I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the anniversary of the Hong Kong National Security Law.
It is a pleasure to serve under your suzerainty, Sir George. I hope that this debate will focus not just on Hong Kong, but on some other abuses that have crept in on a wider front. There is a very good piece in the newspaper today by Benedict Rogers, a man who has lived out in Hong Kong and has fought for the rights of Hong Kong Chinese for many years. What he writes has a bearing on the whole debate:
That is an important statement, because it puts in context what we are doing today in Westminster Hall. The reality is that we had an agreement that protected the rights of the Hong Kong Chinese. Those rights were different from those of mainland China and were sustained by that agreement.
As we mark the grim third anniversary of the imposition of the national security law in Hong Kong, we have to pause to reflect on our actions in the UK in response to the original treaty and its subsequent trashing by the Chinese Government. We find, 26 years later, that all those promises have been broken. They were enshrined in an international treaty that was lodged at the UN, which obliged China and the UK Government to observe and protect the rights of the citizens of Hong Kong under “one country, two systems”.
The problem is that—although initial concerns were raised, announcements were made and the Government put out a defiant message and said, “This is wrong”—we have kind of stepped back progressively. I am not saying that good actions did not take place early on. The UK Government created the British national overseas scheme, which was generous, and I applaud them for that. It acted as a lifeline for many Hong Kong Chinese and enabled them to come over here, or at least have it in the metaphorical bank in case they needed to come over. Of course, it is worth saying that the Chinese Government do not recognise that scheme and therefore do not recognise any existing rights for the Hong Kong Chinese in Hong Kong who are able to claim BNO status, but it at least gives them a way out should they need it, although many will find it more difficult as time goes on.
My problem with the present position is that, knowing full well that the national security law has been imposed in Hong Kong in contravention of the treaty, which was trashed by that change and the subsequent arrest, incarceration, persecution and torture of those who, once upon a time, campaigned for their legitimate democratic rights—things that we take for granted in the UK—the UK Government now seem to be hedging on upholding their promises to the people of Hong Kong under the Sino-British agreement. My hon. Friend the Minister must forgive me for making this point, but I am going to make it strongly. As one of several parliamentarians—there are two others here—who have been sanctioned by the Chinese Government for raising these issues, I think we have a right to at least try to speak on behalf of those who now find their rights and opportunities stripped away.
The problem is that the UK Government have never sanctioned any of those who were party to the national security law. None of those who governed Hong Kong subsequently has been sanctioned. Yet the US Government have sanctioned 10, I believe, of those responsible at the highest level. I do not understand that. Perhaps the Minister could explain it to me. It may be that I simply lack the intelligence to understand the nuances of Government policy or certain behind-the-scenes discussions—I am prepared to give way a little on that—but the fact is that a nation that had no particular responsibility for Hong Kong and was not a party to the Sino-British agreement has sanctioned 10 responsible people in Hong Kong, yet we have not sanctioned anybody. I hope that the Minister can explain to those of us who are not in the Government exactly why that is.
The figures show a bleak reality. Some 248 arrests have been made under the new law, and 140 individuals are facing charges. Over 1,000 political prisoners, as we would understand them, are in Hong Kong today, which highlights the severe suppression of dissent and the erosion of the basic freedoms that were guaranteed under the Sino-British agreement. The agreement was set to be in place until 2047. I am sorry to keep emphasising that point, but it needs emphasising. Many people think that this was just the normal transition. It was not. China had an obligation to continue with those rights and responsibilities, troubling though they may have been.
The rampant use of pre-trial detention under the national security law—over 100 individuals have been remanded in custody, for an average of nearly two and a half years—the disregard for due process and the prolonged detention without trial continue to raise serious questions about the existence of the rule of law and the protections of human rights in Hong Kong. Although sitting British judges no longer sit on the Court of Appeal in Hong Kong, I am sorry to say that there are many retired British judges who still choose to go to Hong Kong to promote the façade that they can somehow help in this regard.
Interestingly, the American Government circulated a document among US businesses a year and a half ago, I think, that recommended that businesses that were involved with or based in Hong Kong should recognise that the common law would no longer give them the protections that they would otherwise have been afforded in their business and contract relations. Will the Minister tell us exactly what we have advised businesses? Have we circulated any documents to them about whether they should be concerned about the placement of their headquarters in Hong Kong? I will certainly be happy to give way to the Minister if he wishes to make that clear.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on bringing yet another debate on Chinese human rights abuse to this House. I think the accusations that he has quite rightly made are an underestimate: by my reckoning, the US Government have in fact sanctioned some 11 people—former Chief Executive Carrie Lam, Chief Executive John Lee and nine other Hong Kong officials—for their role in the crackdowns in the city. The Foreign Office has very clearly said that the security law is a clear breach of the joint declaration. At the last count, I think at least 18 journalists have been arrested, numerous free speech media organisations have been closed down, several opposition parties have been driven out of operation and democratically elected places have been reduced to no more than 20% in forthcoming elections. I am sure my right hon. Friend will get on to this, but what have the UK Government actually done to show the Chinese that that oppressive activity has consequences? Nobody has been sanctioned, but what other sanctions have been brought to bear? What are the consequences of what the Chinese are doing?
I stand corrected. My hon. Friend is quite right: it is 11, which makes it even worse. Foremost among them is the Catholic entrepreneur and—most importantly—journalist Jimmy Lai, who languishes in prison on a trumped-up charge. I will come back to that point, because I have further questions to ask the UK Government, but I hope that the Minister has taken note of my hon. Friend’s comments about the actions of the United States. Our words about the transgressions have remained words; they have not given rise to actions that I would have expected from the UK Government. I am sorry to say that. They are a Government I support, but a Government who at the moment I have to say are in deficit in this area. I want to point out a few more areas where I find our Government in deficit.
What assessment have the Government made of all those figures we have been chucking out, as young political prisoners, three quarters of whom are aged 30 or under, bear the brunt of this oppressive regime? It is deeply troubling that minors face the longest sentences of all, averaging something like 27 months, further exacerbating their plight. What also bothers me is that the Government, having not gone to Hong Kong officially, suddenly sent a Government Minister there a few weeks ago. As I understand it, now that his visits and meetings have been published, Lord Johnson met no democracy campaigners, said nothing officially or publicly about the Sino-British agreement, said nothing at all about the breach of human rights, said nothing at all about those sanctioned, and, to my knowledge, said nothing at all about the plight of the British citizen Jimmy Lai.
I want to stay on that point because, of all the things the Minister could have said, he could have said something about the bad behaviour with regard to a British passport holder and citizen. I want to say it again: Jimmy Lai is a British passport holder and citizen. As much as every one of us sitting in this room today, he has rights. At the front of the passport, it states “without let or hindrance”. What is the worth of the passport that I and everybody else in this room carry, if my Government will not call him a British citizen with rights under international law for consular access? America refers to him as a British citizen and passport holder. The European Union refers to him as a British citizen and passport holder. What country does not refer to him as a British citizen and passport holder publicly? Sadly, that would be my Government—our Government. For some reason, the British Government take it upon themselves to know, beyond any other family member or Jimmy Lai himself, what is good for him. What is good for him is what he wants.
Jimmy Lai did not flee Hong Kong after the trashing of the Sino-British agreement. Why? Because he is a brave man who believed that as long as he stayed, he could be the guarantor of some of the rights that might disappear. He wanted to be the icon who believed in democracy and human rights, so that those who were fearful and fleeing, and worried for their lives and the lives of their family, would look to him and see a brave man standing on the hill saying, “I’m not going anywhere. This is my home.”
A British citizen, a brave man, now languishes in prison on a trumped-up charge that has nothing to do with reality. He faces a second court case later this year, where he will almost certainly be charged under the new security laws for sedition. Jimmy Lai knows, and his family know, that it is unlikely he will ever see the light of day outside that prison. He knew that from the very word go; he made his choices on the basis that he knew that from the very word go. He did not flee.
Surely Jimmy Lai wants us to say that he is a proud British citizen and passport holder. He is not a dual national, by the way. I wish the British Government would stop referring to him as a dual national: it plays into the Chinese Government’s hands, because they declare that they do not recognise dual nationals. He is not a dual national; he is a British passport holder. I want that to be very clear. His family, who I have spoken to and who had to flee to Taiwan, say he wants to be pronounced a British citizen and passport holder. All I ask is that at the end of the debate my hon. Friend the Minister gets up and says, “He is a British citizen and passport holder, and we intend to pursue the Chinese Government publicly for consular rights. He is a political prisoner, and there is no question beyond that.”
I congratulate and applaud my Government on the generous BNO scheme and on extending it. To give credit where credit is due, the Government have done well on that. The trouble is that after everything that has been going on and the failure to recognise even a British passport holder, many BNO passport holders in the UK are now fearful about their own status. We know that many of them have been hunted down in the UK by those terrible Chinese police stations, which are quite illegal but have existed in the UK for an unnecessarily long time. We know that they have been threatened and bullied about their status. They worry about their protections under a BNO scheme, which are far fewer than those of having a British passport and being a British citizen. I would like the Government to consider that our failure to act in that way for Jimmy Lai has consequences for those we would wish to protect in a wider scheme. One need only talk to them to understand their concerns. We need to make those changes and announcements.
On the basis of what my hon. Friend Tim Loughton said, when will the UK Government put Hong Kong officials, who were responsible in the first place for many of those human rights abuses, under notice that they will be sanctioned? They should have been sanctioned by now. Is there a chance that the British Government are reviewing it? I know what the British Government and the Minister will say: “We never discuss sanctions.” I wish he would say at least that he will take note of what we have said.
For Hongkongers facing the plight of having to risk entering the Chinese consulate for the renewal of their Hong Kong passports, this policy places them in a vulnerable position. They are worried. What alternative procedures will the Government pursue to give those people a greater sense of certainty, such as by providing other things like travel documents or establishing a successful and secure passport renewal process that does not necessitate entering the grounds of a Chinese consulate? I remind everybody that the last person I knew of who entered a Chinese consulate’s grounds was dragged there by the consul general, was beaten up and had his hair torn out. I met him afterwards, and he was traumatised. The Chinese Government did not do anything, and the British Government talked about the law, but he quietly disappeared later on and no apology was made. It was a terrible act. I understand why BNO passport holders here are fearful of what will happen to them if they enter the consulate. The big concern and fear is about whether they will come out again. Will the Government look for other ways for them to establish their legitimacy, other than being forced into this damaging process?
The visit of Liu Jianchao last week also sent a signal to many people who are here under the BNO scheme. It is deeply regrettable that the Government chose, for some reason, to host him. This is a man deeply involved in China’s controversial fox hunt operations, which hunt down Chinese dissidents around the world and seek to get them back to China using techniques that include threatening their families, televising that threat, and eventual torture and arrest on re-arrival. It is an example of China’s disregard for international norms and human rights that it behaves in that way so publicly. By welcoming this individual—there is a photograph of a Minister sitting next to him; given the abuse of international norms and human rights, I am astonished that we would allow a Government Minister to meet him and sit with him—are we not sending a chilling message to everybody else that we place that relationship on a higher plane than people’s human rights and liberties?
On the point about the Hong Kong national security law having extraterritorial reach, some in the People’s Republic refer to centuries of humiliation, when their forebears made concessions to other imperial powers. Does the right hon. Member think that since the crackdown in 2020 against students in Hong Kong who were simply singing songs and waving flags, it is reasonable to say that the People’s Republic is behaving in a repressive fashion that was typically associated with 19th-century imperial powers?
These are abuses of human rights and democracy. The hon. Gentleman is right: this is an appalling return to a time we thought had long passed. We now respect people’s human rights, but that is not the case in China, and it is now not the case in Hong Kong. The worst part about the situation in Hong Kong, which he is right to raise, is that we were one of the guarantors, but we seem to be shuffling away from that guarantee. Where other countries have acted on the abuse, we seem to be stepping back. I am concerned about that. I would love to know more about it from the Minister.
Going back to the visit by Liu Jianchao last week, a photograph was publicly promoted—through Government circles as well—with lots of smiling Chinese officials. I counted at least five parliamentary colleagues in that photo, including a senior Government Minister, sitting alongside a notorious senior Chinese Government official responsible for snatch-and-grab, effectively illegal, rendition. Given that my right hon. Friend and I and five other parliamentarians have been sanctioned by China, and that the Chinese ambassador and other Chinese Government officials are, quite rightly, banned from coming to this place as a result of the good work of the Speaker, does my right hon. Friend not think that no parliamentary colleagues should be seen sitting down with Chinese officials of this calibre and reputation? They should not be doing it, should they?
My hon. Friend knows very well that I agree completely with him. I was shocked to see that picture. I wrote to the Prime Minister on the Sunday, shortly before Liu Jianchao was due to come over. I also wrote to the Speaker, who was in agreement that the meeting would clearly not take place in the House of Commons or Parliament generally. When I wrote to the Prime Minister, I was told I would get a reply at some point—although the man is gone now, so the reply will come after the event, which is sad, but there we go.
The point is that I did not know at that stage that Liu Jianchao was going to meet any officials; I was told that he was not and that he was going to meet MPs. I then saw the picture the hon. Gentleman referred to, in which a Government Minister is sitting front and centre next to this man, whose reputation is so utterly appalling that it beggars belief that anybody would want to sit next to him, but everyone in that picture is grinning and happy. That our colleagues should then attend is another thing, and I simply say that there should be some solidarity in this place. If people are sanctioned for standing up for their beliefs, we do not want to undermine that by sitting next to these characters. I would therefore like to know what assessment the Government made before the meeting with Liu Jianchao.
After all, this place should be a beacon of freedom. I have the highest respect for the procedures, processes and nature of Government—I served in Government myself for some years—and I understand the difficulties, but there is a particular reason why this individual should not have been allowed to sit next to a Government Minister. When the deputy governor of Xinjiang was going to come over here, I and others went out to the protests with the Uyghurs, because he was part of the design of the terrible system that is now, essentially, genocide against them.
We campaigned outside the Foreign Office, which eventually said that it would not allow an official to see him, although one had been going to. I was happy that it came to its senses and said no. By the way, when people say that British foreign policy cannot persuade anybody any more, it is not true, because every other European country that was going to see him said no as a result. So we have some sway after all; we have some locus in this. I therefore want to ask the Minister what thought was given to this before this man arrived here.
I spoke earlier about Lord Johnson’s visit, and I was astonished to find that the problems or the plight of the people we have spoken about today, who have been attacked, arrested and trashed, were not raised particularly—it was all meetings with business. I can understand it if he meets with business, but meeting with business in Hong Kong is not the same as meeting with business in the United States or the UK, where people have freedom of expression and are covered by human rights and a workable law. That is not the case in Hong Kong, and we cannot detach ourselves from what is going on politically in Hong Kong if we choose to go to Hong Kong to make business arrangements.
As I say, the American Government have already warned their businesses that common law does not protect them in Hong Kong in the way that it would have done under the Sino-British agreement. That is a really important point. English common law is the finest legal system in the world, and it is being adopted by countries all over the world, particularly for business deals. It is straightforward and much easier to operate, and it runs under a system that has been tested through time, and many people welcome that. However, the freedoms and rights in it disappear when they clash with the new law that exists in Hong Kong. That problem did not go away, and things like countering foreign sanctions, and businesses getting trashed as a result of these new laws, do not seem to have been raised either.
However, I want to return to Jimmy Lai. Of all the things I have spoken about today, this man should be in our thoughts. He is a brave democrat and a decent man. He is a journalist. He speaks truth unto power. He was fearless in the way that, when he had to, he attacked the Legislative Council and the decisions it made. He was constant and convinced in the role that he played.
I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that we should take decisive action to uphold the promise of protecting our citizens. I want to know what steps the Government intend to take, not only on many of those who are languishing in jail but, importantly, on Jimmy Lai, because he is iconic. Are we going to say to the Chinese Government, “Enough is enough. There are consequences to your actions. We intend now to tell the world that this man is a British citizen and a British passport holder. We have responsibilities for him, and we intend to claim those under international law. We are not prepared any longer to do things quietly behind the scenes. If you choose to go on down this road, we will sanction all those responsible for the introduction of the new laws and the crackdown, as America has already done”? We should be telling China that that is where we are going. I know that we worry about losing business with China, but sometimes the price of business can be too high, and I think that that is the case here.
All that I want to know is that we recognise a British citizen, we recognise a British passport holder and we treat them the same, no matter where they live or where they are. That is the point of the passport. I carry my passport with pride, but I doubt its provenance now, as a result of our attitude and the attitude of those at the Foreign Office to Jimmy Lai. I ask them simply to examine their conscience and to ask themselves whether, if they had been incarcerated by a foreign Government that had broken an international agreement, they would not want the Government and the Foreign Office to stand up for them in the boldest and bravest ways, as they should?
I have two last points, and I will be brief. I understand that there is a lot of movement at the moment on the National Security Bill, which is providing the Government with some tools—for example, the enhanced tier of the foreign influence register scheme. However, we do not know yet whether China will be included in that enhanced tier. If my hon. Friend the Minister cannot respond to that point now, I ask him to take away the fact that we here in Westminster Hall, and more widely in the House, want China moved into that tier, because it poses a direct and constant threat.
The second thing, which I will finish on, is that an idea may be brewing in the Government that they want to do an energy trade deal with China. If that is the case, they need to rethink. The idea of rewarding China for its bad behaviour and becoming more dependent on an autocratic regime smacks of failed policy. I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to tell me at the end of the debate that there is no such discussion and that no such trade arrangement will be attempted.
In conclusion, this is a sad anniversary. These people, who have been arrested and incarcerated for the freedoms that we take for granted in the United Kingdom, need to be supported. Overall, the best thing we can do to show the Chinese Government that we shall not tolerate this is to say that Jimmy Lai is a British citizen—a British passport holder—and that we demand the rights that come with British citizenship, including consular access. I ask nothing more of my British Government than that they support a British passport holder.
I congratulate Sir Iain Duncan Smith on his continuing energy, enthusiasm and wisdom in highlighting this issue. Today we gather to discuss what has happened in the past three years, and he has outlined that very well and shown what has happened with the implementation of the national security law in Hong Kong.
Immediately after the passage of the National Security Law in 2020, universities fired academics involved in pro-democracy activities, and pro-democracy slogans and songs were banned in schools and universities. Statues and memorials were removed, and pro-democracy newspapers were shut, including Apple Daily, owned by British citizen Jimmy Lai, who currently sits in jail.
The right hon. Member put the case very well for Jimmy Lai, who is a British passport holder. I always carry my passport with me, and the first page says:
“Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State requests and requires in the name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.”
That is what the right hon. Member is asking for, and that is what I and others are asking for. We cannot understand, with respect, why our Minister and our Government have not grasped that, when it is clear to us what is asked for: the rights that that passport gives me and every other person here.
The Guardian reported that the entire Hong Kong opposition party quit after four of its members were disqualified from serving in office for being, in the words of the Chinese, “unpatriotic”. Those members were standing up for liberty and freedom in a process that they supported, and they were denied that right. In January 2021, 53 Hong Kong democrats and activists were charged under the national security law for participating in an unofficial democratic primary election in 2020. Some 47 of those 53 activists—known as the Hong Kong 47—are currently on trial in Hong Kong, charged under the national security law. It is the largest national security law trial to date, which gives an idea of the ferocity of the Chinese authorities against people who just want liberty.
Hong Kong’s rule of law and judicial system continue to be destroyed under the national security law. There are more than 1,400 political prisoners in Hong Kong, which also holds the highest proportion of female political prisoners in the world. Should we not be concerned about that? I think we are, because we are here today to reiterate these points. Foreign judges, including Lord Reed and Lord Hodge from the UK, have left Hong Kong, because they did not want to legitimise the current Administration, which continues to crush Hong Kong’s most basic civil liberties. As has been said, it is immoral that any British or foreign judge should sit in Hong Kong courts, regardless of how much they are paid. I again urge our Minister and our Government to ensure that no British judge sits on Hong Kong courts and profits from the current turmoil in that international city.
We have previously discussed the case of Jimmy Lai, and right hon. and hon. Members have reiterated it today. He is a British citizen who has been prevented from having his lawyer of choice. Even when it comes to giving a legal opinion, his right has been denied. The percentage of district council seats that are democratically chosen now sits at around 20%. There are clearly issues; I look to the Minister to ascertain how we can play our part in addressing these outrages and these attacks on democracy.
The Hong Kong authorities continue to erode freedom of the press. The Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index for 2023 makes for poor reading. Hong Kong was ranked 140 out of 180 countries. In 2022, it fell nearly 70 places on the previous year, exposing the grave impact of the national security law, which the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green referred to. Hong Kong is not the global financial hub that the world once knew. According to an Atlantic Council report that assessed the risks in Hong Kong’s business environment, when journalists’ right to report freely is threatened, all forms of reporting, including on the state of financial markets, may be affected. That has clearly had an impact on financial markets. Companies cannot thrive in that type of environment, and they are voting with their feet.
The Atlantic Council also raised concerns about the privacy of corporate data and the intellectual property rights of companies that continue to operate in and from Hong Kong. The influence of the Chinese authorities is detrimentally impacting on those businesses. The Government should do more to warn businesses and businesspeople of the risks they face working and investing in Hong Kong due to the national security law. May I ask the Minister—I am ever mindful that he is not the Minister directly responsible—to respond to that question today?
Prior to the passage of the national security law in June 2020, the former Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, said that the national security law would violate Hong Kong’s one country, two systems principle. After its passage, a statement was made affirming that the China-imposed national security law caused China to break its promise to Hong Kong that it would be able to govern itself and breached China’s international commitments to Britain under the Sino-British joint declaration. Quite clearly, international law has been broken by China as well.
In the Government’s latest six-monthly report on Hong Kong in May 2023, the Foreign Secretary urged Beijing to heed the call in an independent United Nations Human Rights Council report to remove the Beijing-imposed national security law in Hong Kong. What has happened since then? I suspect very little, but the question was posed by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green in introducing the debate, and I am posing it too.
“The Hong Kong authorities’ decision to target leading pro-democracy figures including Cardinal Zen, Margaret Ng, Hui-Po-Keung and Denise Ho under the National Security Law is unacceptable.”
The Chinese authorities seem to have a total disregard for what is happening. Since the passage of the national security law in 2020, the British Government have referred to it as a violation of the Sino-British joint declaration.
I welcome the fact that the British and Canadian Governments have offered generous visa schemes. The Government are to be congratulated on those schemes, which allow Hongkongers to escape from the oppressive consequences of the national security law. When he sums up, will the Minister say how we are working with our allies—Canada, the United States and other countries —to represent the Hongkongers?
While international support is welcome, it is clearly not enough. Hong Kong continues to deteriorate day by day. There is less freedom there today than there was the last time we had a debate—I think about three months, or indeed a year, ago. We must do more to protect the Hongkongers who have moved to the UK and who now face harassment and intimidation by the Chinese Communist party, including through the Confucius Institutes in British universities. I have constituents who are good friends of mine—I have known them for many, many years—who were clearly being tracked and whose activities were being monitored. We asked about that and were told that the information was sent on, and that the police forces—the Police Service of Northern Ireland, in particular—were aware of it, but the fact that it can happen is distressing, both for my constituents and for me as their elected representative.
In conclusion, I ask the Minister to call for the release of British citizen Jimmy Lai, as did the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green and others. That is one of the key demands of our Minister and our Government from this debate. Jimmy Lai has been behind bars for 910 days. We should continue to put pressure on the Hong Kong Government to immediately repeal the national security law, and we should speak out against legislation in Hong Kong that continues to destroy the rule of law, the judicial system, the free press and the vibrant financial centre that the world once knew. Today, we have a chance to make a plea on behalf of Jimmy Lai and all those who have been detained by the Chinese authorities. In this House, we have a duty to represent them to the fullest of our capabilities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Sir Iain Duncan Smith not just on securing a debate on this grim but important anniversary, but on his powerful and compelling speech. He made the case that we in this country, and specifically the Government, should do more than has been done in the past few years to push back against what the Chinese Government are doing, both in Hong Kong under the guise of their national security law and around the world, not least in this country.
I should say that the Government have done some good things: I congratulate them on introducing the BNO visa route for Hong Kong citizens, which was unquestionably a positive development. It provides the opportunity for BNO status holders and their families to live, work and study here in the UK. The figures speak for themselves: we have had more than 160,000 applications since the status was first introduced two and a half years ago. I am afraid that figure shows how essential it was for those who no longer feel that their way of life is safe in Hong Kong.
I am particularly grateful that the scheme was further opened to younger Hong Kong people following a campaign that I worked on with others who are present in the Chamber. As my right hon. Friend said, those born after 1997 are in many ways the most vulnerable to the Chinese Government’s crackdown in Hong Kong, but until the Government agreed to change the law they were ineligible under the original scheme. Those are both positive steps. I do not want to be unremittingly negative, but I must point out that the BNO scheme is no substitute for holding Beijing to account across the board. The Government’s routine answer to questions about Hong Kong is that they will not shirk their responsibilities to Hong Kong people and their commitments under the Sino-British joint declaration, but the supporting evidence that they always bring out is the BNO scheme, and so far nothing else.
We need to be clear that allowing Hongkongers to come to the UK does not hold Beijing to account for breaking international agreements with the UK. I would be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister said what concrete action has been taken to hold the Chinese Government to account for what the UK Government call an “ongoing breach” of the Sino-British joint declaration, which is supposed to remain in force for another 24 years. Have they, for example, registered any formal objection to joint declaration breaches, as is provided under the Vienna convention on the law of treaties?
I am something of a heretic in that I wince slightly when the House of Commons demands that the British Government and Foreign Office Ministers take a stand and do something about practically every crisis that emerges around the world, for many of which the British Government have no locus to intervene, but in this case we absolutely do. We signed this treaty, so this is genuinely a British Government issue, and not just some kind of emotional attachment to democracy around the world, which we all have. The phrase the Government like to use is “robust pragmatism”. If that means anything, it must mean ensuring that those who break binding international agreements with us are not simply permitted to get away with it.
We have had some discussion already about Hongkongers in the UK. It is worth pointing out that this is the largest peacetime migration to the UK from outside Europe in history. The Uganda lifeboat scheme set up to assist those fleeing Idi Amin reached around 28,000 people. The Hong Kong scheme is already at 160,000. The Ugandan scheme came with a well-crafted integration plan. As recent conflicts between Hongkongers and the mainland Chinese authorities in this country have shown, such as the shocking attack on University of Southampton students earlier this month, full integration of Hong Kong people is not without difficulty.
Can the Minister tell us what efforts are being made to ensure that Hong Kong people feel safe in this country? How do the Government plan to address the issue of Chinese state-sponsored intimidation such as that mentioned earlier, perpetrated by the Chinese consul general in Manchester, on our soil? I am sure the Minister agrees with me that Hong Kong people are entitled to the same rights as the rest of us in the UK and must not feel as if their right to assembly and protest is somehow curtailed due to the Chinese Government’s intimidation techniques and transnational repression.
We must remain vigilant and responsive to the evolving needs of this growing constituency of fellow residents of this country. I hope the Government will continue to engage with BNO holders, the relevant organisation and the experts to develop policies that address their broader challenges, beyond visa provisions. We owe it to these brave individuals to provide them with the necessary support and opportunities to thrive in the UK.
We have had much discussion of the Jimmy Lai case and I know that many Hongkongers, in the wake of that case, feel unsafe when travelling. They fear that the UK, frankly, will not defend them if Beijing attempts to apprehend them in China, Hong Kong or even a third country from which they may be extradited. Again, can the Minister set out the Government’s policy regarding Hong Kong BNO holders when they travel outside this country?
It is also worth the Government considering a discrepancy in our approach to these people. It is not well known that Commonwealth citizens who do not require leave to remain in the UK are eligible to stand for Parliament. In correspondence with Luke de Pulford of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China last year, the former Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend Dame Priti Patel confirmed that that did not extend to Hong Kong people due to a now obsolete rule associated with an annex to the joint declaration. That is in spite of Hong Kong people having been in the same category as those from Commonwealth countries previously for the purposes of immigration law. Many of the 160,000 people are already engaged with political parties in the UK and it feels wrong that they will be excluded from representative politics for another five years. I hope the Minister will agree to look at that.
One last individual case that the Government should consider is that of Andy Li, one of 12 Hongkongers who tried to flee Hong Kong in a boat in August 2020. All were apprehended and taken to Shenzhen prison. We do not know what happened there, but it was sufficiently awful to have persuaded Andy to testify against Jimmy Lai, a man he has never met. Andy has now been transferred to Hong Kong, where he was convicted for collusion with foreign forces. However, he has still not been sentenced, and it seems that the authorities will not do so until he has testified at Jimmy Lai’s trial, underlining the depths to which a once proud legal system has now sunk. Andy Li is a courageous, non-violent Hongkonger whose only crime was to work to defend the promises set out in the joint declaration and Basic Law. He is now in prison precisely because we failed to keep the Chinese Government to their promises.
Some of those sanctioned by the Chinese Government, including my hon. Friend Bob Seely and Lord Alton of Liverpool, were mentioned in Andy Li’s case file as an example of the foreign forces with which he is supposed to have colluded. It was on that basis that all those figures were warned by the Foreign Office of extradition to China as they are likely seen as criminal under the national security law, which claims universal jurisdiction even over foreign nationals. Again, I hope the Minister will agree with me that this House and the Government cannot stand by while people are imprisoned because of entirely legitimate work with Members of this place and will agree to redouble their efforts to see Andy Li freed.
I appreciate the difficulties that Ministers face in maintaining a position of robust pragmatism, but it is incumbent on them to defend the rule of law and international treaties, and they need to defend that position consistently and over a long period. That would be in the best traditions of the British Government and the British people. We owe it to Hongkongers to maintain the “robust” part of “robust pragmatism” for as long as it takes.
I was not intending to speak in this debate, but my right hon. Friend Sir Iain Duncan Smith and fellow sanctionee has spurred me on to fill the short gap that we might have in this debate. There is rarely a debate on China in this place that I am not chafing at the bit to participate in. I agree with everything that my right hon. Friends have said and I will not repeat it. Certainly the generosity and necessity of the BNO scheme has shown its worth. I fear that many more than the 160,000 former residents of Hong Kong here already will swell those numbers.
The rule of law, justice, free speech and anything resembling freedom were snuffed out over more than 60 years in Tibet. They have been snuffed out in recent years in Xinjiang and are now being aggressively snuffed out in Hong Kong. The rule of law, as any of us would recognise it, does not exist in China. I want to give two examples. We had a meeting of the Conservative human rights commission at the beginning of this week and heard testimony from two very brave men who have been the victims and fallen foul of—I will not call it the Chinese justice system, because there is no justice—the Chinese legal system.
One of them, Peter Humphrey, is a 67-year-old British citizen from Surrey who had 48 years of experience in China. He did a lot of work in China and was working for GlaxoSmithKline when in July 2013 he and his wife were arrested and imprisoned on charges of illegal information gathering after conducting an investigation for GSK. They spent two years in Chinese prisons during which time Peter developed advanced prostate cancer because medical treatment was deliberately withheld in a bid to coerce a false confession. He was the first prominent member of the foreign business community in China to be imprisoned by the Xi Jinping regime and the case attracted extensive media coverage. He was also the first foreigner to be paraded in a cage on Chinese television in a notorious broadcast of a false and forced TV confession.
In 2019 there was the case of the Tesco Christmas cards, which gained a lot of attention when a six-year-old girl from Tooting opened a box of Christmas cards bought in Tesco to find that one of them had already been filled out. The cards were made in China. On the front the card featured a kitten in a Santa hat. However, inside one of the cards was this message:
“We are foreign prisoners in Shanghai Qingpu prison China. Forced to work against our will. Please help us and notify human rights organization. Use the link to contact Mr Peter Humphrey.”
So Peter was specifically mentioned in that note. It was from a prisoner in the gulag—one of many millions who were being forced into labour and used by companies in China to sell their goods to an unsuspecting Tesco, which, to give it its due, ceased business with the company that provided the goods. The trouble is that it is almost impossible to source where many of these things come from. We know how so many things are made in China and disguised in various component parts.
The second person who we heard testimony from earlier this week was a 42-year-old Romanian citizen, Marius Balo. Many of the people in the room were in tears at the testimonies that the men gave about their experiences at the hands of the Chinese Government. In 2014, Marius was wrongfully arrested, along with all the staff of the Chinese company for which he worked as a part-time employee. The company was accused of contract fraud, which Marius had known absolutely nothing about. It was entirely trumped up. He spent the next two years in a 12 square-metre cage with no way to contact anyone in the outside world, and a further six years in the same Shanghai prison as Peter Humphrey.
This is going on all the time. Those two men have been exceedingly brave in not hiding their experiences, but speaking up. They have done so on behalf of the many thousands of people in similar situations in Chinese jails and in the Chinese legal system. We owe them a debt of gratitude as they continue to speak up. It is estimated that there are something like 5 million prisoners in Chinese jails, of whom over 5,000 are estimated to be overseas nationals. We do not know how many of them are British, and we do not know what support they are getting from British consular missions. Perhaps the Minister could tell us how many British nationals, in addition to Jimmy Lai, are in Chinese prisons at the moment and explain what support they are receiving.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend might be so bold as to ask the Minister how many have been in prison for longer than a year and are still awaiting trial. Many of these people have not even had the right to a trial.
That is entirely the point. It is not just a question of their having dodgy justice, but a question of their having to wait years and years, just like the 45 people who are still going through what is likely to be a six-month trial. They were in jail, restricted of their liberty, for many months before that.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green mentioned earlier, more than 100 people have been remanded in custody for an average of nearly two and a half years. Under trumped up charges, they are incarcerated in pretty grim conditions before they even have a chance to argue their case, if indeed they are given that chance. Often the defendants are not even allowed in court to argue their case. The jury system does not exist in many cases, and the verdict is predetermined. Something like 99.9% of all those prosecutions result in a conviction, and 99.9% of appeals against those convictions are turned down.
As I said, justice does not exist in Hong Kong and the whole of China. There have to be consequences when that specifically undermines British interests and when the British agreement has been, in the Foreign Office’s own words, flouted and breached. Other nations seem to be taking that breach more seriously than one of the co-signatories of that agreement, which has a duty of care to the many millions of citizens still in Hong Kong, let alone the increasing number escaping its borders.
There is no rule of law, and the cases that I cited predate the national security law, since when things have got much worse. We know that the Chinese do nothing when faced with just a war of words. The only time the Chinese take notice is when those allegations have consequences and Governments follow through on those consequences. Other nations, particularly the Americans, have followed through with legislation that has had direct consequences for the ability to trade, for people’s ability to travel, for investment and so on, and it is bizarre and completely unacceptable that we have not followed the Americans’ lead on even a fraction of those.
My hon. Friend is giving an excellent speech. I think what he is reaching for and what would be helpful to know from the Government is what we, the Foreign Office or the UK are doing to take action. He has mentioned sanctions. When people are effectively taken as pawns or hostages, the other thing we can and should do—in relation to Beijing, but also Iran, Russia and many other countries—is raise that under the new arbitrary detention mechanism alliance that we pioneered with Canada. Does my hon. Friend agree that sanctions and words alone are not enough, and that action in international fora that can embarrass those who take hostages is imperative?
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend. That is just one of many devices available to the United Kingdom Government. For some reason, they have chosen to use none of them.
Let me give the Minister a series of questions; I hope that he has plenty of time to answer them and many others that have arisen. Do the Government agree with the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that the national security law
“has de facto abolished the independence of the judiciary of Hong Kong SAR”?
What steps will the Government take to communicate their discontent with China’s ongoing breaching of the internationally binding Sino-British joint declaration? It should not just be, “You are a bit naughty. We signed this agreement, and you do not seem to have stuck to it—would you mind awfully doing something about it?” It must not be that sort of “Dad’s Army” sergeant approach to things: “Would you mind awfully?” There have to be consequences. What are the Government doing about it? If the Chinese say nothing, what will we then do in response?
I have some more questions. What assessment have the Government made about reports that Hong Kong’s status as a financial centre is being used to bypass western sanctions on Russia? What assessment have the Government made of UK strategic assets currently held by the Hong Kong Government? What plans do the UK Government have to review the status of Hong Kong’s economic and trade offices in the UK following the enactment of the national security law and the incident at the Chinese consulate in Manchester, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green mentioned? Extraordinarily, the consul general not only admitted to having beaten up somebody who was protesting outside—there was no hiding it—but, when interviewed on television, said, “Well, it’s my job.” He was bang to rights. What further evidence was needed? It was on film—in his own words. He had broken the law and assaulted somebody who was freely at liberty in the United Kingdom. The Government did nothing until he was spirited away by the Chinese Government, and then it was too late.
I have three other questions. What actions are the Government taking to protect Hongkongers now in the UK who face harassment, intimidation and threats from agents of the Chinese Communist party after the incident in Manchester? Lots of people are rather scared that they are going to have a knock on their door. What steps are the Government taking to expand their Chinese expertise in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, including through the recruitment of Cantonese and Mandarin speakers?
Finally, what support are the Government offering to UK nationals who have been targeted by the national security law? I declare an interest, because those nationals include the seven parliamentarians who have been sanctioned under the national security law, the consequences of which, other than the bans on travel and investment, we do not know. We have been offered no protection or added support by the Government, and yet the Government continue to be willing to meet representatives of that regime and give them publicity, as if we were dealing with any other normal democratic nation that respects the rule of law. China does not. It does not in Hong Kong. This law is appalling. We do not just need to say so; we need to make it clear to the Chinese that there are consequences from going through with it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I congratulate Sir Iain Duncan Smith on securing the debate, and I recognise his determination to keep the persecution in Hong Kong and the Government of China’s record on human rights more generally as live issues for consideration by this House and for response and action by the UK Government.
The UK’s history as a colonial power in Hong Kong has left a series of moral and legal obligations on this country. The population of Hong Kong, like the populations of many countries around the world, are still living with the legacy of an era and a mindset that saw territories and peoples as the playthings of men who thought themselves so powerful that they could decide the fate of empires from thousands of miles away in the Locarno Suite and the Map Room of King Charles Street. If that mindset is wrong in the present day, and we rightly condemn strong men and dictatorial regimes who seek to annex or govern territories without democratic mandates, we must also recognise that that kind of mindset was wrong when it was being exercised in this country in years gone by and be clear that we intend to learn lessons from the past and resolve to work for democracy, freedom and human rights around the whole world.
As the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green said at the start of the debate, even in the complex story of postcolonial transitions, the Sino-British agreement regarding the future of Hong Kong is probably unique. He was right to stress that of particular relevance to this debate is the agreement between both parties that the economic and social systems in Hong Kong prevailing in 1997 would remain unchanged, as would the rights and freedoms enjoyed by the population, with a commitment that this would last during the 50-year handover period. This was to be the basis of “one country, two systems”, and the agreement represented an internationally ratified and binding agreement between the UK and China.
We are now 26 years—a little more than halfway—through that period. It is clear from all the contributions to the debate that the pace of change in Hong Kong, particularly with regard to rights and freedoms, is considerably faster and more detrimental to those rights and freedoms than foreseen in the agreement. In short, the Government of China and the Chinese Communist party are not keeping up their end of the bargain.
Nowhere is that clearer than in the implementation of the national security law, passed by the Parliament in Beijing, bypassing and without reference to the Legislative Council in Hong Kong. I am sure the Minister will be quick to condemn central Government for making laws for territories that have established legislative autonomy without consent from the legislatures of those territories. We have heard how comprehensively the law restricts basic rights to freedom of speech and assembly in the name of preserving loosely defined national security in the face of so-called secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
Tim Loughton was right in his valuable contribution to highlight that this is not new; this kind of oppression has been going on for a very long time, and he cited some important case studies. Amnesty International has said of the national security law:
“The consequences are grave—the undefined nature of key aspects of the law has created fear among people in Hong Kong” about what may
“put them at risk of criminal prosecution, removal to the mainland or deportation from the territory.”
We have heard about a number of specific cases where this law has been applied, demonstrating exactly the concerns raised when it was passed three years ago. The detention of Cardinal Joseph Zen, along with other humanitarian activists, was of particular concern. As Jim Shannon said, it highlights wider issues around the CCP’s attitude to freedom of religion or belief in China.
The ongoing oppression and detention of journalist Jimmy Lai has been raised powerfully by just about all Members here, and a further law has been passed recently to specifically prevent him from being represented by foreign lawyers. It is important that the Minister responds to the extremely forceful points that have been made. This man holds a UK passport, and that is supposed to be worth something. If the rights outlined in his passport are diminished, the rights in all our passports are diminished, and how we are supposed to travel with confidence is of considerable concern.
The US-based Hong Kong Democracy Council says that the only countries incarcerating political prisoners at rates faster than Hong Kong are Myanmar and Belarus. Belarus, of course, sits outside the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights.
Given the special legal and moral responsibilities that the UK Government have towards Hong Kong and its people, it really is time for action, not words. We welcome the establishment of safe and legal routes for people from Hong Kong to come to the UK—perhaps that model could be applied to other parts of the world for people fleeing oppression who have historical or family ties to the UK—and we welcome the UK’s acceptance that China is not upholding the Sino-British joint declaration, but more clearly has to be done. As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, there has to be action.
Hong Kong officials known to be violating human rights could be included on the UK’s Magnitsky sanctions list. The Government could publish an asset audit of Hong Kong and Chinese officials linked to human rights abuses. They could establish an illicit finance commissioner to monitor the presence of such assets. As Damian Green hinted, they could explain what robust pragmatism actually means. What would be required to take a more robust and less pragmatic approach?
How does the Minister expect the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill to affect the ability of local authorities and other agencies to use their democratic processes to decide not to buy or invest in activities in China? We had examples of where people might not want to buy goods that had been manufactured in China, for various reasons. Can he assure us that no state pension funds are being invested in stocks or bonds of firms complicit in gross human rights abuses?
Ministers will have heard these calls repeatedly from the SNP Benches and others today and in previous debates and are clearly paying close attention to them. I have no doubt that the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green and others will continue to turn up the volume on these issues until we see meaningful action from the Government.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George, and to hear once again an excellent speech from Sir Iain Duncan Smith. He has consistently upheld human rights in Hong Kong and in China more generally. I firmly believe that these debates are strengthened when they are genuinely cross-party. It was also great to hear Jim Shannon underline the number of women affected by the national security legislation that came in three years ago this month.
We all know that the promised transition to full universal suffrage for the Legislative Council and the election of the Chief Executive of Hong Kong never materialised; following that, protests of growing strength have been seen repeatedly since the handover of sovereignty to China in 1997. It is for that reason that I, along with many other Members here, across the House and in the other place, belong to the Hong Kong Watch committee. We originally thought that that would be short-lived; unfortunately, it goes from strength to strength. We are now seeing the continuing breaching of the Sino-British agreement, and that means that, sadly, Hong Kong Watch has to carry on.
The effects of the national security legislation cannot be overstated. Before it was passed, there was at least a vestige of legal separation between the judicial, security and legal systems of Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland, offering a vital buffer and protection for the people of Hong Kong. That has effectively been erased. The people of Hong Kong now live with the knowledge that their wrongdoing, perceived or otherwise in the eyes of Beijing, can see their deportation and detention in the Chinese mainland and away from the few safeguards of liberty that exist in Hong Kong.
Many Members have mentioned the case of Jimmy Lai, and I think it is appropriate to mention it again, as he is a British citizen and passport holder. Will the Minister comment on that case in his remarks? I raised the issue with the consul general based in Hong Kong when he was here for a visit a couple of months back, and was given assurances that a consular process is in place. It would be really helpful if the FCDO were to write back to us with an update on the number of visits, how regular those visits are and what the findings are of that consular work.
We are mindful that a recent Foreign Affairs Committee report on the way that British citizens in prison abroad are looked after generally was very critical of the Government. It would also be helpful in that regard to examine more closely exactly what the provision for Jimmy Lai is, as a prisoner who was simply using his freedom of expression, as well as how he is getting on and what the consul general and his team are doing.
Thank you very much, Sir George. I recognise that Members of the Select Committee do have special knowledge, but your ruling is your ruling.
Given that dark backdrop and the noticeable curtailment of their freedoms—again, those contained in a legally recognised treaty—it is no surprise that hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers have fled in recent years, with many now calling the UK home. We welcome them here with open arms. I am proud of the part that the Labour party—particularly my hon. Friend Lisa Nandy, as former shadow Foreign Secretary, and my hon. Friend Stephen Kinnock, as my predecessor—played in urging the Government to amend the rules governing BNO passports, rightly opening up a pathway for citizenship for BNO passport holders, and providing hope for a new life away from China’s erosion of Hong Kong’s way of life.
That said, there remains significant concern in the community of Hongkongers now in the UK that they are still at risk of intimidation from the Chinese Government. I am afraid to say that the UK Government’s response to that mounting fear has been woefully lacking, with the Foreign Secretary’s response to me in the House the week before last being yet another example of Government Ministers passing the buck. I have repeatedly raised the need for a true concerted cross-Government approach to this growing threat, to ensure that Hongkongers, and other groups seeking refuge in the UK from the Chinese Government, are protected, whether they are working, studying or campaigning. I hope the Minister will address that question.
Although many now make their lives in the UK, we must pay due attention. We should not—indeed, cannot—turn our backs on those who remain in Hong Kong, and consider further erosion of Hong Kong’s way of life as a fait accompli. Doing so would turn our backs on British citizens such as Jimmy Lai and give carte blanche for further breaches of international law. As a signatory of the Sino-British agreement we have a legal, not to mention a moral, duty to continue fighting for the rights promised to Hong Kong until 2047.
I am pleased that the Foreign Office continues to provide Parliament with a six-monthly report, but I am concerned that the level of interest has waned, with very little notice being given to the latest release of the report, despite its stating clearly that the Government believe China was in a continued state of non-compliance with the Sino-British agreement, and stating clearly and worryingly that freedom of the press came under increasing pressure.
I have some asks of the Minister. First, I know he values multilateral engagement. Will he tell the House what recent discussions Ministers have had with allied Governments who have also criticised the treatment of Hong Kong and the implementation of the security legislation—specifically the US, Canada and Australia? Secondly, what discussions has he had with British business and multilateral corporations active in the UK about the impact of the legislation on their workforces, and the need to ensure that BNO passport holders can still gain access to any money or pensions they hold in Hong Kong bank accounts? I know he will be aware that that specific point has been raised by a number of Members across the House over the past few months.
Thirdly, will he update the House on the level of consular access Mr Lai is receiving, which I mentioned earlier? Finally, have the Government given any further consideration to the sanctioning of officials involved in the most repressive aspects of the crackdown on liberty in Hong Kong? I asked that question of the Minister of State, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who usually deals with this matter, and she said that the FCDO was looking at the matter of our sanctions being out of kilter with similar countries.
We will always be united in calling out the Chinese Government for their breach of the Sino-British agreement, and the curtailment of liberty in Hong Kong, specifically since the national security legislation was passed. Some freedoms remain available to Hongkongers, for which I am grateful, but we must be louder and stronger, and stand up where bullying occurs. We must condemn what has happened and continue to hold in our thoughts those in prison today, held as political prisoners by the Chinese Government.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend Sir Iain Duncan Smith for securing this debate and for all the work he does in this area. I am also grateful to other right hon. and hon. Members for their important contributions, including Jim Shannon, my right hon. Friend Damian Green, my hon. Friend Tim Loughton and the hon. Members for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West).
This has been a lively debate. I should say that I am answering on behalf of the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who is currently engaged on other parliamentary duties. I will try to cover the many questions that Members asked.
Three years ago, following widespread protests, Beijing imposed the national security law on Hong Kong, and the UK, along with international partners, immediately made clear our strong objection to it. We declared its imposition a further breach of the Sino-British joint declaration, which China willingly signed up to in 1984. The crackdown that accompanied the national security law has changed Hong Kong forever.
Three years on, we have seen how that opaque and sweeping law has undermined the rights and freedoms enshrined in the joint declaration and Hong Kong’s Basic Law. Hong Kong’s governance, rights and social system are now much closer to mainland norms, and the autonomy promised under “one country, two systems” has been eroded. Hong Kong is less politically autonomous than at any time since the handover. Hong Kong authorities, under the direction of Beijing, have targeted critical voices across Hong Kong society. As Members highlighted, those facing prosecution include former political leaders, pro-democracy figures and members of Hong Kong’s civil society, trade unions and media outlets.
Many of those arrested in 2019 and 2020 are only now going on trial. A panel of judges, hand-selected by Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, hears those cases, and as they progress through the court, new legal precedents will be established, shaping the future rule of law in Hong Kong, which is deeply worrying.
One of the main figures is Jimmy Lai, whose case has been discussed extensively today. He was one of Hong Kong’s most successful businessmen, and was the former publisher of Apple Daily. He has been prosecuted on multiple fronts in an obvious attempt to silence and discredit him. He is a British dual national—he is a British passport holder. Of course, he has never rescinded his Chinese nationality, which has a bearing on this case.
He is not a dual national; his family has made that clear. He has one passport and one citizenship: British. He does not have any reference now to any dual nationality whatever. Will the Government please start calling that out?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. My understanding from officials is that Mr Lai has never rescinded his Chinese nationality, and we therefore refer to him as a British dual national. But of course, we care very deeply about his case, and we raise his detention with Chinese and Hong Kong authorities at every opportunity, making clear our objections to these politically driven prosecutions. The Foreign Secretary did so with Chinese Vice-President Han Zheng in May, and we have set out our concerns at the highest levels in Hong Kong. Our diplomats in Hong Kong have attended Mr Lai’s court proceedings since his arrest in 2020, and will continue to do so. The Minister for the Indo-Pacific met Mr Lai’s son Sebastien and their international legal team, and officials continue to support them. Mr Lai’s national security trial is due to start in September, and we will of course monitor it exceptionally closely and will continue to press for consular access.
Mr Lai’s case is of course not the only significant one, as we have heard. Hong Kong’s largest national security trial is ongoing, with 47 former pro-democracy activists and politicians facing allegations of so-called subversion. Those cases and others demonstrate in the starkest way that the national security law is being used to stifle dissent. As to possible numbers and whether that includes any British nationals, I will ask my colleague the Indo-Pacific Minister to write to clarify that to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green.
The national security law has damaged Hong Kong’s media landscape irrevocably. I commend the recent report published by the all-party group on Hong Kong, which highlighted the parlous state of media freedom there. A city that was once ranked 18th in the world press freedom index now sits close to the bottom, at 140 out of 180 countries. The Chinese Government undertook to protect press freedom and freedom of speech in Hong Kong under the joint declaration, the Basic Law and, allegedly, the national security law, and yet outlets such as Apple Daily and Stand News have been forced to close. Their publishers and journalists face national security charges of being critical of the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities. We will always defend media freedom and the right of journalists to do their job.
The UK responded rapidly and decisively to the imposition of the national security law. As a demonstration of our commitment to Hong Kong and its people, as has been described today, we opened our doors to the people of Hong Kong looking for a home, creating a bespoke visa route. We have now granted more than 160,000 applications made by British nationals overseas wishing to come to the UK by that route. My right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford asked about the prospect of their political involvement and whether they should be debarred from being MPs, but I will ask my colleague the Indo-Pacific Minister to write in response, because that is an interesting point.
We are steadfast in our support for the Hong Kong diaspora and we are committed to ensuring their successful integration into local communities. We will not tolerate any attempt by any foreign power to intimidate, harass or harm individuals or communities in the UK. The defending democracy taskforce in the Home Office, under the Security Minister, is reviewing the UK’s approach to transnational repression to ensure that the response across Government and law enforcement is robust and joined up.
In the broader context, we have suspended the UK-Hong Kong extradition treaty indefinitely, and we have extended to Hong Kong the arms embargo applied to mainland China since 1989. Meanwhile, we alert British nationals and businesses—that was raised today—to the impact of the national security law, and to the risks it poses, in our travel advice and in our overseas business risk guidance on the UK Government website.
The Foreign Secretary made clear our position on China in his speech at Mansion House in April. We will work with China where our interests converge, while steadfastly defending our national security and our values. The role of the Foreign Secretary and Ministers is to engage foreign Governments, including those with whom we disagree. I should tell colleagues that when Minister of State Lord Johnson visited, he spoke out in local media against the erosion of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong.
Time is tight and I want to leave time for my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green to wind up, so I will ask the Indo-Pacific Minister to write to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham to address his extensive list of valid and commendable questions, and to my right hon. Friend, who introduced the debate, about the National Security Bill and the prospect of any energy deal. I will ask the Minister to write with the answers to those questions. In closing, the UK will continue to stand up for the rights and freedoms of Hongkongers and the autonomy that Hong Kong was promised.
I understand that my hon. Friend the Minister, who answered from the Government standpoint, had less time than he might have hoped for. That notwithstanding, I hope that he will follow up with answers to the questions that we asked—not least because being steadfast is one question, but taking action is another. I recommend a move from robust pragmatism to just robust action. That is the point of sanctions. Why have we not sanctioned any single person from the Administration on the imposition of the national security law? That is a consequence that China would lift its head up to.
I will finish simply on this single point. Jimmy Lai is a British passport holder and citizen. Every time the Government refer to him as a dual national, they play into the hands of the Chinese Government, who do not recognise dual nationality. I wish we would stop that nonsense. The price of freedom is very high, but the price of no freedom is even higher. We have a British Government believing in democracy and freedom; it is time that we told the Chinese Government that there are consequences when they strip away from people freedom and their rights.
Motion lapsed (