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Amnesty International Offices in Hong Kong

Volume 703: debated on Monday 15 November 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Steve Double.)

We in the United Kingdom cannot divorce ourselves from the deteriorating human rights situation in Hong Kong; nor can we ignore the legal, moral and historical responsibility that the UK has for the people of Hong Kong and their right to live in a free, democratic and autonomous city. Yet I fear that the prevailing view in government and among those with commercial interests in Hong Kong is not to challenge China as strongly as we should and almost to turn a blind eye to the ongoing crackdown on the pro-democracy movement, on the free press and on civil society in this once proud possession of the British Crown.

The announcement by Amnesty International on 25 October that it intends to close its two offices in Hong Kong as a result of the national security law should concern us all. It is further evidence of the shrinking space for civil society in a city that once boasted to be an open international financial centre. Sadly, Amnesty International is not alone: at least 35 civil society organisations have disbanded since the introduction of the national security law.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for all that he does and for this debate in particular. Does he not agree that the closure of not only Amnesty International’s offices in Hong Kong but those of all human rights organisations that are highly—and rightly—critical of the horrific human rights abuses still taking place in China typifies the disregard that China has shown to the 1984 Sino-British joint declaration and the 1992 United States-Hong Kong Policy Act? Does he agree that through this debate and the Minister’s response we must make it clear that the House stands with Hong Kong’s citizens and those who fight for freedom in a democratic, peaceful way?

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention, and I of course agree with everything he said.

I was going to go on to say that other organisations have been forced to close as well, including Human Rights Watch. In the last few months, I believe that Beijing has weaponised this draconian law to force the disbanding of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, the civil society group that organised the annual Tiananmen Square massacre vigil, and the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which provided the financial assistance and paid the legal fees of protesters.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this Adjournment debate on such an important subject. Would he agree with me that civil society organisations play a very important role in modern democracies? We do not of course always agree with what civil society organisations say, but they play their role and have their function. This removal, in effect, of organisations such as Amnesty International from Hong Kong is further evidence, if any further evidence is required, that Hong Kong is no longer functioning as a modern democracy or an open society in any meaningful sense of the words.

My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. I believe that the way China has treated Hong Kong is a betrayal of everything we thought we had agreed with China. My hon. Friend makes the point very clearly, and I intend to emphasise this still further as the debate progresses.

Let us make no mistake about this: the dismantling of civil society organisations is another step in the Chinese Government’s relentless pursuit of the destruction of Hong Kong’s autonomy and the freedoms that were previously guaranteed by the one country, two systems model and the Sino-British joint declaration that underpinned it. Despite previous claims that the national security law would be used sparingly, would not be applied retrospectively and would not impact on the rule of law, we have seen the Chinese Communist party use the smokescreen of state security to arrest journalists, former pro-democracy lawmakers, activists, students, trade unionists, lawyers and even speech therapists.

This month alone, Beijing and the Hong Kong Government warned the Foreign Correspondents Club that it risked closure and possibly violated the national security law for publishing a survey of its members on press freedom. The Justice Secretary stated that gestures, words and signs could lead to convictions, and the Security Minister cautioned that Hong Kongers who cast blank ballots or boycott the upcoming Legislative Council elections could be violating this draconian law.

No one looking at these developments can be under any illusion whatsoever that the old Hong Kong that guaranteed freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of association and freedom of religion or belief, and upheld the rule of law, exists today: that has gone. The two trials we have seen under the national security law have already demonstrated the export and establishment of China’s judicial system in Hong Kong, with suspects denied bail on spurious grounds, judges hand-picked by Beijing and one individual receiving a sentence of six and a half years in jail simply for carrying a flag with a pro-democracy slogan on it.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, as recently as Saturday, a judgment was handed down that dealt with the question of joint enterprise, which shows that the national security law is actually building a significant body of jurisprudence. In these circumstances, does he agree that it is now wholly inappropriate that United Kingdom lawyers and especially judges should be party to this sham of democracy?

The right hon. Gentleman pre-empts what I was going to say later, and he is entirely correct that we should not be giving any legitimacy to this regime any longer.

The crackdown is clearly undermining the business environment in the city and Hong Kong’s status as a global financial centre, as British-based banks and businesses fear the extension of Beijing’s foreign anti-sanctions law which would require them to ignore US sanctions, and new requirements under the national security law force them to become even more complicit in the crackdown by disclosing the property of suspects. The growing number of US firms reported to be leaving the city and the warnings about the Hong Kong Government’s dwindling surplus are key indicators of this contagion.

So, what should the UK as a co-signatory to the joint declaration do in response to what the former Foreign Secretary my right hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab) has labelled China’s “ongoing non-compliance” with upholding its international commitments to the people of Hong Kong?

First, the Government need to look at what more can be done to support civil society in Hong Kong, which is currently under dreadful assault. In particular, the Minister should outline what plans the Government have to ensure the flow of information and reporting on the human rights situation now that both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have been forced to close down.

Secondly, Ministers must reconsider the participation of sitting UK judges on the Hong Kong court of final appeal. As the human rights situation continues to deteriorate at a worrying pace, it is clear that these judges are powerless to moderate Beijing’s behaviour. Instead, they are offering political cover for a Government in Hong Kong who have lost all legitimacy.

Thirdly, Ministers need to stop dragging their feet when it comes to using the Magnitsky sanctions against the Hong Kong and Chinese officials responsible for these abuses. What signal does it send to our closest allies and partners in the region when the UK is unwilling to sanction individuals who have violated an international treaty with the United Kingdom and are systematically abusing human rights?

I congratulate my hon. Friend, who serves on the Foreign Affairs Committee with me; he does a great job and it is wonderful to sit on that Committee with him. Sadly, I am one of the people named by the Chinese authorities in the course of some of the cases against democracy activists, which pains me greatly. Does my hon. Friend agree that what we need in relation to China, and indeed Russia, and which we are still slightly waiting for, is an integrated policy that does not turn a blind eye to these awful human rights abuses, but integrates them into the intelligent and balanced response that our state needs, including on human rights?

I am proud to serve with my hon. Friend on the Foreign Affairs Committee, and he speaks very wisely about this topic. I am sorry that his name has been published on this list; I am sure that after tonight mine will be on the list as well. I have twice been refused entry to Hong Kong, and the time has come for all Members of this House to be on that list, and to speak up against this totalitarian regime which is undermining the incredible freedoms, liberties and democracy that were left after the United Kingdom looked after Hong Kong as a Crown colony. The betrayal is unforgiveable, and this House must be united in its stand against the regime in Beijing and all the damage it is doing to the lives and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong.

Finally, the Government must look again at the question of young Hong Kongers who are currently barred from the British national overseas visa scheme. Like many Members, I fully supported the introduction of the scheme, but it cannot be right that nearly 200 Hong Kongers are now in the UK asylum system, many of whom have at least one parent who is BNO. This needs to be reviewed.

As the Minister may be aware, there is a new clause to the Borders and Nationality Bill, which was tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) and also carries my name, that would require the Government to register a Hongkonger who can prove that they have one BNO parent for the BNO visa scheme. I hope that the Government will look favourably on that new clause and consider adopting it as we approach Report stage of the Bill.

In addition, there are 301 ex-Hong Kong servicemen seeking right of abode, which a further amendment to that Bill would grant. The Minister will know that I chair the parliamentary campaign for the right of abode for Hong Kong ex-servicemen, and I urge her please to look at this issue with some urgency. Justice needs to be done, and we have a duty to these loyal Hongkongers, who have served Queen and country and now look to Britain to give them the same loyalty in return. It is not much to ask, and I urge the Minister to take action immediately.

The human rights crisis in Hong Kong is far from over. In the next few weeks, we will see the national security trials of student activist Tony Chung and the former owner of Apple Daily, Jimmy Lai; further civil society groups will undoubtedly close; Legislative Council elections will take place under Beijing’s new system, and the threat of further national security legislation looms. The question on everyone’s minds is, what will the UK do about this? We cannot stand by in silence. We cannot watch it continue and take no action. I genuinely hope that the Minister will provide some of the answers to the questions I have posed. It is indeed Her Majesty’s Government’s duty to do so.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) for securing this debate, and I pay tribute to his work on the Foreign Affairs Committee. I thank all those other hon. Members who have intervened tonight. The Minister for Asia, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling), would have been delighted to take part in the debate, but she is currently hosting the premiers of the overseas territories at a Joint Ministerial Council event, so I will respond on behalf of the Government. I will make some background points and then address some of the specific questions that my hon. Friend raised.

This continues to be the most concerning period in Hong Kong’s post-handover history. I acknowledge and share the deep concern of this House. The Chinese and Hong Kong authorities have taken a number of actions to stifle dissent and to suppress the expression of alternative political views in Hong Kong. Those include the imposition of the national security law in June last year, the mass arrest of politicians and activists, the disqualification of electoral candidates, and changes to Hong Kong’s own election processes.

On 25 October, Amnesty International announced that it would withdraw from Hong Kong by the end of this year. Amnesty says that the national security law is making it impossible to work freely without fear of Government reprisals. We have also seen the enforced closure of other non-governmental organisations and prosecution of their members under that law. Mainland Chinese and Hong Kong authorities have used the law to curtail freedoms, to punish dissent and to shrink the space for opposition, free press and civil society.

Since 2016, the UK has declared four breaches of the Sino-British joint declaration in response to Beijing’s actions. The joint declaration was registered with the UN on 12 June 1985. It is a legally binding international treaty that remains in force today. The joint declaration made it clear that Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, rights and freedoms would remain unchanged for 50 years from 1997. China undertook to uphold those freedoms of speech, of the press and of assembly, but the mainland Chinese authorities have shown an increasing propensity to breach their obligations in relation to Hong Kong. The national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing in June 2020 contains a slew of measures that directly undermine those rights and freedoms. China’s own basic law for Hong Kong makes it clear that the territory should put forward and enact its own security legislation, but the direct imposition of the national security law clearly contravenes that.

Last year, China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee imposed new rules to disqualify elected legislators in Hong Kong. Last March, the National People’s Congress unilaterally decided to change Hong Kong’s election system. The changes give Chinese authorities greater control over who stands for elected office. Last month, 55 district councillors were disqualified and over 250 were pressured to resign for political reasons. This is a systematic and determined effort by Beijing to bring Hong Kong under its control, erasing the space for alternative political views and for legitimate political debate.

The UK Government are committed to holding China to account. We responded quickly and decisively to the enactment of the national security law. Following its introduction, the UK declared China to be in breach of the joint declaration, and we have declared two further breaches since then—that is three breaches in the space of just nine months. The UK now believes that China is in an ongoing state of non-compliance with the joint declaration.

China is paying a huge price for taking those actions against Hong Kong, not least China’s reputation on the international stage and let alone the impact it is having on the people of Hong Kong, which I will come on to now.

Last year, the UK introduced a bespoke immigration route for British nationals overseas and their dependants, providing a path to citizenship. The route opened on 31 January 2021. By 30 June, nearly 65,000 people had applied for the BNO route. We also suspended our extradition treaty with Hong Kong indefinitely and extended our arms embargo on mainland China to Hong Kong. All of that answers my hon. Friend’s question about what price China is paying.

We have led action in the international community through our G7 presidency. In June, 44 countries supported a joint statement on Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet at the UN Human Rights Council. In July, we co-sponsored an event on Hong Kong during the UN Human Rights Council, speaking alongside a number of UN special rapporteurs. In October, we delivered a national statement during the United Nations Third Committee, reiterating our deep concerns about the deterioration of fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong under the national security law. The Chinese and Hong Kong authorities can be in no doubt about the seriousness of our concerns, and those of the international community.

The Minister will have seen this weekend that China is not always that bothered about its reputation on the international stage. Surely the removal of the Amnesty International office in Hong Kong ought to be the canary in the mineshaft? Amnesty is not an organisation that gives up easily in these contexts and the fact that it has removed its office should be a warning. Is this not the point, as the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) said, where we really begin to get serious in relation to Magnitsky sanctions?

Let me turn to exactly that point and to the specific points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Romford, starting with sanctions.

Since establishing the global human rights sanctions regime in July 2020, we have imposed sanctions on 78 individuals and entities involved in serious human rights violations or abuses, including in Belarus and Myanmar, as well as in Xinjiang in China. On 22 March, the former Foreign Secretary announced that under the UK’s global human rights sanctions regime, the UK imposed asset freezes and travel bans against four Chinese Government officials, as well as an asset freeze against one entity responsible for enforcing the repressive security policies against many areas of Xinjiang. Those measures were taken alongside the US, Canada and the EU, sending a clear message to the Chinese Government that the international community will not turn a blind eye to such serious and systematic violations of basic human rights. Those listed face travel bans and asset freezes across the US, Canada, the EU and the UK. Together, we make up a third of global GDP, which amplifies the impact and reach of our actions.

We will, of course, continue to consider sanctions, but I cannot speculate here who may be designated for sanctions in future, as that very speculation could undermine the impact of the designation, if it happens—I hope that my hon. Friend understands exactly what I mean by that point. We will continue to consider them, but we cannot speculate because to speculate would undermine the impact.

My hon. Friend mentioned the participation of British judges in the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal. British judges have played an important role in supporting the independence of Hong Kong’s judiciary since handover, but it is for the judges to make their own decisions about their continued service in Hong Kong. It is right, however, that the UK Supreme Court, in discussion with our Government, continues to assess the situation in Hong Kong.

My hon. Friend raised concerns about young Hongkongers accessing the BNO scheme. I reiterate that nearly 65,000 had applied for the BNO scheme by June, which shows how valuable it is. The BNO route reflects the UK’s historic and moral commitment to those who retained ties to the UK by taking out BNO status at the point of Hong Kong’s handover to China in 1997. Those with BNO status and eligible family members can come to the UK to live, study and work on a pathway to citizenship. Those who are not eligible for the BNO route may consider other UK immigration routes that are available. These include the new points-based system and the youth mobility scheme, which is open to those aged between 18 and 30.

My hon. Friend also raised the issue of those who had served with the armed forces—loyal Hongkongers who served Queen and country—and, like him, I have huge respect for the service they have given. He mentioned amendments that have been tabled to the Nationality and Borders Bill. I am afraid I cannot answer those questions on asylum and immigration here at the Dispatch Box because they will be for the Home Secretary to answer, but I thank him for putting those matters on the agenda this evening.

Let me be very clear: there is a stark and growing gulf between Beijing’s promises on Hong Kong and Beijing’s actions. We will continue to stand up for the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong. We will continue to bring together like-minded partners, call out violations of Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms, and hold China to the obligation that it willingly undertook to safeguard the people of Hong Kong and their way of life.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.