I beg to move,
That this House has considered the anniversaries of the handover of Hong Kong and the implementation of the National Security Law.
It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Efford. I shall try to keep my remarks brief, but as a politician you know what that means.
Today’s debate is very important. It is important because we need to recall the plight of those in Hong Kong who were guaranteed under a treaty that their system would pay attention to the nature of how they had been previously governed under the UK, that their freedoms, to a greater or lesser extent, would be respected, and that there would be proper free and fair elections, yet that treaty, having been signed—fully agreed by both parties, China and the UK—has completely broken down.
A little background here is important. On 1 July 1997, Hong Kong was handed over to China by the UK, under the conditions set out in the 1984 Sino-British joint declaration. The joint declaration provides for fundamental rights, a high degree of autonomy, and one country, two systems in Hong Kong. The People’s Republic of China has stated since 2014, however, that the treaty has no further legal effect, while the document remains binding, in essence, in operation. The UK Government have declared the PRC as being
“in a state of ongoing non-compliance with the…Joint Declaration”.
As co-signatory to the treaty, the UK absolutely has the legal and moral responsibility to act in defence of a treaty that it signed and which was agreed.
The UK Government have declared there to be an ongoing breach of the Sino-British declaration, but we have not done much—we have not done enough—to hold China and the Chinese to account. I welcome some issues being resolved, such as the British national overseas passports scheme, which has opened a pathway for more than 100,000 Hongkongers to move to the UK and is a generous offer, but that is ultimately a humanitarian operation, not an accountability mechanism.
I welcome also the Government’s move to extend the BNO scheme to those born after 1 July 1997, following a campaign involving many who are here today. That means that many young pro-democracy activists will be eligible for the scheme. Many others around the Commonwealth—I think of Australia and a number of others—have opened their doors to those people should they wish to stay much closer to Hong Kong.
From 1 July 2020 to 28 March 2022, 183 individuals were arrested for alleged national security crimes. I have here a list of all those people. I am not going to read out all their names, but I might selectively look at a few, particularly Jimmy Lai and others, who have been appallingly treated.
Most of the arrests were related to the national security law, but some were for other crimes, such as so-called sedition. More than 50 civil society groups have been disbanded, and in June 2021 police arrested five senior executives from Apple Daily for alleged collusion with foreign forces. The media outlet, which was fair and free, was forced to close the same week. Prosecutors later affirmed that the arrests stemmed in part from apparent editorials published in Apple Daily calling on western countries to impose sanctions on Hong Kong officials.
In December 2021, the Hong Kong authorities arrested editorial staff of Stand News, citing conspiracy to publish seditious materials under the Crimes Ordinance. On the day of the arrests, Stand News announced its immediate closure. Prominent figures such as Jimmy Lai and Joshua Wong were arrested and charged under the national security law.
Arbitrary detention has taken place. Through the denial of bail in the vast majority of the related cases, the Hong Kong Government have created a system of de facto long-term detention without trial. On 28 February 2021, the authorities charged 47 politicians and activists over their role in organising a primary election in advance of Legislative Council elections in July 2020. Almost a year and a half later, most of those charged individuals remain in jail awaiting trial.
The truth is that the UK has a treaty responsibility to hold accountable those in power who are the perpetrators. That includes our own citizens who have aided and abetted the crackdown in Hong Kong. I am thinking in particular of senior British police officers who oversaw the use of indiscriminate tear gassing of peaceful pro-democracy protesters, and the same individuals who were in charge of detention facilities where violence and, we believe, even torture have been carried out against young Hongkongers. Think about that: British citizens involved in such levels of abuse.
Organisations campaigning on this issue have compiled an incredible dossier on the actions of the Hong Kong Government and the many abuses that have taken place. Once that dossier is complete, colleagues and I intend to submit it directly to the Government, with recommendations for further actions to be taken against those responsible. I expect that we will receive a very clear answer.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he share my concern that, unless the Government are forthright in showing how they will protect press freedom, all the content we have will disappear even further? We owe thanks to Hong Kong Watch and the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China for gathering that information. It is incredibly dangerous for people to speak the truth, in or outside Hong Kong, for fear of arrest and abuse.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our thanks go out to Hong Kong Watch, the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China and other groups that have facilitated this debate. My hon. Friend is sanctioned by the Chinese Government, as I am, for our concerns over the Uyghurs and the abuses in Xinjiang, and because of our complaints about what has happened in Hong Kong. She is right to raise the point that the Government need to do much more, which I want to come to in a minute.
The right hon. Gentleman is making an excellent point about the individuals involved. Does he agree that HSBC, headquartered in London, is a business that regularly breaks the law? It is the money-laundering choice for a number of illegal operations and has been fined three times. HSBC is not only involved in Xinjiang, but in Hong Kong it has frozen the accounts of individual protesters—people who were trying to restore democracy in Hong Kong. Does he agree that the Government could do more to influence or control that dreadful bank?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because that is correct. I had clashes with HSBC when it froze the accounts of those who had fled Hong Kong under the Government schemes. The same applies to Standard Chartered. HSBC’s answer was that it has to obey the law. My answer to the bank is, “You are headquartered in London. You take advantage of the freedoms in London, yet you behave like a brutal part of the Government in Hong Kong in obeying their every whim. You cannot ride both horses.” Those who take advantage of our common law purpose and the rights that exist in London need also to obey the norms of how those things came about and how they are operated. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The abuses of those banks are shocking and the Government should pay attention. I was going to raise that appalling situation, but now he has done.
On other issues, I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s support for the withdrawal, finally, of serving UK judges from the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal. I was surprised that we had to campaign for that at all, and that judges, whose responsibility in the UK is to arbitrate fairly in disputes in a democratic country under the rule of law, should so position themselves in Hong Kong while arbitrary detention was taking place, and carry on earning a living while serving in the UK. I am enormously pleased that that has now come to an end.
The President of the Supreme Court, Lord Reed, has agreed that High Court judges will no longer act in Hong Kong, but retired judges continue to do so. He said:
“the judges of the Supreme Court cannot continue to sit in Hong Kong without appearing to endorse an administration which has departed from values of political freedom, and freedom of expression”.
We obviously welcomed that decision, even though it was overdue, but I would have thought that retired judges were bound by much the same principle. If the Supreme Court has reached the opinion that its judges can no longer appear to act with an Administration who have departed from the values of political freedom and freedom of expression, how is it that retired judges, who are meant to be bound by the same principles, can in all honestly look themselves in the mirror and say, “That’s all right, but we are different”? I appeal to them today, for the sake of all those who are being traduced, arrested, tortured and dealt brutally with: it is time for us to show the world that the legitimacy of the legal system in Hong Kong is no longer. I understand that they have defended their decision, and I am not going to go through the details, but we must now call time on it.
What should the UK be doing? This is important: we should implement individual sanctions against Hong Kong officials who are responsible for the crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong. The UK is yet to impose sanctions on any Hong Kong official, which is astonishing given the fact that we had a joint requirement to see fairness. We see it trashed, yet we have done nothing about those who are clearly and obviously guilty. Here is the irony: the USA has done exactly that, and it did not have the same responsibilities that the UK Government had. The outgoing Chief Executive, Carrie Lam—sanctioned. The incoming Chief Executive, John Lee—sanctioned. Seven officials of the Hong Kong special administrative regions—sanctioned. That is Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah, Xia Baolong, Zhang Xiaoming, Luo Huining, Zheng Yanxiong, Chris Tang Ping-keung and Stephen Lo Wai-chung—they have all been sanctioned by the US Administration. I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister: why have we not done the same? Should we not be leading the USA and others, rather than be following them? Bold action and a bold answer are required.
The Government should conduct an audit of assets belonging to Chinese and Hong Kong officials held in the UK. A recent Hong Kong Watch report states that 11 Hong Kong officials and legislators own property in the UK. We have already established over time, and particularly since the Russians invaded Ukraine, the level of abuse that has taken place in the UK property market. We are now at last bearing down on that, and sanctions are moving, yet for Hong Kong, where people have been abusing the system for some time, we have still not carried out the audit that has been requested.
The Government should further scrutinise and limit the export of surveillance technology to Hong Kong. Following the outbreak of protests in 2019, I welcomed the announcement that the British Parliament would stop issuing export licences for crowd-control equipment to Hong Kong and announced the extension of the arms embargo on Hong Kong. However, technology that can be used for surveillance, such as facial recognition, closed circuit camera systems and technologies fuelled by the mass collection of personal data, can still be exported if they do not fall under the scope of existing legislation. That needs to be shut down immediately.
We must introduce “know your customer” and due diligence requirements for entities that produce surveillance technology. I understand that a local branch of the UK company Chubb has been providing surveillance products and services to detention facilities in Hong Kong that have been involved in the inhuman treatment of detainees. The reality is that it is in our power to act, and I do not understand why we are so resistant. Surely it is the decent thing to do.
My right hon. Friend is making an incredibly important point. Would he, like me, like to hear from the Minister about why we have not responded to the biometrics and surveillance camera commissioner, who has raised concerns about contracts not only here but in Hong Kong and mainland China, in particular about the contracts with Hikvision, which we know is involved and complicit in the abuse of Hongkongers and Uyghurs?
I am grateful for that intervention because I was coming to that, and my hon. Friend is right to prompt me. The commissioner has made it very clear that Hikvision is a security risk. It is used for abuse not just in Hong Kong but in the wider region, for the detention, genocide and slave labour of the Uyghurs, and there are plans and applications for Tibetans, Christians and others. We have highlighted endlessly with the Government how Hikvision cameras are being implemented in many prisons and detention facilities around China, particularly in Hong Kong, so why in heaven’s name are Government Departments still using it?
I have here a list of my parliamentary questions to each Department about how many cameras each of them holds and whether they will get rid of them. Of all the Government Departments, two have responded openly. One is the Department of Health and Social Care, which says it will eradicate them, and the second is the Department for Work and Pensions, which responded in a similar way. Every other Department has fallen back on the same phrase, saying that they do not respond to matters that are security risks. Well, the only security risk is the Departments themselves and it is high time they responded. Today I am FOI-ing every single one of those Departments. They need to respond immediately to say what they are doing and why they have not done it yet.
I also want the Government to implement “know your customer” and due diligence requirements on entities that facilitate the violation of human rights. Joint ventures with Chinese entities that develop surveillance technology should stop. There are at least 18 research partnerships with Huawei and CloudWalk in the UK. Let us for a second touch on Huawei, a company involved in the surveillance of the Uyghurs in the Xinjiang arena. It has partnered with a number of UK academic institutions, including King’s College London, the University of Cambridge, Barking & Dagenham College, University College London, Queen Mary University, the University of London and the University of Edinburgh. I understand there are more, but I will not detain the House much longer on that.
Huawei was banned from our telecommunications systems because it was deemed a security risk, yet it has its headquarters in Cambridge, where it is busy funding all sorts of programmes, many of which have security links. Honestly—what other country in the world would allow that to happen? Good gracious me! Bits of Government need to start talking to each other and asking a simple question: why is Huawei still here if it is a security risk? What is it doing subverting our universities? I am deeply concerned about all the levels of security equipment—I have talked about Hikvision and others—that are busily working away not in the interests of the UK, and there are plenty more.
The UK Government now have to act. There is so much more that they could and should do. They should lead the rest of the world and not follow the actions of those who abuse human rights. They have a treaty obligation to uphold. I call on the Government today, as we commemorate the disaster that is taking place in Hong Kong now, to be bold and brave and to take action. That is what we owe those decent people that have put their trust in us. Sadly, it appears we have failed them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) on securing this incredibly important debate on an issue that I know he feels very strongly about—he has shown dedication in raising it in this House—and I congratulate him on a superb speech.
This Friday will mark 25 years since Hong Kong’s sovereignty was transferred to the People’s Republic of China. The world is quite a different place from how it was in 1997, and in many ways that is a positive thing. Unfortunately, in Hong Kong, there is a concerted effort from the PRC to force the region to regress.
June is another, more recent anniversary in Hong Kong: it is two years since the introduction of the highly undemocratic national security law. That law, intended to clamp down on pro-democracy activism, has no place in the modern world. It is intentionally vague and open to misinterpretation. Its desired effect is to ensure that activists, dissenters and critics of the Chinese state are too afraid to continue fighting the good fight and to speak up for Hongkongers’ human rights. It is a façade intended to create the illusion of legitimacy and law and order, but in reality it is a mechanism for exerting the control of the totalitarian PRC.
The PRC has extended its reach so far that the law even says that it applies to anyone and everyone, no matter where in the world they live, and regardless of whether they are even a Hong Kong citizen. I understand that the Hong Kong authorities have attempted to apply the law outwith the borders of their authority, in order to try to arrest activists living abroad. The law’s official punishments would be excessive, even if it had been legislated in good faith. The reports of citizens being subjected to torture and maiming under the new laws are frightening. Living under that constant threat must be overwhelming and exhausting.
The “patriot only” election system, implemented and controlled by Beijing, is an affront to democracy and the joint declaration, which, as a key negotiator and signatory, Britain has a moral duty to ensure is upheld. Hong Kong’s new Chief Executive, John Lee, elected through a process that can barely be described as an election, has set out a worrying legislative agenda—an agenda that will see Hong Kong slip further and further away from the pursuit of democracy.
In fairness to the UK Government, they have responded in several ways to the breaches of the declaration. The one on which I will focus is the British national overseas—BNO—visa. Along with many others, I wholeheartedly welcome the visa. It is absolutely right that we offer sanctuary to Hongkongers fleeing human rights abuses and oppression.
That said, there is always room for improvement. A huge number of the people who have protested against the system are young—18 to 23-year-olds—and are at great risk of political persecution. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), who is responsible for immigration, announced a few months ago forthcoming further changes to the scheme, allowing those born after July 1997 and with a BNO parent to apply. I hope that the change will allow some of that cohort to take up the scheme. However, I worry that those young people will still need to meet the other, financial requirements of the visa. That will be a significant hurdle for them because of their age and the persecution that they face at home. I also worry about those young people who are without a BNO parent and so are ineligible for the scheme despite sharing those circumstances. Although I of course appreciate the lower fee for the visa, the immigration health surcharge is no small sum—in fact, it is huge. It is a significant obstacle for low-income citizens who may desperately need to leave Hong Kong.
I have in the past been critical of the Government’s approach to asylum policy, but I urge them to look closer at this matter. The BNO scheme is, when we look at intent, about asylum from persecution, but it is dependent on relative affluence, and it leaves a large group of vulnerable citizens without a route to safety in the UK. I reiterate that as a signatory to the joint declaration, we have a responsibility here.
For those who do get to the UK under the BNO scheme, further flexibility is needed around access to further education and adult training. There will still be challenges to overcome for those people, but they can access those training opportunities only once they have been in the UK for three years. Allowing them to access that support earlier would allow them to integrate into British society faster and flourish a little easier.
The bigger picture in all this is China’s growing assertiveness and lack of respect for international treaties and territorial sovereignty. We see that in the growing tensions with Taiwan, too. That country has also openly offered refuge for Hongkongers. That move has not been an easy one to choreograph; in fact, Hongkongers who have relocated to Taiwan have been asked to keep a low profile. There are the dual priorities of offering a home to pro-democracy activists and not antagonising Beijing.
Given the consequences they face, so many Hongkongers have shown an immense amount of courage in their campaign for respect and freedom. I hope that we will see some autonomy and democracy in Hong Kong not too far in the future. I hope that the Minister can shed light on the Government’s plans to support that. Perhaps that plan will involve consequences for China, in the form of meaningful sanctions, to show Beijing that we stand with Hong Kong and support its right to a democratic future.
First, I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) on his contribution and his commitment to this issue—something that has been noticed by all of us in the Chamber. He has the fearless courage to highlight the issues on behalf of the people of Hong Kong, who just want the freedom and liberty that we have. That is not too much to ask, but it seems to be a big challenge. I commend the right hon. Gentlemen for all that he has done and continues to do.
This is an important debate. Many years on from the attempt at peaceful withdrawal, Hong Kong has been thrown into years of coercion and protest caused by Chinese political aggression. It is great to be able to discuss those issues; I wish we could be more positive—my nature is to be positive—but there is so much to be negative about with China that it is hard to find anything good to say about it. These issues impact on the UK, and the UK has an immense responsibility to help the situation in Hong Kong. We have the opportunity to help, but we do not seem to have done that, as the right hon. Gentleman said. His freedom of information requests will no doubt get to the bottom of what is going on—I look forward to the replies.
Since the new security law was passed by the People’s Republic of China in 2020, there have been increasing moves by the Chinese Government to remove all autonomy from Hong Kong. As everyone will know, I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief; I despair when I think of all the things that happen in China, and how that is impacting Hong Kong. China supresses human rights, religious belief and opportunity.
As the right hon. Gentleman said, China is involved in the persecution of Uyghur Muslims, and of Christians, who have their churches damaged or destroyed. Christians are policed by the secret police if they attend church; the secret police sit in the church and take notes of who is there and what is said. Members of Falun Gong, who I have a particular interest in, have had their organs commercially harvested over a number of years. They are a small religious group who have a right to worship their god as they wish. I would stand up for that.
The same China that did those terrible things is now turning the screw and putting the boot into Hong Kong. It is understandable why we feel aggrieved to have to have this debate. China stands condemned in the world, alongside North Korea. Both countries are part of an axis of evil. They are a trio—or add Iran and make it a four—of nations that are a danger to the very existence of the world.
The 2020 national security law allowed for the complete override of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, and completely downplays Hong Kong’s right to democracy. That is against the agreement the United Kingdom signed with China some years ago. There were extreme concerns about the 2019 local elections, where 82 out of the 90 seats went to pro-China candidates, with a turnout as low as 32.8%. That is astonishing. There was a term used in Northern Ireland many years ago: gerrymandering. I think there was the Chinese equivalent of gerrymandering in that vote. It has shown China’s clear disregard for the one country, two systems principle that was installed in 1998.
The law has been abused since day one of its implementation, and it can mean virtually anything in terms of national security. In other words, whatever the Chinese think national security is, it is. Whether the legislation stands up to international law is immaterial to China. It has the potential to apply anywhere on the globe, meaning that vocal criticism of China anywhere is a crime.
The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green referred to the influence of this United Kingdom, and the things that we should be doing that other countries have already done. As the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) said—it is always a pleasure to follow my dear friend—the United Kingdom has been left with tough decisions to make, and has been unable to take much action. However, we have proved to be instrumental by extending our BNO visa scheme, which the hon. Lady referred to. It provides opportunity, but it perhaps needs some help to make it work better. The scheme covers Hong Kong residents who were born after 1997. This Government have provided a lifeline for those who desperately need to get away from Chinese interference. I ask the Minister: how many people have taken up the BNO visa scheme? How many have applied, and how many have actually got here? That would be an indicator. I am not putting pressure on the Minister; I am just keen to find out how the scheme is working.
I can sympathise with those in Hong Kong. Some may say those with British identities living in Northern Ireland, where I have lived all my life, have similar feelings. They often feel that they have had their culture threatened by the words and actions of republicans. Politically, culturally and electorally, China has picked away at Hong Kong piece by piece, encouraging pro-democracy protests and then retaliating with violent crackdowns. That has resulted in 47 defendants being convicted of sedition, which is shocking given that nobody else has been jailed for sedition since 1997. The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green named some of those who have been directly impacted. He was right to do so, because it is important that we find a way to help those who have stood for freedom, liberty and democracy.
There is an overwhelming sense of terror—I use that word on purpose, because that is what I believe it is—for Hong Kong nationals, as the law is so coercive. They have no idea how it might affect what they can or cannot do next, because there are no parameters for how China can enforce the law against those from Hong Kong. The smallest comment or action will be seen as an act against national security. The right hon. Gentleman has been instrumental in voicing concerns about China’s aggression, and he is right to do so.
For a start, we must ensure that we have the correct facilities to make sure that China cannot stop Hong Kong nationals coming to the UK on a BNO visa. We should also take measures similar to our complete boycott of the Beijing Olympics, given our concerns about the appalling human rights situation. If we cannot directly support Hong Kong through action, we have the power to do so indirectly through sanctions against China. While other countries have taken some steps on sanctions, we have not. I feel that we are letting the side down and, more importantly, we are letting the people of Hong Kong down, and we should be doing better.
China poses a real threat to this world, along with North Korea, Russia and Iran, and we cannot ignore that axis of evil when those countries are determined to do anything. They will go to whatever lengths, so we need to be strong in our response. We have seen the lengths to which those four countries will go to show their powers of coercion. They remind me of the insatiable appetite of a crocodile, because they just want to keep on eating. We cannot allow their ability to produce technological goods and sufficient trade to cloud the abuses they often enforce on other states, especially those that are most vulnerable, such as Hong Kong. We have seen the influence of China in Africa. There is probably not a country in Africa where China is not involved or helping financially in some way, but there is a price for that help, and we need to step up to the mark in the countries where we have influence across the world.
I urge our Government and the West to come together as a force against the cruel nature of China. Our resources are limited, but we should use the means we have to do more to help process visas efficiently, and we should be vocal in our defence of Hong Kong. Today’s debate is a way to make that happen, and we are deeply grateful to the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green for initiating it. China has been engrossed in human rights violations for years, and Hong Kong is now subject to those violations. We cannot continue to allow the people of Hong Kong to walk on eggshells. For that reason, I support the calls from the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green and the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West. I look forward to hearing from the Front Benchers, the hon. Members for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) and for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), who I know will endorse what we have said, and to hearing the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Efford. I too begin by thanking the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for securing the debate. I thank the hon. Members for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for their contributions, too. I will also put on the record my sincere thanks to Hong Kong Watch and the International Federation of Journalists for what they have done and continue to do in defending human rights and the freedom of the press in Hong Kong.
Although not hugely over-subscribed, today’s debate has been very well informed. It has united Members from all sides of the House in support of the people of Hong Kong, their democratic institutions and the fundamental human rights they have enjoyed for many years, including freedom of speech, a free press, the right to free assembly, the right to strike, freedom to travel, freedom of association and, of course, freedom of religion or belief.
As we have heard from hon. and right hon. Members, those fundamental rights—personal and political freedoms that were guaranteed to the people of Hong Kong—are being systematically undermined and dismantled by the Chinese state. The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green was right to bring up the 1984 Sino-British declaration, in which the people of Hong Kong were promised that they would enjoy a high degree of autonomy for 50 years following the handover, and that during that period only foreign affairs and defence would be the responsibility of the Government in Beijing. Indeed, the declaration went much further. It legally enshrined the doctrine of the one country, two systems approach, which guaranteed that the social and economic environment and the lifestyle of Hongkongers would remain intact and unchanged for half a century beyond 1997.
This year—almost to the day—marks the halfway point of those 50 years, but already those legally guaranteed freedoms and basic human rights that Hongkongers were assured would remain are becoming a distant memory. Sadly, Lord Patton’s famously optimistic line that “Now, Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong” could not be further from the truth.
It will come as no surprise to anyone that the SNP will always support democratic demands for self-determination, not just for ourselves but for people around the world. We believe that the people of Hong Kong must be free to democratically choose their own Government, and that Government must act in the interest of the Hong Kong people. While we recognise that the 1997 handover was an important step in global decolonisation, we deeply regret that—contrary to what it promised to the people of Hong Kong, and in the face of a legally binding international agreement—the Chinese Communist party is reneging on its end of the deal. As we have heard from all speakers, over the past 25 years, we have seen the steady erosion of the personal and political freedoms that Hongkongers were guaranteed, and the hasty assimilation and integration of Hong Kong into the Chinese mainstream by the Government in Beijing.
While in recent years we have witnessed the clamping down on any form of pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, things have deteriorated significantly in the past two years since the introduction of the national security law, which is little more than a full-on attack on the rights and freedoms of Hongkongers. It completely dismantles the one country, two systems framework and deliberately creates doubt and ambiguity in the minds of the people of Hong Kong as to whether what they are doing and have always done could be considered a crime. As the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West said, the Chinese Government have done that by introducing deliberately vague and undefined changes into the Hong Kong legal system, which would see advocating for secession, being involved in what they define as terrorism, subverting state power or colluding with a foreign political force punishable by between 10 years to life in prison.
Of course, the big problem with that is that the only people who know what the law means are those who make it, and no one is really clear what actually constitutes an offence that would “endanger national security”. The hon. Member for Strangford was right to say that Hongkongers live in a world in which they have no way of knowing if the things they may have done routinely in the past, the ideas that they may have expressed, the words that they may have written down, and the meetings that they would normally attend now constitute a criminal offence that leaves them at risk of prosecution, deportation or imprisonment on the Chinese mainland. That is exactly what the national security law was designed to do. That is why Amnesty International described it as,
“another example of a government using the concept of ‘national security’ to repress political opposition, with significant risks for human rights defenders, critical media reporting and civil society at large.”
Sadly, it has had the desired effect, with dozens of civil society organisations and trade unions now disbanding, including the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, the Civil Human Rights Front and the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union. At the end of last year, fearing reprisals, Amnesty International also closed its office in Hong Kong.
China’s placemen in Hong Kong now have this draconian legislation to create a climate of fear among the population, which they can use against anyone who dares publicly challenge the official narrative. As if to prove that the national security law was not a scare tactic to silence China’s critics, as the hon. Member for Strangford reminded us, in January 2021 almost 50 pro-democracy activists were arrested and charged with sedition, purely for attending and organising a primary election to run candidates for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council.
Later that year, the police raided the office of the pro-democracy Apple Daily, as the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green said, and arrested its editors for violating the national security law. They froze its bank accounts and, shortly afterwards, the paper closed down its website and social media before announcing its complete closure. Of course, the regime was always going to move against the independent press—that is what authoritarian Governments have always done—but the speed at which it moved against what was once a beacon of press freedom in Asia has been remarkable.
Since the national security law came into effect, 20 journalists and freedom campaigners have been arrested, and a dozen media workers and journalists are currently facing charges or awaiting trial, while others have fled Hong Kong and are now in exile. The Hong Kong police have even introduced a new definition of what it is to be a journalist—effectively imposing restrictions on freelance reporters, online journalists, student journalists and citizen journalists.
That climate of fear has also spread to the creative industries, with authors, publishers, filmmakers and artists all now self-censoring, for fear of crossing those invisible lines that would constitute a breach of the national security law. In short, the national security law has not only accelerated the dismantling of the free press in Hong Kong, but curtailed artistic freedom and put a straitjacket on civil society, while the personal liberty and fundamental political rights of the people of Hong Kong diminish by the day. It is a grim situation, and sadly there is no prospect of it getting better any time soon.
The SNP believes that the UK has a unique responsibility to help and protect the people of Hong Kong. We welcome the 90,000 applications to access the BNO route since its introduction, but there must be more that we can do to assist the 1.3 million Hongkongers who are not covered by that scheme. What conversations is the Minister having with the Home Office about finding a solution that would help those people, particularly—as my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West said—those young people who have bravely stood up against the regime? What can we do to help them?
Last month, Hong Kong Watch published a report showing that nine Hong Kong officials and around a dozen members of Hong Kong’s “patriots only” legislature and their families have property overseas, including here in the UK. Will the Government commit to undertaking and publishing the results of a full audit of the UK assets held by Hong Kong and Chinese officials who are linked to human rights abuses?
At exactly the same time as the national security law was being introduced, the UK Government announced new Magnitsky-style sanctions to target those who have been involved in the gravest human rights violations and abuses. I add my voice to those here today who are equally bewildered—why has no human rights-violating Hong Kong political official been put on those Magnitsky-sanctions by the UK Government?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Efford. I thank the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for securing this important debate, and for his consistent and unrelenting support to the Hong Kong people, which he knows is shared across the House and very specifically by my own party.
The right hon. Gentleman opened the debate in his usual very plain and emphatic style by talking about the treaty that guaranteed the freedoms of Hong Kong residents and should be respected—the one country, two systems policy—and which is of course no longer respected by the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities. He said clearly, and he is absolutely right, that the UK has a moral duty to uphold the treaty, but has not done nearly enough. The passport scheme, he said, has helped 100,000 Hong Kong residents. Many have come to my constituency and have been welcomed by the churches and the community organisations. I have been invited to meet them, which was interesting but very sad; they had to give up everything they knew in the place where they grew up.
The right hon. Gentleman said that young pro-democracy activists are now eligible for residence in the UK. That has to be an improvement on the current situation, but we have a responsibility to hold to account those who have used violence against pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong.
The right hon. Gentleman rightly welcomed the Foreign Secretary’s support for the withdrawal of UK judges from Hong Kong, but he and many others had to campaign for that. He rightly expressed his concern about the position of retired UK judges who remain in Hong Kong. I hope that the Minister will be able to answer that question, which was so expertly put by the right hon. Gentleman.
The right hon. Gentleman—and other hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), who spoke for the Scottish National party—said that the UK Government should implement sanctions on those Hong Kong officials involved in the clampdown. None has yet been sanctioned. Why not? As the right hon. Gentleman said, the US Administration have sanctioned those individuals, so why have we not? I hope we will get an answer from the Minister shortly.
We heard from the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), who reminded us that it was two years ago this month—30 June, tomorrow—that the national security law was implemented in Hong Kong, and it has, of course, radically changed the dynamics of the city. British national overseas visas are strongly welcomed, but the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West is concerned about the cost. That is a really good point and I hope the Minister will be able to respond. The hon. Lady said it was dependent on family affluence, which it should not be; it should be entirely dependent on the need and level of persecution that those individuals face in their native city of Hong Kong.
Taiwan, the hon. Lady said, has offered sanctuary to Hong Kong dissidents, but Taiwan is in a precarious position, as we all know, and will have to be very careful. She said that Taiwan had asked Hongkongers who have sought sanctuary there to keep their heads down. That is a very sad situation, but at least they are safe for now in Taiwan. We thank the Taiwan Government very much. The hon. Lady also said that meaningful sanctions must be used against those who are persecuting democracy activists in Hong Kong.
We then heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). It is lovely to see him today, and I saw him yesterday at this time during a debate on freedom of religion or belief. The hon. Gentleman said that there is so much negativity about China. I know him well, so I know that he always tries to see the positive and the good in everybody, and he wishes he could be more positive about China. That is not possible right now. Since 2020, considerable actions have been taken to remove autonomy and human rights from Hongkongers, and he is concerned about the oppression of religious minorities, including the Falun Gong, and of course the Uyghurs. He said that China stands condemned, along with North Korea. That is some condemnation when we think of what North Korea does each and every day, and of what a shocking and appalling system it has. I hope China does not reach those depths, but it seems that it is heading towards them.
The hon. Gentleman said that the 2018 local elections were a travesty of democracy of Hong Kong. He described the BNO visa scheme as a lifeline for Hongkongers, but how many have been granted? Again, I hope the Minister will come back to us on that. As the hon. Member for Strangford and other Members said, there is an overwhelming sense of terror among Hongkongers because they do not know the extent of the national security law or what that legislation does and does not apply to. There is a sense of fear, which autocracies do their best to engender among the people they rule over. China must not be allowed to stop BNO visa holders coming to the UK, the hon. Gentleman said.
Interestingly, in 1984, when the declaration was made and the plan was to hand over Hong Kong in 1997, UK GDP was more than twice the size of China’s. The figure was similar in 1997, but today China’s economy is more than five times larger than that of the UK. Perhaps that explains the declining importance of Britain and Hong Kong in the eyes of Beijing.
In the debate, we have heard many Members express their views and concerns about the direction of travel in Hong Kong and the ongoing erosion of freedom that has been experienced in recent years, which has finally brought to reality the fears held by many before the handover 25 years ago this Friday after 156 years of British rule. I well remember, as will many other Members, that handover date. I was a new MP, and I remember my friend and colleague, the late Derek Fatchett, who was Minister of State at the Foreign Office, flying to Hong Kong to witness the handover. When he returned to the UK, he told me in detail exactly how that had gone, and his hopes for and optimism about the future once the treaty was fully implemented. Hongkongers would have 50 years to continue to experience the freedom—economically, politically and socially—that they had enjoyed for the last years of British rule.
However, since being first elected in 1997, I have seen the situation in Hong Kong change beyond recognition from those last few weeks as a British colony and the early years of cautious optimism about the freedoms promised to the people of Hong Kong being respected, at least in part—I made my first visit there in 2004—to the awful reality of the last vestiges of freedom and autonomy, long promised to Hongkongers, being all but eradicated by the Chinese Communist party as it pursues an ever tighter grip on the city.
The realities and the impact of the handover 25 years ago were always going to be uncertain and would have taken some considerable time to be realised, but we can now say with some confidence that the Chinese Government have materially and demonstrably broken the international commitments made in the legally binding Sino-British agreement, and that they are barely paying lip service to their own promises, which were made in the years leading up to the handover.
With the passing of the national security law, the sham so-called election of Chief Executive John Lee and his promises of further, rather disturbing legislation, we face the reality that Hongkongers are at the mercy of the long arm of the Chinese state, and have no means to effect real change in their city, or to choose their own leadership, as was always promised.
As the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green said, even the judiciary, which was long considered the failsafe that would protect Hong Kong’s liberties and the rule of law, which the British passed on to the city, has been hamstrung. The decision was not easy, but with reasonable and considered opponents making valid and logical arguments, we also called for the withdrawal of British and Commonwealth judges from the Court of Final Appeal when it became clear that their presence was doing little more than legitimising ever growing intrusion on Hong Kong’s liberties, and that the court was no longer able adequately to challenge the status quo. It is no wonder that thousands have fled in recent years to Canada, the United States, Australia, Taiwan and the United Kingdom, following the relaxation of the BNO passport rules, for which my party, among others, has long argued.
Although it is right to extend the hand of friendship and sanctuary to Hongkongers, it is simultaneously disheartening that the great city of Hong Kong is seeing its brightest minds flee Chinese communist control, in a manner reminiscent of the dark days of the cold war in places such as East Berlin. It is certainly a departure from those early days of cautious optimism in 1997, not long after I was first elected, and seven years later when I visited for the first time in 2004, and subsequently in 2006.
The Minister is acutely aware of the House’s view on Hong Kong. That will have been reinforced by the feelings expressed in the debate. I will ask her the questions my party has long asked, but which have not yet been answered. Will sanctions be implemented on Hong Kong and Chinese officials so closely involved in the erosion of the city’s freedoms? What engagement is she having with international partners on Hong Kong? What steps are being taken to protect the Hong Kong community in the United Kingdom from Chinese Communist party harassment?
It is vital that we work together across the House to protect Hongkongers’ fundamental freedoms. Finally, I will quote this:
“The right to peaceful protest is one of the rights China promised to protect as guaranteed in both Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law.”
The Minister said that herself this month; I would like to know what the Government are doing to back that up.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) on securing this timely debate and thank him for all the work he does to highlight the erosion of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong. I am grateful to all Members for their contributions, and I hope I will be able to address some of their questions.
The 25th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong is a really important moment of reflection. On 30 June, 25 years ago, the UK and China both implemented their agreement to transfer sovereignty of Hong Kong peacefully. In that agreement—the Sino-British joint declaration—China promised to preserve Hong Kong’s distinct “social and economic systems” and “high degree of autonomy”, and the “rights and freedoms” of its people, for at least 50 years. Those included freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. I will come on to talk about those.
For more than two decades following the handover, those rights and freedoms were broadly upheld, underpinning Hong Kong’s prosperity and way of life. Over the past three years, things have changed. China has disregarded its commitments under the joint declaration and Basic Law, and taken deliberate actions that undermine the rights and freedoms that it promised to uphold. The UK is clear that China remains in an ongoing state of non-compliance with the joint declaration.
Tomorrow is not only the 25th anniversary of the handover. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green said, it also marks two years since the imposition of the national security law on Hong Kong by Beijing. The national security law was imposed in 2020, following mass protests in Hong Kong. Those protests were in response to proposed extradition legislation, which was a move by Beijing to exert increasing control and erode promised rights and freedoms.
The national security law is sweeping in its nature and is a serious breach of the joint declaration. It has been used by the Hong Kong authorities, under the direction of Beijing, to stifle opposition and criminalise dissent. The crackdown that accompanied the national security law and its pervasive, chilling effect has meant that alternative voices in Hong Kong’s executive, legislature, civil society and media have been all but extinguished. Independent NGOs, trade unions and human rights organisations that have not been supportive of the Government’s agenda have been forced to disband or leave. Direct and unwarranted action against independent media outlets has continued to erode Hong Kong’s free press, as we have been hearing.
Most of the legislators who represented Hong Kong’s pro-democracy opposition have been detained or have chosen to leave Hong Kong. With Beijing assuming almost complete control of Hong Kong’s law-making process, the judiciary is now being required to enforce Beijing’s laws and the values they contain. It was against this backdrop that the President of the Supreme Court, in consultation with the Foreign Secretary and the Deputy Prime Minister, decided that it was no longer tenable for serving UK judges to sit on the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal. I have been asked by Members from across the House about the non-permanent judges who remain in the court of final appeal who are retired from judicial service. It is down to them to make their own personal decisions on their continued service in Hong Kong.
In terms of arrests—
My right hon. Friend just touched on the retired judges and then moved on. What is the Government’s opinion on the continued service in Hong Kong of those who are not serving judges here? Do the Government think they ought to step aside, or do they have no opinion on the matter?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his intervention. As I have said, the decision of the President of the Supreme Court in relation to the serving judges was that it was no longer tenable. As for those retired judges, it is for them to make their own personal decisions as to whether they feel they can continue to serve.
All I am asking for is a view. I know that the Government cannot direct them, but it is important that Government have a view. The Government had a view about existing judges. Surely the same view must exist in this case, because the same principles are at risk. If that is the case, I urge my right hon. Friend to say when she gets back up: “We think that they ought not to serve, but it is their decision.” Could she possibly stretch herself to that?
I think, by virtue of the fact that the Government supported the decision that it was untenable for serving judges, that that is a clear position from the Government; but it is down to the retired judges to make their own decisions.
Individuals such as Jimmy Lai, Andy Li and Cardinal Zen have been arrested and are facing prosecution. We have spoken out against these arbitrary arrests and raised our concerns with the Hong Kong Government and Beijing authorities, and we will continue to do so.
Many colleagues have raised issues relating to media freedoms. Freedom of the press is explicitly guaranteed in the Sino-British joint declaration and the Hong Kong Basic Law, and is supposedly protected under article 4 of the national security law. We always defend media freedom and the right of journalists to do their job. As the House knows, the UK responded rapidly and decisively to the imposition of the national security law.
Within 20 days, we extended our arms embargo on mainland China to Hong Kong and indefinitely suspended our extradition treaty with it. We also launched the bespoke BNO immigration route, which many Members referred to, to enable British nationals to come to the UK. That reflects our historical and moral commitment to the people of Hong Kong who chose to retain their ties to the UK by taking BNO status at the point of handover in 1997.
I am very pleased to see the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) in his place—a Westminster Hall debate would not be quite the same if he were not present—and I will address his specific questions about numbers. Since the launch of the route, the UK Government have approved more than 110,000 applications from BNO passport holders to live in the UK. As of 31 March 2022, there have been 123,400 applications, and 113,742 have been granted. We have helped those who have moved here to integrate fully and feel safe in their communities, including by providing about £43 million of support through the welcome programme.
The hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) and others touched on international engagement. The UK has spearheaded international efforts to call out China’s systematic undermining of Hong Kong’s rights, freedoms and autonomy, and to raise wider human rights concerns. Yesterday’s G7 leaders’ communiqué called on China to honour its commitments made in the joint declaration and the Basic Law, which enshrine rights, freedoms and a high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong. That follows the selection of the new Hong Kong Chief Executive in May. Alongside G7 partners, we called on China to act in accordance with the joint declaration and other legal obligations. A global diplomatic effort by the UK helped to secure the support of 47 countries for a further critical joint statement on Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet at the UN Human Rights Council. The Chinese and Hong Kong authorities can be in no doubt about the seriousness of our concerns and those of the international community.
Nearly everyone, if not all Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green, mentioned sanctions. I noted the report issued by Hong Kong Watch in April, and I recognise the strength of feeling in this House about Hong Kong. Some Members believe that we should impose sanctions on those involved in the erosion of rights and freedoms in the city. The Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020, introduced by this Government, enable us to sanction individuals responsible for serious human rights violations, although it is not appropriate for me to speculate on who may be designated under the sanctions regime, as that could reduce the impact of the designations. I assure the House that we keep all potential designations under close review, and we are guided by the evidence and the objectives of our sanctions regime.
I am grateful to the Minister for addressing that part of the debate. What does she believe the United States knows, and we do not, about the individuals it has sanctioned? Why is it that, as a co-guarantor of the treaty, we have not sanctioned a single person responsible for these abuses? Will she answer those two questions, even if she is not prepared to say whether we will sanction anybody?
As I said, the sanctions regime enables us to sanction individuals responsible for human rights violations. I am not going to speculate, but I reassure the House that we take this matter seriously and keep it under very close review.
The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) is no longer in his place, but he made a point about businesses. The Government monitor the operation and function of the financial sector and its participants on an ongoing basis, across a wide range of matters, but it is for the businesses themselves to make their own judgment calls. We do not comment on individual companies.
China’s increasing international assertiveness and the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific will be among the most significant geopolitical and geoeconomic shifts of the 2020s. It is precisely because we recognise China’s influence in the world that we expect China to live up to its international obligations and responsibilities.
As we reach the 25-year anniversary of the handover, our long-standing ties to Hong Kong and its people are just as strong as they were in 1997. We share history. We have enduring cultural, economic and social links. We want Hong Kong to succeed and thrive. This Government believe that the most effective path to long-term prosperity for Hong Kong is through respect for fundamental rights and the rule of law and genuine political participation by the full breadth of Hong Kong’s society. We must protect what remains of Hong Kong’s unique social, political and economic systems. That is why we will continue to bring our international partners together to stand up for the people of Hong Kong, to call out the violation of their rights and freedoms, and to hold China to its international obligations.
The reason for the debate was to commemorate the process and the destruction that has taken place since the original signing of the joint declaration, which, as the Minister has said, comes from our cultural, historic ties and our requirement to strengthen those ties. My problem today is that some of the questions have simply not been answered. What is the issue around Hikvision and Departments? Why are we still engaged with a company that has been declared a security risk? Why will we not get rid of these things? What is happening over Huawei? It is distorting universities by its constant presence and money—it is not alone in that. What about the selling of British-owned, strategic security companies to Chinese companies? Very little is being done about that.
Those are all background issues. The main issue, which simply cannot be answered, is that we are dealing with a Chinese Government that have invaded the South China sea, killed Indian soldiers on their border, and are carrying out a declared genocide in Xinjiang. They use forced labour; they have sold products to the world—which we have bought—made by slave labour. They are persecuting Christians and, as I now understand it, Inner Mongolians. They distort the global trading system, and they are guilty of enormous, as yet unprosecuted, human rights abuses.
That Government is responsible for Hong Kong. In what world would we think that our current complaints carry any weight whatsoever? The persecutions and arrests in Hong Kong of peaceful democracy campaigners are an abomination. However, my Government need to do much more. I simply cannot understand why America can sanction the people who are trashing the agreement, and my Government talk of keeping it under review. Sophistry is what we have got, and it is simply unacceptable. I am sorry that I should be saying this, but the Foreign Office’s failure to act is a damnation of its capability. Time and again we tiptoe around those issues instead of confronting them
Today was an opportunity for my Government to say, “Enough is enough. We are now going to sanction them.” There are people who own property here. We had to drag the Government kicking and screaming to start sanctioning over Ukraine—now we have to do it over Hong Kong. Let us stand up for freedom, democracy, the rule of law and human rights. Let us not spend our time worrying about whether we will get a trade contract from a country that is abusive and disgraceful. I did not hear enough today on that; I press the Government to act—and act soon.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the anniversaries of the handover of Hong Kong and the implementation of the National Security Law.