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Hong Kong: Covid-19 - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:18 pm on 19th March 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Falkner of Margravine Baroness Falkner of Margravine Liberal Democrat 1:18 pm, 19th March 2020

My Lords, I also commence by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, for initiating this debate. What a pleasure it is to follow the noble Lord, Lord Alton. He has been a stalwart defender of Hong Kong and its people’s rights for as long as I can remember, and that is a very long time. I also declare that I am a vice-president of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on China. I make my remarks today as someone who recognises the positive role that China can and sometimes does play in the world. In my criticisms of its role in Hong Kong today, I urge it to think of the longer term as a more confident leader in the world rather than an authoritarian one, which is where it is tending to in its actions in Hong Kong.

As many noble Lords have already alluded to, the arrival of Covid-19 has impacted Hong Kong in many ways as severely as Hubei province or other parts of China. I pay tribute to Hong Kong’s medical services, which are among the best in the world. The level of dedication of medics working in Hong Kong to its residents was seen during the worst of the clamp-down against protesters only a few months ago, when they risked their own safety to assist the wounded and those needing medical attention due to the disproportionate violence used against those protesters.

The good news is that after months on the front line of the Covid-19 pandemic, and despite Hong Kong’s numerous transport links with mainland China and cross-border commuting workers, its population of 7 million has had around 170 cases and only four deaths.

However, this crisis has also reinforced people’s mistrust of the Hong Kong Government. Their containment of the crisis has been thanks to their own efforts. Unlike in other countries, Hong Kongers did not wait for announcements from the Chief Executive to act against the spread of Covid-19. Instead, many elected to self-isolate weeks before they were formally asked to do so. They understood that the unique population density of Hong Kong required individual sacrifice in terms of their freedoms and their earnings, irrespective of the views of their Government.

Similarly, medical workers did not wait for the Hong Kong Government to shut the borders with the mainland to limit the spread of the virus. They went out on strike to ensure that the Government did so. In fact, much of Hong Kong’s response to Covid-19 has been precisely because the people of Hong Kong, after large, city-wide protests for months, do not trust the Government to act in their best interests.

In such a febrile environment, where images of protesters being brutalised by the police have become so widespread, the role a free press plays is particularly important and that is what I want to press the Minister on. While a free press is a paramount liberty everywhere, the freedom of the press in Hong Kong is vital, not only because it supports the free exchange of information, necessary for the city’s continuing survival as one of the largest financial centres in Asia, but as a safeguard for the rule of law and the freedoms that Hong Kong enjoys under the “one country, two systems” model. But, presumably under the instruction of Beijing, the Hong Kong Government continue to use public order ordinance laws to arrest pro-democracy activists, as has already been mentioned. This includes the Hong Kong police arresting Jimmy Lai, the most prominent pro-democracy newspaper owner in Hong Kong, as well as former lawmakers Lee Cheuk-yan and Yeung Sum, on politically motivated charges relating to illegal assembly last month.

Apropos Jimmy Lai, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes—with his extensive experience of Hong Kong—who has described these arrests as an attempt to frighten and intimidate the pro-democracy movement by targeting one of Hong Kong’s most notable newspaper proprietors. When people see the hand of Beijing behind these arrests, this is not a conspiracy theory; they can see the appointment of Xia Baolong as the new head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned. It is said that his appointment signals further controls by the Communist Party of China on Hong Kong and particularly on civil society.

This week has also seen the unprecedented decision by the Chinese foreign ministry to ban US journalists from the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, not only from mainland China, which started happening a few weeks ago, but from Hong Kong and Macau. This move is a flagrant attack on the freedom of the press and in direct contravention of Hong Kong’s Basic Law itself and China’s obligations under the Sino-British joint declaration. This comes at a time when, due to the spread of Covid-19, the world needs openness, transparency and accountability more than ever, which is not possible without a free press. As the UK is a co-signatory to the joint declaration, I ask the Minister what conversations he has had with the Chinese ambassador regarding these moves to clamp down on the independent media, not only for Hong Kong but to prevent the rest of the world knowing what is happening there.

It would be a dereliction of our duty to Hong Kong to allow the Chinese Government to take advantage of our distractions in the West to push through a more hard-line position on these basic freedoms.

Let me give an example of why it is in China’s own interests to keep Hong Kong functioning as a free and open society. Apart from the moral and legal position, we know that the reason why Hong Kong is one of the world’s pre-eminent financial and legal services centres is that the rule of law prevails there. Its courts are trusted and respected, and its financial regulators are part of the global effort and have high standards. But we have seen that the slow erosion of trust in the Hong Kong Government has taken its toll on business confidence in Hong Kong and may continue to have a dampening effect as we go forward.

So I urge HM Government to work with the Chinese Government to retain Hong Kong’s freedoms at this time of global upheaval. We are starting to see a dangerous erosion of the “one country, two systems” model to “one country, one system”, from which there can be only losers—no winners. I also want to press the Minister on what discussion he has had with other Governments—particularly the US, which is a permanent member of the UN Security Council—as these matters are a breach of the joint declaration, and we must therefore have a co-ordinated response to them.

Can the Minister confirm what expectation the Foreign Office has that UK citizens working on publications in China, Hong Kong and Macau will not be targeted? What steps are being taken to ensure that British journalists are protected and can do their work without fear of government harassment or threat of expulsion?

If the last nine months in Hong Kong have demonstrated anything, it is that the political deadlock will remain until there is a significant compromise between the democracy protesters and the Chief Executive. That compromise will inevitably involve some form of political reform that meets the original commitments under the joint declaration. The UK Government, as a co-signatory, have an indispensable role to play. I hope that the Government will listen to those who have spoken today and start living up to the UK’s legal and moral obligations to the people of Hong Kong.