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Hong Kong: Covid-19 - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:49 pm on 19th March 2020.

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Photo of Lord Pendry Lord Pendry Labour 12:49 pm, 19th March 2020

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to move this Motion. There are major concerns for the people of Hong Kong. It is a pity that we have to raise issues affecting our former colony only when there is a crisis or two—whether the Covid-19 problems emanating from mainland China, which are now global and affecting our own country, or the problems concerning the anti-democratic, brutal measures being inflicted on the people of Hong Kong in their legitimate struggle for a return to the lives they enjoyed at the time of the Sino-British declaration of 1984 and the handover agreement of 1997.

I pray the indulgence of the House that the Motion before us is somewhat different from what I intended, but the world has moved on since I submitted it. Nevertheless, hopefully we can cover some of the main issues affecting Hong Kong today. Initially, I was concerned on hearing from some of my friends in Hong Kong about the difficulty of obtaining face masks, especially for the disabled, the elderly and low- income groups. They requested that I find out whether there was a surplus of face mask production in the United Kingdom in the hope that Hong Kong might be assisted in its plight.

In response, I put down a parliamentary Question on what steps the Government were pursuing to ensure sufficient face mask production for any such eventuality. The Minister—I hasten to add, not the Minister who will reply to this debate—answered:

“Face masks for the general public are not recommended to protect from infection, as there is no evidence of the benefit of their use outside healthcare environments.”

We cannot assist those in need in Hong Kong with that kind of answer. Happily, I have heard since that some considerable community initiatives in Hong Kong—from entrepreneurs, community groups and individuals—are together forcing the Hong Kong Government belatedly to be more positive in their response to the needs of the people they represent. Indeed, there was a flurry of companies and non-profit groups working together to combat this problem.

However, I wish to cover many of the other issues facing Hong Kong today. The United Kingdom was a co-signatory to the agreements of 1984 and 1997. The people of Hong Kong expect this country to stand shoulder to shoulder with them as they attempt to preserve their heartfelt rights. Those who have lived in Hong Kong—in my case, during my national service in the Royal Air Force in the late 1950s—have followed the slow but relentless attempt to democratise Hong Kong. Mainland China is now using its muscle to break that progress in its determination to have a dictatorial, bureaucratic regime. By so doing, it is rightfully demonstrating that the problems are of its making. As a country, we have to do something about that.

At the time of the Sino-British joint declaration of 1984, there seemed to be great hope that future progress would be made. The guarantees that were signed by the United Kingdom and China in 1984 and registered with the United Nations were the hope of those who are now demonstrating. The treaty contained undertakings that the previous Hong Kong capitalist system and lifestyle would remain unchanged for 50 years and that the Chinese and Hong Kong law would remain. That included the freedoms of speech, press, assembly and association, the forming of trade unions, et cetera.

It is clear that the abandonment of these freedoms is a direct contradiction of the declarations. The noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, went on the record so aptly at that time, saying:

“Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong. That is the promise—and that is the unshakable destiny.”

But that was in 1997—a far cry from 2020.

Since the handover, we have seen an unfulfilled promise of democratisation, a weakening of the judiciary, a legislature dominated by corporate factions and cronies of the Communist Party and, for the past year, bloodshed on the streets as the guardians of law become the weapons of the state. There is a recent development that I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Alton, will wish to refer to, as he and the noble Lord, Lord Patten, made strong representations about the arrest of three citizens in Hong Kong. One is the former chairman of the Hong Kong Labour Party and another the former chairman of the Hong Kong Democratic Party. I will leave that, because I am sure the noble Lord knows rather more about it than I do.

The important part of my Motion is for the United Kingdom to support those citizens in their efforts for their democratic rights to be restored and to enlist the support of the United Nations, which was present at the declarations and should be involved in finding solutions to overcome the current situation. After all, there has been a breach of these agreements and the United Nations, the custodian of international law, must be enlisted by the Government to bring the Chinese to the negotiating table with the aim of bringing a successful conclusion to this crisis.

This historical backdrop illustrates the challenging relationship our nation has to strike with China, a vital trade partner, and Hong Kong, for which we bear a historical responsibility. We must press the issues of Hong Kong’s autonomy and institutions, as laid out in the Sino-British joint declaration. The pro-democracy movement demonstrated at the very beginning its legitimate response to the failure of both the Chinese and Hong Kong Governments to deliver on the commitments in the 1984 and 1997 declarations. In my view, we are duty-bound to take a lead.

The important issue of citizenship has once more raised its head. Many of us who raised this in another place during the handover proceedings in 1997 called on the British Government to give the right of abode to BNO passport holders in the event of China reneging on the joint declaration agreement. We all know now that China has done just that. In a very timely intervention, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, a former Attorney-General in a previous Labour Government, states that there is nothing to prevent the UK Government extending free right of abode to those passport holders and that it would not be a breach of the joint declaration. It would certainly be a way of showing that we in this country are in accord with those anxious people in need of such an assurance at this time.

Another issue I raised in the last debate on Hong Kong is what is happening in our universities, where Hong Kong students are suffering at the hands of fellow students from mainland China. The universities of Sheffield, Oxford, Cambridge, Durham and others are reporting problems of abuse in this regard. No group to my knowledge has suffered more than UK Hong Kong students studying here. In Cambridge, for instance, students campaigning to revoke Carrie Lam’s Cambridge honorary fellowship were harassed repeatedly by email and physically, while students who supported Hong Kong demonstrators were also subject to such abuse. In Oxford, a social media group campaigned against fellow students supportive of Hong Kong after the student union passed a motion condemning police brutality in Hong Kong.

So I call again, as I have done before, for our Government to take the lead in defending the rights of Hong Kong students expressing the democratic rights that they hold so dearly, as we do for our students in the universities. In response to my plea in the last debate, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, said that it was

“unacceptable for anyone to be intimidated by any bullying. Universities have a duty of care to protect all students.”—[Official Report, 24/10/19; col. 768.]

I agree. He wished me to give him more information. If the Minister wishes to obtain more, I have evidence to give him. The Government must give a firm and positive plea to our universities to uphold their distinctive rights for academic freedom. The Government should encourage our universities to ensure that freedom of expression is not tarnished by the antics employed by students from mainland China in these cases.

There is also the area, as far as the Chinese Government are concerned, of what they think of as their rights in the economy. Chinese economic progress cannot possibly be fulfilled without a stable Hong Kong stock market. Now, according to that excellent document by Hong Kong Watch, Why Hong Kong Matters, around 70% of its capital is raised by Chinese firms, and that is their main source of foreign funding. The document makes the point that Hong Kong’s unique status in the eyes of the world is as China’s leading financial centre, adding that progress depends on the rule of law and freedom of movement. In my view, it would be sheer madness for China not to agree to an independent inquiry into the disruptions that flowed from the legitimate demands of the demonstrators for freedom and democracy.

On a visit to Hong Kong in the early 1970s I met a young lady fresh from college, then a journalist, by the name of Emily Lau, who then as now was a passionate advocate of democracy in Hong Kong. Today she is still actively pursuing necessary change. Until recently Emily was the chairperson of the Hong Kong Democratic Party. She gives an inspirational lead to many who think that democracy Hong Kong must be pursued. We must not let her and her colleagues down.