Asked by Lord Alton of Liverpool
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the proposal by China’s National People’s Congress for a national security law in Hong Kong and what impact the anti-sedition laws will have on the “one country, two systems” framework and the civil liberties of those living in Hong Kong.
The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.
My Lords, we are deeply concerned at the decision of China’s National People’s Congress to impose a national security law on Hong Kong. If implemented, the imposition of a proposed new national security law will lie in direct conflict with China’s international obligations under the principles of the legally binding, UN-registered Sino-British joint declaration. We are fully committed to upholding Hong Kong’s autonomy and respecting the “one country, two systems” model, which that law would call into question.
My Lords, last week, in giving evidence to a Westminster hearing, a young doctor reminded us that under the new law he could be arrested and disappeared for doing so. Two days before the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, how will the Government ensure that their welcome lifeboat policy will provide for Hong Kong’s defenders of democracy, such as that young doctor, or already arrested lawyers such as Margaret Ng and Martin Lee? How will they sanction those who have collaborated in the destruction of “two systems, one country”? Will we deepen the international response at the forthcoming G7 by forming the international contact group proposed by seven former Foreign Secretaries and develop a Helsinki-style response in line with the call made by over 650 parliamentarians from 34 different countries?
My Lords, as I said, we are deeply concerned by these actions. The action of the National People’s Congress in invoking this law has caused great concern, both in Hong Kong and internationally. I assure the noble Lord, while acknowledging and praising the work he does in standing up for human rights, not just in Hong Kong but internationally, that we remain very committed to standing up for the rights of human rights defenders in Hong Kong. We have registered our serious concern with the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities about recent arrests and we remain committed to raising the issue of Hong Kong in partnership with like-minded international partners. I am sure that the noble Lord recently noted statements made by the Foreign Secretary with key partners and friends such as Australia, Canada and the United States to ensure that Hong Kong’s laws are respected and China respects the laws of Hong Kong— that is, “one country, two systems”.
I think my interests are probably well known. To follow up what the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said about an international contact group, the Minister will know that, as the noble Lord said, seven former Foreign Ministers from right across politics have sent a letter to the Prime Minister proposing, as a way of demonstrating our legal, moral, political and economic obligations to Hong Kong, that the Government themselves should take a lead in putting together an international contact group that can keep in touch with developments there and continue to press China not to breach its international treaty obligations or its commitments to a high degree of autonomy in Hong Kong. It would be helpful if the Minister could give some indication of the Prime Minister’s thinking on this subject. At the same time, I suggest that perhaps we should be looking at raising at the UN—I know that we have already talked about this there—the possibility of appointing human rights co-ordinators to go into Hong Kong and see what is happening on the human rights front. I welcome what the Government have said about passports, but there is a lot more to do to demonstrate our legal and moral obligations to what was, of course, a British colonial territory.
My Lords, my noble friend speaks with great insight and expertise in this area, and I have noted some of his particularly helpful suggestions. I acknowledge the action by 762 parliamentarians across 37 countries, which talks about a flagrant breach of the Sino-British joint declaration.
We believe that if this law is enacted it will indeed undermine the existing provisions within Hong Kong of “one country, two systems”. On my noble friend’s wider point, we continue to raise this through international action and partnership. My noble friend suggests an international contact group; as I am sure he has noted, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has led direct action in this respect. Over the last few weeks he has issued several statements, including a statement of the British position, but has also underlined the very provisions that my noble friend has highlighted: if this law is enacted, China’s international obligations to Hong Kong will be undermined. Equally, he has also raised this issue in partnership with the likes of Canada, Australia, the US and the European Union. This is a very serious point in time and a serious cross- roads for the future of Hong Kong. We ask the Chinese authorities and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region again to think carefully before proceeding with this law.
My Lords, I too have been involved with human rights issues in this region for a long time. I am a lawyer and currently the director of the Human Rights Institute of the International Bar Association, the global voice of the legal profession. This new legislation is causing us great alarm. It is clearly aimed at stamping out protest and freedom of expression and it goes to the heart of democratic autonomy and freedoms. The legislation expressly allows Chinese national security agencies to operate in the city of Hong Kong. The Minister will certainly know that Beijing has probably the most advanced technological security apparatus in the world and is now using it, including facial recognition, intercepts, tracking devices and so on, and is enabling wide-scale surveillance in China. The fears are that it will be used in the same way in Hong Kong.
I also express others’ concerns about what is happening with regard to human rights. A suggestion is being made —I strongly urge it—that a special envoy be created by the Secretary-General of the United Nations and that Britain should urge him to create such an appointment so that he can travel with others, and I hope with human rights lawyers, to Hong Kong to assess and address the situation and to negotiate with China itself. The history of negotiation goes back right back to the beginning of the UN, when General George Marshall negotiated between the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang. We know that negotiations can be successful. I urge that we take steps, and I want to know whether the Minister has been having those conversations with the United Nations as well as with friendly nations that are liberal democracies.
I agree with the noble Baroness. As she knows, the existing rights of Hong Kong are enshrined in the Basic Law of Hong Kong, and the Sino-British agreement has also been deposited in the context of the UN. On her final point, as noble Lords know, we raised this issue directly during a recent UN Security Council meeting. Both we and the United States spoke on this particular issue under any other business—we were able to raise it under that agenda item.
On the specific question of a special envoy, which the noble Baroness and my noble friend mentioned, I assure noble Lords that in my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary we have someone who has taken direct leadership on and interest in this issue, and we are leading the international response and thinking on Hong Kong. In recent days and weeks, the Foreign Secretary has continued to engage with a range of partners to explain our position and impress upon them the gravity of the events that have taken place. At present, we have no plans to form an international contact group, as I said to my noble friend, or to push for a special envoy. However, we are calling on the Government of China to live up to their obligations and responsibilities as a leading member of the international community. I assure noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, that we are working with international institutions, including the UN Human Rights Council, to ensure that China upholds its commitments as a co-signatory to the joint declaration.
I remind Members that, if we are to get through all the questions, both questions and answers need to be short. We are two-thirds of the way through the allotted time.
The noble Baroness makes an important point. We have had many discussions on this. I assure her that, if China continues down this path and implements this national security legislation, we will be required to change the status of BNO passport holders. The Foreign Secretary was quite specific: we would set in train arrangements allowing BNOs to come to the UK for longer than the current six-month period and apply for extendable periods of 12 months to work and study, which will in itself provide a pathway to citizenship.
My Lords, while I join in the criticism of China’s imposition of a national security law, I ask the Minister to confirm that any economic and financial measures being considered to dissuade or punish China should not inadvertently cause further hardship to the citizens of Hong Kong, so that a major humanitarian disaster is avoided.
My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that our priority is ensuring the well-being of the citizens of Hong Kong in terms of economic prosperity, security and human rights.
My Lords, three years ago, I, along with other parliamentarians, was invited to Hong Kong to observe the workings of the “one country, two systems” principle enshrined in the Basic Law document. I was left with a sense of nervousness and desperation for the young parliamentarians who warned of their fear of a future clampdown and security environment imposed by Beijing. What substantive message of hope and substance can my noble friend the Minister give from the British Government to the young future generations of Hong Kong to reverse this dismal outlook for their future?
My Lords, I assure my noble friend that we continue to stand by our obligations as a co-signatory to “one country, two systems”. We give hope to those human rights defenders who fight for democracy in Hong Kong that we will continue to uphold those obligations, not just for the United Kingdom but to remind China and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of their obligations and commitment to both that agreement and the obligations that lie beneath it.
I want to return to the issue of British national overseas citizens in Hong Kong. In this morning’s Statement, the Foreign Secretary said, as the Minister just repeated, that if China pushes through this legislation, we will act on their rights. I welcome the announcement, but clarity is needed now. When will the Government tell BNOs in Hong Kong what their rights will be? Will they take urgent consultation now?
My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that we take our obligations to BNO passport holders very seriously. Both the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary are directly engaged on this agenda. We have made our position absolutely clear: if China acts, we will be compelled to act on the basis that I have outlined.
Lord Owen? The noble Lord, Lord Owen, is not there, so I will go to the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and return to the noble Lord, Lord Owen, when he gets a connection.
Does the Minister agree that Hong Kong has the important asset of an independent judiciary, which is admired throughout the world, and that the judges of Hong Kong will inevitably be asked to decide whether the new laws, if implemented by Beijing, are part of Hong Kong law or whether they conflict with the Basic Law of Hong Kong, as many lawyers have suggested? I declare an interest as a regular advocate in the Hong Kong courts on constitutional matters.
I agree with the noble Lord that that is important. The independence of the judiciary in Hong Kong is well recognised. In due course, if China proceeds along these lines, I am sure that the judiciary will give its opinion, but we have deep reservations. If China proceeds with this, it will undermine “one country, two systems”, which is enshrined in Hong Kong’s Basic Law.
My Lords, I ask my noble friend to condemn the increase in racism in recent weeks that has been aimed at British citizens of Chinese descent. They are not the problem. However, are we clear enough about what we want from Beijing? It seems that, too often, we grasp at trade and economic links when we have deep political reservations about human rights in Hong Kong and so much else. It seems that we want its money but not its manners. Does my noble friend accept that we need to do much more analysis of our own policies to make our priorities clear and consistent if we want to talk to China with maximum authority?
First, I agree with my noble friend. I am sure that I speak for all noble Lords when I say that racism in any form in any place in the world is abhorrent and that we should condemn it unequivocally. On his other points, we have a balanced relationship with China. It is an important strategic partner, as we have seen in the response to Covid, where it has assisted. We recognise the role that China has to play economically and in the Covid response. Equally, I believe that we balance our foreign policy objectives on trade to ensure that we can also be a country that stands up for human rights and international law. I am proud of our traditions in that respect. As the British Human Rights Minister, I can say that we will continue to bring that balance to our foreign policy engagement, not just with China but around the world.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. The Virtual Proceedings will now adjourn until a convenient point after 12.30 pm for the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble.
Virtual Proceeding suspended.