(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the conviction of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.
I emphasise at the outset both to the right hon. Gentleman and to the House that the UK Government are acutely aware of our enduring responsibilities to Hong Kong. We were a joint signatory to upholding the joint declaration between the UK and China some 35 years ago, and the joint declaration is of course lodged with the United Nations. As such, we remain absolutely committed to monitoring and ensuring the faithful implementation of the joint declaration and the principle of one country, two systems. I reassure the House that we clearly and consistently raise our concerns with the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities. Parliament is updated on developments in Hong Kong through our six-monthly reports submitted by the Foreign Secretary, the most recent of which was published on
Yesterday, the Hong Kong courts gave their verdict on the nine key figures in the Hong Kong Occupy movement. The protesters were arrested after large-scale protests in 2014. Each was found guilty of at least one public nuisance offence, and such offences carry a maximum sentence of seven years in prison. We shall have a better understanding of the severity of the sentence, and therefore the signal that the decision purports to send to others who choose to exercise their rights under Hong Kong’s Basic Law and Bill of Rights, once sentences have been handed down. Sentencing is due on
I have visited Hong Kong twice as a Foreign Office Minister and have held meetings with a number of senior legal figures. On my most recent visit in November, I raised the issue of the rule of law directly with the deputy chief justice, as well as with representatives from the legal, political and business communities. All staunchly defended the independence of the judiciary and it remains our position that Hong Kong’s rule of law remains robust, largely thanks to its world-class independent judiciary. Many Members will know that Baroness Hale, Lord Hoffmann and others are part and parcel of the panel that is based in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong citizens are guaranteed the right to freedom of assembly and demonstration under the Sino-British joint declaration of 1984 and the Basic Law, and it is essential that those rights are properly respected in a democracy. Hong Kong’s success and stability depend on its high degree of enduring autonomy and its respect for the fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in the joint declaration and the Basic Law. The Foreign Secretary recently pronounced that he was
“concerned that on civil and political freedoms, Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy is being reduced.”
It would be deeply concerning if the ruling discourages legitimate protest in future or discourages Hong Kong citizens from engaging in political activity.
The prosecution and now conviction of nine leaders of the Umbrella movement is the latest in a series of egregious human rights abuses by the Government in China. Using the criminal justice system and public order offences in this way is an abuse of fundamental and internationally protected human rights. Amnesty International points out that the convictions all stem solely from non-violent direct actions in largely peaceful protests. As the Minister’s noble friend Lord Patten said, it is
“appallingly divisive to use anachronistic common law charges in a vengeful pursuit of political events which took place in 2014”.
Will the Minister make the strongest possible representations to the Chinese Government that these convictions are an abuse not just of the activists’ human rights but of China’s treaty obligations? This country has both a moral and a legal responsibility to pursue this matter with all vigour. We made commitments to the people of Hong Kong at the time of the handover to China and we still have those commitments under the Sino-British joint declaration.
The one country, two systems framework promised the people of Hong Kong progress towards democracy, but these convictions are not an isolated incident. Over the past five years, we have seen the abduction of Hong Kong booksellers who published titles critical of China’s rulers; a political party banned; a senior Financial Times journalist, Victor Mallet, expelled from the city; and, now, proposals to change Hong Kong’s extradition laws to enable suspected criminals to be extradited from Hong Kong to mainland China, which is something that not only political activists but businesspeople fear, as they believe they could be in danger if the change goes ahead.
Will the Government stand by the people of Hong Kong and their human rights, and will the Minister ensure that we in this country do not allow the Chinese Government to break the promises that this country made to the people of Hong Kong?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his considered comments, and I fully accept and agree with the concerns he has raised. We take very seriously our responsibilities under one country, two systems, and we have expressed concerns in consecutive six-monthly reports that there has been a tightening of individual rights. We also feel that commerce and the independence of the judicial system have remained true to one country, two systems.
It is in China’s interest that Hong Kong continues to succeed under the framework. The joint declaration must remain as valid today as it was when it was signed three and a half decades ago. It is a legally binding treaty that is registered with the United Nations. I have raised this, and will continue to raise it, with my Chinese counterparts. Some criticism has been addressed to the FCO in relation to the idea of having a six-monthly report, which we feel is a particularly important foundation for ongoing confidence within Hong Kong that we take very seriously the responsibilities to which we have signed up.
The right hon. Gentleman raised the change to the extradition laws. We are aware that the Hong Kong Government have proposed changes to legislation. We are seriously considering the potential implications of those changes, including how the proposals might affect UK citizens and, indeed, our current extradition arrangements with Hong Kong.
The British consul general to Hong Kong, the very talented Andy Heyn, has spoken to senior figures in Hong Kong’s Administration to seek clarity on what the proposals will mean for UK citizens, for our law enforcement co-operation and for the current extradition arraignments. He has raised the potential impact of the proposals on business confidence in Hong Kong and has explained our concern that, given the sensitivity of the issues raised by these extradition proposals, considerably more time should be given for a full and wide consultation with interested parties before the Hong Kong authorities seek to put it into law.
In his excellent statement, my right hon. Friend emphasised the importance of the independence of the judiciary in Hong Kong, with judges of the calibre of Baroness Hale and Lord Hoffmann. If the Chinese Government really wish it to be believed that they are upholding the highest standards of human rights, is it not essential that the court is allowed to do its duty with full independence?
I thank my hon. Friend, who has worked hard on these matters, which he takes seriously. Indeed, he headed a delegation when I first went to mainland China some 15 years ago, and I am well aware that he keeps an eagle eye on what is happening, particularly in Hong Kong.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When I was most recently in Hong Kong, I had a chance to speak to senior legal figures, and they do feel that the judicial system and its independence are being upheld but, clearly, the sense in which other rights are being questioned and eroded by the Chinese authorities raises some concerns in that regard. Hitherto, we have been confident that cases coming before the Hong Kong judiciary have been dealt with in a fair way and without political interference.
A serious discussion in this House on the situation in Hong Kong is overdue. China’s erosion of the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Hong Kong Basic Law has been growing since the pro-democracy Umbrella protests in 2014. The last few years have seen an increasing crackdown on dissent and protest, with political parties banned, pro-democracy candidates blocked and journalists expelled. The conviction of nine leaders of the Hong Kong Umbrella movement yesterday—they could face seven years in prison for organising peaceful protests—is totally disproportionate and clearly politically motivated. The proposals to change Hong Kong’s extradition law means they could serve sentences thousands of miles away in mainland China.
The Sino-British joint declaration is a legally binding treaty registered with the United Nations, and the British Government are a joint guarantor, with China, of the rights of Hong Kong citizens. I have one simple question for the Minister: how will the Government fulfil their legal responsibilities to the citizens of Hong Kong?
I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution, and I am sorry to hear that her constituency office was attacked over the weekend, which is unacceptable in the world in which we live. It is a salutary reminder that some of the concerns we deal with across the world are becoming quite prevalent closer to home.
We take one country, two systems very seriously, and we will continue to do so. The fact that we are the guarantor is important. As I have said, the six-monthly reports come not without criticism from our Chinese counterparts, but they provide a detailed opportunity. I encourage Members who have an interest in Hong Kong, and perhaps even those who do not have a strong interest, to read the reports when they come out every six months. The reports address specific concerns and cases, including a number of those raised by the hon. Lady.
Our continuing work from London, Hong Kong and, indeed, Beijing is important as we try to maintain the one country, two systems approach. Our view is that the approach is very much in China’s interests, and China has implicitly recognised the importance of Hong Kong as a financial capital market and business centre. It is therefore equally important that we impress upon China that the uniqueness of Hong Kong will be properly maintained, with Hong Kong reaching its full potential, only if we ensure that “two systems,” as set out in the joint declaration, is every bit as important as “one country.”
A noted Sinologist, linguist and cerebral denizen of the House, Mr Richard Graham.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The six-monthly Foreign Office report on Hong Kong, which is circulated by the all-party China group that I have the honour to chair, recognises the close bilateral Hong Kong-UK relations on culture and trade in many sectors, but the Minister is right to highlight the continuing pressures on Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy. Will he confirm that, in relation to the pro-democracy activists found guilty of public nuisance, the appeal process is still very much open and that the higher courts including, if needed, the Court of Final Appeal must take into consideration the freedoms of assembly and speech guaranteed under the joint declaration?
I am happy to confirm that. As I said, we have highlighted our hope that a range of recent court rulings do not discourage lawful protest in the future. I stress that Hong Kong citizens are guaranteed the rights to freedom of assembly and demonstration under the joint declaration and the Basic Law.
May I express my solidarity with Helen Goodman and in particular her constituency staff? I also thank Mr Carmichael for raising this important matter. We share his concerns about democracy and human rights. As the Minister said, the UK has a particular responsibility for Hong Kong in our ongoing commitment to democracy and the rule of law. Amnesty International has said that this case is
“a crushing blow for freedom of expression and peaceful protest in Hong Kong.”
Does the Minister agree that judicial independence is absolutely critical to commercial investment and certainty, and that it is in the interests of China as well? Secondly, what Hong Kong-related discussions have he and his colleagues had with regard to trade talks, and what reassurances have Ministers sought over China’s commitment to Hong Kong’s autonomy and the independence of the legal system?
I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman and thank him for his comments. We are often criticised for speaking endlessly about trade and other opportunities. Clearly, Hong Kong was very much a mercantile base for the UK from the 1840s onwards. However, we do not in any way take lightly the importance of addressing human rights issues, particularly for those living in Hong Kong.
We have made it very clear that for Hong Kong to fulfil its potential—and, indeed, for China to do so in areas such as the belt and road initiative—the independence of, dare I say it, a common law system such as the British legal system is seen as more reliable for investors than perhaps the more doubtful, or at least less orthodox, systems in Shanghai and elsewhere. Although Pudong in Shanghai is a very important financial centre for China and does a lot of domestic work, Hong Kong still enjoys the confidence of many international capital markets.
On the specifics of free trade agreements in a post-Brexit world, clearly Hong Kong would be towards the top of the list, given the strength of our relationship. We have made it very clear to China that one of the reasons we want one country, two systems to be properly promoted is that it is very much in the interests of China’s plans for its own economic development in the years to come. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his focus on that particular issue, but we should not deny that human rights issues will remain extremely important as far as our own commitment to one country, two systems is concerned.
Yesterday’s convictions are extremely concerning, involving as they do a 75-year-old pastor, Rev. Chu, who declared himself as a peaceful protester, and Benny Tai, whom I invited to a fringe event at last year’s Conservative party conference and who spoke of the erosion of academic freedoms in Hong Kong.
Does the Minister agree that Hong Kong’s proposed new extradition laws, which may result in political activists and even international business people being in danger of extradition to mainland China, would fundamentally undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy, do irreparable damage to one country, two systems, and destroy business confidence in Hong Kong as a result? Is it not in all our interests, especially business, to defend Hong Kong’s freedom, autonomy and rule of law, which underpin its status as an open, international financial centre?
I thank my hon. Friend, who speaks so knowledgably about these issues, particularly in relation to Hong Kong but also China as a whole. I reassure her that it remains the UK Government’s view that for Hong Kong’s future success it is absolutely essential that it enjoys, and is seen to enjoy, the full measure of the high degree of autonomy and the rule of law, as set out in the joint declaration and enshrined in the Basic Law, and in keeping with the commitment to one country, two systems.
In my earlier response to Mr Carmichael, I referred to issues regarding the planned extradition law, which is a good example of how difficult cases make for tough law. As my hon. Friend may be aware, it has come about because of an important case where an individual was murdered in Taiwan and the accused has ended up in Hong Kong but there is no extradition treaty in place. For that reason, given that Taiwan is regarded as part of One China, the issue suddenly has far greater implications.
I believe, as I am sure my hon. Friend does, that it is important that any changes to extradition arrangements from Hong Kong to mainland China must respect Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and cannot and must not affect the rights and freedoms set out in the joint declaration.
I am grateful to the Minister for what he has said so far, but may I press him further on the Sino-British joint declaration? How confident is he that China is respecting it as legally binding? If he feels that it is not doing so—which is my observation—what steps is the Department taking to represent the UK Government’s view that it should be legally binding on the Chinese Government?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I will see her later this afternoon for a Westminster Hall debate on other matters—it is one of those busy days. Obviously, we are concerned by some of the Chinese Government’s comments about the joint declaration. Our view is that it is and must remain as valid today as it was when it was signed more than 35 years ago. It is a legally binding treaty, as has been pointed out, registered at the United Nations, and it continues therefore to be in force. We are committed to monitoring closely its implementation and we will continue to do so.
Of course we are concerned. We only need to look at the last half a dozen or so six-monthly reports to recognise that we think there is a deterioration in the way in which China is looking at this particular issue, but we will stand up for the rights of all Hong Kong people. As I have said, this is also in the interests of China, and it is an important part of the process to make that very clear to ensure that one country, two systems prevails.
About 100 years after the first Chinese legation was established in London in 1877, I was at a gathering with the then Chinese chargé where he made an elegant joke in Greenwich about how east meets west. I think the same could be true about Hong Kong.
Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that if the sentence is more than nominal, and if there is no chance to appeal against the convictions, people will think that the declarations and matters of principle agreed with the Chinese are not being properly fulfilled, which will affect both the future prosperity of Hong Kong and how people see China?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I am not sure what I was doing 42 years ago, but I know that he was already a Member of this House at that time. He makes a valid and fair point. He is absolutely correct that it is vital that we maintain that for the interests of all Hong Kong citizens today and in the future. We will continue to make the robust case, which is absolutely essential.
You will recall, Mr Speaker, that in 2014, at the height of the Umbrella movement protests, the Chinese embassy prevented a delegation from this country’s Select Committee on Foreign Affairs from going to Hong Kong. It is clear that the Chinese Communist authorities are extremely sensitive about any scrutiny and any questions asked by this House and its Committees. When the Minister meets his Chinese Government counterparts, will he emphasise to them that this country has a pluralistic parliamentary democracy, which is what the people of Hong Kong also wish to have?
I rather remember that the Chinese Government’s obstruction at that time was regarded across the House as thoroughly reprehensible. I also recall that the Chinese embassy had the greatest possible difficulty in grasping the concept of an independent Parliament. I think some re-education was required.
I think some of us get rather concerned by an independent Parliament, particularly members of the Executive at any one time, but that is another matter. I remember being on the Back Benches for many years, so I do not in any way criticise you, Mr Speaker.
I very much agree with Mike Gapes. We need to do our level best to ensure that we stand up for our rights. I do not think that the Chinese are entirely unknowing of that. Of course, they know exactly what is going on and want to squeeze those rights. It is interesting, however, that in a significant number of areas they recognise the benefit of two systems, including commercially, where the idea of a settled rule of law will allow capital to go into Hong Kong. We need to do our level best to ensure that all aspects are maintained, and we shall do so.
Following on from what you said, Mr Speaker, I was heartened by the Minister’s earlier comments about the correlation between future free trade negotiations and our continuing pressure regarding human rights. Will the Minister confirm that, when we talk about the rule of law with Chinese interlocutors, we mean our international definition of the rule of law rather than theirs?
My hon. Friend is obviously trying to get herself onto the next trip that I take to Hong Kong. We need that matter explained in a much more succinct style than I am used to doing. None the less, she is absolutely right: we do recognise that at a time when—dare I say it—the rules-based international order is coming under increasing threat, indeed from some unexpected quarters as well, we need to work together with many of our counterparts to ensure that we make that argument as robustly as we can.
In his opening remarks, the Minister made it clear that the Hong Kong judicial system had integrity and was robust, and he evidenced that through the talks that he had when he visited the area with senior legal figures. In the same breath, though, he is saying that the system is being undermined. Will he tell me how the system is being undermined and what evidence he has for that?
The hon. Gentleman and I were on a trip to Hong Kong more years ago than I care to imagine—I think it was about 13 years ago. Obviously, it was the first time that I had been to the area as a parliamentarian. Our concerns are over the right to protest and press rights. Members have already referred to the issue of the very sudden withdrawal of the visa of Victor Mallet, the Financial Times journalist. There are a number of issues in the area that we would call civil rights, but, as far as the legal system is concerned, there is a sense that that remains independent. Equally, though, we are concerned. In relation to the judgments that took place yesterday, there is likely to be a long and winding road of appeals that will take place over some considerable time. It is one reason why we are not commenting directly on this, because, obviously, we want to read the full judgments, but we recognise that there will be appeals from virtually all the defendants.
Peaceful protest and the right of free expression are fundamental parts of democracy. Recently, China has put pressure not only on Hong Kong, but on Taiwan. Will my right hon. Friend impress on the Chinese Government that it is totally and utterly unacceptable to try to distort the position in Hong Kong and that, as Hong Kong acts almost as an investment gateway for China, it is important that they understand that we will stand up for the people whom we seek to protect?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I very much agree with what he has to say. It is important to make a distinction between Taiwan and Hong Kong. Much as we are concerned about increasing pressure being put on Taiwan, the Hong Kong situation is different, as it is set out in a joint declaration. Indeed, the whole idea of one country, two systems that came into place in July 1997 absolutely protects the position of Hong Kong. There is a slight danger—dare I say it—in trying to equate the situation in Taiwan with that in Hong Kong. It may well be in the Chinese Government’s interest so to do as we then potentially undermine the Hong Kong situation. Hong Kong’s rights are set out and it is the UK Government’s responsibility, as we have all pointed out, to make sure that they are maintained.
The Minister says that, along with our counterparts, he and we will do what we can to defend human rights, but does he accept that our ability and strength in defending our fundamental values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, which we share across Europe, will be less in the event of Brexit? People who voted in 2016 did not anticipate the muscular, aggressive, authoritarian approach of China, which means that we are now seeing extraditions, the arrests of people engaged in peaceful protest, Canadian nationals facing the death sentence, and Britain in a much more vulnerable position, as it will have to rely on trade with China and therefore turn a blind eye to human rights. Does he not think that, in light of this emerging evidence of abuse, the people should have the right now to a public vote on the deal?
Just when we thought that we had got away from the Brexit debate, here we are. The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point in this regard: we must not take our eye off the ball when it comes to standing up for human rights as we come to make trade agreements. I am actually much more optimistic and hopeful than he is, and I say that from the perspective of a Foreign Office Minister. As we leave the European Union, we will have to work hard—and we are working hard—and redouble our efforts to make sure that the strongest relationship in a range of multilateral organisations is maintained—whether it be in the United Nations in New York and Geneva, or in organisations such as the World Bank, the IMF and the OECD. I am very confident that we will rise to that challenge. It is certainly important that we keep the connection open as much as we can. For example, in the UN, we are working extremely closely—and will continue to do so for some considerable time—with France, which is a permanent member of the Security Council, and with Germany and Poland, which are important partners in the European Union and also now on the Security Council this year.
Absolutely. We were particularly concerned by the Hong Kong authorities’ unprecedented rejection of a visa extension—it was actually a small visa extension for the senior British journalist Victor Mallet who is now the Paris correspondent. It was simply a matter of the last two or three months of his time in Hong Kong that was at stake. In the absence of an explanation from the authorities, we can only conclude, as my hon. Friend rightly points out, that this move was politically motivated. I believe that it undermines the basic idea of freedom of speech and freedom of the press in Hong Kong, which, as I have said, are guaranteed by that joint declaration.
The creation of Hong Kong was a fantastic example of British-Sino co-operation in building a global city that is a massive player in the global economy. Indeed the Sino-British joint declaration itself was a great achievement of co-operation and it was done with great sacrifice from the British side, as Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, had been part of the British territories in perpetuity. It was done for practical and diplomatic reasons. Can the Minister reassert the continuing mandate that Britain has to ensure that the Sino-British declaration is respected until July 2047? What practical steps will he take to achieve that?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. In many ways, the joint declaration and the Sino-UK discussions were a fantastic template for broader co-operation and it is to our regret that that is now under pressure, and we will continue to stand up for it. I will, if I may, make this point. Obviously, there has been speculation in relation to what might happen in the broader region around Shenzhen and Guangzhou, which may be linked together as a particular region along with Hong Kong. Again, we will keep our eye on exactly what changes are being made in that regard, although one can see the importance of the interconnections economically within the broader region. I shall certainly be noting what happens in the Greater Bay Area, which is an area that I am looking to visit later this year. I will be going to Guangzhou and Shenzhen and then to Hong Kong at the same time. Obviously, we will report back to the House after that time.
As someone who grew up in Hong Kong, I am concerned about the progression of extradition that may occur to these people who are currently seeking some kind of appeal. What can the Foreign Office do to stop any extradition from Hong Kong to China?
As I mentioned earlier, this is a live debate at the moment because of a particular case, which is very much at a preliminary stage. The lobbying that our own consul general has received from business connections makes it very clear that there is a reduction in broader confidence. On the rights of British national (overseas) passport holders, my hon. Friend will be aware that the right of abode in the UK is defined under the Immigration Act 1971 and only British citizens and certain British subjects have that right. However, we have ongoing responsibilities to Hong Kong citizens, and even to those who do not enjoy that right of abode, and we will continue to make the strongest of cases to ensure that, up to 2047 and potentially beyond, such rights are properly upheld.
I thank the Minister for his responses. China is guilty of some of the worst human rights abuses and religious persecution in the world. Minister, in discussions with the Chinese and Hong Kong Governments regarding the recent guilty verdict, what was done to secure the trio’s release, and what will be done to secure the release of the other six who face impending imprisonment? Their only crime was to promote democracy as part of the 50 years of autonomy and freedom that were promised by the Chinese Government when Hong Kong was handed over in 1997. China often says no, but acts in a different way.
We very much hope and understand that, given the nature of the alleged offences and the protracted legal process, any individuals will not be held in custody but have a right to a reasonable bail within short order. As the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, three people have already been released, and I very much hope the other six will be. We will be keeping an eagle eye on this matter. Above all, we trust that the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will continue to make every effort to ensure that the environment in which the media and individuals operate is conducive to freedom, including freedom from self-censorship or the like. Our officials in Hong Kong, London and Beijing—we have a number of consulates general in China that are nearer to Hong Kong—will continue to monitor these issues very closely.
I echo the concerns expressed on both sides of the House that, in the light of recent developments, the rights of citizens of Hong Kong are being eroded. What is the Government’s view of the steps that the Chinese authorities should now take to allay such concerns, and to restore faith that these fundamental freedoms—and, indeed, democracy—in Hong Kong are not under threat?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his thoughtful contribution. I am working on this issue in many ways with our Hong Kong desk at the Foreign Office and with our consul general. It is rather important that we try to work through a pathway, rather than just stepping back and taking a view that we do not like what is going on; let us try to work together constructively. As I alluded to earlier, the belt and road initiative is a good example of where working together to ensure that Hong Kong’s freedoms are maintained will actually be in China’s own interests—not just in trading terms. If I were Chinese, I might also think that there is an important opportunity to utilise Hong Kong as a chance for experimental changes in freedoms that may or may not be in the mind of this regime or future Chinese regimes. There is a lot of work in progress, and I am working closely with my counterparts on the issue.