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Volume 831: debated on Thursday 6 July 2023

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of Sino-British relations following the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre on 4 June, and the recent suppression of peaceful demonstrations in Hong Kong.

My Lords, in rising to ask the Government this Question, I particularly look forward to the contribution of my noble friend Lord Leong, who has a greater understanding of this issue than anyone else I know.

Hong Kong’s aptly named 1997 bar, which I confess I visited in the late 1980s and which later became Club 97, closed in 2016 after 34 years, during which time that bar witnessed the trepidation and then the hope—or even optimism—of 1997, followed by disappointment. The bar was there in 1989 when the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre took place in Beijing. There, it is simply known as the June 4th incident—an early, Orwellian version of Russia’s “Special military operation”.

On that June day, brave men and women called for greater democracy and basic freedoms, standing against the Chinese Communist Party and risking imprisonment and death. We should never forget such bravery, nor its cause. As late as 2019, thousands of people participated in a commemorative vigil at Victoria Park in Hong Kong, the last place in China where the Tiananmen Square anniversary could take place peacefully. But these demonstrations have been banned since 2020, with many Hong Kong people jailed for participating in such vigils.

Since the 2020 national security law, protestors and pro-democracy activists have been arrested, media outlets silenced and the judiciary’s independence compromised. So it is right that today we acknowledge and applaud the courage of individuals like Jimmy Lai, founder of Hong Kong’s most popular newspaper, Apple Daily, and a pro-democracy advocate who has been targeted and imprisoned, including for participating in a peaceful vigil in May 2021. He has been imprisoned for violating the national security law and today, he still faces charges of foreign collusion and sedition, which risk life imprisonment. Despite his being a British citizen, Beijing has overruled a Hong Kong court’s decision that he can be represented by a British lawyer.

It is sad that Hong Kong, once seen as a potential beacon of freedom and democracy in the region, has instead witnessed the erosion of its autonomy and civil liberties, with the “one country, two systems” principle promised under the 1984 Sino-British joint declaration completely undermined and dissent silenced. Thirty-four years after Tiananmen Square, we see how the 2020 national security law, imposed by the Chinese on Hong Kong, has restricted human rights, press freedom, civil liberties, freedom of expression and the rule of law. It criminalises a swathe of activities and has led to the closure of nearly all Hong Kong’s independent media outlets. It has given powers to authorities to monitor individuals, allowing warrantless searches, electronic surveillance and interception of communications—all undermining privacy and interfering with personal data.

Crucially, it is eroding the independence of the judicial system, allowing certain cases to be transferred to mainland China, where fair trials and due process rights are far from guaranteed. The appointment of judges and prosecutors is subject to political vetting, compromising their impartiality and independence. In a chilling echo of Tiananmen Square, there have been crackdowns on pro-democracy activists, dissidents and opposition figures, with the arrest, prosecution and imprisonment of people following peaceful protests, online expression or political activities. Nearly 250 people have been arrested and many more forced to flee.

For years, the only 4 June commemoration took place in Hong Kong, where today even books about it, or on Hong Kong’s own protest movement, were removed from libraries in the lead-up to the 34th anniversary. In May, the Pillar of Shame statue commemorating Tiananmen Square which stood at the university was seized by the national security police as supposed evidence in an incitement to subversion case.

We are seeing events that we had hoped would not occur in post-1997 Hong Kong—indeed, we thought that was guaranteed. The trial of 47 democrats involved in unofficial primaries in 2020 opened in February this year. Most of them have been detained for two years, and they stand accused of conspiracy to commit subversion. What are their crimes? Participating in electoral activities: clear evidence of the fear of those in authority.

Indeed, we see fewer and fewer elections taking place as the proportion of democratically elected seats on district councils has been slashed from 90% to just 20%. This week, Hong Kong police issued arrest warrants for eight democracy activists living overseas, three of whom are probably living in the UK. It is unacceptable for individuals, peacefully and lawfully resident here, to be threatened in this way, and for supposed actions carried out not in Hong Kong but while in exile. The charges carry a maximum life sentence, but perhaps as chilling is the bounty on these people’s heads, with the police offering a reward of £100,000 per person.

The latest FCDO six-monthly report emphasises that the Government remain committed to protecting Hong Kongers’ rights and freedoms as part of the Sino-British joint declaration. However, the Foreign Secretary’s proposed visit to China demonstrates the Government’s failure to hold the CCP accountable for its repeated violations of basic human rights in China and Hong Kong. It also sends the wrong message to Hong Kongers who have fled here and are being targeted on British soil. They are at risk of surveillance and intimidation because of the extraterritorial clauses in the national security law, which claims universal jurisdiction.

This House, and the Government, must hold China accountable for its continued actions in China, Hong Kong and even the UK, violating human rights and disregarding the values that protesters stood for in Tiananmen Square. The Government cannot merely discuss human rights and democracy with Hong Kong and Chinese officials while taking no action. HMG have declared China to be in a state of “ongoing non-compliance” with the joint declaration but have yet to take steps to hold the Chinese Government accountable for these breaches. The UK has a unique responsibility to Hong Kong as signatory to the joint declaration, and a moral and legal obligation to uphold the autonomy and freedoms in the handover agreement of 26 years ago. We must remember the hopes exhibited in that 1997 bar and by its people.

In a way, Hong Kong is the canary in the mine. China’s rise poses a great challenge to many of our assumptions as its growth has been matched by greater repression at home and assertive behaviour abroad—in Hong Kong but also in Taiwan and the South China Sea. These actions concern us, but the Government appear divided and inconsistent, flip-flopping between tough talk and muddled action.

We need to be strong, clear-eyed and consistent on China, as Labour will be if in government, starting with a clean, full audit of our relationship. Of course, we will look at our economic and security policy, engaging where it is in our national interest on climate change, trade and global health. But we will stand firm on human rights and will champion the values that we hold so dear and which were lacking in Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989 and are lacking in Hong Kong today.

I look forward to hearing the views of others and, in particular, to hearing the Government’s response to the question I posed.

My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, in making my brief contribution. I thank her for her initiative in bringing this debate to us and for setting out the issues so well.

I am a patron of Hong Kong Watch and a vice chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Groups on Hong Kong and Uighurs. My family and I have been sanctioned by the Chinese Communist Party.

In 2019, I was part of the international team that monitored the last free and fair elections in Hong Kong. Earlier today during Question Time, I highlighted the fate of some of the legislators and pro-democracy activists whom I met. Some, such as British citizen Jimmy Lai, whom I know, are among the 1,200 incarcerated in Hong Kong jails. Others are among the exiles, such as Nathan Law, who is resident in the United Kingdom. On each of their heads a bounty of 1 million Hong Kong dollars has been placed. Their only crime is to believe in democracy.

The Chinese Communist Party has suppressed every last vestige of democracy, free speech and the rule of law, turning its courts into a mere tool of the CCP in implementing the draconian national security law. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, who said last night that those remaining British judges lending respectability to the CCP’s courts should search their consciences.

By contrast, the admirable, courageous heroism of the defenders of Hong Kong’s freedoms is of a piece with the protestors who were massacred in Tiananmen Square in April 1989. Who can forget the solitary defiance of “Tank Man”, who stood in the square in front of a CCP tank? Such individual acts inspire and keep alive the hope that, as in Berlin in November 1989, even the most solid-looking walls can be brought down.

My friend Bob Fu was among the protestors who survived the massacre and subsequently escaped. He says:

“It was really absolutely shock because we had never imagined, by sitting in the peaceful Tiananmen Square—which, translated literally, is Square of Heavenly Peace—our so-called people’s government would send the so-called People’s Liberation Army to shoot its own people”.

Until July 2020, Hong Kong was one of the remaining cities in China where, as we heard, people were free to publicly commemorate Tiananmen and to honour the lives of those who were murdered at the hands of the CCP. For organising the candle-lit vigils in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park, activists such as the lawyer Chow Hang-tung are now behind bars facing the prospect of many years in prison under the national security law.

All this is of a piece. The silencing of British parliamentarians, exiled legislators and activists all demonstrates that the CCP is literally scared stiff of dissent. That is why they are using bounties, arrest warrants and threats of extradition to close down debate. It is why they try to remove all references to Tiananmen and to censor schoolbooks and the internet. Add to this the way in which the CCP tries to extend its long arm to reach overseas and threaten the well-being and safety of pro-democracy activists who are under the protection of the UK Government, and it is pretty clear what kind of authoritarian regime we are dealing with.

I include in that number the significant BNO community and students at universities such as Southampton, who were recently set upon by CCP thugs. I remind the Minister of the attack on peaceful protestors outside the consulate in Manchester, by consular officials. As I noted in my remarks during our defence debate last Friday, disappointingly, the United Kingdom Government continue to send the CCP very mixed messages when it comes to the value that I know the Minister places on human rights and the international treaty guarantees that supposedly uphold Hong Kong’s autonomy, which the CCP has trashed.

The genius of “one country, two systems” has been replaced by the totalitarian model of “one system, one party”. Is it any surprise that the CCP thinks it can get away with this, and with encouraging the illegal use of bounty-hunters on UK soil and threatening the safety of British overseas nationals, when, for instance, we continue to drag our feet on stripping out a million Chinese-made surveillance cameras from government departments and the public sector supply chain? Does Xi Jinping take the UK seriously when, after three years of a relentless and unprecedented crackdown in Hong Kong, the Foreign Secretary is chomping at the bit to visit Beijing to sign investment and trade agreements with China—a country with which we have a trade deficit of over £40 billion? So much for promoting national resilience and less dependency.

Does the Minister believe that it is licit to do business as usual with a country credibly accused by the House of Commons and President Biden, among others, of committing genocide against Uighurs in Xinjiang? If not, why was a Minister from this House sent to Hong Kong to deepen trade deals? Can we really claim that we take national security seriously when so many of our academic research institutions continue to pursue sensitive research partnerships on dual-use technology with Chinese universities with links to the People’s Liberation Army?

Ministers and officials are responsible for the safety of our citizens at home and our international treaty responsibilities overseas, but in two reports from our House of Lords International Relations and Defence Select Committee we concluded that British policy represents “a strategic void”. When it comes to keeping its word on these issues, you cannot believe a word that the Chinese Communist Party and its chairman Xi Jinping say. Tiananmen, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan all reinforce that message.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Hayter of Kentish Town for securing today’s debate. As has been referred to, 34 years ago, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unarmed peaceful pro-democracy protesters were killed in Tiananmen Square. Tens of thousands of demonstrators in cities across China were arrested and imprisoned. We all remember the unknown man standing alone in front of a line of tanks and the journalists’ reports physically smuggled out in those pre-internet days.

Some 26 years ago, after 150 years of British rule, Hong Kong became a special administrative region under Chinese control. Through the principle of “one country, two systems”, China agreed to maintain for 50 years the human rights protections, democratic freedoms and economic prosperity enjoyed by 6.5 million Hong Kongers. However, an increasing authoritarianism crept from mainland China into the territory. This has driven tens of thousands to leave, many asserting their rights as British nationals overseas to settle in the United Kingdom.

Just three years ago, on 1 July 2020, the Chinese Government imposed the national security law on Hong Kong. This authoritarian charter enables the authorities to arrest, detain and imprison anyone for four vaguely defined crimes: secession, subversion, terrorism and “collusion with foreign forces”. No time has been wasted in exercising these repressive powers. As many noble Lords have brought to our attention, thousands of protesters, hundreds of activists and journalists and many influential individuals have been arrested, detained and intimidated into pleading guilty.

We even have examples of Chinese Government-supported activity on our own soil, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned, at the consulate in Manchester, at Mandarin schools across the United Kingdom and in some of our universities. Just four days ago, as we have all heard, the Hong Kong authorities issued arrest warrants and bounties under the national security law for eight activists who reside in the UK, Australia and the US. These bounties of 1 million Hong Kong dollars to lead to their arrests are just appalling.

China is extending its reach far beyond its capital city. Stretching through Hong Kong, its talons are probing into other countries and hovering around our shores, seeking to grab our own citizens. By seeking to supress reports on its actions within and outwith its borders—with worrying echoes of 1989—China is testing the willingness of the international community to hold it accountable to international standards. Unchallenged, China’s example will encourage like-minded authoritarian regimes in developing and developed countries. Their collective goal will be to destabilise democracies and make the world a less dangerous place for dictators.

Faced with this escalating situation, what should Britain do? England is, famously, the “mother of Parliaments”. I will for ever be honoured to have a place alongside your Lordships in the British legislature, one of the oldest democracies in the world. We must, as individuals and as a nation, be fearless to defend our values.

When I gave my maiden speech in the Chamber, I reflected on the complex nature of my dual national identity. For many years, I have been challenged and questioned on my loyalty to China. While I am proud of my Chinese heritage, my loyalty lies with Britain and the British values which make this country a beacon of democracy—values not shared by the current Chinese regime.

For too long, we have been cowed and indecisive. We have sometimes talked tough, but have baulked at taking effective action. My noble friend Lord Collins of Highbury last week called for a comprehensive audit of our UK-China relationship across the private sector and national and local government. China’s economic might is considerable but it can be overstated, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned, and we should not allow our democratic values to be held to ransom by an imperfect understanding of our economic relationship. With greater clarity, we can build a robust strategy to challenge, compete and co-operate with China—one which is aligned with our democratic principles and our commitment to freedom and fundamental human rights.

In closing, I will quote the opening verse of “Glory to Hong Kong”. It has become the anthem of their struggle. Brave individuals in Hong Kong have been arrested and detained for singing it. The Chinese Government are trying to remove all traces of the lyrics online. I know that if I say them here, in this Chamber at the heart of the mother of Parliaments, these words will be forever recorded in Hansard. This will, I hope, encourage those brave souls, by demonstrating that their voices are being heard on the other side of the world despite Beijing’s attempts to silence them:

“We pledge: No more tears on our land,

In wrath, doubts dispelled we make our stand.

Arise! Ye who would not be slaves again:

For Hong Kong, may freedom reign!”

My Lords, what rousing words to follow.

I declare my position as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong and thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, for securing this debate. She could hardly have known how precisely timely it would be given that, as has already been referred to, a few hours ago, two men who now face a 1 million Hong Kong dollar bounty on their heads were in this very place speaking about the experience that they are going through.

It is interesting to make a comparison; I did not know until this point that rewards for catching people who have committed criminal acts in Hong Kong is quite a traditional part of their justice system. Therefore, there is a reward of 300,000 Hong Kong dollars for information leading to the prosecution of a man accused of murder, and for two men wanted in connection with an arson case that killed 17 people there is a reward of 400,000 Hong Kong dollars. We can contrast that with the 1 million Hong Kong dollar bounty that is being offered for the capture of people who are advocating freedom and the rule of law.

I was not able to be at the press conference, but I followed reports of it closely. I particularly want to raise with the Minister an issue raised by both the men there. One of them is Finn Lau, who has lived in Britain since 2019 and is a BNO visa holder. He reflected on the fact that he has been sent screenshots of Chinese nationalists discussing kidnapping him. No doubt the eight people affected are hoping and believing that the states they currently reside in will not extradite them to China in the face of this Chinese action, but they have to live in fear of bounty hunters: private people. We need to think about—I am sure the Government are, but I really hope they are thinking hard—the security of these individuals.

I also note the comments made by Christopher Mung, who has lived in the UK since 2021 and is also a BNO visa holder. He noted that this attack on eight people is a much broader effort to silence and cause a ripple of fear among the greater Hong Kong diaspora. I hope the noble Lord may be able to address this. Again, I hope the Government are thinking very hard about how to provide both security and confidence to the many people we have, I am happy to say, welcomed from Hong Kong to the UK.

Not all of those people are necessarily intending to be permanent residents. It is interesting that there has not been much discussion of the fact that this year a record number of students have come from China to study in the UK: nearly 152,000 people. I am not going to address the potential security issues that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, touched on. I will leave that to other people. I am concerned about the experience those students are going to have in our system. Some of them will be from Hong Kong. It is possible that some of them will be from Uighur or Tibetan backgrounds. It is possibly less likely, but there are probably a few. Those students have to be kept safe here in the UK. They have to be able to enjoy the freedoms we expect all students to enjoy in the UK.

More than that, if we think about students from any part of China, students are young people. They are being exposed to new ideas; that is the whole idea of studying and studying overseas. They are being exposed to ideas about our democracy. When I have been handing out Green Party leaflets in Sheffield, I consciously give them to people who I think are probably Chinese students because direct examples of democracy in action are a really useful experience to have. Are we able to ensure—and do the universities have the right advice to ensure—that those students, if they start to explore democratic ideas and if they say slightly the wrong thing in front of another Chinese student of a different political persuasion have the right security and support? Is there help for universities, which will not necessarily have the political understanding and knowledge to realise just what the risks are? Are the Government doing enough to support all that?

I have just about run out of time, and I have lots of things here. There is one other thing I want to talk about in the rest of my time. This morning, I spoke to a group of King’s College London summer school students about the wonderful development of Magnitsky-style sanctions. They arose from civil society campaigning and are a social innovation brought about through the activities of civil society. The Government have followed along and adopted them. I am not going to ask the noble Lord the obvious questions because I know exactly what formula answer I will get. I will simply point out that the UK has yet to impose sanctions on anyone implicated in the crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong and that in responding to the bounty announcement, James Cleverly said:

“We will not tolerate any attempts by China to intimidate and silence individuals”.

The background briefing to the press release states that

“the UK continues to lead international efforts to stand up for the people of Hong Kong”.

Do we really? Where are the Magnitsky-style sanctions?

My Lords, I endorse everything that has been said by previous speakers. I have a number of questions to ask the Minister, who represents the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. How will the UK Government work to enforce the safety of those eight individuals who have just had warrants issued against them and who have this bounty on their heads?

I am very concerned about when they travel. They are professional people who are advocates for democracy—some of them are lawyers and so on. What is going to happen? We recently had the experience of Paul Rusesabagina, who travelled through Dubai for medical treatment. He was arrested there, manhandled on to an aeroplane and returned to Kagame’s regime in Rwanda, the place to which we relish sending asylum seekers. His trial was in no way in accordance with due process. He was put in jail and has only recently been released because of the interventions of many organisations around the world and President Biden. He was given clemency because of his ill health and at the urging of others. What will happen to those people as they go through places such as Dubai? Are they safe? What will we do to protect them?

How will the UK Government respond to the Chinese Government’s claims that we are harbouring criminals? That is what we have been accused of. How offensive is that to the United Kingdom? I want to know what we are saying about the bounties. The pursuit and enforcement of bounties by a foreign Government is illegal in this country. I cannot emphasise that enough.

I am very pleased that the Foreign Office has declared that the national security law in Hong Kong is a clear breach of the joint declaration that we signed with China, but it is an endorsement of what the UN Human Rights Committee has said—that that legislation should be repealed because it is overbroadly interpreted. Every country is entitled to have security legislation, but there is a lack of clarity about the national security law and we know it is basically being used to punish individuals who are democrats.

I am anxious that we translate some of these good words into real actions. Mention has been made of the failure to sanction anybody in Hong Kong. There has been a sort of buckling of the institutions in Hong Kong under the pressure of an erosion of the rule of law. Today, we even have the Hong Kong Bar Association and the Law Society of Hong Kong saying that, in the light of these warrants having been issued, they are going to conduct their own investigations into those who are lawyers, presumably with a view to disciplining them or stripping them of their professional status. Do we do that before people are convicted? Our professional organisations do not tend to do that normally. Not a peep is being said by either of those organisations about the idea of putting a bounty on people’s head and thereby putting them at serious risk.

What assessment have the Government made of the financial assets of Hong Kong and Chinese officials in the United Kingdom? That is one of the things that will help us assess who should be sanctioned, yet I do not see any indication that that is being done. What action are the Government taking about Jimmy Lai? I have come to know his son Sebastian, who has come to speak in Parliament. I recently spoke with him at a conference about attacks on media freedom and journalism around the world. In Hong Kong, we have seen a great diminution in freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. Jimmy Lai’s presses were seized without a warrant or any due process in the courts. How does that speak for the rule of law?

We have great judges in this country, and our retired judges greatly enhanced the senior court in Hong Kong, but I hope that they will look to their position now. Any lawyers who are invited to go out there to prosecute or defend cases should look at what is happening to the rule of law and consider whether they are adding window dressing to a failing system. I know they feel great loyalty to their professional colleagues there—the judges and lawyers—but that is not a good enough reason to do that. It discredits the legal system altogether.

I wanted to ask about the consulate in Hong Kong. Are visits by consular representatives to prisoners allowed under the security law? We know that a large number of people are currently awaiting trial under the law. Many of them hold British passports. Are they getting access to the consular services?

I would be grateful if the Minister gave us some sense of what happens in discussions with China and Hong Kong about what is taking place there and how people will not want to do business there if the rule of law is not protected and respected by judges and lawyers.

I add my voice to those of everyone else: I am in great despair about what is happening in Hong Kong at the hands of the Chinese Government.

My Lords, I declare my interest as someone who went to Hong Kong for the first time when Britain was clearly running it with what one has to say was benign authoritarianism. I went to China for the first time as it came out of the period of deprivation and seemed very optimistic about coming to terms again with, and opening themselves to, the world. We all know that has now been disappointed, but we do not yet know where China is going.

I am conscious that there is a contested history of British-Chinese relations, and that in the Chinese reassertion of its role as a dominant power in east Asia after a century of humiliation, Britain helps to serve as one of the past humiliators. That is part of our problem in developing a different relationship with China.

We have in this country a large and significant population of citizens of Chinese ancestry or birth who contribute a good deal to our economy and society, not all of whom have links with Hong Kong. It is of great interest to all of us how we protect them, both within the United Kingdom and when they travel abroad. Perhaps the Minister could say something about the problem we have with the way other countries treat British citizens who are dual nationals. Both Iran and China appear not to recognise the validity of the British citizenship of people who were born with Iranian or Chinese nationality. How do we help to protect British citizens in those circumstances?

I think that we have a degree of consensus. We now recognise that China has taken a very unfortunate turn. We all thought that economic development and education would lead to a more open and tolerant society and less harsh government, but China has demonstrated that authoritarianism and state capitalism go with the deepening repression of dissent and religious and ethnic minorities and, so far, it has proved effective.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, suggested that the Communist Party in China is running scared. We do not know how strong or how nervous the current regime is. I suspect that the answer will depend partly on whether the threat of a recession in China becomes real and whether the property market goes down, because economic delivery has been part of what has given the current regime its legitimacy.

We also agree that the regime’s behaviour in Hong Kong and, even worse, in Xinjiang has breached human rights in all sorts of ways and that Chinese attempts to interfere within the UK in monitoring the behaviour of Chinese students and pursuing our own citizens are completely unacceptable. I think we also agree that China is nevertheless too large and important and too powerful a player in the global order and the economy, and important in combating climate change and managing pandemics, to isolate or to attempt to exclude. We have to continue to engage, however difficult it is at present.

I am not sure whether we also agree that the UK is now too dependent on China in economic and industrial terms, and that derisking, by reducing our dependence on imports of goods, food and materials from China, is now necessary. I recognise that this would mean the Government accepting elements of an industrial policy to counteract the evident mercantilism of Chinese policy.

I note that the British Government and the British economy have limited opportunities to expand exports to China, given Chinese resistance to industrial exports and given the limits to accepting services provided from abroad at present. The width of the current trade deficit is such that the only option appears to be derisking by reducing imports. I welcome what the Minister has to say on this.

We must clearly work with others as we respond. I hope that we are working with our European partners, but I see that the European Union is now developing a policy to reduce dependence on rare earths and a number of other resources that come from China. I hope we are associated with that.

I agree strongly with the refresh of the integrated review that we need to develop “China capabilities” in government, but also in universities and think tanks, so that we can try to understand what is happening in China, even if my friends in universities who are China experts all tell me that they really do not know what is happening. That is extremely worrying. The prospect is that, at some stage, China will perhaps take another turn, reopen and turn away from its current aggressive approach to international co-operation. We need to be there for that.

I will end with two questions for the Minister. What does the IR refresh mean by its reference on page 31 to

“the review of how we can protect our higher education sector”?

When will that review be presented to Parliament or published?

Secondly, we know that the Intelligence and Security Committee has completed its report on China and presented it to the Government. Can the Minister give us any assurance that this will be published and presented to Parliament before we all rise for the summer?

My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lady Hayter for securing today’s debate, which reflects huge cross-party consensus. I welcome all the contributions today. When Parliament speaks with one voice in condemnation of human rights abuses and the erosion of liberties, it is heard loudest in Beijing.

If I had had the opportunity to intervene in today’s topical Oral Question from the noble Lord, Lord Alton, I would have asked why the Government will not commit to publishing a stand-alone China strategy. As I have said before, instead of flip-flopping between tough talk and muddled actions, we need to develop a strategy in which we challenge, compete and, where we can, co-operate. The global threats that we face need that sort of co-operation, but we need those three “C”s. As my noble friend Lord Leong asked, does the Minister accept that the first step should be a complete and comprehensive audit of the UK-China relationship, not restricting ourselves to government but including the private sector and local government?

Since the Sino-British agreement, the critical liberties promised have not materialised. In fact, the passing of the national security law in 2020 saw a step-up in both Beijing’s direct interference in Hong Kong affairs and the curtailment of what little remained of the liberties that the people of Hong Kong enjoyed.

The national security law has another tool for internal repression in Hong Kong. It is being used to detain those perceived to be a danger to the authorities, including journalists, booksellers, businesspeople, pro-democracy youth activists and elected representatives, as we have heard. As my noble friend Lady Kennedy mentioned, the law has notably been used to charge Jimmy Lai—a British citizen and the founder of Apple Daily, one of the last mainstream, widely sold print newspapers in Hong Kong.

Against this dark backdrop, it is no surprise that hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers have fled in recent years, and many now call the UK home. Certainly, the Opposition welcome the changes governing BNO passports, rightly opening up a pathway for citizenship for BNO passport holders and providing hope for a new life away from China’s erosion of Hong Kong’s way of life.

The bounties used by the Chinese Communist Party that we have heard about today highlight the significant concern in the community of Hong Kongers in the United Kingdom that they are still at risk of intimidation from the Chinese Government and the Chinese Communist Party. I am afraid to say that the Government’s response to this mounting fear has been lacking. I echo the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett: we need a clear, truly concerted cross-government approach to this growing threat to ensure that Hong Kongers and, indeed, other groups seeking refuge in the UK from the Chinese Government, are protected, whether they are working, studying or campaigning.

I echo and emphasise the points raised by my noble friend Lady Kennedy—in particular, what are we doing, working with our allies, to ensure that people in transit are not put under arrest or detention? We need to hear more from the Government on that. Also, as my noble friend said, we should not turn our backs on British citizens such as Jimmy Lai and give carte blanche for further breaches of international law. What recent discussions have the Government had with allies—specifically, the US, Canada and Australia—that also criticised the treatment of Hong Kong and the implementation of the NSL? I hope the Minister will update us about the level of consular access that Mr Lai is receiving.

We have also heard in the news that the Human Rights Council’s special rapporteurs recently raised concerns about the potential use of forced labour in Tibet. What assessment has the Minister made of human rights protections in Tibet? I hope he will be able to respond to that.

We will always be united in calling out the Chinese Government for their breach of the Sino-British agreement and the curtailment of liberty in Hong Kong, specifically since the NSL was passed. We should make it clear—I hope this debate does so—that the Chinese treatment of Hong Kong should not be cost free.

My Lords, first, I thank all noble Lords who have participated in this short but very important and—as has been said—timely debate. I put on record my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, for securing and introducing the debate. Many of the issues and concerns that she raised resonate strongly with me and His Majesty’s Government, although I say from the outset that the word “flip-flop” has been used twice, and I must admit that it is not a reflection of what I have seen of the UK’s position. I will elaborate on some of those points. The noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, articulated the approach that would be taken if the party of His Majesty’s Opposition were in Government, and that very much reflects the key principles being pursued by His Majesty’s Government today.

I will try to cover as many of the points raised as possible in the few minutes that I have. Where more details are required, I will of course write to noble Lords in the customary way and lay a copy of that letter in the Library.

As we reflect on the Tiananmen Square massacre, we are all moved by those who lost their lives. We all remember it in our own way. The noble Lord, Lord Leong—I really respect his valuable insights—put it very poignantly. The image we saw of that individual standing in front of a tank defined what we saw happening in China and shaped much of our thinking.

We often take the fundamental principles of human rights and the right to protest as a matter of course in the United Kingdom. Every time I cross to the Foreign Office, there is always a protest of some nature taking place—it varies. I think it is a real strength of democracy. Visiting Foreign Ministers often ask me: “Tariq, are you not worried and concerned?” I am not, because it shows the strength of our democracy. Right outside the mother of Parliaments—as the noble Lord, Lord Leong, referred to it—we have the right to protest peacefully, in accordance with the law but forcefully and seeking to change the mind of the Government of the day on a particular policy or to influence Parliament. Long may that be protected. That was the very right which was protected within Hong Kong, which has been the subject of many of the contributions today.

I agree with the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Wallace, that we are very clear-eyed in our relationship with China. I will turn to the issue of human rights, but I agree with both of them that we need to co-operate with China. It cannot be ignored. It is the second-biggest economy in the world. There are not just intrinsic issues in supply chains and dependency for the UK and European economies but, as I said earlier in the Chamber, a reliance of many countries around the world, particularly developing states, on China’s economic power. If we are to be serious, we need to ensure that there are alternatives they can rely on.

China is, I accept, becoming more authoritarian at home and more assertive overseas. On the integrated review and a China strategy, I accept that there is no stand-alone China strategy but we have been very clear in the refresh and the original integrated view about our view on China. I will come to that in a moment. China is exerting more influence over people’s lives globally. How we handle that in terms of military, diplomatic and economic activity presents us with a generational, epoch-defining challenge. That challenge includes China using its economic power to coerce countries. We have seen this recently here in Europe in its disagreements with Lithuania, for example. We will work closely with others to push back against attempts by the Chinese Communist Party to coerce or threaten other nations.

The point about universities was made by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. Of course, it is important to ensure students can work and express freely. On the specifics of extended university support, I will write to the noble Lord about what is currently there. If particular issues are identified in any institution, it is important that that is fed back to government so appropriate action can be taken and that the appropriate colleges, universities or educational institutions can equally be informed of these issues.

However, we must continue to engage directly with China towards open, constructive and stable relations. The Foreign Secretary has been delivering this in a number of discussions he has had on foreign and security policy with Director Wang Yi, Foreign Minister Qin Gang and Vice-President Han Zheng on a number of occasions recently. I assure noble Lords that our approach is rooted in our national interest and co-ordinated with like-minded partners, including our European partners and the US. It reflects China’s importance in world affairs as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. We have seen this, and I have directly experienced it in some of the work we are doing on important issues, such as Russia’s illegal war on Ukraine.

I turn to UK interests. We understand the issues and concerns which have been raised by all noble Lords. I take on board the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and say directly to him that I respect him greatly but understand the direct challenges he has faced through the sanctions that have been imposed. I said earlier today that the Government and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary will engage with those under sanctions to address specific concerns as they arise.

On the issue of transiting through countries, it is important that we invest in those countries. We do not recognise the national security law or any extradition treaty. We have suspended that. That was direct and it was the right action to take. Equally, we have to be vigilant and ensure that that message is received loud and clear by other countries as well.

Our own national security is also critical. We have included new powers to protect our critical industries under the National Security and Investment Act; bolstered the security of our 5G network through the Telecommunications Act; and trained—importantly; it was a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace—170 civil servants in Mandarin.

The Integrated Review Refresh takes this even further. We will double funding for Chinese expertise and capability in government, so that we have more Mandarin speakers and China experts. This will boost skills and knowledge for government staff in relation to China, including on economic, military and diplomatic policy, as well as Mandarin language skills, which are important.

Today has been the first time I have heard the noble Lord, Lord Leong, speak in extensive debate—and here is to many more—and share his background and insights, some of which I can relate to. Too often, challenges are posed to those who have made the United Kingdom their home. It is right that we celebrate the rich diversity of the United Kingdom, which we should recognise as a strength and not a weakness of our great nation.

The noble Lord’s Written Question earlier this month on Sino-British relations following the anniversary was an opportunity for us to highlight how appalled we were by the recent suppression of peaceful demonstrations in Hong Kong. It is right that we take a moment to reflect on the situation in Hong Kong and the pace of change in recent years. Tragically, it has been a regressive path.

China’s imposition of the National Security Law has seen opposition stifled. Three years on, we have seen how this opaque and sweeping law has undermined rights and freedoms enshrined in the joint declaration and indeed Hong Kong’s own Basic Law. Alternative voices across Hong Kong’s society have been all but extinguished, and changes to electoral rules have further eroded the ability of Hong Kongers to be legitimately represented at all levels of government. Governance, rights and social systems are now closer to the mainland norms of China, a point made extensively and poignantly by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy.

Monday saw attempts to reaffirm the purported extraterritorial reach of the National Security Law, as the Hong Kong police announced bounties—how appalling. We think of bounties as the bastion of films of the past, with bounties put on people’s heads. This is not how you do international relations. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary was right to make a very clear statement on this. On the bounties on British citizens, including the three who are here in the UK, let me be absolutely clear: we will never tolerate attempts by Chinese authorities to intimidate or silence individuals in the UK and overseas, and we will make that point forcefully.

In response to the introduction of the National Security Law in 2020, to which I have already alluded, we acted quickly and decisively to introduce a bespoke immigration route for BNOs. I am proud of the role that many played; I was also involved in that. Some 150,000 BNO visas have now been granted and about 146,000 have arrived. We welcome—because, again, it enriches our country—the valuable contributions made.

The Foreign Secretary made plain our views on Hong Kong to the Chinese Vice-President on 5 May and at the UN Human Rights Council on 27 February. We stand for the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong, as we agreed in the Sino-British agreement.

I am conscious of the time, so I want to mention Jimmy Lai, whose case was raised. He is one of Hong Kong’s most successful businessmen and former publisher of the Apple Daily. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Leong, with his own publishing career, relates quite directly to that. Mr Lai has been prosecuted on multiple fronts. He is an inspiration for what he is doing. Let me make it clear: he is a British passport holder. As was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, many countries do not recognise that status, but we are making very clear his rights to consular access and representation as well as rights under detention in accordance with principles and the Geneva conventions, which China should also recognise as forming the base of the international order. The Foreign Secretary has repeatedly made these issues clear in his direct interactions with senior members of the Chinese Government, and our diplomats in Hong Kong have attended Mr Lai’s court proceedings since his arrest in 2020 and will continue to do so.

Briefly on sanctions and asset seizures, and as a final point, I cannot give any more detail, but, of course, we look at all these elements. As we look at the security of individuals both at home and abroad, we keep these matters under very careful review. I cannot speculate on what happens in the future, but we exercised sanctions when it came to the issues relating to Xinjiang. On Xinjiang and human rights more generally, we have been at the forefront. I know that, because I led the first ever statement on the Human Rights Council, and we have sought to broaden our support.

Much more needs to be done, but I assure noble Lords and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, in particular that we are very clear-eyed in our policy when it comes to China. China is an important partner on climate change; it is an important partner when we talk of the economic interdependency of the world today. Equally, where there are violations of human rights, be they in Tibet and Xinjiang, or against our own citizens, I assure the noble Baroness that we will stand by those people and always call out such violations.

Committee adjourned at 5 pm.