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Hong Kong

Volume 799: debated on Tuesday 23 July 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question in the other place. The Statement is as follows:

“There have been a number of developments in Hong Kong over the weekend. On Friday evening, the police seized a quantity of explosives from a warehouse in the New Territories, along with knives, petrol bombs, corrosive acids and T-shirts supporting Hong Kong independence. On Saturday, there was a large rally in the area known as Central in support of the Hong Kong police. Yesterday, hundreds of thousands of people took part in a largely peaceful march on Hong Kong island. However, some protesters diverted from the approved route and there were clashes with the police, including outside the Chinese Central Government liaison office. Last night, there were disturbing scenes in the New Territories town of Yuen Long: a group armed with chains and poles attacked pro-democracy protesters and other passengers at the metro station; 45 protesters were reportedly injured, one critically. We were all shocked to see such unacceptable scenes of violence.

There has been a great deal of speculation about the identity of the group who attacked people at Yuen Long metro station, but it is important that we do not jump to conclusions on their identity until a thorough investigation has taken place. I welcome Carrie Lam’s statement today saying that she has asked the commissioner of police to investigate this incident fully and pursue any law breakers. We will be keeping a close eye on this, as I know will honourable and right honourable Members.

I condemn all violent acts, but I stand by people’s right to protest peacefully and lawfully. We must not let the violent actions of a few overshadow the fact that hundreds of thousands of people took part in the march yesterday and did so in a peaceful and lawful manner. In doing so, they were exercising their right to peacefully protest and stand up for their freedoms. We fully support this right, which is guaranteed under the joint declaration. Successive six-monthly reports in this House have highlighted that Hong Kong’s political freedoms have been coming under increasing pressure, and the House is right to reflect this in its appetite for urgent questions, parliamentary questions and statements.

Let me assure the House that the Government remain fully committed to upholding Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, rights and freedoms under the one country, two systems principle. They are guaranteed by the legally binding joint declaration. We will continue to be unwavering in our support for the treaty and expect our co-signatory to behave in a like manner. Rights and freedoms and the rule of law are vital for Hong Kong’s future success and for its people. We will continue to stand up and speak out”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the response to the Urgent Question, and he is right to say that we should not jump to conclusions. Yesterday, the Minister in the other place, Dr Murrison, said that it is probably not sufficient simply to have an internal police inquiry, which is what the IPCC would be in the Hong Kong context. He went on to say that,

“it really does need to involve Hong Kong’s excellent and well-respected judiciary”.—[Official Report, Commons, 22/7/19; col. 1098.]

What are the Government doing to ensure that there is such an independent investigation and inquiry, and that the judiciary is properly involved?

The noble Lord raises an important point. My right honourable friend the Minister of State, Dr Murrison, has been quite clear in the other place that we want an independent and robust inquiry. If I can amplify his statement from yesterday, we need to know the extent to which the inquiry will be full, comprehensive and independent. A purely internal police inquiry is unlikely to achieve that objective.

I too thank the noble Lord for repeating the Answer to the Question and for what he just said in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Collins. We reiterate support for that. Clearly, if the police did not respond to emergency phone calls—a number of people were beaten up in that circumstance—it does not seem satisfactory for the police complaints authority to investigate it. Is the foreign affairs spokesperson in China who said that Britain’s role relating to Hong Kong ended in 1997 still in place? If he is, and therefore is not thought by China to have spoken out of turn, will the United Kingdom go to the United Nations to reinforce the treaty to which the noble Lord referred?

I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for their support. The statement that was made is of course not our position. We remain very much committed to the Sino-British agreement, signed by ourselves and China, which protects Hong Kong’s autonomy to 2047. The statements made do not reflect our understanding or what we believe to be the correct interpretation of what has been signed. We have made this very clear in bilateral discussions with China. I note what the noble Baroness suggested and I will certainly take it back.

My Lords, not only are the Chinese pushing back on the freedoms of Hong Kong, which we guaranteed, but it appears they are treating the Uighurs in Xinjiang province incredibly badly, with perhaps over 1 million people in re-education camps. I hope my noble friend can reassure me that we are working with our allies to put as much pressure as we can on this very large country, which I regret to say is behaving in a very unpleasant way.

I assure my noble friend that we have made our position very clear bilaterally on the persecution of the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province. We have continued to make that position clear through international fora, including at the Human Rights Forum. When I last spoke there I specifically referenced the suppression and persecution of not just the Uighur Muslims but other minorities, including Christians. Last week we had the international ministerial on freedom of religion or belief, which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, also attended. He has been a strong advocate for speaking up against the persecution of Uighurs and minorities in that country. I assure my noble friend that there was a focus during that meeting on the very issue he raises.

My Lords, I welcome what the Minister said to the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, about the importance of insisting that an internationally guaranteed treaty is upheld at the United Nations. It would be helpful for the House to know what our intentions are in that regard and specifically whether this can be raised at the Security Council or with our allies. Would the Minister agree that, instead of remaining silent to the brute force of Triad gangs beating up protesters with iron bars, Beijing’s increasingly authoritarian regime should understand that the answer to its fears about separatism is to be found in the free air of Hong Kong, not in the Uighur re-education camps of Xinjiang, and that a prosperous, harmonious and stable future for China will never be served by the use of violence?

I totally agree with the noble Lord. That principle applies not just in China, but anywhere around the world. On the specific issue of the identity of those people committing the attacks, we welcomed Carrie Lam’s statement that she has asked the commissioner of police to fully investigate and to pursue lawbreakers, but I assure the noble Lord that we will stay focused on raising the issue of the suppression of minorities within China. As I said in response to the noble Baroness, I will certainly take back what has been said on the international agreement. Although we are in a small transition, it is certainly something I would seek to pursue as Minister for the UN.

Have the Chinese Government, in any discussions, ever indicated whether they would support or oppose an independent element in any investigation of the recent attacks that the Minister referred to?

We have been dealing directly with the Chinese Government, and I have already commented on the statements made by Carrie Lam. While we welcome the inquiry, we continue to stress that it has to be independent. We do not believe that a review carried out only by the police fulfils that criteria, and we will continue to make that case.

My Lords, there is no doubt that what has been happening recently in Hong Kong is a matter for enormous concern, particularly for those of us in your Lordships’ House who have been involved with Hong Kong and have great affection for it and its people. There have been mistakes and things have gone wrong on all sides. The Bill to deal with extradition—the fugitive offenders ordinance—was put through with too great speed. The Hong Kong Government accept that it was not handled well. The peaceful demonstrations have had an increasingly violent element, which is very much to be deplored. What happened in Yuen Long in the New Territories over the weekend, with what seemed to be Triads beating up some of the protesters, was appalling. But would the Minister agree that there are some bright elements in the situation in Hong Kong? One is the resilience of Hong Kong, which reasserts itself. One hopes that it will do so this time. The second is the rule of law, which should be applied without fear or favour; it has been done up to now and must continue.

I agree with the noble Lord on his final point; we have seen Hong Kong’s two-systems policy work well. We have been calling for these protests, on all sides, to uphold the rule of law, and we welcomed the recent announcement of the special inquiry by Hong Kong’s Independent Police Complaints Council. It was also heartening to see Carrie Lam call the Bill that the noble Lord referred to “dead”. It is important that the Chinese authorities work in the best interests of the people of Hong Kong.

My Lords, I do not disagree with any of the exchanges so far, but I am rather concerned about the extent to which our options in this matter are limited. It was said that the United Kingdom’s interests finished at the time of the handover. If that becomes the official policy of the Chinese Government, there is not much that we can do in respect of that, is there?

I hear what the noble Lord says, but we sought an agreement, which we believe was signed in good faith by both parties. Ensuring that the good faith is upheld on the principles of the agreement is something that we have taken up bilaterally, and will continue to do so. On the wider issue of human rights within China, let us be very clear: China is an important strategic partner to the United Kingdom. We enjoy strong ties with China on trade and through links with our diaspora. Those strengths should lend themselves to candid conversations on concerns we have, particularly on issues of human rights. I assure the noble Lord that we will continue to raise those bilaterally and in international fora as we see fit.