Democracy in Hong Kong

Part of Rail Services (Bedfordshire) – in Westminster Hall at 5:38 pm on 23rd January 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union) 5:38 pm, 23rd January 2018

I am grateful for the opportunity to start summing up the debate. In the interest of brevity I will not go through everyone who has contributed. It is quite clear that everyone who has spoken is concerned about the plight of the people of Hong Kong, and not just because of the United Kingdom’s history in the region. It is perfectly legitimate in any democratic society to have concern for human rights everywhere; human rights are there because people are human beings, not because of where they live or which political system they work under.

I have a concern, as I think we all do, that the Government of China, through the authorities in Hong Kong, as we see in so many other places, use the excuse of law and order or of protecting national security to clamp down on what would be seen in any reasonable society as possibly awkward or inconvenient, but perfectly legitimate, peaceful and lawful, disturbances by people doing no more than exercising their right to disagree with the Government of the day, to make public statements and to take part in public protests against, or in favour of, that Government’s policies. Let me make that clear, as I have done in a number of other human rights debates that I have taken part in here. The Chinese Government and the authorities in Hong Kong have the right to maintain their own society. They do not have the right to use that as an excuse for completely arbitrary arrests and detentions.

I hope that the Minister will indicate what the Government’s intentions are for after we leave the European Union. China will clearly be a big target for one of these wonderful new trade deals that we will get. How can we be sure that that will not be obtained at the cost of our watching brief on human rights in China? It has to be said that the United Kingdom’s record on dictatorships in places such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain is not good. Far too often, trade interests triumph over human rights. More recently, we have even seen that in Spain: there have been arbitrary arrests for taking part in the wrong kind of political demonstration in Spain in the past few months, and the Government have been very slow and reluctant to criticise them. The United Kingdom’s authority in speaking to the Chinese Government about human rights abuses in Hong Kong would be much greater if we were prepared to speak as firmly to our so-called friends in some other human rights abusing regimes across the world. We do not have to go to Hong Kong to see people being denounced as enemies of the people simply for expressing unpopular or contradictory views.

I am grateful to Richard Graham, who is no longer in his place, for reminding us that part of the reason why there is little democracy in Hong Kong now is because there was practically none for 150 of the 155 years that Britain was in charge. Out of a population of several million, how many citizens of Hong Kong were asked who they wanted as Governor before Chris Patten took over? None, or practically none. The first real attempt to democratise Hong Kong was introduced by Chris Patten in 1992, exactly 150 years into British rule there. Sometimes we really do need to look at ourselves in the mirror. We should ask why democracy in Hong Kong suddenly became important when Britain was about to hand over control, but did not seem that important when Britain was in control.

Some of the structural, institutional reasons why human rights are sometimes not properly observed are British legacies. The reason that universities can clamp down with complete impunity on academics or students who speak out of turn is because the Chief Executive of Hong Kong is the de facto principal—the boss—of every university in the city. The Chinese did not do that; Britain did that. That was what Britain set up. Half the legislature is elected not by the citizens but by the big business interests. The Chinese did not do that; Britain did that. Let us face it: in this place, half the legislature and more is not elected.

We should by all means comment, criticise and use all forms of diplomatic and political pressure to try to persuade the Government of China that human rights are in everybody’s interests, not only in Hong Kong but in mainland China, but we should do it with a degree of humility. Sometimes we should do it with a degree of shame, when we remind ourselves that Britain’s first insistence on taking control of Hong Kong was not done in the interests of Hong Kong’s citizens, but was done to protect the interests of the opium barons. Although Colin Clark has mentioned some of Scotland’s positive connections with Hong Kong, it is to our national shame that it was a couple of Scottish entrepreneurs who set up a company purely to sell opium into China to undermine the Chinese economy. Today, we should by all means press the Chinese Government to respect human rights, but we should do it with a sense of humility, because a lot of the problems in Hong Kong just now can be traced back to the British history of colonialism in Asia and elsewhere.