Commons Urgent Question
My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat the Answer to an Urgent Question given in the other place by my right honourable friend the Minister of State for Europe and North America, James Cleverly. The Answer is as follows:
“The Hong Kong authorities’ decision to target leading pro-democracy figures, including Cardinal Zen, Margaret Ng, Hui Po-keung and Denise Ho, under the national security law is unacceptable. Freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest, which are protected in both the joint declaration and the basic law, are fundamental to Hong Kong’s way of life.
We continue to make clear to mainland Chinese and Hong Kong authorities our strong opposition to the national security law, which is being used to curtail freedoms, punish dissent and shrink the space for opposition, free press and civil society. In response to the imposition of the national security law, as well as to wider recent developments in Hong Kong, the UK took three major policy actions. First, on 31 January 2021, we launched a bespoke immigration route for British nationals overseas and their dependants. Secondly, we have suspended the UK-Hong Kong extradition treaty and, thirdly, we have extended the existing arms embargo on China to cover Hong Kong. China remains in an ongoing state of non-compliance with the joint declaration, which it willingly agreed to uphold.
As a co-signatory to the joint declaration and in the significant 25th year of our handover we will continue to stand up for the people of Hong Kong, to call out the violation of their rights and freedoms and to hold China to its international obligations. The Foreign Secretary is in regular contact with her international counterparts on issues relating to Hong Kong, and we continue to work intensively within international institutions to call on China to live up to its international obligations and responsibilities. As the Foreign Secretary set out in the latest six-monthly report, published on 31 March, the UK will continue to speak out when China breaches its legally binding agreements and when it breaks its promises to the people of Hong Kong.”
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that Answer. Of course, John Lee, Beijing’s handpicked choice as chief executive, as Hong Kong’s top security official, oversaw the Government’s strong-handed response to the 2019 pro-democracy protests and the first year of its national security crackdown. Lee has already indicated his intention to bring further restrictions on Hong Kong’s freedoms and suggests that these arrests will not be the last. When this issue was raised in the Commons, James Cleverly was unable to explain why the Government have not yet implemented Magnitsky sanctions against Hong Kong and Chinese officials responsible for these serious breaches. Will these arrests bring a change of approach by the UK Government? Will we see speedier action? The Minister in the other place was also unable to confirm whether any urgent representations had been made to the Chinese embassy on this matter. I hope the Minister can assure us today that this has happened.
My Lords, on 9 May we released a joint statement with our G7 partners and the EU underscoring our grave concern over the selection process for the chief executive in Hong Kong as part of a continued assault on political pluralism and fundamental freedoms. Together, we urged the new chief executive, John Lee, to respect protected rights and freedoms in Hong Kong, as provided for in Hong Kong’s own Basic Law. The current nomination process and the resulting appointment are clearly a stark departure from the aim of universal suffrage, as set out in Hong Kong’s Basic Law. This further erodes the ability of Hong Kongers to feel or be legitimately represented.
On sanctions, on 6 July 2020, the former Foreign Secretary announced the global human rights sanctions regime, which was welcomed across both Houses. We will continue to consider designations under the global human rights sanctions regime, but I am not able to speculate—and nor should I—on who may be designated in future. That would undermine the impact of those designations, but I note the noble Lord’s comments.
My Lords, I agree with the Minister when he says that this is unacceptable and I support the three measures, but while these gross breaches of human rights are being carried out, the UK is actively promoting financial direct investment from Hong Kong authorities into the UK and UK investment into Hong Kong. Investment from the UK to Hong Kong has gone up by 8.6% and from Hong Kong to the United Kingdom by 31%. I have been trying to pursue this with the Government. Are there any triggering mechanisms on human rights abuses that the Government would act on to close market access for Chinese investment into the UK? We are not acting strongly enough.
My Lords, the Government monitor the operation and functioning of the financial sector and its participants on a regular and ongoing basis, across a wide range of matters. Fundamentally, it is for businesses themselves to make their own judgment calls and the Government do not comment on issues relating to individual companies. The sentiments and the message of the noble Lord will have been heard by colleagues in the Foreign Office.
My Lords, given that the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund did little more than fund legal aid for protesters from the 2019 pro-democracy movement and closed its operations in 2021, is it not an outrage that one of those arrested, along with other trustees, should be 90 year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen? With Cardinal Zen being, as the noble Lord, Lord Patten, has said,
“one of the most important figures in the Catholic Church in Asia”,
I ask the Minister to state in his own words, as clearly as possible, that this is utterly unacceptable and further undermines the rule of law in Hong Kong. What interventions have been and will be made to protect religious freedom or belief in the territory?
My Lords, I strongly echo the right reverend Prelate’s comments. I know that any government Minister would willingly do so as well, were they standing at the Dispatch Box. What has happened to Cardinal Zen is truly appalling on every conceivable level. It fundamentally undermines every aspect of the agreement we reached with China at the handover and any sense of plurality or freedom of religion in Hong Kong. We are committed to defending freedom of religion for all and promoting respect between different religious and non-religious communities. Freedom of expression, religion or belief is explicitly included in the joint declaration, which China agreed to uphold. China is in clear breach of that declaration. We have seen its use of the national security law to curtail freedoms and suppress any dissent.
My Lords, I am sure the House will welcome the integrity shown by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Reed, and Lord Hodge in no longer legitimising Hong Kong’s broken judicial system by continuing to sit on those courts. Other Members of this House continue to give cover to it by continuing their connection, and we wait for them to reconsider their roles.
My brief question to the Minister is this: will the Government consider the report by Hong Kong Watch that proposes to conduct an audit of UK assets owned by Hong Kong officials and lawmakers? According to Hong Kong Watch, five officials and six lawmakers who are complicit in these ongoing human rights crackdowns hide their wealth in this country. If we are to prepare for future Magnitsky sanctions, we need to start conducting that audit now.
I thank the noble Baroness for raising an important point. On 14 March this year, the current Foreign Secretary issued a statement on the unjustifiable action taken against the UK-based NGO Hong Kong Watch. The action is clearly an attempt to silence those who stand up for human rights in Hong Kong. Attempting to silence voices globally that speak up for freedom and democracy is unacceptable and will never succeed. I will of course convey the noble Baroness’s request back to colleagues in the FCDO.
My Lords, I too roundly condemn the arrest of the five members of the humanitarian support fund. So that the House knows, they have been charged with an offence under the national security law, the new law that has concerned this House in previous debates. The allegation is that they have been in collusion with foreign forces, which means that many of us who would want to be in contact with people are not because we are fearful, as parliamentarians in this country, of in any way putting in difficulty people in Hong Kong who are pro-democracy. I strongly endorse what the right reverend Prelate said about the cardinal, which is a shameful business.
Margaret Ng is a world-renowned rights defender— a great lawyer and barrister, and for 18 years a parliamentarian. As a great democrat, she is celebrated for her work and honoured for it globally. Only in 2019 were she and Martin Lee honoured by the International Bar Association as senior counsel in Hong Kong. Judges from this jurisdiction should no longer be sitting in Hong Kong and I hope that the Government will make a statement about their position. We should also now be calling a halt to, or pause on, trading negotiations with Hong Kong and China until the situation in Hong Kong improves.
My Lords, we have repeatedly stated our very strong opposition to the national security law and will continue to voice our concerns about the legislation, which is in clear breach of the joint declaration. I think it is not a coincidence that the four people about whom we are having this urgent debate were arrested. These are people who have stood up for democracy; they are therefore standing up for Hong Kongers as a whole. The authorities there have made a decision, which is clearly unacceptable, to target those leading pro-democracy figures. The right to peaceful protest, which is protected in both the joint declaration and Hong Kong’s Basic Law, is fundamental to Hong Kong’s way of life. We will continue to raise our concerns at every opportunity.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a patron of Hong Kong Watch and vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Hong Kong. Is it not outrageous that this has happened to a venerable and holy 90 year-old man, with immense global moral authority, and his fellow trustees? Is it not a terrible indictment of the CCP, illustrating the fear that has led it to criminalise most forms of dissent under the national security law, which was introduced by Carrie Lam and John Lee? I say to the House that as someone who, along with the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, has been sanctioned by the CCP, I find it passing strange that Carrie Lam and John Lee have not already been indicted under Magnitsky sanctions, even though the Minister cannot name them as people who will be, given their responsibility for the destruction of “one country, two systems”.
I agree with what was said about the need for an asset audit, which I have previously called for, on CCP apparatchiks who own property assets in London. I hope that the Minister, who has said that he will take this back to the department, will do so as a matter of urgency. Given that the UK trade and economic deals through JETCO were suspended in response to the national security law, and with human rights in freefall, does the Minister agree that there can now be no possible reason to suspend the prohibitions on those trade arrangements?
My Lords, again, I strongly endorse the noble Lord’s comments on Cardinal Zen. Arresting a 90 year-old person of any standing, but particularly someone of his standing, is obscene. It has been condemned, and rightly so, across both Houses and the world. I suggest that the noble Lord wears his own proscription by the CCP as a badge of honour. I cannot go into any more details around the sanctions regime but I assure him, and others here today, that I will convey the strong feelings of the House to colleagues in the FCDO.
House adjourned at 6.23 pm.