It is a pleasure, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on China, including Hong Kong, to join the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce on securing it. In many ways, this debate is a continuation of others we have had. I last spoke on this subject in this Chamber in March 2016; we were then considering the 38th biannual report on Hong Kong. It is perhaps timely to review again progress on the implementation of the Sino-British joint declaration of 1984, just over 20 years since the handover of Hong Kong.
In the 38th biannual report, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office noted that the system of one country, two systems has in very many areas “continued to function well”, but it noted specific concerns about rights and freedoms, including academic freedom and the freedom of the press. In the 41st report, the most recent one that we have, the Foreign Secretary’s introduction confirmed his strong belief that the joint declaration
“remains as valid today as it did when it was signed by both the Government of the UK and of China over thirty years ago”,
that it was legally binding, that it continues to be enforced and that he had unequivocally raised the issue, both publicly and privately, with the Chinese Government.
In a sense, the updated report is largely a continuation of the earlier one. Anyone objectively looking at the progress of Hong Kong over the last 35, 20 or even five years would have to note considerable elements of progress in the way that Hong Kong continues to surprise—its environmental campaigns, its increased social welfare understanding, and its ability to continue to do dynamic things in its trade with the rest of the world, brilliantly exemplified by the presentation given at the annual dinner of the Hong Kong Trade and Development Corporation in London last autumn.
Our co-operation with Hong Kong, which stretches to cover much more than trade and investment, encompassing the 3.7 million British passport holders in Hong Kong, strong education links and—above all, perhaps—the rule of law, has continued strongly. It will be, I suspect, raised to a new level in March, when our Department for International Trade works with Hong Kong on the GREAT festival of innovation, which will I think be the Department’s largest promotional activity in the far east this year. It will focus on technology in a whole number of different ways, and will be a strong example of how Britain and Hong Kong are still immensely relevant to each other.
None the less, the issue of the freedom and democracy of Hong Kong is incredibly important. Although those concerns remain strong, I note that Hong Kong Watch’s report says that academic freedom is “alive, and generally well,” with the caveat that there should be vigilance against changes to those freedoms. My belief is that in engaging with Hong Kong—many of whose residents are old friends of the UK in a number of ways—and with the People’s Republic of China, part of the issue is the tone we strike. Having something called “Hong Kong Watch” is valuable, in the sense that it will continue to look closely at the six freedoms articulated in the joint declaration, but it also has an element of moral superiority to it, which we must be careful about.
For example, in an email to me a few days ago, a Hongkonger resident in the UK accused China of breaking solemn commitments to respect Hong Kong’s freedoms and “British way of life”, before going on to talk about the Iranian-style fake election of the chief executive and
“Governor-like powers to rule Hong Kong.”
We cannot have it both ways. The fact of the matter is that the British Governor there was not elected in any way whatsoever, and he did have significant powers to rule Hong Kong. That was part of the British way of life in Hong Kong at that time.
Things have moved on. The key thing I would like to leave the Minister to ruminate on today is the importance of shared rule of law for all three parties. When Hong Kong is operating at its best, in a way that can raise huge amounts of capital and provide great services for the Chinese programme of one belt, one road, we, with Hong Kong and China, can use the advantages of a strong rule of law to benefit everyone.