A UK Minister of State on foreign affairs has said that Britain’s ongoing commitment to Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms do not amount to interference by the West in Chinese affairs.
The debate – entitled “Democracy in Hong Kong” – was raised at the UK parliament by Fiona Bruce MP, chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. She mentioned the disqualification of lawmakers, the jailing of activists, and the joint checkpoint arrangement among other issues facing the UK’s former colony.
Mark Field, Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, said the Sino-British Joint Declaration is in force and remains relevant.
“If the people of Hong Kong and the watching world are to continue to have confidence in One Country Two Systems, it is vital that the high degree of autonomy and the rights of freedoms enshrined in the Basic Law and guaranteed in international law by the Joint Declaration are respected,” he said.
“We will not shy away from this,” he said. He added that Prime Minister Theresa May mentioned the issue when she met Chinese President Xi at the G20 summit last July, and that she will discuss it when the next summit takes place.
“Let me state it clear: Ongoing commitment to these doctrines is not somehow interference by the West in Chinese affairs. Maintaining good confidence in One Country, Two Systems and the rule of law, I believe, is crucial for Hong Kong and China’s own interests, including that city’s role as a financial hub for the Belt and Road initiative.”
“Our interest is also driven by our wish to see Hong Kong prosper well into the future. We firmly believe that Hong Kong’s economic system which is uniquely trusted to bring huge new opportunities into China from all corners of the globe will only flourish if the people enjoy the freedom and safeguards that will ensure the promotion of their talents and enterprise.”
Aside from Field, eight MPs spoke during the debate. Sammy Wilson MP of the Democratic Unionist Party said the UK government should publicly speak out against China when deficiencies have been identified.
“The one thing that the Chinese do not like—this is quite clear in all dealings with them—is public criticism. We saw that when we were asked to ensure that protesters were kept off the streets of London during the state visit of the Chinese Premier; it showed how, for the Chinese, public criticism rankles. It is important that where these deficiencies are identified, our Government speak out against them, not only privately but publicly… One need only look at how in the past Presidents of the United States, for example, have publicly criticised China, and it has not led to the kind of sanctions that one would expect.”
“The one ask I would have from the government is that let’s not be mealy-mouthed in ensuring the protection that we give to the people of Hong Kong,” Wilson said.
Peter Grant MP of the Scottish National Party mentioned human rights abuses in Hong Kong and “We don’t have to go to Hong Kong to see people being denounced as enemies of the people simply for expressing an unpopular or contradictory view.”
But he noted that part of the reason that Hong Kong has little democracy now was because “there was practically none for 150 of the 155 years that Britain was in charge.”
Conservative Richard Graham MP said anyone who objectively looks at Hong Kong’s development – even over the past five years – would have to note “considerable elements of progress in the way that Hong Kong continues to surprise with its environmental campaigns, increased social welfare, understanding its ability to continue to do dynamic things in its trade with the rest of the world brilliantly.”
Graham, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary China Group, said he believed that in engaging with Hong Kong and China, “part of it is about the tone which we strike.”
“The nature of having something called Hong Kong Watch is both valuable in a sense that it will look closely at the six freedoms articulated in the Joint Declaration, but also has an element of moral superiority to it, which we need to be careful about taking,” he said.
Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con)
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, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (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.
I will shortly draw my remarks to a conclusion. I was about to quote Lord Ashdown. Following his recent visit to Hong Kong, he said that
“something has happened to cause the almost irrepressible sprit of Hong Kong to be dampened down”.
It is profoundly concerning to hear claims from China that the joint declaration is viewed by some as a historical document of no relevance. Does the Minister agree that it is still relevant now and right up to 2047, that it is a joint declaration by both Britain and China in which both signatories have responsibilities and obligations, and that, as an international treaty lodged at the United Nations, China’s adherence to those obligations under the treaty ought to be taken as an indication of its reliability in adhering to all its international treaty obligations?
Does the Minister agree that, as Lord Ashdown said,
“it is in the interests of Britain, China and Hong Kong to continue to uphold the rights enshrined at the handover”?
Does he also agree that Britain has, as Lord Patten said,
“a right and a moral obligation to continue to check on whether China is keeping its side of the bargain”
publicly as well as privately? If so, what are the Government doing to fulfil that obligation?
We must heed the plea of Anson Chan, Hong Kong’s former Chief Secretary, and Martin Lee, founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic party, who told the Conservative party human rights commission, which I have the privilege to Chair:
“We need the UK to speak up forcefully in defence of the rights and freedoms that distinguish Hong Kong so sharply from the rest of China. If it does not lead, then the future of one country, two systems is at best troubled and at worst doomed.”
I hope we will step up to our responsibilities, speak up for Hong Kong and live up to the promise made by Sir John Major 22 years ago that Hong Kong should never have to walk alone.
Several hon. Members rose—
Mr Gary Streeter (in the Chair)
Colleagues, five Back Benchers are seeking to catch my eye. The wind-up speeches will begin at 5.40 pm, so you have about five minutes each.
Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on her excellent introduction and her commitment over the long term to the people of Hong Kong. As a former shadow Minister for Asia and as a patron of Hong Kong and deputy chair of the all-party parliamentary China group, I congratulate others for joining in the debate and for expressing our concern about human rights, democracy and individual freedoms.
As we reflect on the past 20 years, it is important to pay tribute to the Hong Kong Government for the significant steps forward they have taken since handover, from minimum wage legislation to anti-corruption drives, clean water initiatives and huge investments in public infrastructure projects. As we look forward to the next 20 years, we should pause to remember the past 20, and how important the principles of the joint declaration are for the flourishing of Hong Kong’s economy and society. The dynamism and entrepreneurial spirit of the Hong Kong people has allowed Hong Kong to flourish under the joint declaration. There is no reason why that should not continue.
The UK-Hong Kong relationship has deepened. More than 600 UK businesses with registered offices in Hong Kong, an export market worth £8.6 billion and a UK investment stake of more than £33 billion are clear signs that trade is booming. In terms of academic and cultural exchange, more Hong Kong students are enrolling at UK universities than ever before, which is an achievement to celebrate. In part, the relationships we form with students, young people and young democrats redouble our efforts to commit ourselves to a more socially just society based on individual freedoms and human rights.
We are all aware of the high-profile cases raised in connection with the topic of the debate, including the arrests of the booksellers. It is interesting that today’s papers highlight the case of Gui Minhai, the Swedish national who does not understand why he has been arrested. It is unclear whether he has any legal support. Conversations are going on between Sweden and China, but that case emphasises how surprising such acts can be. At one moment, one can be debating a good trade relationship and things can feel so normal, but in another situation things can seem so strange. When we try to develop a good relationship with China along trade lines, we must be brave and talk about the issues that are important to us.
On 28 March 2017, I asked the Minister’s predecessor as Minister for Asia, the hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), how confident he was that the Hong Kong Government were committed to genuinely democratic elections. He stated that it was the Government’s view that the best way to secure the future of one country, two systems was through a transition to universal suffrage. I would be grateful if this Minister would give us an indication of the timescale or of what progress might have been made in tackling that fundamental issue of universal suffrage.
Secondly, the issue of functional constituencies continues to be an area of concern when it comes to creating a system of fair and genuine democratic representation. I recognise that the functional constituencies are somewhat a hangover from pre-handover days, but I should be grateful if the Minister would clarify the Government’s position on whether they should play a lasting role in the democracy of Hong Kong, and whether he has discussed the issue with his counterparts in Hong Kong or Beijing.
Thirdly, I wonder what action the Minister has taken to raise the jailing of Hong Kong journalists. The tension between democracy and governance, journalism and the free expression of speech is obviously something that means a great deal to many of us in the Chamber. Could the Minister please give us an update on what progress is being made to discuss genuine freedom of speech in Hong Kong? Of course, Hong Kong has always treasured that; it has always had a lively bookselling tradition and a lively journalistic environment. As we move into an increasingly globalised age, such questions are also crucial around social media. I should be grateful if the Minister would give me an idea of his views on that.
I have one minute to go. Marking the anniversary of the handover, the Foreign Secretary issued a very carefully worded statement, in which he made no specific reference to the persisting cases or concerns outlined by hon. Members today. As a guarantor of the joint declaration, a treaty lodged at the United Nations, it is our responsibility to ensure that its principles are upheld, working with our Chinese counterparts. Following the delegation of young LegCo Members last year, hosted by Lord Collins of Highbury from the other place, I pledged to those young representatives that I would continue to press our Government to ensure that the spirit of the joint declaration is upheld. I hope that, through debates like these, we can continue to be vigilant, to promote human rights, democracy and individual freedom on behalf of Hongkongers.
Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con)
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 the Member for Congleton (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.
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP)
I remember when the discussions were going on about the future of Hong Kong. There was particular interest in Northern Ireland. I was a member of the Chinese chamber of commerce in Northern Ireland; a lot of the members came from Hong Kong or had families there and were very concerned about the future. Of course, Chris Patten had been a member of the Administration in Northern Ireland when the Anglo-Irish agreement was signed and we were moving toward discussions about the future of Northern Ireland, which culminated in the Belfast agreement. Given that the Government had expressly stated that they had no economic, strategic or selfish interests in Northern Ireland, there was a certain affinity with people in Hong Kong who were facing an uncertain future.
Thankfully, despite all the fears about Britain’s exit, or Brexit, from Hong Kong—people thought capital would flee from Hong Kong, industry would be decimated, people would want to leave and the whole economic dynamics of the Hong Kong economy would be affected—that did not happen. Perhaps there are lessons for today from those kinds of warnings.
The commitments was made to the people of Hong Kong that although China would now have control, it would be one country but two systems. Nothing would change for 50 years. Freedoms they had experienced would be guaranteed. As has been shown this afternoon, if we look at the way in which deteriorations in human rights and freedoms have manifested, especially recently, whether we are talking about the abduction of booksellers and businessmen, interference with the judiciary, attacks on journalists or the way in which protestors have been treated, there has quite clearly been an erosion of the freedoms that people were promised. It is significant that the man who did the deal has said that perhaps we should have done more. Chris Patten has expressed concerns about what is going on in Hong Kong.
The one thing that the Chinese do not like—this is quite clear in all dealings with them—is public criticism. We saw that when we were asked to ensure that protesters were kept off the streets of London during the state visit of the Chinese Premier; it showed how, for the Chinese, public criticism rankles. It is important that where these deficiencies are identified, our Government speak out against them, not only privately but publicly. There are some people who say that we look to China as one of our big export markets, and that there are trade implications to speaking out. I do not believe that. One need only look at how in the past Presidents of the United States, for example, have publicly criticised China, and it has not led to the kind of sanctions that one would expect. The one ask I have of the Government is this: let us not be mealy-mouthed in ensuring that the protections that we gave and promised to the people of Hong Kong are delivered.
Colin Clark (Gordon) (Con)
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. Scotland has had strong links with Hong Kong historically and commercially, in politics, science and modern trade. There can be no doubt that over the last 20 years Hong Kong has thrived as a result of its proximity to China, while enjoying access to financial markets around the world.
Scottish universities, including Aberdeen and Edinburgh Universities, have very strong links to Hong Kong, and they share our concerns. Last year was a special year for the special administrative region, and much was made in Hong Kong and China of the significance of the 20th anniversary of the handover from the British. As the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) said, at the time, Britain left in a clear agreement that Hong Kong’s special status under the “one country, two systems” understanding would be protected, along with a commitment to the rule of law and Hong Kong’s autonomy, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) eloquently explained.
However, in recent years we have seen worrying signs that the commitment is wavering. It does not benefit China and the ruling Communist party to flex their muscles when it comes to Hong Kong. The economic importance of Hong Kong to China should very much temper their response. But all this shows a worrying disregard for the joint declaration. The United Kingdom has a clear right to monitor and comment on the declaration, given that that was one of the major preconditions for the handover of Hong Kong. The commitment to the rule of law and autonomy were agreed for a period of at least 50 years. It is worrying that, only halfway through, we are deeply concerned that those principles appear to be at risk.
I hope that the Government will recognise the concerns expressed in the Chamber today and speak out where necessary. China is a friend to the United Kingdom and a country with which we enjoy a prosperous and beneficial relationship, but friends must be able to be honest with one another and have difficult conversations on issues on which we disagree. Like the right hon. Member for East Antrim, I recognise the economic success of Hong Kong and want to see it flourish. The last 20 years have defined the Hong Kong of today. If it is to continue to flourish for the next 20 years, its democracy, autonomy and rule of law must not only be protected, but enhanced so that they are worthy of any great international city, which Hong Kong most certainly is.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
I thank the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for her contribution. She is clearly a lady with a big heart, and she presented the case very well. Well done to her. Last week in the Holocaust debate, I quoted a poem:
“First they came… and I did not speak out.”
I recognise that we are not talking about the same thing today, but there is a similarity that we should speak out about. Looking at the situation in Hong Kong and the response to date, I am uncomfortable, as other hon. Members have said that they are.
I often say that I am proud to be a Member of Parliament in the greatest seat of democracy in the world. It is an honour that I do not take lightly. While I am standing here representing my constituents, I am mindful that with great power comes great responsibility. I am sorry to say—please do not interpret my words as an attack on anyone in this place—that we are not living up to our responsibility when it comes to Hong Kong. It is good to see the Minister in his place. I believe there is no better person to respond to this debate, and I mean that with all sincerity. I look forward to his response.
We all know the background: Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997 following the 1984 agreement between China and Britain. China agreed to govern Hong Kong on the principle of “one country, two systems,” and the city would be able to enjoy a high degree of autonomy, except on foreign and defence affairs, for 50 years, as the hon. Member for Gordon (Colin Clark) said very clearly. I am not a mathematician, but we have not reached the end of those 50 years. If a loan had been defaulted on, we would not write it off; where there is a prison sentence, we would not allow early release; yet here we appear to have backed off. As I often say, “so sad, too bad.” The abuse of human rights, the right to worship and the right to express oneself in a democratic process—we have a responsibility to these people, and we are not fulfilling it.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, I take very seriously any form of persecution, and I am constantly asking the Government—as the Minister knows—to step in and speak out on behalf of these people. People who have arranged peaceful protests are being imprisoned. Three and a half years ago, I served on the armed forced parliamentary scheme run by the Royal College of Defence Studies. One of the representatives there was the chief of Hong Kong police. He told me about the number of protests, because I was interested to hear how things were going, and he illustrated to me that protests were able to go ahead. Today they are not. Today people are under the cosh. Today, they can face a jail sentence. We have to step out against that.
Avery Ng, the chairman of the League of Social Democrats, told The Guardian:
“It is ridiculous for the Chinese government to claim that the joint declaration is a historical document. You don’t sign a contract and claim that it is historical the second day after the contract was signed.”
How true that is! He continued:
“I believe the UK government has legal, moral and political responsibility to come out and say the right thing.”
I agree with those sentiments, and while I do not believe that we have humiliated ourselves—I do not say that for one second—we have not draped ourselves in honour, either.
Yes, we would appreciate a good relationship with China to enhance trade, especially in a post-Brexit Britain, but we cannot sell ourselves, our integrity or our obligations off to achieve this. Our products are top-quality. Our relationship has gradually built up. While I firmly believe that organising a boycott of Chinese products would be counterproductive and the wrong thing to do, I do not believe that we have lost the ability to speak out about our former colony, and to instigate a real and meaningful discussion regarding these cases and what they mean for the people of Hong Kong.
Last sentence, Mr Streeter. I am asking the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for more than a strongly worded email. Let us discuss this face-to-face and make the case for those who are not being allowed to speak out for themselves. I often say that we speak for those who have no voice.
Mr Gary Streeter (in the Chair)
I remind hon. Members that Opposition Front Benchers have five minutes each, and the Minister has 10 minutes. That should allow a few moments for Fiona Bruce to respond at the end.
Peter Grant (Glenrothes) (SNP)
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 the hon. Member for Gloucester (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 the hon. Member for Gordon (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.
Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Streeter.
As hon. Members have said, one of the privileges of serving in our free Parliament is the ability, and the possibility, to defend the freedoms of those in other countries where things are more difficult. Last year was the 20th anniversary of the joint declaration, and I would just like to remind the Chamber of one of the key paragraphs in it, which says:
“Rights and freedoms, including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, of strike, of choice of occupation, of academic research and of religious belief will be ensured by law in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.”
Those are fundamental rights, and Her Majesty’s Opposition totally support the principle of one country, two systems and we totally accept our legal responsibilities as a guarantor of that declaration and of those rights.
I want to pay special tribute to the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for the way that she introduced this debate. Her speech was excellent and set out the whole picture very clearly. I have to say that she is fearless in defending those whose human rights are abused, however inconvenient it is and wherever we see it. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) on her considerable work on Hong Kong in recent years.
The situation is obviously getting more difficult, as the Government report acknowledges, and we have to ask what is to be done in this situation. We should remind China of a couple of things. One is that while we agree that calls for independence are not ones that we support, clamping down on protests and on free speech, and appearing not to wish to see civil society flourish, can only increase those pressures. That will not reduce those protests. As Lord Ashdown said, will the Chinese enhance their own soft power if they undermine Hong Kong’s freedoms? That is a very powerful point.
I am interested to know what the Government are going to do and what they are going to say to the Chinese. I think that the Prime Minister will have a meeting with President Xi in the next few months. Is the intention to raise these issues? The Government have been objective and open in assessing the situation, but what further do they think that they can do? I would also like the Government to assure us that in the post-Brexit pressure for trade regimes, we will not abandon our commitments and responsibilities to human rights. Taking on board what the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) said about humility, and notwithstanding what happened when we were running Hong Kong, what steps do the Government think it is possible to make to move to universal suffrage, and what is their view on the legality of the immigration checkpoint on the new railway?
The title of the debate is “Democracy in Hong Kong”. Most of the focus has been on individual human rights, and at this juncture I think that is the right focus.
The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for her work as chair of the Conservative party human rights commission. I value her deep interest in Hong Kong and a range of other matters. Forgive me if I reply to some specific issues in writing subsequent to this debate; I hope that all Members will understand, particularly the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman). We are concerned about the checkpoint issue, not least because it has been raised by the Law Society of Hong Kong, but I will return to the detailed points made by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) after this debate.
I have rather more sympathy than I can probably say publicly for much of what the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) said. It is a conversation that I had with my officials earlier, and I am glad he was not a fly on the wall for that. He will appreciate that although he makes some valid points about the past, we also need to look to the future. It is my responsibility now to make things work for the future and to ensure that the joint declaration is properly enforced, and I intend to do so.
I stress that the UK Government are acutely aware of our historic responsibilities to Hong Kong, and indeed to future generations of Hong Kongers, to uphold the joint declaration. We remain absolutely committed to monitoring and ensuring the faithful implementation of that document, and to the principle of one country, two systems. The joint declaration of 1984 is a legally binding treaty registered at the United Nations. It clearly applies to both signatories, remains in force, and is relevant to today’s Hong Kongers and those of future generations. We have been unequivocal about our position on that issue both publicly, including in our six-monthly reports to Parliament, and in private with the Chinese Government.
We judge that one country, two systems has generally functioned well. It provides Hong Kong with the essential foundations for success as a global financial centre and a prosperous world city. Those foundations are Hong Kong’s capitalist economic system, its high degree of autonomy, its system of common law and independent judiciary and the protection of rights and freedoms. To return to one thing that the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland said, I take seriously the three prongs of my responsibility as the Minister for Asia and the Pacific: prosperity; security, defence and intelligence; and human rights. Please be assured that there is and must be no trade-off between human rights, whether in Hong Kong or in any other part of the world, and any Brexit-related trade matters. I know that there will be ongoing debates in the House, but please be assured that that is my position as Minister and that of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The Government’s most recent six-monthly report makes it clear that we cannot ignore the fact that important areas of the one country, two systems framework are coming under increasing pressure. However, I reassure the House that we consistently and unashamedly raise those concerns with the Chinese and the Hong Kong authorities. I appreciate that such engagement may not always be obvious or visible, although of course it is very obvious in the six-monthly reports, but be assured that those representations continue to be made.
Personally, I believe that more can often be achieved through quiet diplomatic engagement than through megaphone diplomacy, but we are willing to comment publicly and robustly where we feel that it is appropriate. For example, I raised our concerns about the pressure on one country, two systems during my visit to Beijing and Hong Kong last August, and I was encouraged to hear Chinese Ministers confirm their support for the doctrine. That support was echoed by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam in my discussions with her. She pledged to implement the principle of one country, two systems, to uphold the basic law and to safeguard the rule of law.
However, I also accept that confidence in that doctrine is being undermined by ever more frequent reports of mainland security officials operating in Hong Kong and continuing concerns raised about the exercise of some of the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the joint declaration. Many people will have followed the media coverage last year when three high-profile pro-democracy activists, Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow, were sentenced to imprisonment. We were further concerned when we heard that the British national Ben Rogers had been denied entry to Hong Kong in October last year. He is a champion of democracy and human rights, well known to Members of all parties. The Prime Minister spoke about his case in the House, we summoned the Chinese ambassador to the Foreign Office to discuss it and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government raised the issue with the Hong Kong Secretary for Labour and Welfare during his visit to Hong Kong in November.
I wrote to the Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam setting out our position on all four of those cases. Her response was consistent with previous public comments made by the Hong Kong authorities on the issue. If the people of Hong Kong and the watching world are to have continued confidence in one country, two systems, it is vital that the high degree of autonomy and the rights and freedoms enshrined in the basic law and guaranteed in international law by the joint declaration are respected. As I said earlier, we will not shy away from that. I know that the Prime Minister mentioned it when she met President Xi at the G20 summit in July, and as the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland rightly pointed out, we will no doubt discuss it when the next visit takes place.
Let me be clear: ongoing commitment to those doctrines is not interference by the west in Chinese affairs. Maintaining confidence in one country, two systems and the rule of law is crucial for both Hong Kong’s own interests and China’s, including the city’s role as a financing hub for the belt and road initiative. Our interest is also driven by our wish to see Hong Kong prosper well into the future. We firmly believe that Hong Kong’s economic system, which is uniquely trusted to bring huge new opportunities into China from all corners of the globe, will only flourish if its people enjoy the freedom and safeguards that will promote their talents and enterprise.
Turning to political reform, I welcome the Chief Executive’s commitment to addressing that challenge in Hong Kong, which was a focus of her policy address last October. As we have said and will continue to say in the six-monthly reports, we believe that political reform, including on universal suffrage and functional constituencies, will better equip Hong Kong to tackle the challenges that it faces, as well as giving the people of Hong Kong confidence for the future.
On independence, our position is also clear. We do not consider it to be a realistic option for Hong Kong. That is the other side of one country, two systems. Indeed, any move toward independence undermines the concept. Again, we will call that out, because we believe that the system as it stands is the best possible guarantor for Hong Kong’s long-term stability and prosperity.
As I have outlined, Hong Kong matters hugely to the UK, and not just because of our shared history. Hong Kong is also an important trade and investment partner, both bilaterally and due to its pivotal role as a gateway to the belt and road initiative. I am perhaps a little more optimistic than my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton. Twenty years after the handover of Hong Kong to China, the UK’s commitment to the joint declaration and one country, two systems remains as robust as ever. I am very confident that the relationship between the UK and Hong Kong, a relationship that will also include China, will continue to deepen in the coming months and years to come.
Where we identify disagreements, such as in the case of Ben Rogers, we shall continue to raise our concerns. We shall continue to stress to the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities that for confidence in one country, two systems to be maintained, Hong Kong must enjoy the full measure of its high degree of autonomy and rule of law, as set out in the joint declaration and enshrined in the basic law.
I thank colleagues for contributing to this debate, and I thank those who have joined me in raising concerns about recent challenges to democracy and human rights in Hong Kong. I also thank the Minister for his considered response, and for the clear assurances that he has given of the UK Government’s ongoing commitment to ensuring that the principles, rights and freedoms enshrined in the joint declaration and the basic law are adhered to.
In speaking of such matters, I know that we all share a genuine concern for the wellbeing of the people of Hong Kong, for their flourishing future and for a positive relationship between our two countries. I hope that our deliberations will aid all those things.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered democracy in Hong Kong.