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Hong Kong

Volume 831: debated on Thursday 13 July 2023


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Minister for Indo-Pacific in the other place on the situation on Hong Kong. The Statement is as follows:

“Last week, I came to this House to speak on the egregious arrest warrants and bounties issued by the Hong Kong police against eight individuals for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Some of these individuals reside in the UK. As I said at the time, this is completely unacceptable.

Since then, the authorities in Hong Kong have taken further steps to silence and intimidate these individuals by targeting their families and alleged associates who remain in Hong Kong. Last week, we saw five individuals arrested by the Hong Kong police. On Monday, family members of one of the named individuals, Nathan Law, were detained for questioning by Hong Kong police and have since been released. This is a worrying development. This is a campaign of fear intended to intimidate and silence those who seek to speak out peacefully against oppression and the erosion of rights and freedoms.

This is a choice the Hong Kong authorities have taken, no doubt emboldened by the Chinese Government’s imposition of the national security law. It will only further damage Hong Kong’s international reputation and standing. The United Kingdom declared the national security law a breach of the Sino-British joint declaration and brought together the international community to condemn the imposition.

In response, we introduced the bespoke visa route for British overseas nationals. Hong Kongers have since made the United Kingdom their home and are making a valuable contribution to our communities. We suspended the UK-Hong Kong extradition treaty immediately and indefinitely. We also announced the extension to Hong Kong of the arms embargo applied to mainland China since 1989, as updated in 1998.

I would like to make it exceptionally clear that we will not tolerate attempts by either the Chinese or the Hong Kong authorities to intimidate and silence any individuals in the United Kingdom. Any attempt by any foreign power to intimidate, harass or harm individuals or communities in the United Kingdom will not be tolerated. This is an insidious threat to our democracy and fundamental human rights.

On 3 July, the Foreign Secretary called on the Hong Kong authorities to end their targeting of those who stand up for freedom and democracy. They have not heeded this call. At the instruction of the Foreign Secretary, a senior official will be formally protesting recent actions by the Hong Kong authorities with the Chinese ambassador.

We will make and have consistently made clear our objections to the Beijing-imposed national security law to Chinese Government and will continue to do so. It has stifled opposition and criminalised dissent. The authorities claim that this has brought stability to Hong Kong, but what it has really done is stifle the unique character of the city and diminish its pluralism and vibrancy. If this course of action continues, it will alienate business and the city’s international financial status will be at risk.

The Hong Kong and Chinese authorities repeatedly condemn comments in this House and by the Government as interfering in their internal affairs. As a co-signatory to the joint declaration, we have the right to make clear our position, and we will not be deterred from doing so.

The national security law should never have been imposed in 2020 and should be removed. The independent UN Human Rights Council concurred with this in its report on Hong Kong last year, as have many of our partners in the international community. No one living in the United Kingdom should feel inhibited by that law in any way. We will always stand up for the right of freedom of expression.

This is not what the United Kingdom wants for Hong Kong’s future. Hong Kong’s way of life, prosperity and stability rely on respect for fundamental freedoms, an independent judiciary and the rule of law. We will continue to stand up for the people of Hong Kong, to call out violations of their rights and freedoms, and to hold China to its international obligations. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that Statement. Of course, by targeting the families of brave activists, authorities in Hong Kong have taken another deeply sinister step towards the erosion of the rights promised to the people of Hong Kong in 1997. The liberties and freedoms of the handover agreement are being flagrantly disregarded, and the system is increasingly under direct control of the Chinese Communist Party. We are now witnessing the full force of the national security law and the realisation of the fears of the Hong Kongers.

Our response must be firmly to stand by the people of Hong Kong and co-ordinate the international response. Given that the United Kingdom has recently assumed the presidency of the Security Council, can the Minister say what steps and plans the Government will make to arrange a debate at the UN over the next month on this important topic?

We must also continue to ensure that no part of the United Kingdom is complicit in this repression. Therefore, can the Minister finally issue formal guidance to ensure that there is no confusion as to the position of British judges in Hong Kong?

Unfortunately, those who have sought safety in the United Kingdom are not only worried about their families back in Hong Kong but are now threatened here too. The pursuit and enforcement of bounties by a foreign Government in the United Kingdom is clearly illegal. The Government must prosecute any individual who seeks to take up these bounties.

There are also new, serious questions about the status of extradition treaties with Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China and proposals for establishing a safe corridor for pro-democracy activists overseas. I listened to the Minister in the other place; she did not really answer Iain Duncan Smith’s question on this issue and the steps taken for safe passage. She referred to exchanges with Five Eyes and European partners regarding cancellation of extradition treaties with Hong Kong and the PRC, but without really giving any firm details. She mentioned, however, that only two EU countries have not cancelled the treaties. Can the Minister give us a little more detail this afternoon about the full extent of our discussions, not just with EU partners but on a broader scale, about how we ensure that such extradition treaties are not used to attack these human rights defenders from Hong Kong when they travel?

Given how unique this situation is, Ministers clearly need to work across departments to protect those who feel at risk. Will the Minister outline what steps are being taken across departments to safeguard Hong Kongers here in the United Kingdom? Do the Government have any plans to give further resources to the Home Office and the Department for Levelling Up to protect Hong Kong communities in the United Kingdom from any attempts by Beijing and the Chinese Communist Party to target them?

The Minister will also know that the Intelligence and Security Committee released its latest report today, which found that the Government’s response to the threat from China has been completely inadequate. He will recall that I asked in last Thursday’s debate in Grand Committee why the Government will not commit to publishing a stand-alone China strategy. The need to shift security policy from crisis management to long-term strategy is vital. We need to challenge, compete and co-operate where we can, as I emphasised last week. Will the Minister outline the steps that the Government will now take to follow through on the recommendations of the ISC’s report? Surely he agrees that, in the light of that report and with recent events in Hong Kong, it is now time for a new and comprehensive strategy towards China.

The Minister repeatedly states—I agree with him—that sanctions are effective only when taken in concert with others. If we work in isolation, they will never be effective. So why, as Iain Duncan Smith asked in the other place, are we so out of step with our allies in sanctioning those key individuals responsible for human rights abuses in Hong Kong, particularly Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee? I know that the Minister will repeat the usual mantra that the Government do not publicly respond on future designations but will he assure the House that we will work in concert with our allies to ensure that those responsible for these human rights abuses suffer the full action of the international community?

My Lords, the Government will find no disagreement at all with the Statement from these Benches. We also support the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Collins.

It is clearly unacceptable that the United Kingdom and its politicians should, in effect, be threatened by another country’s embassy over hosting individuals who will now, as John Lee indicated, be fearful for the remainder of their lives unless they return to Hong Kong. There is reportedly a £101,000 bounty on them. This is clearly unacceptable behaviour. What advice are the Government providing to individuals being threatened in such a way on accessing information and support from British police? We must be prepared for Chinese authorities to go beyond pure threats as, regrettably, we have seen physical action in this country, which is equally unacceptable.

I have three questions for the Minister. The first relates to our economic relationship with China. Clearly, our diplomatic relations are in a complex and sensitive state, but there seems to be very little action from the Government to see those concerns reflected in our trading and investment relationship via Hong Kong. Eight years ago, Prime Minister David Cameron indicated that he wanted Britain to be the preferred partner of China in the West and signed a number of preferential market access agreements with China. I have asked repeatedly which of those agreements we have alerted the Chinese authorities that we will pause on the basis of human rights concerns. The Government have indicated that none will be.

This is compounded by the Trade Minister from this House, the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, actively engaging with the Hong Kong authorities at the same time as they are announcing bounties on people in this country. My second question to the Minister is this: which Minister authorises Trade Ministers to visit Hong Kong? Is it the Prime Minister personally or the Secretary of State for the Department for Business and Trade? I do not know whether that department or the FCDO is in charge of our relations with China.

Thirdly, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact recently updated its review on UK aid to China. Many people will be alarmed to hear that, under the latest set of figures, it found that the United Kingdom has given £48 million in overseas development assistance to China—a country on whose goods we are dependent by a trade deficit of more than £40 billion. The commission found a concerning lack of transparency on a government strategy to reduce development assistance to China. I hope that the Minister can respond positively to the ICAI report and indicate when that figure will reduce to zero. I think that British taxpayers will be concerned when aid is being cut to those starving in the Horn of Africa but we are providing nearly £50 million to China.

My final point relates to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, with which I agree, on the need for a longer-term strategy. The Minister is well aware that a report of the International Relations and Defence Select Committee of this House found a “strategic void” from this Government on our relations with China. It said:

“There is no clear sense of what the current Government’s strategy towards China is, or what values and interests it is trying to uphold in the UK-China relationship”.

It is now absolutely necessary for us to have a clear long-term strategy on our relations with China—diplomatic, economic and cultural. I hope that the Minister will respond positively and say that this will now be the Government’s approach.

I thank both noble Lords for their support for the Statement. I accept that there are questions about our future relationship with China that we will continue to ask but, equally, I thank noble Lords and their respective parties for their support for the actions we are taking. It is right not just that we are concerned for the BNOs who have arrived to make their homes here in the United Kingdom and who are contributing so much but that we recognise that there remains a responsibility to every Hong Konger under an agreement signed by both China and the United Kingdom. In that respect, we remain focused and vigilant to ensure that those issues continue to be raised directly with China.

I will go through some of the specific questions, first on strategy and the way forward. The noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Purvis, both raised this in their own ways; the noble Lord, Lord Collins, repeated something that he asked me last week and the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, asked specifically about our future role.

First, I saw a summary of the Intelligence and Security Committee report on China earlier today. As noble Lords are aware, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister issued a Written Statement on this report, which I quote:

“The Integrated Review 2021 articulated the United Kingdom’s robust stance towards China. It highlighted China’s increasing international assertiveness and identified it as the biggest state-based comprehensive threat to the United Kingdom’s economic security. It placed greater emphasis on defending our interests and values while preserving the potential for cooperation on shared interests. The Integrated Review Refresh 2023 went further still, responding to subsequent changes in the strategic environment. In the IRR, the government recognised China as a systemic challenge with implications for almost every area of government policy”.

In the interests of time, I refer noble Lords to the Written Statement from my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, which clearly highlights the challenges posed and, importantly, the steps that we have taken in response to those challenges.

Noble Lords will recognise that much of the information for that report was received before 2021. A number of the issues and recommendations that it raises are addressed by some of the actions that we have taken, for example passing the National Security Act in 2023 and the foreign interference offence created by that Act. Through the Home Office, we have also set up the Defending Democracy Taskforce, overseen by the Security Minister. I refer noble Lords to that Statement; I am sure that further questions will arise on that issue.

The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, asked about visits and trade. I am sure all noble Lords recognise that China is a country that has a role to play on the world stage. I will shortly be going to the UN Security Council, and we have worked with China on a number of key priorities, including the issues and challenges of climate change, the security situation on various conflicts and, importantly, the issues of resolutions around the world. We recognise the role of China as a P5 UN Security Council member. We saw also that, on various health challenges that have been faced over time, China has played a role in assisting the global community.

However, that should not allow us to—and we do not—shy away from calling out China for its egregious abuse of human rights. I am sure noble Lords recognise the work of this Government on this important issue, and the leadership we have shown on the Human Rights Council, particularly on the issue of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, referred to my noble friend Lord Johnson’s visit to Hong Kong to discuss business ties that link the UK and Hong Kong. It is right that we continue to strengthen Hong Kong, not just because of our historic ties but because the whole basis of the agreement we signed was to ensure the continuing prosperity of Hong Kongers. I fully accept that it must be tied to ensuring that the rights of Hong Kongers are also protected. He spoke up quite directly against the erosion of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong and, I assure noble Lords, also raised key concerns that are affecting communities, such as pension access, in meetings with government officials.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about a UN debate specifically. I am sure that this will be something which I will reflect on, but I can certainly say at this time that there are no current plans to raise a particular UN Security Council debate. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, may know, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has made a statement on human rights in Hong Kong at the UN Human Rights Council. I will keep the noble Lord updated.

The noble Lord also asked about UK judges. The Government supported the decision of sitting UK judges to resign in March 2022. I am sure that both noble Lords recognise the independence of the judiciary as a key component of any democracy. The UK judges who remain as non-permanent members of the Court of Final Appeal are retired from judicial service in the UK. Lawyers who are practising in Hong Kong do so as private citizens. I am sure they are watching the situation very carefully but, from our perspective, ultimately it is for them to make their own personal decisions. It is important to respect that decision and I am sure they are reflecting on the latest pronouncements and announcements we have seen out of Hong Kong.

The noble Lord also raised issues of security measures in place for individuals in the UK. I am sure that both noble Lords will respect the fact that I will not go into specific details on individuals; as a matter of long-standing policy, we do not comment specifically on operational matters. However, I assure noble Lords that, where we do identify individuals at heightened risk, we are front-footed in providing them with protective security guidance, and indeed any other measures they may require in this respect.

The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, also raised the issue of overseas development assistance and China. We stopped direct Government-to-Government aid to China in 2011. Total ODA to China in 2021 included spend as outlined by the noble Lord. In a Written Ministerial Statement in April 2021, the FCDO committed to cut ODA-funded programmes in China by 95%. In addition, a lot of these programmes cover some of the educational elements. Chevening scholarships, ODA-eligible operational costs for UK diplomatic missions in China and ODA-eligible British Council activities are contained within this. I assure the noble Lord that no funding goes to Chinese authorities in this respect.

On the progress of this, BEIS, for example, announced in a WMS in May 2022 that its ODA-funded activity with China would also finish by the end of the financial year 2022-23. The FCDO is fully aware that China will eventually reach an income threshold to graduate, because of its sheer population size. But I hope I have reassured the noble Lord that, where those programmes are run, they are run within an educational sphere and support the vital work of organisations such as the British Council.

Both noble Lords raised concerns, which I share, that no citizen in the United Kingdom should be subject to any threat; we take this very seriously. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised the issue of transnational threats and our agreements and arrangements with other countries. I assure noble Lords that we work directly with all our key partners, including the United States and the European Union. Although the UK has indefinitely suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, we recognise that there should be no place where others may seek to leverage transnational partnerships and abuse the use of Interpol. We are vigilant on such threats. Of course, if there are further updates to provide to noble Lords, I will do so.

I reassure noble Lords that we work in a transnational way to show that people from Hong Kong, or British nationals overseas who now reside in the United Kingdom, are protected and secure not just in the UK but wherever they may be in the world.

My Lords, I am sure that we are all grateful to my noble friend for bringing his customary thoroughness to the answers he has just given. I declare an interest in that I led the last CPA delegation to Hong Kong before the handover, and two of my grandchildren were born in Hong Kong—my son was serving there.

I am deeply troubled by one thing in particular: the position of the judges. I completely accept what my noble friend said about the independence of the judiciary, and I make no criticism whatever of those eminent judges who still function, to a degree, in Hong Kong. But will my noble friend perhaps think of convening a meeting with them? The fact is that they are lending a veneer of respectability to a dire situation. All our hopes were high at the handover in 1997, and they remained so for many years after. But there is now a sinister repression in Hong Kong that completely abrogates the treaty that China and we agreed to. The time has now come when either China has to accept that treaty again or those who are inadvertently giving a veneer of respectability to it cease to do so.

I make one final point. My noble friend said that there were no plans to raise this issue at the Security Council during our chairmanship. I would ask that he talks to the Foreign Secretary and rethinks that. This is of enormous importance; we are dealing with the second most important power in the world, after the United States, and we must do everything we can to see that the international rule of law is observed by China, not flagrantly abused, as it is currently.

My Lords, I will start with the final point that my noble friend raised, about the UN Security Council. As my noble friend knows, there are various institutions of the United Nations, and I have become reasonably familiar with them over the last six years as the United Nations Minister, among other things, at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. That is why we chose the vehicle of the Human Rights Council, which was set up specifically for this matter. It was right that the issue and the statement were raised directly by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. The mandate of the UN Security Council is important, covering security and conflict issues across the piece. Of course, any agenda item on China’s role on the UN Security Council will also be determined, in part, by its effectiveness within that particular structure. However, we are raising these issues quite directly with China on a bilateral basis, with the Hong Kong authorities directly and, as I illustrated, at the United Nations.

On the issue of judges, there is nothing further I can really add. Like anyone, I am sure that the judges who continue to serve—and I add again that they are retired judges—will rightly make decisions that are reflective of their own key principles. I am sure that they are looking at these things very carefully. It is essential that the Hong Kong judiciary and Hong Kong’s legal institutions can operate independently and free from political interference.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement. He will recall from a debate last week the serious concerns around the alarming authoritarian actions that the CCP is taking against those who speak out so bravely against the regime. I have three questions for the Minister. First, can he assure us that our security forces are ensuring the freedoms and safety of the three individuals currently in the United Kingdom who have enormous bounties placed on their heads? Are they safe from any clandestine activities, whether by criminal or foreign government actors?

Secondly, can the Minister clarify whether any of these eight individuals will now be flagged by Interpol if they travel through international passport controls? Finally, can he give us any further information about attempts by an alleged Chinese spy to infiltrate a meeting in this very building in which two of the three targeted individuals were speaking? That the Chinese security forces are attempting to operate at the heart of our democracy is shocking. It cannot and must not be tolerated.

All parliamentarians must continue to speak up, unintimidated, for those who fight for freedoms in Hong Kong, most especially on our Parliamentary Estate. The Intelligence and Security Committee report released today, as my noble friend Lord Collins mentioned earlier, is critical of the Government with regard to China, especially in their apparent willingness to trade off economic interests and security concerns. These concerns now have a very human face.

My Lords, there is little that I can disagree with in what the noble Lord has said. I put on record again that I think he adds a real insight and value to our discussions and debates, as he has illustrated in his observations and the questions that he has raised today, and I look forward to working with him on this important agenda. I assure him, as I have already said, that with regard to those nationals who are present in the United Kingdom—and this applies to every British citizen—it is the first duty of any responsible Government to look after the security of their citizens. We do not take that responsibility lightly in any shape or form. Previous Governments have also made this a priority, and I know that future Governments will as well. We will not tolerate any attempts to intimidate people simply for speaking out. We will always defend the universal right of freedom of expression and stand up for those who are targeted.

I recognise the challenge and the important issues that the noble Lord has posed on issues of security. He raised issues and concerns about the Parliamentary Estate. I praise the parliamentary authorities, which remain very vigilant and on the front foot—I have personal experience of such things. Indeed, if any threat is perceived to the estate or to a given individual, particularly a parliamentarian, they are very much on the front foot when it comes to ensuring the safety and security of the estate and the individual parliamentarians. I have no doubt that it is very much at the forefront of their minds.

On the issue of any heightened risk, we of course keep every assessment and monitor this closely. We are very much aware of the challenges posed by the Chinese Government and state, and indeed other actors—and also of the way in which the threat may emanate. We live in a very different world of the digital age, and we are very much seized of the challenges that we confront there. I assure the noble Lord that, in all these respects but particularly with regard to security—he mentioned the use of Interpol, which I have already talked to—these institutions are set up to protect, not to intimidate.