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Hong Kong: Covid-19 - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:03 pm on 19th March 2020.

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Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench 1:03 pm, 19th March 2020

My Lords, in these challenging and difficult times, right across the House we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, for initiating today’s debate. It gives the House an opportunity to return to some of the issues that were raised on 24 October when we last debated this, when two former governors of Hong Kong, my noble friend Lord Wilson of Tillyorn and the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, also participated. Later in my remarks I will say something, as the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, has invited me to, about the arrests that have recently taken place. I should mention at the outset that I am a patron of Hong Kong Watch and vice-chair of the all-party groups on Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

We gather today against a sombre background of the coronavirus, which has claimed some 3,237 lives in China and a further four in Hong Kong. Outside China the number of deaths globally stands at 8,971. Since its emergence in Wuhan, some 81,928 people in China have become infected.

Initially, the Chinese Government delayed announcing the discovery of the virus and silenced those who sought to warn the world of what was unfolding, suppressing information rather than the virus. Every moment lost has set back the time required time to develop a vaccine.

One of the great heroes to emerge from this crisis is the ophthalmologist, Li Wenliang, who was forced to recant by the Communist authorities, and subsequently died, along with three other doctors, at his hospital in Wuhan, where he was ministering to his patients. Last week, in an interview with the Chinese magazine Renwu, meaning “people”, Ai Fen, director of the emergency at Wuhan Central Hospital, said that she too was reprimanded after alerting her superiors and colleagues of a SARS-like virus seen in patients in December. She said:

“If I had known what was to happen, I would not have cared about the reprimand. I would have … talked about it to whoever, where ever I could”.

In a move demonstrating all the hallmarks of a dictatorship, the interview has been removed from the magazine and deleted from social media sites.

You could argue that this virus of concealment—silencing of opinion or dissent, and the crushing of doctors trying to save lives—is a far more deadly disease than coronavirus itself. When this is over, as I hope it will be, China should reflect on a lethal system and an ideology which has brought enormous suffering on the world. It is little wonder that the people of Hong Kong fear for their future, not because of Covid-19 but because of the accelerated and worrying attempts to disembowel their fundamental freedoms, the rule of law and the liberties which they have long enjoyed under “one country, two systems”. Anyone who doubts the nature of this ideology should read Julia Lovell’s spellbinding book, Maoism: A Global History.

The arrival of coronavirus in January led to open dissent in Hong Kong, which would have been crushed on the mainland. But that strike by Hong Kong’s doctors and 3,000 medical workers, who urged borders to be sealed and other measures to be taken, was a wake-up call which has saved many lives. It is notable that free Taiwan, with just 48 confirmed cases and one death, has not sacrificed democracy in controlling this disease. Instead of forcing the WHO to exclude Taiwan, Beijing should have learned from Taipei.

As ordinary people in other parts of the world come out on to their balconies to applaud the people working to save their lives, how bitterly ironic it is that, in Hong Kong, the authorities have been actively targeting medics with the threat of disciplinary action for missing work. Beijing should show less contempt for the strengths of liberal democracy and return to Deng Xiaoping’s path of reform.

Recall too that the Hong Kong Government’s initial mishandling of the crisis further entrenched divisions across the city and ingrained a deep distrust in the already faltering rule of the Chief Executive, Carrie Lam. Despite the coronavirus enforcing a hiatus on the large-scale democracy protests that we saw in Hong Kong last year, the Chief Executive continues to use archaic public order laws to detain political activists on politically motivated charges. This includes the recent arrest of Jimmy Lai, the most prominent pro-democracy newspaper owner in Hong Kong, and the former democratic lawmakers Lee Cheuk-yan and Yeung Sum. These arrests call to mind the “knock on the door at the dead of night” and the rounding-up of opposition voices by the NKVD, the KGB, the Gestapo, the Securitate, the Stasi and the rest.

The methodology and practices of the Cultural Revolution, along with the totalitarianism and intolerance of authoritarian states, should be consigned to history, not mimicked in Hong Kong. The authorities there should be using all their energy and resources to fight the coronavirus, not to harass and intimidate proponents of democracy. I hope that the Government will use the Magnitsky powers and sanctions against those responsible for these appalling offences.

These arrests represent a truly shocking and very serious setback for “one country, two systems” and for Hong Kong’s freedoms. I hope that the Minister spells out what implications the arrests of three prominent mainstream pro-democracy leaders has for the prospects of “one country, two systems” and the protection of freedoms promised to the Hong Kong people under the Sino-British joint declaration and guaranteed under Basic Law. They should be galvanising the international community and urging the authorities to drop these charges.

If anything, under the cover of darkness, which this global pandemic is, we have witnessed a deepening of the attacks on Hong Kong’s basic freedoms; take, for example, the recent protests marking the six-month anniversary of the attack on commuters at the Prince Edward MTR station and the death of Chow Tsz-lok. The protests ended with the police pointing loaded guns, and pepper spraying and arresting unarmed protestors. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has repeatedly expressed concern that the continued application of what it calls “unlawful assembly” against Hong Kong protesters risks violating their basic human rights.

In the past nine months, over 7,000 protestors have been arrested and only one in seven has been charged. Some 40% of those arrested attend either university or high school; this includes 750 children, the youngest of whom is just 12 years of age. The decision last week to move the pro-democracy activist Edward Leung, who is serving a six-year sentence for “rioting”, to a maximum-security prison reserved for serious criminals is a further sign of the hard-line approach that the Hong Kong Government are seeking to take.

It is noteworthy that even Iran has been freeing prisoners during this dangerous time—but not Hong Kong. Carrie Lam is no doubt following the lead of the Communist Party in Beijing, which has used the coronavirus as cover to install two hard-line loyalists in key positions in Hong Kong to do its bidding. This includes Xia Baolong, an ally of President Xi Jinping, who received international condemnation for waging an ideological war against Christians in Zhejiang province in 2014-15, involving the destruction of thousands of crosses and churches. Despite the petitions of the Swedish Government, Beijing has also pushed ahead with the harsh sentencing of the Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai. Abducted in Thailand in 2016 to stand trial in a Chinese court, the former bookseller was handed a 10-year sentence for allegedly “illegally providing intelligence overseas”. His kidnapping and draconian sentence will do little to ease the fears of many Hong Kongers that any future extradition Bill between the city and the mainland could see them too facing the Chinese Communist Party’s brand of justice.

The Chinese Communist Party this week also took the unprecedented step of announcing the expulsion of United States citizens working for the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and New York Times from China, Hong Kong and Macau. It is a flagrant assault on press freedom and was roundly condemned by the noble Lord, Lord Patten, and others. At a moment when the world needs openness, transparency and accountability, this serves to remind us of the nature of Beijing’s regime, and demonstrates why the majority of Hong Kongers are so fearful as they gaze across the bamboo curtain at a society that does not uphold human rights and the rule of law, and is willing to break international treaty obligations.

Can the Minister tell the House what representations the Foreign Office has made to the Government in Beijing over this clear violation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law and the Sino-British joint declaration? Can he also tell us what discussions he has had with his United States counterparts about the possibility of our Governments taking joint action in response? After all, what is to stop the acolytes and apparatchiks of the Chinese Communist Party turning their gaze to target US journalists who work for British news publications in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau, or even British journalists as well?

Our country’s historic, legal and moral duty to Hong Kong, as a counterbalance to the encroachment of the Chinese Communist Party, is indisputable. That is why I am deeply saddened and disturbed by reports in last week’s Sunday Times that the Home Office and Scotland Yard have been collaborating with the Chinese Government to produce facial recognition software to identify and target protestors who wear masks. The Minister needs to tell us how much British taxpayers’ money has been spent on developing this software, the extent of the British Government’s collaboration, and whether participation will be suspended as a matter of urgency. Failing to do so risks reputational damage, accusations of complicity in human rights abuses of people in Hong Kong and China, and forfeiting our right to be seen as an honest broker.

In seeking to play a constructive role, the British Government must help to de-escalate tensions in Hong Kong as part of their obligations under the 1984 joint declaration. They should support calls for an independent inquiry—referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Pendry—into the policing of last year’s protests and the current state of the rule of law. This is vital to the restoration of the reputation of the Hong Kong Police Force, trust between Hong Kongers and the Chief Executive, and Hong Kong’s standing as a city governed by the rule of law. I hope the Minister will comment on the evidence given in Parliament by the Hong Kong surgeon Darren Mann—which I heard personally—about the appalling treatment of medical workers treating those caught up in the protests.

Perhaps he would also respond to the proposal put to the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, by 173 Members of both Houses for a Commonwealth initiative to guarantee second citizenship and a second right of abode to all Hong Kong citizens, should they need it, and on the UK’s special obligation to the 200,000 British national (overseas) passport holders, many of whom are living in a state of fear, uncertain about their long-term future in Hong Kong and feeling abandoned by the British Government.

As the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, said, the House will want to hear the Minister’s response to the recent legal advice published by the former Attorney-General, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, which makes it clear that the UK Government would not

“be in breach of any obligation undertaken in the joint declaration were it to resolve to extend full right of abode to BN(O) passport holders while continuing to honour their side of the Sino-British Joint Declaration.”

At the very minimum, we should offer Hong Kong students a right to remain in the UK after the completion of their studies and BNO passport holders preferential treatment under the Government’s new immigration system.

China needs the genius of Hong Kong’s people, but there will be a flight of people and capital if it continues to erode its freedoms, the rule of law and prosperity. From 2010 to 2018, Hong Kong was home to 73% of the initial public offerings of mainland Chinese companies—including Alibaba, which decided to list in Hong Kong at the height of the unrest last year. Similarly, the Hong Kong-Shanghai stock connect scheme is increasingly the preferred means by which western investors access the mainland stock market, and Hong Kong is the largest offshore centre for bond sales by Chinese companies.

Some mention Shanghai or Singapore as potential alternatives to Hong Kong, but the study by Hong Kong Watch that the noble Lord referred to found that neither is a reliable alternative in the short term. Shanghai and Hong Kong serve completely different markets and complement rather than compete with each other. Singapore’s stock market capitalisation is not in the same league and its business culture is starkly different.

The current deadlock between democracy protestors and the Hong Kong Government is unsustainable. Political reform, including universal suffrage, is the only way forward. As I saw while observing Hong Kong’s district council elections at the end of last year, its people want more democracy, not less. For as long as street protest is the only means of representation for Hong Kong’s disenfranchised populace, divisions within the city will remain and the threat of violence and escalating conflict will linger.

When he replies to this timely and very welcome debate, I hope the Minister will tell the House what conversations he has had with Chief Executive Carrie Lam about the introduction of universal suffrage, wider democratic reform and our obligations as a signatory and guarantor of the joint declaration. For now, our common humanity—whether in China or the United Kingdom, London or Hong Kong—should unite us in learning to better understand the deepest human needs and upholding the sanctity and dignity of every human life.