Democracy in Hong Kong

Part of Rail Services (Bedfordshire) – in Westminster Hall at 4:44 pm on 23rd January 2018.

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Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton 4:44 pm, 23rd January 2018

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered democracy in Hong Kong.

Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China. Pursuant to the 1984 Sino-British joint declaration, the United Kingdom has a responsibility to ensure that the legal, economic and social rights and freedoms guaranteed to the people of Hong Kong under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitution, which was derived from the joint declaration, are protected. The UK also has a responsibility to ensure that the one country, two systems principle on which Hong Kong was handed over to China by the UK is respected.

In 1996, one year before the handover, then Prime Minister John Major said:

“If there were to be any suggestion of a breach of the Joint Declaration we would have a duty to pursue every legal and other avenue available to us.”

More recently, the House of Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has stated that,

“the UK has both a legal right and a moral obligation to monitor the implementation of the principles established in the” joint declaration.

I note that the Government’s six-monthly reports are a vital part of that, and I welcome the fact that the most recent report was significantly more robust than previous ones, stating as it did that recent developments in Hong Kong on issues such as democracy and the exercise of rights and freedoms, including freedom of expression and of the press, had “caused concern”. I also welcome the public assurances made only yesterday by our consul general in Hong Kong, Andrew Heyn, that Britain will continue to speak up about pressures it feels that the one country, two systems concept is under.

I am pleased to see the Minister who will be responding to the debate in his place, because he is respected in this House as a man who has a keen respect for human rights and freedoms. I have called for this debate to ask him what “meaningful action”—to borrow a phrase from Lord Ashdown, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, who has recently returned from a visit to Hong Kong and whose subsequent report I will refer to later—the UK Government are taking to ensure that the principles of the joint declaration are protected and respected in the light of increasing concerns about challenges over recent years to the rule of law, human rights and democracy in Hong Kong. I will refer to some of those challenges. Furthermore, many of the concerns are referred to in a detailed recommendation entitled, “Hong Kong, 20 years after handover”, which was published by the European Parliament in the past few days.

It is fair to say that for much of the past 20 years, China has by and large respected one country, two systems, but the dramatic signs over the past four or five years, and in particular over the past 12 months, are a cause for increasing concern. The 2015 abduction of the Causeway Bay booksellers—one, British citizen Lee Bo, from Hong Kong territory itself—simply, it appeared, for having published books critical of Chinese authority, caused international consternation about the apparent erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy.

I pause for a moment from the main body of my speech to put on record the fact that, while four of the five abducted booksellers were released over the following months, two years on the fate of one, Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen, remains unclear. He has been denied access to legal counsel and has not been officially charged, tried or allowed to return home. I pause to mention that because this week, dramatically, The New York Times reported that he was snatched on Saturday from a train bound for Beijing, where he was heading for a medical examination, apparently by plain-clothed Chinese police. What steps has the United Kingdom taken to raise his case, and to urge the Chinese authorities to allow him to leave China, reuniting him with his family, including daughter Angela, who studies in Cambridge and whom I have met? She campaigns valiantly for her father’s release.

The January 2017 abduction from a Hong Kong hotel of Chinese billionaire Xiao Jianhua has caused similar concern. A further cause of grave, indeed international consternation was the disqualification not long ago of six democratically elected Hong Kong legislators, including the youngest ever member of the Legislative Council, Nathan Law, whom I had the privilege of meeting here in November 2016. Those legislators were removed from their seats because they were accused of failing to take their oaths properly. Some of the individuals, it is true, were disrespectful and inappropriate in how they took their oaths, but Nathan Law took his oath perfectly properly, merely adding to the end some words of Mahatma Gandhi. To be disqualified for quoting Gandhi is extraordinary. For a court to disqualify these young men instead of the legislature giving them a chance to retake their oaths properly is alarming. They now face demands to repay salaries and expenses that they legitimately earned while fulfilling their duties as legislators.

Last August, a further injustice occurred when Joshua Wong, Alex Chow and Nathan Law, who were student leaders of the peaceful umbrella movement in 2014, were sentenced to prison terms of six, seven and eight months respectively. Twenty four hours after their sentencing, a letter signed by 25 international figures, including me, Catherine West, who is here today, and many leading politicians, diplomats and academics, was published, which expressed concern at this as a miscarriage of justice, a threat to Hong Kong’s rule of law and basic human rights and a blow to the one country, two systems principle. It was followed by a letter by 12 senior international lawyers, many of them Queen’s counsel, who argued that the imprisonment of these young men was not only a threat to the rule of law, but a breach of the principle of double jeopardy in Hong Kong and a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which applies to Hong Kong. They noted

“serious concerns over the independence of the judiciary”.

I am pleased that a few weeks later, Joshua, Nathan and Alex were granted bail, released from prison and permitted to appeal, but whatever happens with their cases on appeal, the serious issues raised by the decision to jail them in the first place should not be ignored. I would like to think that the international consternation expressed at their treatment, and undoubtedly noted by the Chinese authorities, contributed to their release. That is why I share the view of the last Governor of Hong Kong, Lord Patten, when he said our Government’s Ministers should speak out publicly, not only privately, and that those who believe that raising difficult issues with China, such as human rights, would affect trade are “mistaken”.

Joshua, Nathan and Alex are far from alone. According to expert Kong Tsung-gan in a recent article in Hong Kong Free Press,

“at the heart of the government strategy to keep pro-democracy groups on the defensive and to intimidate ordinary people into not participating in the movement are the 39 legal cases (criminal and civil) it has brought against 26 pro-democracy leaders, as well as prosecutions of dozens of grassroots activists.”

I understand that, at present, more than 50 democracy activists face court proceedings and potentially prison under public order offences, in cases that past precedent indicates would normally have been punished with non-custodial penalties—community service or a fine. Some 16 peaceful demonstrators have been jailed for between six and 13 months already.

“As never before,” writes Kong Tsung-gan,

“the government is using the courts to criminalise and delegitimise the pro-democracy movement.”

He argues that although some cases—such as those I have quoted—have received international attention, more focus should be given to the “overall pattern”.

In a further example of the erosion of democratic procedures, in December last year, the Legislative Council introduced procedural changes regarding elected legislators’ authority. The powers of the Legislative Council chairman to close down debates were increased. Inevitably, that will reduce the ability of pro-democracy groups, which represent the majority of Hong Kong’s people, to properly scrutinise legislation and hold the Executive to account. A new law imposed on Hong Kong by China now criminalises disrespect of the national anthem. Some Hong Kong football fans have booed China’s national anthem during football matches. One can argue whether it is appropriate to disrespect a national anthem, but is it right to criminalise such action with a penalty of up to three years in prison? Disturbingly, I understand that these new laws can be applied retrospectively.

Journalists now face physical threats. Hong Kong has fallen to 73rd place in Reporters Without Borders’ 2017 World Press Freedom Index—down from 18th in 2002. Academic freedom is being curtailed, too, with recent reports of controversial academic figures being removed from posts or having promotions blocked, of state-appointed figures governing universities, and of a growing push to limit freedom of speech there.

Another illustration of the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy, and one that directly affects the freedoms of United Kingdom, was the decision to deny British human rights activist Benedict Rogers entry to Hong Kong in October last year. I take the opportunity to thank Foreign Office Ministers for expressing concerns to the Chinese authorities about the denial to Mr Rogers, after I raised questions in the House at the time. Does the Minister have any update regarding this? In late 2017, several Taiwanese scholars were also refused entry to Hong Kong.

The year ended with yet another example of the increasing erosion of Hong Kong's authority: the Chinese Government’s decision to enforce mainland Chinese law at the new West Kowloon high-speed rail terminus in Hong Kong. Under the arrangement, Hong Kong will effectively surrender its jurisdiction across a quarter of the new express rail terminus, where immigration procedures will be performed by mainland law enforcement agents with powers of search and arrest. I understand that Chinese national law will apply at the rail terminus. Thousands demonstrated in Hong Kong against these plans on new year’s eve. In the view of many experts, that effectively introduces one country, one system.

I understand that the National People’s Congress standing committee decided that the co-location arrangement is constitutional, thereby usurping the function of the courts, which under the Basic Law of Hong Kong should have exclusive rights to adjudicate cases. The Hong Kong Bar Association has said it is “appalled” by this decision, and stated:

“Such an unprecedented move is the most retrograde step to date in the implementation of the Basic Law, and severely undermines public confidence in ‘one country, two systems’
and the rule of law” in Hong Kong. Does the Minister share the concerns of the Hong Kong Bar Association?

In December, Mr Speaker hosted the launch in Speaker’s House of a new organisation set up in this country to monitor, report and advocate for Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy—Hong Kong Watch. I had the privilege of attending the launch of that organisation, which was founded by Benedict Rogers and others. I commend its work to the House and encourage Members on all sides to engage with Hong Kong Watch. It has a highly distinguished cross-party group of patrons, including Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Lord Ashdown, Lord Alton of Liverpool and Sir Geoffrey Nice, QC. The seniority of those individuals in their respective spheres of public life underlines that the concerns I am expressing are shared by respected public figures across political parties in this country and beyond, and that they cannot be ignored.

Indeed, Lord Ashdown recently visited Hong Kong as a patron of Hong Kong Watch. He published a report, which he presented at a meeting in the House of Lords last week, which I attended. The report is entitled, “Hong Kong 20 Years on: Freedom, Human Rights and Autonomy Under Fire”. I urge the Minister to read it if he has not already done so, and to respond to the concerns and recommendations in it. Lord Ashdown states:

“Over the past five years the freedoms guaranteed to the people of Hong Kong in its mini-constitution, the Basic Law, have been increasingly eroded. In Hong Kong, the rule of law is under pressure, human rights are undermined, and the city appears no closer to democracy. Legislators, legal experts and activists that I spoke to expressed concerns about the direction of travel: the situation appears likely to worsen in the coming years unless the people of Hong Kong and international governments unify to protect the rights of those living there.”

What concerned me particularly, as I listened to Lord Ashdown presenting his report last week, was what he said of his recent visit, compared with previous visits to Hong Kong over the years.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—