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Hong Kong: Pro-Democracy Campaigners

Volume 811: debated on Monday 19 April 2021

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of reports that pro-democracy campaigners have been sentenced in Hong Kong for participating in pro-democracy protests.

My Lords, we are clear that the Hong Kong authorities’ decision to target leading pro-democracy figures for prosecution is unacceptable and must stop. The right to peaceful protest is fundamental to Hong Kong’s way of life, protected in both the joint declaration and the Basic Law, and it should be upheld. We shall continue to raise our concerns with the Chinese and Hong Kong Governments and bring together our international partners to stand up for the people of Hong Kong.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his continued efforts in this regard, but is he aware of the letter sent last week by the last Governor of Hong Kong, the noble Lord, Lord Patten, and signed by 100 parliamentarians from both Houses, including the shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy and myself? We urged the Government to impose Magnitsky sanctions on officials in Beijing and Hong Kong for the grave and repeated breaches of the Sino-British joint declaration and the serious human rights violations committed in Hong Kong. In the light of the sentencing of some of the most prominent moderate, mainstream, internationally respected and senior pro-democracy campaigners, is it not time to impose Magnitsky sanctions?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness on the issue of the increasing number of convictions. At the end of last week, further action was taken by the Hong Kong authorities against people who are simply calling on their rights to protest and to democracy. The noble Baroness knows what I will say about speculation on future Magnitsky sanctions, but, as we have demonstrated in the case of Xinjiang, we have acted, and when we have we have done so in co-ordination with our partners.

My Lords, these are friends and allies who have been locked up, people we all know. The Foreign Secretary has stated that Beijing is now in permanent breach of the Sino-British joint declaration, so I urge the Government to stop holding back on imposing sanctions. Will the Minister assure us that the human rights crisis in Hong Kong will be on the G7 agenda so that collective action can be taken?

My Lords, the noble Baroness will already have noted the co-ordination we have shown with our G7 partners and the support we have gained from them on the situation in Hong Kong. Although the agenda is still being finalised for the leaders’ meeting, I am sure the situations in China and Hong Kong will be very much a part of the considerations. As for taking action against those in Hong Kong, we keep the situation under review, as I have said, but I cannot go further than that.

My Lords, apart from admitting residents of Hong Kong to the United Kingdom, what policy can Her Majesty’s Government follow to improve the liberties of the citizens of Hong Kong?

My Lords, my noble and learned friend raises some important points about the people of Hong Kong. As he will have noted, we have taken specific steps to broaden the offer to British nationals overseas and their families. That process is operating well. Of course, if anyone seeks the sanctuary of the United Kingdom because of the persecution they face, we will look at each case individually and provide the support needed. That applies to anyone around the world.

My Lords, as a patron of Hong Kong Watch and an officer of the All-Party Group on Hong Kong, I personally know Martin Lee, the father of Hong Kong democracy, Margaret Ng, a formidable lawyer, and Jimmy Lai, a champion of free speech and a full holder of a UK passport. Does the Minister agree they deserve better than a medieval star chamber and a Stalinist show trial? Is the debasement of law by puppets and quislings not best met by calling out the Chinese Communist Party at the next meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council, focusing on, as the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, said, the CCP’s lawbreaking and treaty-breaking, and its sentencing, imprisonment and detention in psychiatric institutions of women and men whose values we share?

My Lords, I agree totally with the noble Lord on the issue of values. That is why, as I am sure he would acknowledge, we have led in statements and in consolidating and increasing support at the Human Rights Council. It is something I have personally been engaged in and will continue to campaign for and make note of. He raised the cases of various individuals. Speaking personally, I saw the final interview Jimmy Lai gave just before his arrest, and it is quite chilling to see the conduct that happened thereafter to someone who stood up for media freedom. What has he been arrested for? It is for illegal assembly. We need to put this into context as well.

My Lords, I reinforce the points made by my noble friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws on Magnitsky sanctions. The Chinese Government recently criticised the UK for granting asylum to the Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Nathan Law. Does the Minister agree that a fitting way to rebut Beijing’s growing crackdown in Hong Kong would be for the Government to allow young Hong Kongers, who do not qualify for the BNO visa, to come to the UK to study and work?

My Lords, on the noble Baroness’s first point on asylum, as I said, I am proud that the United Kingdom continues to be a sanctuary for those seeking protection from persecution internationally, as it has been over the years. On her broader point, the BNO scheme has been introduced; it is working well. There are no other plans, but we continue to press the Hong Kong authorities to restore democratic rights and the right to protest within Hong Kong.

My Lords, following on from the noble Baroness’s question, I will press the Minister a bit further and ask whether the Government will go away and think again about the rights of young Hong Kongers. Would it be possible to pave the way for those who were too young to have been eligible for the BNO passport scheme to have access to jobs and education here?

My Lords, there is no more I can add to what I have already said, but I assure the noble Baroness that the plight of everyone in Hong Kong, including the young generation, is at the forefront of our work and the actions we have taken in partnership with other countries.

My Lords, while I appreciate that shouting from the sidelines will not have any effect at all on the Government of China, will the Minister accept that these latest convictions and sentences exemplify the repression of human rights and the rule of law in Hong Kong? What practical and effective steps can we in the United Kingdom take, both alone and with our allies, to ensure that the position for the people of Hong Kong is improved?

My Lords, I agree with my noble and learned friend. Freedom and human rights, including the right to protest, continue to be suppressed in Hong Kong. On the further actions we can take, I believe it resonates with the Chinese authorities when we act in concert with our key partners, not least because they respond accordingly to the statements being made. While the impact of those actions might for the medium to long term, they are noticed not just in Hong Kong but in Beijing.

Will the Minister tell us what assessment the Government have made of the ability of BNO applicants to safely leave the territory, after it has emerged that the Government of Hong Kong have asked some foreign Governments not to accept BNO for working holiday visas in Europe, North America and parts of Asia?

My Lords, I assure the right reverend Prelate that we are looking very closely at the operation of the BNO scheme. No apparent issues have arisen. Many BNO holders also have dual passports so their ability to travel is not limited. We continue to monitor the scheme very closely.

My Lords, what is the Government’s assessment of the impact of these sentences on applications for their BNO scheme? They have already announced 27,000 applications in the first month but according to the small print this does not include dependants. Meanwhile, more than 300 BNO passports were issued last year, and even today we have had some noble Baronesses calling for the scheme to be expanded from 5 million to 7 million people. If, in fact, numbers run very high, will the Government seek to reduce immigration from elsewhere?

My Lords, the importance of the BNO scheme is to provide access—and indeed the rights of settlement—to those who qualify. That is a principled decision from the Government and we will stand by it. On the issue of immigration, while it goes into the realms of the Home Office, we have a specific immigration policy which is now operational.

My Lords, the Minister repeats that we should act in partnership with our allies. I reminded him last week that the United States sanctioned Hong Kong officials for these breaches four weeks ago. It is now five weeks. When will we act in concert with our partners? When will we support the United States on something that is our responsibility? We should act now.

My Lords, I note and of course accept that the noble Lord has raised this issue on a number of occasions. However, as I have said in answer to other questions, I cannot speculate on future sanctions. I assure him, and indeed all noble Lords, that we work very closely with our partners: the European Union, Australia, the United States and others.

My Lords, much as I sympathise with my noble friend and appreciate the limitations of his personal power and influence, it is appalling when an international treaty—to which we and Hong Kong are joint parties—is violated by one party. We appear to be dragging our feet and it really is important that we have action this day.

My Lords, while appreciating my noble friend’s sympathy for my position, I assure him that I have been persistent in my capacity as a Minister within FCDO and particularly in my responsibilities as Human Rights Minister to ensure that we do everything possible, in terms of both direct action and action with international partners. We continue to lead the international community. We have made statements through the Human Rights Council and the G7 and will continue to do so. On the wider policy of specific sanctions, I have already indicated our current position, but we keep that position under review.

Many of us who were able to visit Hong Kong in the past and were privileged to meet Martin Lee, Margaret Ng and other pro-democracy campaigners will recall that we were warned by them that this might happen and that we should not trust the Chinese Government to support democracy. Given the breach of agreements that the Chinese Government have gone in for, is it not time that this country rethought our whole relationship with China, not just on this one issue but on a whole range of issues? We cannot go on treating China as a normal country when it breaches international agreements in the way it has done.

My Lords, I totally agree on the breach of international agreements. Indeed, the Sino-British joint declaration and China’s continued non-compliance has repeatedly been called out by the UK. As I have said before from the Dispatch Box, it is an agreement that has international recognition and China, as a major player on the international stage, should uphold its responsibilities. On the wider issue of China and its role in the world, as I have also repeatedly said, it has a role to play on climate change and, in that regard, without the Chinese the ambitions and the actions required cannot be reached and realised. However, we will not hold back from calling out egregious abuse of human rights as we have done in both Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

My Lords, while we all condemn the incarceration of democratic activists in Hong Kong, there is very little we can do to help them. Economic or cultural sanctions can be only a token of disapproval. Does the Minister agree that it would add weight to our criticism if we were more even-handed in criticising gross human rights abuse wherever it occurs, even in so-called friendly countries, such as Saudi Arabia?

My Lords, we consistently call out human rights abuses. It was this Government who introduced the global human rights sanctions—the Magnitsky sanctions regime—and this Government who have acted accordingly. Well over 70 designations have now been made for egregious abuse of human rights. The noble Lord rightly points to the situation with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a partner, but even there we have specifically sanctioned individuals under that regime.