(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if she will make a statement on the arrests of Cardinal Zen, Margaret Ng, Hui Po-keung and Denise Ho in Hong Kong on 11 May.
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this incredibly important issue. The Hong Kong authorities’ decision to target leading pro-democracy figures, including Cardinal Zen, Margaret Ng, Hui Po-keung and Denise Ho, under the national security law is unacceptable.
Freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest, which are protected in both the joint declaration and the Basic Law, are fundamental to Hong Kong’s way of life. We continue to make clear to mainland China and to Hong Kong authorities our strong opposition to the national security law, which is being used to curtail freedom, punish dissent and shrink the space for opposition, free press and civil society.
In response to the imposition of the national security law, as well as wider recent developments in Hong Kong, the UK has taken three major policy actions: on 31 January 2021, we launched a bespoke immigration route for British nationals overseas and their dependants; we have suspended the UK-Hong Kong extradition treaty; and we have extended the arms embargo on China to cover Hong Kong.
China remains in an ongoing state of non-compliance with the joint declaration, which it willingly agreed to uphold. As a co-signatory to the joint declaration, and in the significant 25th year of our handover, we will continue to stand up for the people of Hong Kong. We will continue to call out the violation of their rights and freedoms and hold China to its international obligations. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is in regular contact with her international counterparts on issues relating to Hong Kong, and we continue to work intensively within international institutions to call on China to live up to its international obligations and responsibilities.
As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary stated in the latest six-monthly report, published on 31 March, the UK will continue to speak out when China breaches its legally binding agreements, and when it breaks its promises to the people of Hong Kong.
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question.
On 11 May—yesterday—Chinese authorities arrested three trustees of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which helped pro-democracy protesters to pay their legal fees. Although those three figures, led by Cardinal Joseph Zen, have apparently been released on bail, the bail requirements are very onerous and their passports have been confiscated. This is a huge abuse of human rights. Cardinal Zen is, I believe, 96, and he has been a lifelong advocate of democratic causes in Hong Kong and mainland China. We should be looking up to this man, and considering the abuse that he faces. He has spoken out against China’s growing authoritarianism under President Xi Jinping, including a Beijing-imposed national security law, and the persecution of members of many religions, including Roman Catholics in China.
The problem we have is this. A representative of my Government comes to the Dispatch Box, legitimately, and condemns all these actions in China, yet we lag behind others in sanctioning individuals under the Magnitsky requirements. The following people have already been sanctioned by the United States, and are involved in this process: John Lee, elected as Hong Kong’s next chief executive; Carrie Lam, the previous head of the Hong Kong Government; Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah; Xia Baolong; Zhang Xiaoming; Luo Huining; Zheng Yanxiong; Chris Tang Ping-keung; and Stephen Lo Wai-chung, a former commissioner of the Hong Kong police force. Not one of those people has been sanctioned by the UK Government. It is time to step up and make our position very clear.
I would also say to my right hon. Friend, for whom I have a huge amount of respect, that the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund was shut down last year, and was opened up for inspection for “collusion”. This needs to be investigated.
I understand that you wish me to finish my remarks, Mr Speaker, and I am about to do so. Let me simply say this: it is the important bit. There have been reports that the Government may well re-enact discussions about the Joint Economic Trade Commission, and even re-endorse the economic and financial dialogue which was previously suspended. I want an absolute undertaking from our Government that they will sanction those individuals, and that there is no way on earth that we will entertain the opening up of any trade or financial discussions with this abusive Government.
My right hon. Friend speaks with huge authority on this issue, and he knows that when he speaks on any issue but particularly this one, I personally take notice and Her Majesty’s Government always take notice. He will, I know, be frustrated by the sentence I am about to utter, but I think he will understand that, while we work closely with our international partners on sanctions of individuals, as our response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine demonstrates, we never discuss publicly any future sanctions designations that might be brought. Nevertheless, Her Majesty’s Government and I will take very seriously the points that he has made, and the list of individuals that he has read out. He was right to highlight the importance of not just words but actions in opposition to actions such as those taken by the Chinese Government. We consider Beijing to be in a state of ongoing non-compliance with the Sino-British joint declaration, and I think that that will be borne in mind when we speak, or think, about any other agreements that might be entered into with that Government.
The arrests in the past few days of Cardinal Zen, Margaret Ng, Denise Ho, Cyd Ho, and Hui Po-keung mark a disturbing new phase in China’s relentless crackdown on the freedoms and liberties promised to the people of Hong Kong—in this case, freedom of religion or belief, which so many Members of this House hold very dear.
This phase has been marked by the rigged election of Beijing’s hand-picked choice of Chief Executive, John Lee, in a one-person coronation. Mr Lee is known for his brutal policing policies during the pro-democracy protests in 2019, and we are now seeing the erosion of the remaining freedoms, including the freedom of religion or belief, that were enjoyed by so many Hongkongers. This will undoubtedly lead to a further exodus of young Hongkongers from the city in search of freedom and new lives elsewhere, away from Beijing’s reach. We have long accepted that the promise of a high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong in the legally binding Sino-British agreement has been breached.
I am pleased that on previous occasions we have seen a lot of agreement in the House on this subject, and we strongly endorse the BNO—British national overseas—policy of the Government, but the arrest of opposition activists, including a 90-year-old cardinal, just days after the election of a hard-liner demands further action. I have these questions for the Minister, although I am sorry that the Foreign Secretary is not with us today. Will he make urgent representations to the Chinese embassy here in London? Will the Government consider the sanctions that the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) has so eloquently set out? Will the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office redouble its efforts to support exiled journalists, faith leaders and campaigners in order to ensure that independent reporting on the situation in Hong Kong can continue? Finally, will the FCDO work with the Home Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to ensure that those Hongkongers who have fled to the UK for sanctuary are welcomed and supported, and are able to report with confidence any safety concerns they may have about Chinese influence and activity here in the UK?
I thank the hon. Lady for those points. The tone of her questions, probing though they were, reflects the concerns being expressed from right across the Chamber about what is going on in Hong Kong, and our desire to protect its people. She mentioned the election—or selection—process. On 9 May, the UK released a joint statement with our G7 partners and the EU, underscoring our grave concern about the selection process for the Chief Executive in Hong Kong and its part in the continued assault on pluralism and fundamental rights. The hon. Lady mentioned our commitment to freedom of religion or belief, and also to freedom of the press, both of which we regard as the foundation stones of a properly functioning society. She is right to highlight our collective concern about those in relation to the situation in Hong Kong. Finally, she mentioned her support for the Hong Kong people who have come to the UK. I take very seriously her point about protecting them. She is referring not just to our general duty to protect the citizens of this country, but the specific duty to protect these people from any repercussions. I will take that on board. I cannot give her a direct answer to that question, but the point she makes is valid and has been listened to.
Can the Minister tell the House what steps the Government are taking to protect freedom of religion or belief in the light of the arrest of Cardinal Zen, a senior leader of the Catholic Church in Asia? Have there been any discussions with the Vatican about the arrest? Does the Minister agree that the deteriorating state of freedom of religion or belief in Hong Kong must now be one of the concerns addressed at the UK-hosted ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief in July?
I thank my hon. Friend for the work she does on this issue. She is famously passionate about it, and rightly so. She makes an incredibly valid point about this being a topic for the summer; it is inconceivable that it will not be a topic of discussion, although the agenda is not down to me. The Sino-British joint declaration is a legally binding treaty under which China committed to uphold Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and to protect the freedoms and rights of its people. This explicitly includes freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief, so my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that this goes to the core of the agreement. We will call out China when it curtails those freedoms and, as I say, it is right that this should be brought up in international fora—both those centred on freedom of religion or belief and others.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for securing this urgent question. The direction of travel and the stifling of democracy in Hong Kong is obviously deeply concerning and something we should all deplore. Human Rights Watch said of Cardinal Zen’s arrest:
“Arresting a 90-year-old cardinal for his peaceful activities has to be a shocking new low for Hong Kong, illustrating the city’s free fall in human rights in the past two years.”
That is correct. Rather than colluding with foreign forces, which is what they have been accused of doing, those arrested have simply helped the people of Hong Kong in the face of an increasing crackdown and autocracy.
Will the Minister pledge to the House that every possible diplomatic avenue will be explored to try to secure the urgent release of these four individuals, alongside other pro-democracy campaigners? Will he clarify what diplomatic discussions the UK Government have had on the situation in Hong Kong, and further outline the strategy to try to influence the situation? Finally, will he tell us more about the UK Government’s assessment of the likely impact on democracy of John Lee’s appointment?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising those points, and for reaffirming the cross-party view of these arrests. On 9 May, the UK released a joint statement with the G7 and the EU specifically on the selection process for the Chief Executive. A co-ordinated international voice has the greatest impact, and we will continue to work with our international friends, partners and allies in calling out these situations.
We used our G7 presidency to highlight our concerns about Hong Kong, including at the Carbis Bay summit. The hon. Lady asked how we will move things forward; we consistently raise these concerns with both the Hong Kong authorities and the Chinese mainland authorities.
Everyone in this Chamber knows that China seeks to project its power around the world in order to obtain the respect that it believes it is owed. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the arrest of Cardinal Zen does nothing but inspire the contempt of not only Catholics around the world, but all people who value freedom of religion?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is not for me to give advice to the Government of China, but they freely and openly entered into an agreement with us. They are now in breach of that agreement. Countries around the world should look at the respect the Chinese Government have for the agreements into which they freely enter. We expect them to stand by the agreements they make, both on this issue and on the other issues in the Sino-British agreement.
I thank the Minister for his answers. He is a compassionate Minister who understands the issues very well, and I thank him for all that he has done and will do. The Home Secretary has identified protecting freedom of religion or belief as a foreign policy priority. These arrests indicate increasing restrictions on freedom of religion or belief in Hong Kong. If that is happening in Hong Kong, we must also worry about Christians, Uyghur Muslims and Falun Gong practitioners in mainland China. What assessment has the Minister and his Department made of this case’s long-term impact?
The hon. Gentleman is another Member in this House who speaks regularly and with great knowledge on this incredibly important issue. He is right to highlight that what is happening in Hong Kong may well reflect things happening in other parts of China that we do not see. The freedom of religion or belief is a foundation-stone freedom. It is the canary in the mine, as it were, and it is a key indicator of a Government’s commitment to a whole range of other freedoms. The fact that this freedom is so visibly being curtailed in Hong Kong should draw our attention to other religious minorities in China, a number of which he regularly champions. I assure him that we will keep a close eye on not only Hong Kong but on places elsewhere in China.
It is clear that the Chinese Government were watching the west’s reaction to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. Members of this House have been sanctioned by the Chinese Government for doing nothing more than calling out human rights abuses in China, so surely the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) about the sanctions and the people to be sanctioned should be taken on board by the British Government, and his suggestion should be implemented immediately.
My hon. Friend speaks with great passion. I assure him that his point is heard by the Government. I repeat what I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith): we do not talk about future sanctions designations. However, I absolutely hear the point about it being completely inappropriate for British parliamentarians to be sanctioned, and we will listen carefully to the point that my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend have made.
I thank the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for securing this important urgent question. I feel that in the five years I have been here, there has been a repeated deterioration in the situation in Hong Kong. Words are one thing, but action is something else. We should absolutely put in place sanctions, but Hong Kong Watch recently produced a report showing that dirty money gained through corruption—money that is being spent by families of officials from Hong Kong—is flowing in our economy. Will the Minister look carefully at that report, and commit to carrying out an audit of that dirty money, and to using the new powers in the economic crime Bill to root it out from our society?
The hon. Lady makes an important point about the economic crime Bill. That piece of legislation is being brought through the House specifically so that we can address dirty money that may be flowing through the UK, and I can assure her that the report that she highlighted will be read. This is not my portfolio, but I suspect it already has been read by those at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
I thank the Minister for appearing in the Chamber to answer the urgent question. Does he consider the statements by Hong Kong’s new leader John Lee about cracking down on “fake news” to be as worrying as I do, given the accusations of human rights abuses in the region? Have the Government yet sought engagement with Lee? How do they intend to apply pressure to protect democratic freedoms more broadly?
Just like the protection of freedom of religion or belief, a free media is a foundation-stone freedom, and actions to curtail it are always something we look at carefully and closely. We have previously released statements about that appointment with our international partners, and I assure the hon. Lady that we will take very seriously actions that are being euphemistically described as a crackdown on fake news, because of course we recognise this for what it is: the curtailment of a free and open media.
What steps is the Minister actively taking to protect religious freedoms in Hong Kong, in the light of the arrest of Cardinal Zen? Will the Minister commit to working with his counterparts in the Home Office to ensure that UK police forces protect Hongkongers in our country from Chinese Communist party agents, as, shockingly, many Hongkongers are reported to have been followed or even attacked?
The hon. Lady raises an incredibly important point. The offer we made to British nationals overseas in Hong Kong to come here and make their lives here was designed specifically to help protect them from persecution and danger. We absolutely see that the duty does not stop just because they are now in the UK, and I assure her that we take their protection incredibly seriously, particularly in the light of some of the things we are seeing.