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Hong Kong: Covid-19 - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:35 pm on 19th March 2020.

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Photo of Lord Carrington Lord Carrington Crossbench 1:35 pm, 19th March 2020

My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, for the opportunity afforded by this debate to review the situation in Hong Kong. I hope he will forgive me if I do not agree with everything he said.

Happily, to a considerable extent the Government and people of Hong Kong have taken effective measures to control the spread of the coronavirus, which is evidenced by the figures showing that, out of a population of 7 million, there have been 167 cases and four deaths so far, although fears remain of a second wave due to people returning to Hong Kong from overseas trips. I do not think this is the time to criticise measures taken by Hong Kong to control the virus, as all around the world this is a new and fast-changing challenge, which is evidenced by the experiences of Governments from the UK to the European countries to the United States.

The great issue that Hong Kong and other countries face is how to contain the economic damage done by the virus and to grow the economy in a way that satisfies the aspirations of the entire population. Alongside this process, it is very important for the people of Hong Kong to concentrate on the forthcoming LegCo elections in September. On the economic front, the Government have taken many fiscal measures targeted at some of the worst affected areas of the economy. I believe that the amount that will be received by the retail sector is 30 billion Hong Kong dollars. For tourism, I gather it is 20 billion Hong Kong dollars. Tourism, which is principally from the mainland, is down 90%. In fact, this time last year, there were 200,000 visitors a day; this year, it is down to 3,000 per day. There is also a plan to distribute 10,000 Hong Kong dollars to each permanent resident, although the timing of that payment depends on proof of residence.

I am pleased to observe that a good number of owners of Hong Kong property businesses have agreed to assist in the financing of affordable housing or have provided land for housing, and at the same time China has come up with the Greater Bay scheme, which is basically an economic zone which incorporates the southern provinces, with Hong Kong and Macau, creating job opportunities. Schools have been shut since Chinese New Year, but learning continues through online devices. Courts continue to function using videoconferencing facilities. Using coronavirus to criticise the Government is, to my mind, pointless and does not help.

All sides need to move on. Those who have been protesting should now direct their attention away from street demonstrations and towards the forthcoming LegCo elections. Their success at the November district council elections should certainly encourage their efforts. At the same time, they need to rethink their five demands and be prepared to sit down and negotiate with government. The demand for the withdrawal of the extradition law has already been accomplished. Other demands need to be moderated, particularly those that affect the trials of those who committed real crimes during the riots, leading to grievous injuries.

Similarly, the Government of Hong Kong need to reflect on their own competence. They need to ensure that any illegal police behaviour is investigated thoroughly and punished. They need to reflect heavily on their leadership as any Government, whatever their nature, anywhere in the world, ultimately depend on the will of the people. That said, in any society, freedom without discipline does not work. In the case of Hong Kong, we need to acknowledge that the police are the first and only line of civic defence. Without them, disorder, or much worse, would prevail.

Turning to China, I repeat what I have said before. It is not in China’s interests to renege on the Chinese-British joint declaration and the governing principle of “one country, two systems”; it has worked well for more than 20 years, and the Chinese Government have predominantly abided by its terms. Hong Kong continues to represent an important gateway into China and is responsible, as we have heard, for 70% of inward foreign direct investment going through its territory. Chinese private companies’ debt financing in Hong Kong has more than doubled in the last five years, so its importance for China as a financial centre has in no way diminished. This is possible only because there is international confidence in the legal system; as such, it is not in China’s interests to subvert that system.

Article 3 of the joint declaration sets out the rights and freedoms to be maintained. Overwhelmingly, they have been. For instance, look at the freedom of the press. Look at “Apple Daily”—by far the most popular Chinese local newspaper, with a circulation of over 1 million—or the South China Morning Post. They are scarcely voices of the Hong Kong or Chinese Governments. Destroying the “one country, two systems” formula would lead to massive riots in Hong Kong and a humanitarian disaster on an unimaginable scale, and would ensure that Taiwan never, ever accepts this solution—scarcely a desirable outcome for China. It is firmly in China’s interests to ensure that it works, and I can see no reason why it would not be extended for a further 50 years or more. But the fact remains that Hong Kong was born into China and will remain so; hence, the Chinese policy of banning the bad-mouthing of China and its leaders is therefore understandable.

In conclusion, I ask this: following the changed circumstances resulting from coronavirus in Hong Kong, what are the British Government doing to encourage the international community, including China, to unite in convincing both the people and the Government of Hong Kong to put aside confrontation and to work together on economic reforms which provide housing and jobs? At the same time, what are they doing to encourage realistic, reform-driven manifestos for the all-important forthcoming LegCo elections?