district councillors from the Chief Executive election committee and the possible introduction of vetting for those standing for public office to ensure that they are described as patriots who govern Hong Kong. Such measures, if introduced, would be a further attack on Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms.

Ahead of possible developments this week, the United Kingdom has raised our concerns, including with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Hong Kong Government and the Chinese embassy in London, as have many of our international partners. The Chinese and Hong Kong authorities can be in no doubt about the seriousness of our concerns. Given recent developments, including the imposition of the national security law last year, the imposition of new rules to disqualify elected legislators in November and the mass arrests of activists in January, we are right to be deeply concerned. We are seeing concerted action to stifle democracy and the voices of those who are fighting for it.

There is still time for the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities to step back from further action to restrict the rights and freedoms of Hongkongers, and to respect Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy. We will continue working with our partners to stand up for the people of Hong Kong and hold China to its international obligations, freely assumed under international law, including through the legally binding Sino-British joint declaration.”

My Lords, this morning Dominic Raab said that the action of the Chinese National People’s Congress would further undermine trust in China. Earlier this week, I asked the Minister about Five Eyes co-operation. Since their November statement, the Chinese Government have rewritten Hong Kong’s electoral law and arrested politicians under the national security law, and the police have continued to respond brutally to peaceful protests. The UK needs to lead a co-ordinated strategic response with our allies, so will the Government now call a new meeting of Five Eyes leaders to match words with action?

My Lords, I, of course, take note of the suggestion of the noble Lord. Let me assure him and all noble Lords that the United Kingdom is working in a very co-ordinated fashion with our Five Eyes partners. I am sure that the noble Lord will note the statements we have previously made on these issues together with key Five Eyes partners, including the United States, Canada and Australia, the most recent being a joint statement in January of this year. Of course, following the announcement this morning, we will be looking to further strengthen our response to the continued dilution of, challenges to and suppression of democracy in Hong Kong.

My Lords, did the Minister hear the Chinese chargé d’affaires on the “Today” programme this morning describing the nem. con. vote in China’s National People’s Congress as

“improving the democratic system in Hong Kong”?

Are we now in too weak a position to be able to sanction those who have undermined the international agreement in Hong Kong committing it to “one country, two systems”, which includes a proper democratic system in Hong Kong? If we are not, why are we not doing this?

My Lords, on the noble Baroness’s point about sanctions, of course, that is one of several tools at our disposal in taking action against those who continue to suppress democracy and the rights of democracy. I did indeed hear the “Today” programme and the description of the congress’s decision. The best thing that I can say from the Dispatch Box about that decision is that it is anything but democracy: it is the continuing saga of further suppression of the democratic rights of the people of Hong Kong and of their right to choose their own representatives. We will continue to use all channels to ensure that China looks again very carefully at the situation in Hong Kong. On the issue of sanctions, as well as other tools at our disposal, I assure the noble Baroness that we are giving full consideration to everything available to us.

My Lords, I declare my interests as vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong and as a patron of Hong Kong Watch. Given that BNO is not an accountability measure, what single action have we taken to hold the Chinese Communist Party to account for breaching the internationally binding Sino-British joint declaration? What cross-government assessment is being made of the CCP’s involvement in our critical national infrastructure? One example is the China General Nuclear Power Group, which is blacklisted in the US for stealing nuclear secrets, but which owns one-third of Hinkley Point in the United Kingdom?

On the noble Lord’s second point, I can assure him that we take a very robust attitude to the operation of Chinese firms and companies within the United Kingdom. Of course, when there was a big challenge concerning the issue of 5G, we reflected on the provisions for that. I can point the noble Lord to several specific actions that we have taken, including those at the UN, dating back to May 2020. Most recently, on 22 February, the Foreign Secretary directly addressed the UN Human Rights Council, calling out the systematic violation of the rights and people of Hong Kong.

My Lords, the Minister will no doubt be aware that on Monday, foreign diplomats in Hong Kong were summoned to meet the head of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s office in the territory who, it is reported, warned them not to retaliate against changes to Hong Kong’s election system. That is evidence, I suggest, that there is no hope of persuading Chinese and Hong Kong authorities through diplomatic means to step back from further actions to restrict the rights and freedoms of Hongkongers, or to uphold Beijing’s commitment to the legally binding Sino-British joint declaration. Is it not time for the UK, together with key partners, to flex their muscles more persuasively, possibly through the financial sector, to make Beijing sit up, take notice and abide by its democratic commitment to Hong Kong?

My Lords, I note my noble friend’s suggestions, but I assure him that officials have raised these concerns directly. Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Beijing raised them with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 4 March; our acting consul-general in Hong Kong raised them with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 2 March; and London-based officials raised them with the Chinese Embassy here on 5 March. Let me assure my noble friend that we are also in close contact with like-minded partners regarding further action that can be taken.

My Lords, I would like to pick up on the Minister’s last remarks. Given our close historical connections with Hong Kong, the international community will be looking to the UK to take the lead in defending democracy there. Can he therefore tell the House in more detail than in the Written Answer what discussions the Government have had with the US, the EU and other democracies in the Asia-Pacific region, and what response they have had with respect to the actions to be taken?

My Lords, as I have already indicated, we are in constant contact with our partners, whether it is the Five Eyes partners that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, referred to, our colleagues within the European Union, or other allies for calling out the continuing suppression of democracy in Hong Kong. We are in very close contact with all of them. This includes action that we have taken at the UN and, specifically, working with close allies on the Human Rights Council, such as Germany and others. That will continue to be the case. However, the issue is for China to take a long, hard look at itself. It is not standing by international agreements that it has signed. It needs to reflect very carefully, because we are seeing the continuing suppression of democracy in Hong Kong, but we are working with partners to ensure that we call it out as regularly as we can.

My Lords, as the noble Lord stated, democracy is being stifled in Hong Kong. As a guarantor of the joint declaration, the UK has a legal and moral duty to stand up for the people there. China should be continuously called out for this egregious breach of international law. Does the Minister agree with me that the true patriots in Hong Kong are those who support the joint declaration, and that, surely, Magnitsky sanctions are now inevitable?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord when he rightly describes those who stand up as true patriots who stand up for freedom, democracy and the will of the people. I have already addressed the issue of sanctions; as I said, it is one of the tools available to us, and we are leaving all the tools very much on the table.

My Lords, the Government’s response to the Urgent Question says:

“There is still time for the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities to step back from further action to restrict the rights and freedoms of Hongkongers, and to respect Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy.”—[Official Report, Commons, 10/3/21; col. 881.]

I know that my noble friend the Minister heard Nick Robinson’s interview this morning on the “Today” programme with the Minister from the Chinese embassy. Would he agree that Mr Robinson was a model of restraint as he listened to the risibly incredible answers to his questions? Does my noble friend agree that the Government of China could not care less about what the rest of the world thinks, and that they will pay attention only when we actually do something, as opposed to wringing our hands and saying, “It’s all dreadful but we’d quite like their trade”?

In terms of what we say publicly in strengthening diplomacy, restraint is very much a description of British diplomacy at its best. But I assure my noble and learned friend that the restraint is not demonstrated in any way through the options that we consider—as we have done in calling out the issue in Hong Kong—and we are not wringing our hands. We regard China as an important international player, and it is important that it seeks to remain, and retain its place, within the international community. Everyone is looking at China and at what is happening not just in Hong Kong but in China itself, particularly in Xinjiang. It is important that we continue to call that out in international fora and, as I have said, together with international partners.

Could I press the Minister on one point that the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, made? Are we actually holding hands with the Biden Administration to put pressure on China? That would clearly strengthen our hand considerably. Secondly, given how we cannot really trust what assurances were given by the Chinese, how are we going to approach future negotiations?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s second point, of course what is happening in Hong Kong and the continued suppression of the human rights of people within China are important considerations in any future discussions we have with the Chinese authorities. On his first issue about our links and discussions with the Biden Administration, I assure the noble Lord that my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary are engaging with the United States, as well as all members of the team. Indeed, as I have said before, I look forward to talking quite directly with the Assistant Secretary responsible for human rights after the appropriate confirmation hearings, and I assure the noble Lord that this will be one of the key priority issues on our agenda.

Sitting suspended.