Tuesday 23rd January 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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[Derek Twigg in the Chair]
14:30
Tim Loughton Portrait Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of human rights in Hong Kong.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. It is another week, and yet another debate on China and its abuses—of its citizens and beyond its territorial borders. In this Chamber and the main Chamber, we have discussed the abuses against the Tibetans, the Uyghurs and other people within the confines of China and beyond. Today I want to discuss the situation of dwindling human rights in Hong Kong.

Fortuitously, it is particularly topical to debate this motion today, during the pantomime of the trial of Jimmy Lai that continues in Hong Kong. Also today, as we speak, the Chinese Government face their universal periodic review at the United Nations. I will say more about that later.

The implementation in 2020 of the notorious national security law has led to the drastic erosion of the freedoms of the people of Hong Kong that were once greatly enjoyed under the Sino-British joint declaration. Beijing’s introduction of that draconian law is a direct attack on the “one country, two systems” framework that we have a particularly strong interest as well as a duty and obligation to make sure is being upheld. The future of human rights in Hong Kong is bleak. I want to thank Hong Kong Watch, the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation and the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, not just for the various briefings they have provided for the debate but for their ongoing sterling work in this area to highlight the injustices being done to the once democracy-loving people in Hong Kong.

Janet Daby Portrait Janet Daby (Lewisham East) (Lab)
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I thank the hon. Member for his introduction and for securing such an important debate. He mentioned Jimmy Lai; the trial began last December, and China is treating him as a Chinese citizen even though he has dual nationality. Does the hon. Member believe that the Government should follow Labour’s idea, and appoint a special envoy for arbitrary detention for British and dual nationals held abroad? If not, what does he suggest?

Tim Loughton Portrait Tim Loughton
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I will come to Jimmy Lai. I was not aware of any policy statement that the Labour party may have made, but the particular point about Jimmy Lai is that he is not a dual national: he is a British citizen. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) and I, with others, have espoused that argument in this Chamber on numerous occasions and have got absolutely nowhere with Ministers, until recently with the new Foreign Secretary, from whom, I am glad to say, we have at last had the admission that Jimmy Lai is a British citizen—end of story. As such, he is entitled to all the consulate and other protections to which any other British citizen being persecuted against all natural tenets of law is entitled. I will come back to the Jimmy Lai trial.

There is no greater symptom or expression of the oppression that is going on in Hong Kong than the mass exodus of its citizens on a daily basis. Since the introduction of the national security law in 2020, Hong Kong residents have felt the strangulation of their freedoms. As a consequence, many have chosen to leave what has been their home for decades and generations, to escape persecution under that draconian law.

Layla Moran Portrait Layla Moran (Oxford West and Abingdon) (LD)
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The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech and he is a doughty campaigner on this issue. It is fair to say that those who have come over on British national overseas visas have made an extraordinary contribution to our society; for example, the Liberal Democrats are really proud of Councillor Ying Perrett, who was elected to Surrey Heath Borough Council just last year. However, for those who are already here, their children are not allowed to come here on BNO visas in the same way; they have to apply through the Chinese consulate and have to go back to Hong Kong. The hon. Gentleman mentioned a change in tone from the Foreign Secretary. Has he had any words with the Home Secretary about a change in the rules, so that the children of Hongkongers who want to be here longer term do not have to go through that rigmarole?

Tim Loughton Portrait Tim Loughton
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Without being as parochial as to mention every one of the 191,000 applications for the BNO visa route so far, this is a subject that has been raised. It was also raised in the Home Affairs Committee, which I sit on, and we had a private session with people from Hong Kong who were escaping the clutches of the Chinese Government. I am well aware, and have made representations, that we need to ensure that people who technically have not been included in that net, although it has been broadened, can be given those protections as well. The hon. Lady makes a valid point, but I cannot comment on her particular district councillor.

The mass exodus has amounted to over 500,000 residents leaving Hong Kong since the beginning of 2021. As I have said, there have been 191,000 applications for the BNO visa route. According to the Home Office, 144,500 Hongkongers have already moved to the UK, and that last figure is rising as we speak. Hong Kong’s population has therefore experienced a net loss since the introduction of the national security law and is in decline for the third year in a row. Hong Kong used to be a colony that was ever-expanding and where everybody wanted to go to have an exciting future, but it is now shrinking; it is a shadow of its former self.

Since the implementation of the NSL, Hong Kong has seen a marked decrease in various world rankings of liberty—most noticeably in Freedom House’s global freedom ranking, where it has dropped 17 places. Hong Kong has seen significant declines in the rule of law, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, with think-tanks citing China’s increasing restrictions on civil liberties as a factor. After Myanmar, Hong Kong experienced the steepest drop in such rankings. It ranked 140 out of 180 locations for international press freedoms, according to Reporters Sans Frontières, which leaves it trailing behind Colombia and Cameroon.

We have also seen the forced closure and hounding out of many civil society organisations, non-governmental organisations and charities. It has been calculated that as of December 2023, no fewer than 800 such organisations had been forced to close, with over 285 people arrested—172 of whom were prosecuted for allegedly endangering national security.

In 2021, Amnesty International had to close two of its offices in Hong Kong. The Apple Daily Charitable Foundation was removed from the list of Hong Kong registered charities. The New School for Democracy, which was founded by Wang Dan, an exiled student leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, has had to move to Taiwan following the implementation of the national security law. The Global Innovation Hub—a German think-tank that was expelled from China in 1997—has moved from Hong Kong to Taiwan, also citing the national security law.

The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions was dissolved in 2021; the Civil Human Rights Front, a pro-democracy group that organised some of Hong Kong’s biggest protests, said it had no choice but to disband; and human rights lawyers based in Hong Kong are fleeing abroad amid China’s effort to cleanse the city of dissent. In 2021, the Progressive Teachers’ Alliance, Hong Kong’s largest teaching union, was disbanded; that same year, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China was among other unions dissolved amid national security fears; and recently the 4 June vigil to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre has been banned.

Press outlets have also been closed down, and not just Apple Daily—Jimmy Lai’s paper, which we hear so much about—and its sister publication, Next Magazine: Stand News closed after being raided by police, and senior staff were arrested; Citizen News was forced to shut down amid the Government crackdown; and FactWire, an investigative news outlet, closed down, with its leaders citing safety concerns for staff.

Many of the guardians of free speech in Hong Kong have been arrested, prosecuted and jailed, if they were not able to flee. We particularly think of those, like Jimmy Lai, who stayed and made an honourable and brave stand to face up to the intolerance. That led to the prosecution that is going on now—the biggest pantomime in the far east.

Before 2019, the number of political prisoners went from nought to 1,775. Hong Kong now has one of the fastest growing political prisoner populations in the world, rivalling authoritarian states such as Cuba, Myanmar and Belarus. Further, Hong Kong has the highest number of female political prisoners in the world, at approximately 1,347. Many famous people have been incarcerated along with Jimmy Lai. They are, undoubtedly and without dispute, political prisoners in a place that used to boast of freedom of speech, democracy and all the liberties that we in this country take for granted.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
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This is possibly the most important part of the many aspects of the destruction of freedom and liberty in Hong Kong: the absence of a free and fair court system. It shows why Jimmy Lai’s case is so important, as the one that we can hear about most easily in this country when there are so many hundreds of others. Does the hon. Gentleman share my frustration that, after all this time, seeing what we can now see about what the court system has come to in Hong Kong, there are still retired British judges operating in that jurisdiction?

Tim Loughton Portrait Tim Loughton
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I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point entirely. He has done so much through the all-party parliamentary group on Hong Kong to flag up the outrages going on there. On the British judges who have been brought up, and have trained and practised in one of the most respected legal domains in the world and who have then gone out to Hong Kong for semi-retirement jobs: that they can continue to practise in a place that has so blatantly snuffed out all the basic tenets of international law and freedoms that we all take for granted is extraordinary. If they have not been banned from doing so, out of a sense of decency for their own profession and the values that they are able to practise in this country but not in Hong Kong, they should come back as a matter of urgency.

I return to the matter of the democratic process. Voting has become something of a pantomime, declining hugely with new rules that only allow for patriots-only elections—however the Chinese Communist Government may define that. The new rules led to a collapse in voter turnout to just 27.5% in 2023, in stark contrast with the pre-national security law days when that figure was typically well into the seventies.

Religious persecution has also become commonplace. There are more than 1 million followers of Taoism and more than 1 million Buddhists in the country. Yet, according to 18 pastors and religious experts interviewed by the Washington Post,

“churches have been pushed into censoring themselves and avoiding appointing pastors deemed to have political views, and at least one major church is restructuring itself in case the government freezes its assets.”

Fears around the national security law have led to widespread self-censorship by clergy in their sermons, just as it has in Tibet and Xinjiang. In Tibet, for instance, simply to possess a photograph of His Holiness the Dalai Lama is instantly punishable with a prison sentence—typically of five years. That shows absolutely extraordinary intolerance.

Businesses are in decline and leaving Hong Kong. More than 50% of Hong Kong professionals have considered leaving the city, according to one recent survey. Democracy has been snuffed out in Hong Kong and the right to oppose politically has effectively been snuffed out there too. Scrutineers of free speech and liberty have been closed down and either forced to flee Hong Kong all together or incarcerated. Press freedom has certainly been completely snuffed out, which also explains why the Hong Kong Government plan to install no fewer than 2,000 additional CCTV cameras in public places so they can spy on the population to make sure it is doing what it is told by its Chinese Communist Government masters.

The number of political prisoners has gone through the roof. For those members of the Hong Kong population who have not been able to join the mass exodus, China has killed the golden goose that used to be Hong Kong, previously a bastion of liberty, opportunity, democracy and entrepreneurialism.

I will touch on the Jimmy Lai trial, which opened on 18 December 2023. He is a British citizen, as the Government have at last acknowledged, who founded the now defunct Apple Daily—the largest pro-democracy newspaper in Hong Kong at the time. He is now facing three charges under Hong Kong’s Beijing-imposed National Security Law, carrying a maximum punishment of life in prison, and a charge of conspiracy to publish seditious publications.

On 2 January, Jimmy Lai pleaded not guilty to conspiring to collude with foreign forces in publishing allegedly seditious materials at his trial under Hong Kong’s national security law, after multiple delays before the trial actually started.

Iain Duncan Smith Portrait Sir Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con)
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My hon. Friend is making an excellent case. Since the first group of British citizens he referred to was named, the British ex-consul general to Hong Kong has also been named in this process. Unless I have missed something, I have not heard the Foreign Office say anything about the naming of its ex-consul general in those terms. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is rather strange that an ex-employee of the Foreign Office, who represented it in Hong Kong, has been named in a trial, but somehow the Foreign Office has not said a word about it?

Tim Loughton Portrait Tim Loughton
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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and fellow China sanctionee. I am not sure whether I should have declared that at the beginning; it is not a quite a registered interest, but it is certainly an interest that many people register these days. We remain censored for, I think, coming up to three years. I agree absolutely with my right hon. Friend, because this trial has gone beyond just Jimmy Lai, as I will mention. There are other people mentioned who are closer to home physically.

The prosecution rapidly named several foreign politicians and human rights activists, including the former consul general mentioned by my right hon. Friend, with whom Mr Lai had been in contact in recent years, and showed headshots of them. Among them are Hong Kong Watch co-founder and chief executive, Benedict Rogers, and the executive director of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China—IPAC—Luke de Pulford, both of whom I call friends. They have done so much for the cause of liberty for those people within China.

Also named are the US consul general to Hong Kong, Ambassador James Cunningham, who chairs the board of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong; Bill Browder, the human rights campaigner, with whom we are all familiar as the pioneer of the introduction of Magnitsky sanctions worldwide; the former member of the Japanese Parliament, Shiori Kanno; and the former British consul general, as my right hon. Friend mentioned.

Layla Moran Portrait Layla Moran
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I want to add my admiration for all those who have been sanctioned, including the hon. Member and other Members of this House, because they choose to speak out; we ask ourselves what more we can do so that we can join that list. Does it not stick in the hon. Member’s throat that the Chief Executive, John Lee, has yet to be sanctioned by this Government in any way? Bill Browder himself has called for Magnitsky-style sanctions on him. Is this not the time?

Tim Loughton Portrait Tim Loughton
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The hon. Lady is leaping ahead. If she will exercise a little patience, I will come to endorse entirely that point, and beef it up a bit.

In response to those being named in the trial, six patrons of Hong Kong Watch—including other fellow sanctionees Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws and Lord Alton of Liverpool—wrote to the Foreign Secretary, urging him to take action, and calling on the UK Government to implement Magnitsky-style sanctions on the Hong Kong Chief Executive, John Lee, including asset freezes and a travel ban; the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) was very prescient. To quote Lord Alton,

“It is simply an assertion of Chinese Communist Party authoritarianism. It makes a mockery of the rule of law. The only conspiracy is that which is being organised by opponents of justice, democracy and human rights. This show trial should be ended forthwith, and the UK Government should say so loud and clear.”

To add to that, the Minister will know that two British citizens are named conspirators with Jimmy Lai on his third charge of colluding with foreign forces to undermine national security. Those citizens are Bill Browder and Luke de Pulford. To my knowledge, this is the first time that foreign citizens have been formally connected to a national security law offence in Hong Kong. Legal advice that I have seen is that this means the prosecution in Jimmy Lai’s case wish to make those British nationals criminally culpable. That being the case, why has the UK not said anything about it yet? Perhaps when she comes to respond, the Minister can specifically address that point.

I have several asks of the Government, as put forward by some of those who have briefed us. First, we call on the Government to continue to reaffirm their support for Jimmy Lai and urge the Prime Minister to call for Jimmy Lai’s immediate and unconditional release. It would be nice for the Prime Minister to say that loudly and openly in reference specifically to Jimmy Lai. Secondly, the UK Government should swiftly issue a strong statement in response to the Hong Kong Government’s targeting those three British citizens—Benedict Rogers, Luke de Pulford and Bill Browder—during the trial. Thirdly, the UK Government should implement Magnitsky-style targeted sanctions on Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee, including asset freezes and a travel ban to protect Hongkongers in Britain and around the world. Fourthly, the British Government should urge like-minded Governments to specifically mention the case of Jimmy Lai in their recommendations to China at today’s periodic review.

There has been another outrage that completely undermines all the principles of international law involving those who have fled to the UK for safe haven from Hong Kong: the use of bounties on pro-democracy activists—a particular affront to international law. On 14 December 2023, the Hong Kong Government issued arrest warrants for five exiled Hong Kongers who now live and advocate for democracy in the US or the UK, with bounties of 1 million Hong Kong dollars. Among those five is 33-year-old Simon Cheng, who founded Hongkongers in Britain, the largest UK-wide Hong Kong diaspora organisation. He is charged with allegedly inciting secession and collusion between August 2020 and June 2022. Those five arrest warrants followed the arrest warrants and bounties issued for eight overseas Hong Kong pro-democracy activists in July 2023. Those warrants were condemned by Hong Kong Watch, as were the many instances of the Hong Kong Government targeting their families and colleagues in Hong Kong. They also target families beyond the borders of China and Hong Kong, which is particularly chilling. We have seen examples where they freely intimidate families of those people who have escaped from Hong Kong, even on the streets of the United Kingdom.

In response to the issuance of the arrest warrants and bounties in December 2023, the Foreign Secretary said:

“I have instructed officials in Hong Kong, Beijing and London to raise this issue as a matter of urgency with the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities.

We will not tolerate any attempt by any foreign power to intimidate, harass or harm individuals or communities in the UK. This is a threat to our democracy and fundamental human rights.”

Hear, hear! I entirely welcome those words, but what is being done about it? The Chinese understand only the threat of actions with consequences, and that is the problem. Tough words do not usually cut the mustard with China, unless there is a reasonable expectation that those tough words will lead to consequences, and we need to see consequences.

I again have some asks of the British Government. Following the welcome statements that I have just quoted, the British Government should press the Hong Kong authorities to withdraw immediately the 13 arrest warrants with bounties on Hongkongers in the UK, the US and Australia. Secondly, will the Government introduce measures to protect the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong activists in exile, particularly those who have been granted asylum and have faced past and current threats from Beijing? Thirdly, will the Government urge like-minded Governments to suspend the remaining extradition treaties between democracies and the Hong Kong and Chinese Governments, and work towards co-ordinating an Interpol early warning system to protect Hongkongers and other dissidents abroad who may fall within the tentacles of the Chinese authorities? Fourthly, will the British Government urge like-minded Governments to raise these arrest warrants and bounties again at the periodic review, which is happening today?

Again, we have seen no sign of sanctions against any Hong Kong officials, while seven parliamentary colleagues, including myself and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green, remain sanctioned. We now hear that the Foreign Secretary wants to visit Hong Kong. The last Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), went to China and took up the case of Jimmy Lai, and the case of those of us who are sanctioned, but I am afraid came back with nothing. So quite why the new Foreign Secretary thinks that he wants to go to China—and presumably will take up the case again—and can come back with something, I do not know. Surely there are other platforms available to him, where he can make those calls on China without having to go and be seen to be paying court to the Chinese Communist Government in Beijing.

The Hong Kong Government’s Security Bureau recently put forward article 23 of the Basic Law to be discussed by the Legislative Council within its 2024 session. It is highly likely that that locally legislated national security provision will be passed and implemented by the end of this year. Article 23 aims to

“prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People's Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organisations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organisations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organisations or bodies.”

Since the enactment of the Hong Kong national security law, which was passed by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of China in 2020, these draconian laws have devastated the civil society and caused widespread chilling effects among the people of Hong Kong. This will only make that worse and embed it in the tyranny that is now engulfing Hong Kong.

I will briefly touch on the question of the financial pressures that the Chinese Government are bringing on Hongkongers. The Mandatory Provident Fund is a compulsory retirement savings scheme for the people of Hong Kong. For most Hongkongers it is their main pension pot, as the state pension is very low. Hongkongers can withdraw their entire MPF savings only if they make a declaration that they have departed Hong Kong permanently, with no intention of returning.

However, the Mandatory Provident Fund Authority, which governs the MPF, stated in 2021 that, because the BNO—or British national overseas—passport was no longer recognised as a valid travel document, those trying to withdraw MPF funds early could not use the BNO passport as proof of identity. As a result, BNO visa holders who leave Hong Kong continue to be denied access to their pension savings.

That is a punitive action by the Hong Kong Government, and Hong Kong Watch estimates that Hongkongers who fled to the UK on the BNO visa are being denied access to some £2.2 billion in savings. HSBC, headquartered in London, holds around 30% of the total value of all MPF schemes, and it is estimated that HSBC is currently withholding £660 million in savings from Hongkongers with BNO status who now live in the UK.

That is an official status recognised by the UK Government for those legitimately coming to seek safe refuge in the UK, and a company that is headquartered in the UK, and is subject to UK corporate and other laws, is withholding money from its rightful pensioners. The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation needs to decide which side it is on—freedom and liberty and the international rule of law, or kowtowing to the tyrants who now have their footprints all over Hong Kong. Therefore, financial measures are just another way that the Chinese Communist Government are imprinting their tyranny on Hong Kong.

You will be relieved to hear that I have almost come to an end, Mr Twigg, but I have just some other examples of where we really must stand up to what the Chinese Government are doing. Yesterday, Ms Choi Yuk-lin, the Secretary for Education in Hong Kong, began her official visit to the United Kingdom and Finland. That official trip comes despite the UK Government’s acknowledgment that Hong Kong’s national security law, passed in 2020, is a direct violation of the 1984 Sino-British joint declarations—fine for the words, but again, where are the consequences?

Ms Choi Yuk-lin is known for her public support of the national security law. She has consistently asserted that post-secondary education institutions, including their staff and students, are bound by the law. However, under her watch the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union—Hong Kong’s largest teachers’ union, with more than 95,000 members and representing 90% of the profession—was disbanded in 2021 after coming under fire in the Chinese state media. Mark Sabah, the director of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation, said:

“This is yet another example of the British Government seemingly ignoring all the violations of the Sino-British Declaration and all the attacks on free speech in Hong Kong and inviting a Hong Kong Government official to the UK, while a British citizen, Jimmy Lai, still sits in jail on spurious National Security Law charges”

and we remain sanctioned. He went on to say:

“There is no chance that Ms Choi is here to support Hong Kong students when she is personally responsible for tearing down academic freedom in Hong Kong across schools and university Campuses.”

She is not the first representative of the Chinese Government to be welcomed here in London, I am afraid, with the acquiescence of Ministers. I will not embarrass the Minister responding today by mentioning another photo opportunity, which she was involved with, by a particularly dodgy member of the Chinese Government responsible effectively for kidnapping the protesters and dissidents and taking them back to China to face unfair trials.

As we speak and as I have said, the universal periodic review of China is happening. However, the point is, will China take any notice? This is the first time it has happened since 2018. It is a unique process at the United Nations, whereby every single member state is scrutinised for its human rights record every four to five years. China’s last UPR was in 2018 and, as we know, a lot has happened since then; the problem is that it is not good. Since the last UPR, no region of the People’s Republic of China has changed more dramatically, significantly or rapidly for the worse than Hong Kong. Since 2018, it has transformed from one of Asia’s most open societies to one of its most repressive police states. It has gone from having a legislature with a significant number of elected pro-democracy members to a place where many of those legislators are now in jail; the entire pro-democracy camp is completely excluded from contesting any elections and both the legislature and the district councils are filled with pro-Beijing quislings, making them nothing more than puppet rubber stamps that are subsidiaries of the National People’s Congress. We have had the “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” against the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims since the last review. We have had the huge roll-out of surveillance technology since the last review. It has not responded to the criticisms in 2018 on women’s rights, where China failed to stem the trafficking of women and girls, including those from neighbouring countries. There has been a crackdown on freedom of expression, as we have heard. China received 346 recommendations from 150 countries back in 2018. It accepted 284 of them, but questionably many were just noted as accepted and already implemented—of course they were not.

Last week, the Minister responding today sent all colleagues a letter marked, “Dear colleague…A Year in Sanctions”. She started by saying:

“This Government has broken new ground on sanctions in 2023, continuing to lead the international effort to ratchet up pressure on Putin’s war machine, whilst deploying the UK’s autonomous powers in response to serious human rights violations and abuses, cyber attacks and serious corruption across the world.”

It is a good record. It talks about Russia; it talks about sanctions for metals and diamonds and for oil; it talks about reconstruction efforts in Ukraine and who will pay for them. It talks about Hamas, Iran and cyber. Nowhere in this four-page letter does it mention the subject of China or Hong Kong or any possibility of sanctions against that country.

Many petitions to this place have been responded to by the Government. On 7 June 2021, there was a petition to sanction Hong Kong officials responsible for human rights violations, to which the official Government response was:

“We carefully consider sanctions designations. It is not appropriate to speculate who may be designated in the future or we risk reducing the impact of the designations.”

In January 2022, there was a petition urging Hong Kong to release all political prisoners. The Government responded:

“As a co-signatory to the Joint Declaration, we will continue to stand up for the people of Hong Kong, to call out the violation of their freedoms, and to hold China to their international obligations.”

How exactly? In August 2023 there was a petition to sanction individuals responsible for Sino-British joint declaration breaches in Hong Kong. The response sounds familiar:

“We keep all sanctions designations under close and regular review. We do not speculate about future sanctions designations, as to do so could reduce their impact.”

The problem is: there are no consequences. I started my rather too lengthy words speaking about our particular interest and obligation to defend the liberties and lives of the people in Hong Kong that we once had responsibility for directly. We have sanctioned people from across the world, most notably Russia, for their blatant warmongering, corruption and other issues. All of the crimes against humanity, the international rule of law, freedom, liberty and democracy are being waged in Hong Kong as we speak, yet not a single person in the Chinese Government in Hong Kong has been subject to any sanction by the Government.

Iain Duncan Smith Portrait Sir Iain Duncan Smith
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Does my hon. Friend not also find it peculiar that Britain, which is the co-signatory of the agreement, has not sanctioned any of the officials responsible for the national security law, which he referred to, whereas the United States, which is not a signatory and has no historical link to Hong Kong, has sanctioned 10 of the most senior people? Does that not seem peculiar?

Tim Loughton Portrait Tim Loughton
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It is not just peculiar; it is outrageous. We have good examples of where the States has not only talked tough but followed it through with consequences and I think gets greater respect from the Chinese authorities because it is likely to do something about it. There is no excuse for us not taking an equally robust stance against the Chinese Communist party Government if we share those values and ideals of liberty, democracy and freedom that those brave people in Hong Kong have had to stand up for in the most outrageous of circumstances.

The future of human rights in Hong Kong is not bright. We have a duty not just to point that out, but to make it clear to China that if they do not get their act together there will be consequences, and the British Government will make sure that they are made to pay and are called out for this outrageous intimidation of the citizens of Hong Kong and their flouting of the international legal obligations that we all take for granted.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
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Order. If Members keep their speeches to around seven and a half or eight minutes we will get everybody in.

15:07
Iain Duncan Smith Portrait Sir Iain Duncan Smith
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It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I will certainly pay attention to your time limit. So much has already been said. In the past that would not stop us repeating it, but I will underline it rather than repeat it. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) has made an excellent contribution.

I want to make two or three points. I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said. It seems rather depressing that we have been here so many times in this Chamber and the main Chamber to debate this subject. It is worth underlining my hon. Friend’s point that in all the debates until today we have struggled to get the British Government to recognise that Jimmy Lai is a British citizen. He has never held a Chinese passport and arrived in Hong Kong as a minor. The Chinese Government shifted its policy around and claimed that he held dual nationality. Up until the last two or three weeks, the British Government went along with the Chinese charade of calling him a dual citizen. He has never been a dual citizen. He was proud of his British passport. He stayed in Hong Kong rather than fleeing, proud, as he said, that he would have the protections of his British passport. Sadly, he was badly let down. I just want to underline what my hon. Friend said on that.

I want to talk about the human rights abuses in Hong Kong, particularly what has happened in the last few weeks. The naming of British citizens as co-conspirators marks the first time that the Hong Kong authorities have sought to incriminate foreign nationals under the national security law. I intervened on that, but it is worth stressing again. I simply cannot understand why, after the former British consul general was named, the Foreign Office has said nothing about this individual, nor has it said to China that it had no right to do that, as he was going about his lawful business as a diplomat. Nothing has been said by the Foreign Office. I have even asked the Foreign Secretary to come out and say something strong in defence of the employee—the consul general—but we have had no statement or attack on the Chinese Government about him being named in this case. I find that astonishing. I urge the Minister to make it clear now that the Chinese Government have no right to do as they have.

The second point relates to the naming of those who have worked with us, from Luke de Pulford, Benedict Rogers, IPAC Hong Kong and the Japanese politician Shiori Yamao to Bill Browder, who has never had any contact with Jimmy Lai, so that is astonishing. I will not go into the details, as I am sure that will come out later on. The reality is that these people have been named on the basis of spurious links, and that is a problem. Thanks to The Washington Post, we know now that Andy Li, one of the individuals who is to give testimony—against Jimmy Lai, sadly—did voluntary work for IPAC on building a website. The Washington Post has been very clear about his mistreatment in Shenzhen prison, including credible allegations of torture. We can therefore understand that what he may or will say should almost certainly be expunged, for the simple reason that he was under duress.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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First, I apologise for not being present at the beginning, Mr Twigg. As I explained to you, I was paying tribute to Tony Lloyd in the main Chamber and I could not get here in time.

Jimmy Lai is not just a high-profile person, but a high-profile Roman Catholic. His religion and beliefs are important to him. Whenever there are attacks on Jimmy Lai, there are also attacks on his religious belief, as with Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we cannot ignore the suppression of religious freedom in Hong Kong?

Iain Duncan Smith Portrait Sir Iain Duncan Smith
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I completely agree. The hon. Gentleman knows well that the Chinese Government have been oppressive of Christian Churches and the Falun Gong, and we know what is going on with the genocide among the Uyghur, a Muslim Turkic group. All of this is dangerous. I come back to the simple question that I put to the Catholic Church: what is its arrangement with the Chinese Government, which it has refused to publish, and why, as a senior Christian Church, did it not offer more protections to the other Christian Churches? That is a big question, which the Vatican could answer by publishing its agreement, which it refuses to do.

I know that the Minister will not want to speculate about sanctions. I simply note that the US Government, who have no real historical links with Hong Kong, have sanctioned a significant number of people, whereas the reality is that we have sanctioned nobody in Hong Kong—none of the officials who we know have trashed the Sino-British agreement and upturned the whole idea of democracy, and are persecuting peaceful democracy campaigners. All that, yet there are still no sanctions in place for any of the officials who exercised that power and continue to do so.

I now wish to ask a question of the Minister. I say this very carefully: I have heard that the UK Government may be going further backwards on this matter, and that it may now be British Government policy that the Foreign Office of the UK Government has taken the decision neither to nominate nor to further sanction any Chinese officials. I will be grateful if the Minister, from the Dispatch Box, makes it very clear whether that is correct. Have we now an official policy that there will be no further pressure on China over sanctions of officials, or is that untrue and incorrect? I would be grateful if she made that very clear to us all.

The other element, which is wholly relevant and a real problem, is whether the Government have made representations with regard to the mistreatment of the witnesses in this case, leading also to torture. Have they made any representations at all about the way they have been treated, other than the statement made by the Minister for Security with regard to the naming of British citizens?

Finally, will the Minister state clearly that, if Interpol came under pressure from the Chinese Government to do something under Interpol’s rules in relation to the British citizens China has named—to require their presence, or to require the British Government or others to secure them themselves pending any expedition arrangements, or to do whatever China wishes—the British Government would refuse any co-operation whatsoever with Interpol, because those citizens were named incorrectly? I would like that to be clear, because many of them are now worried that if the British Government do not make that clear, here and now, they may face other pressures that would be insurmountable and unsupportable.

In line with what you said, Mr Twigg, I will come to a close and let others speak. I want to say one thing very clearly: we have banged on and on about the failure in Hong Kong, the terrible abuses, and the British judges now working under the ridiculous farrago of the national security law but pretending that common law somehow still rules. Other countries have done far more to make things clear. America has even issued a booklet to all its businesses to say that, now that the national security law is here, the English common law that now exists in Hong Kong will no longer protect them in any way. We have done nothing on that. I have urged the Government to tell British businesses to be very careful when they do business through Hong Kong, but we have not done that yet. I would be grateful if the Government did that now, after all the arbitrary detentions and the final attempt to get Jimmy Lai named as a British citizen, which at last we have done.

This is a terrible problem. China is determined to take on the rest of the democratic world. It believes its form of government and its abuses are the right way to run a country. It is now in league with North Korea, Russia, and Iran. We see its hand and those of its allies undermining democracy and peace all over the world now. If we do not face up to that and recognise that it is just the beginning of what we will have to deal with, that will be an abject failure of British foreign policy.

15:17
Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully (Sutton and Cheam) (Con)
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I will be brief. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), not only on securing this debate, but on his powerful and excellent speech, which brought home everything that needs to be said about this issue. I will not repeat it.

My hon. Friend mentioned that 182,000 or so Hongkongers have come to the UK under the BNO visa. Over the last few years, some 4,000 have come to Sutton, because it is a borough open to communities fleeing either democracy-related oppression or conflict. For example, some 25 or 30 years ago, Tamils made their home in south-west London because of the civil war in Sri Lanka. These people came to Sutton because of the schools and because it is a great place to bring up families—being half Burmese, I always talk about the Asian equation: good family networks, great education and hard work bring the best chance of prosperity—but also because there is a sense of community.

I pay tribute to Richard Choi, who drove a lot of that movement. He surveyed many Hongkongers deciding to go to London and asked them about what they wanted, where they were going to settle, and what kind of housing, schools and businesses they wanted. I have been watching Sutton Bei Bei on YouTube, an influencer who talks about the wi-fi speeds in Sutton flats, parks, and those kinds of things. They buy their food from SMart Oriental, a supermarket at the top of the high street, and eat at a business run by a new Hongkonger at the bottom of the high street. However, it is not about all those fantastic things. It is about the contrast between what they find in the UK and what they have just left in Hong Kong.

On 5 August 2023, the Hongkongers got together in Sutton library for a children’s workshop named after “Sheep Village”, a series of books. The five authors of those books were jailed in 2022 for 19 months each. They were really worried at the time, because of social media posts by former Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying, who was making pointed comments from the other side of the world. We did not take photos, out of respect for their safety, but the fact that that event was allowed to go ahead quite happily that day for those children and their families; the fact that I could speak to the Minister, to the then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), and to the Minister for Security; and the fact that the Hongkongers could speak to their democratic representatives—all these things were very important. I brought some of the Hongkongers here for a tour, and as we got close to the doors of the Public Gallery, which were open to the Chamber, one of the more elderly members of the group was in tears because the fact that he was so close to the Dispatch Box watching the proceedings of this open democracy, had had a tour from his Member of Parliament and could have an open exchange with him was in such contrast to what he had seen his homeland descend into.

It is really important that we continue to speak about this. This year is the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Sino-British declaration. That is a lifetime ago for some people, although not for me. It came into effect in 1997, so there are still 33 years to go, but it is clear that it is just not lasting the distance, following the adoption of the national security law in June 2020 by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in Beijing. The declaration made it clear that the Hongkongers’ high degree of autonomy, rights and freedoms at that time would remain unchanged for 50 years, but that has just not happened. The national security law been used as a tool to curtail freedoms and punish dissent rather than to keep public order, as is its stated intention. That means that, for all the stories we have heard—the alternative voices, whether they are in the media, like Jimmy Lai, or the Hong Kong 47—all the sham trials are curtailing democracy and silencing voices. We have heard about the economic, social and population impact on Hong Kong. What is left is basically conformity, and I suppose, in post-cultural revolution China, conformity is effectively all they have.

I am glad that the trial of Jimmy Lai has rightly caught the attention of special rapporteurs of the special procedures of the UN Human Rights Council, the largest body of independent experts in the UN human rights system, because it is important that we mobilise the international community. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham is absolutely right that it is really important that we lead on this, as the UK Government and UK parliamentarians with a special responsibility and duty of care, given our past relationship with Hong Kong.

I want to pay tribute to someone who is leading on this. We have mentioned several advocates, but I make special mention of Hong Kong Watch and of Benedict Rogers in particular. It was no surprise to me when Benedict Rogers co-founded Hong Kong Watch. We have known each other a long time. I travelled to Burma with him—as I said, I am half-Burmese—and having seen the work he did there, I am not surprised that he has brought the same zeal, dedication and moral outrage to the crusade and campaign on Hong Kong. I absolutely condemn what he has had to suffer, with the attempt to traduce his reputation here in the UK. Whether it is harassing his neighbours and his family or targeting him at a previous Conservative party conference, as we have heard, such things should not be happening on UK streets in this country. We absolutely have to act.

The Minister will rightly say what the Government have done about Hong Kong. Members have asked, as I will, about what the Government should be doing. The fact that the Government extended the UK’s arms embargo on mainland China to Hong Kong soon after the imposition of the national security law, that they suspended the UK’s extradition treaty with Hong Kong, that they introduced a new immigration path for BNO passport holders to make the UK, including Sutton, their home, and that the Foreign Secretary brought in the Chinese ambassador in the formal diplomatic démarche on 13 July are all to be welcomed. But we will always take a slightly different approach from the US, because we have a different relationship with China in relation to trade. Our soft-diplomacy approach to China is important, but we have heard why we must act now and look at sanctions. I also make a plea for us to call out the mandatory provident fund issue, because the Hongkongers who have settled here need to be able to settle themselves economically as well.

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
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I intend to call the Front-Bench spokespeople just before 25 minutes to 4. I call Fiona Bruce.

15:25
Fiona Bruce Portrait Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg, and in particular to have heard the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), which I can only describe as statesmanlike.

To the casual observer, freedom of religion or belief may appear to be the one freedom still standing in Hong Kong. Although Hongkongers are no longer free to protest or publish what they wish to in the media or online, as basic freedoms of expression, association, assembly and the press have been stripped away, they are at least still free to go to church. In mainland China, the sinicization of religion means that religion must align with the Communist party’s values. That has led to places of worship being shut down, destroyed or desecrated, crosses being destroyed, Chinese Communist party propaganda banners being placed alongside religious imagery, surveillance cameras being placed at the altar, under-18s being prohibited from going to places of worship at all, and clergy being arrested and jailed. In Hong Kong, at least, places of worship are still open.

Beneath the surface, however, it is clear that freedom of religion or belief is under threat—indeed, in its true sense, is already being stealthily restricted. As Ambassador Brownback and I state in a foreword to a recent report, “‘Sell Out My Soul’: The Impending Threats to Freedom of Religion or Belief in Hong Kong”,

“Freedom of religion or belief is about so much more than simply the right to go to a place of worship once a week…It is, as expressed in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a fully-fledged expression of conscience.

Interpreted in this way, this basic and fundamental human right is clearly under increasing and intensifying threat in Hong Kong”.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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One of the examples of where attacks on FORB are unfolding in Hong Kong is education. Nearly 60% of Government-funded schools in Hong Kong are Church run, and they are now under the control of Beijing, which promotes its propaganda in the curriculum. Does the hon. Lady agree that believers can practise their faith only in name rather than in essence? Beijing controls religious freedom in Hong Kong by exerting total control over Churches, without closing them. That is the reality in Hong Kong.

Fiona Bruce Portrait Fiona Bruce
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It is indeed, and if time permits I will go into more detail on that point.

I join others in paying tribute to Ben Rogers, who ably researched and drafted the “Sell Out My Soul” report. In a sense, it is inevitable that freedom or religion or belief in Hong Kong has been undermined, for two reasons. First, when freedom itself is dismantled, sooner or later religious freedom is impacted. All the basic rights set out in the universal declaration of human rights are interlinked and interdependent. We cannot have freedom of religion or belief without the freedoms of expression, association and assembly, and elsewhere I have argued that FORB is fundamental to all those freedoms. Secondly, like any autocratic regime, the CCP has always been inherently hostile to religion and has sought over the years to eradicate, suppress, control or co-opt religion, so it was inevitable that, as it exerted greater direct control over Hong Kong, undermining the high degree of autonomy set out in the one country, two systems principle, freedom of religion or belief would come under increasing pressure.

The campaign against religious freedom in Hong Kong is one of slow, subtle suffocation rather than sudden, dramatic crackdown. However, although the threats may be subtle, for those who have eyes to see, they are clear. Yes, people can still go to places of worship and access religious literature, but since the introduction of the draconian national security law in July 2020 and the climate of fear surrounding it, with almost all of Hong Kong’s other basic civil liberties—freedom of expression, association, assembly and so on—having been dismantled, inevitably there is a knock-on impact on religious freedom. It has created a chill factor, leading believers to keep quiet about their faith in public, and religious leaders themselves to make compromises, including widespread self-censorship by clergy in their sermons.

I will give some examples. In August 2020, Cardinal John Tong, apostolic administrator of the Hong Kong Catholic diocese at the time, instructed all Catholic priests to “watch your language” when preaching and to avoid “political” issues. A Protestant pastor, who has now left Hong Kong, claims that his church has removed all his sermons from the past 30 years from its website. Many churches no longer share sermons online. At least three prominent pastors have been arrested in Hong Kong. The most well-known case was the arrest of Hong Kong’s 91-year-old bishop emeritus, Cardinal Joseph Zen, in May 2022. Then there was Pastor Garry Pang, convicted of sedition and sentenced to a year in jail, and Pastor Alan Keung Ka-wai, arrested in January last year for producing and selling a book that was allegedly seditious. Arguably, all those cases relate to political rather than religious activities, but those individuals were acting according to their consciences, informed and inspired by their faith.

We see religious freedom threatened in other ways. Charity laws have been tightened. The US State Department’s 2022 report on international religious freedom noted:

“Religious groups may register as a society, a tax-exempt organization, or both”.

However, with reference to organisations seeking tax exemption, it added:

“Government tax regulations provide that any group, including religious groups, involved in activities deemed to endanger national security would not be recognized as a charitable organization.”

The message is clear.

An issue of even more concern is how church-run schools in the education sector are a particular target for the Chinese Communist party’s stealthy undermining of religious freedom. As one religious scholar observed:

“The CCP knows very well that in order to control a state, the first step is to control the mind[s] of young children.”

In Hong Kong, only a small percentage of Government-funded schools are actually Government run. As we have heard, the majority—at least 60%—are run by religious groups. Under the Basic Law, those schools must adhere to a curriculum that ensures that the CCP’s ideological narratives feature prominently. The crackdown on freedom of expression resulting from the national security law began to impact Hong Kong’s church-run schools almost immediately. In August 2020, the Hong Kong Catholic diocese issued a letter to the principals of all Catholic primary and secondary schools, urging them to enhance students’ awareness of the new national security legislation and the national anthem law, and cultivate “correct values” on national identity.

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
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Front Benchers will have roughly eight minutes each. I call the SNP spokesperson.

15:33
Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)
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I thank you, Mr Twigg, and the Minister for understanding that I will have to leave early to attend a Holocaust Memorial Day event in Parliament. It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, and I thank the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for securing the debate and for the way in which he opened it. I also want to put on record my appreciation of Hong Kong Watch, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Federation of Journalists and all those who do so much to defend human rights and democracy in Hong Kong under enormous pressure.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that today’s debate has united Members on both sides of the House in support of the people of Hong Kong, their democratic institutions and their fundamental human rights. They have enjoyed these human rights for years: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, the right to strike, the freedom to travel, the freedom of association and, as we have just heard from the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce)—and, indeed, as we heard earlier from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—freedom of religion or belief.

Everyone who has spoken has noted how the 1984 Sino-British declaration promised the people of Hong Kong that they would

“enjoy a high degree of autonomy”

for 50 years after the handover to China. They were also told that their lifestyle, rights and freedoms—everything they enjoyed—would remain intact and unchanged for half a century after 1997. We are little more than halfway through the 50 years that were guaranteed, but those basic freedoms and those human rights that they were assured of have become a distant memory. Lord Patten’s famously optimistic line was:

“Now, Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong.”

Sadly, that could not be further from the truth.

Although we recognise that 1997 was an important step in global decolonisation, we deeply regret that, contrary to what was promised to the people of Hong Kong in a legally binding international agreement, the Chinese Communist party has completely reneged on its end of the deal. The steady erosion of personal and political freedoms has now become a full-on assault, as the Beijing Government, through the passage of the insidious national security law, embarks on a draconian programme of assimilation and integration of Hong Kong into the Chinese mainstream. As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, that completely dismantles, once and for all, the notion of there being one country, two systems.

We have heard that national security laws were passed in June 2020 in response to huge pro-democracy protests. That crackdown has led to a mass exodus of people. Although those laws are specifically designed to criminalise secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign organisations, they have effectively stripped away freedom of expression and peaceful protest, and extinguished Hong Kong’s independent free press, turning Hong Kong, in just four years, from being one of the most open cities in Asia to one of the most repressive.

Those national security laws are designed to create doubt and ambiguity in the minds of the people as to whether what they are doing—indeed, what they have always done—could now be considered a criminal act. The only people who know what the law actually means are the people who make it, and there is a deliberate fug of ambiguity and confusion about what actually constitutes an offence that would endanger national security. That fug of ambiguity has had the desired effect because, as we have heard today, dozens of civil society organisations and trade unions, as well as the independent press, disbanded and shut down, for fear of falling foul of a law that they simply do not understand.

Every speaker today has talked about the most high-profile victim of these national security laws, Jimmy Lai. The 76-year-old UK national is a citizen standing trial on three charges under these laws and faces a further charge of conspiracy to publish seditious literature. Since his arrest in 2020, Mr Lai, a strident and fearless pro-democracy activist, has been held in solitary confinement and has now spent more than 1,200 days in prison. This political show trial of a long-time critic of the Chinese Communist party started early last month, and he faces life imprisonment. We must prepare ourselves, because it is a question of when, not if, he is found guilty. That is because, not surprisingly, there is a 100% conviction rate under the national security laws. I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), who is no longer in his place, for raising the issue of former UK judges giving legitimacy to such a repressive regime and a system that has no legitimacy.

Amnesty International’s deputy regional director, Sarah Brooks, has said:

“Jimmy Lai is the most high-profile public figure prosecuted under Hong Kong’s National Security Law, and the world will be watching.”

She added:

“The prosecution of Jimmy Lai shows how Hong Kong’s repressive National Security Law is being used to stifle press freedom and crush civil society.”

She is right that the world will be watching.

The International Federation of Journalists has said that the use of these laws

“and archaic sedition legislation to silence critical and independent voices in Hong Kong must cease”,

and has called for all such charges to be dropped.

Even the United Nations has expressed deep concern about what it sees as an inextricable link between Jimmy Lai’s outspoken, pro-democracy criticism of the Chinese Government and his arrest and the show trial. It is clear that Beijing and Hong Kong are orchestrating an assault on the free press and freedom of expression. Jimmy Lai’s trial epitomises that rapid decline in the rule of law in Hong Kong.

In 2022, I described in this Chamber the situation in Hong Kong as grim. Sadly, it is even more grim today and there is little prospect of it getting better any time soon. In that debate two years ago, I and every other speaker raised the issue of the Magnitsky sanctions, asking the Government why, despite the flagrant breach of human rights law, no senior Hong Kong official had been sanctioned. That question is relevant today and I ask it again. What is the point of having the ability to sanction those who flout international law if we are not prepared to use it? If the ripping up of an international treaty, a crackdown on the free press, a curtailment of civil liberties, a full-on attack on democracy and the imprisonment and potential jailing for life of a UK national cannot bring the Government to use Magnitsky-style sanctions, the question must be: what would it take?

15:41
Catherine West Portrait Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate, Mr Twigg. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) not just on his work on Hong Kong but on his important work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Tibet and for highlighting the issues of freedom of religion or belief there. I must also reference my position as a founding member and ongoing patron of Hong Kong Watch and pay tribute, as many others have today, to the important work of Benedict Rogers and the team.

As I have said each time we have debated this subject in the House, the situation in Hong Kong is far removed from the liberties promised to the people of Hong Kong in the legally binding Sino-British agreement on the return of Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Back then, China was emerging as a global economic power with dreams of a more hopeful century ahead, and the enshrined rights and liberties that Hong Kong was to enjoy for a full 50 years were the bedrock upon which the territory’s success would be built. Many Hongkongers understood, with the handing back of Hong Kong, that these vital freedoms they had under British rule would continue. A vibrant free press, the right of assembly and the promise of a more democratic electoral system were all in the minds of Hongkongers as the safeguard through which they could continue living their lives much as they had before. Sadly, as hon. Members have said today, that is no longer the case. It is sobering to hear that Hong Kong, like Myanmar, has dropped down Freedom House’s list of countries in relation to freedoms across the board.

I will dig into some of those matters. The Minister has received a letter from a number of Members of Parliament. What assessment has the FCDO made of the bounty on the heads of, and the threats made against, people just carrying out their conscience here in the UK and asking questions about human rights? I have written to the Minister on that question, as have many in the House, and I look forward to her reply, both verbally and in writing when her officials have time to pull up that draft. It is important we follow each and every one of the developments on the crucial question of freedoms for Hongkongers.

The Foreign Office ought to be doing important work with the Home Office. We were all extremely concerned when we saw the attack outside the consulate in Manchester in the autumn of 2022. Following that, allegations were made against dissidents here in the UK, and now allies of Hongkongers are being attacked. What assessment has the Minister made, together with the Security Minister at the Home Office, of the important work that Whitehall should be doing across Departments?

I thank the Minister and her officials for the reply to my recent written question about BNO passport holders being denied mandatory provident funds—in effect, a pension. I am grateful to her for confirming that the matter has previously been raised with Chinese and Hong Kong officials, but has she raised it since May 2023? That is the most recent date on which she raised it, and it is quite a long time ago. Is she continuing to raise it and being relentless? This is a very long-term relationship and it is important that we do not give up.

There also remains a key need for the UK to engage with partners on the global stage to provide sanctuary for Hongkongers. Will the Minister outline what specific discussions she has had on Hong Kong with her US, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and European counterparts? For those who remain in Hong Kong and for the city itself, there is more that we can do.

The case of Jimmy Lai and the questions around freedom of expression have been given a thorough going-over by the first speaker, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, and it was mentioned by all others. I was very pleased that, in today’s statement from Geneva, the key official mentioned Jimmy Lai, this time in dispatches, which I am very pleased about. Even Lord Cameron has mentioned this important case. This is a key moment because the case is before the courts. Could the Minister tell me whether the Prime Minister will now raise it? It is a matter of sending this up the hierarchical tree and, now that we seem to have won the argument with the Foreign Office and the new Foreign Secretary, it would be good if we could get the Prime Minister to mention it as part of his important foreign policy work. It was great to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) raising the case of Jimmy Lai because it would really help if many Members met his son Sebastien and continue to raise the case.

I will now conclude my remarks and give the Minister time to wind up. I want to ask the Minister for her views on some of the points raised in this debate. What assessment has the Foreign Office made of restrictions on trade union membership, including the teachers’ union? What assessment has the Foreign Office made of the particular impact on women and girls? Of the 17,000 political prisoners—a frightening number—how many are women? What issues does the Minister believe we need to be aware of in relation to those political prisoners? Finally, what is her assessment of the periodic review of human rights in relation to China, which is ongoing in Geneva right now? Does she believe that it has been a very good conversation at the UN today, and what actions will come out of the periodic review?

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

We are tight on time, but it would be helpful if the Minister could leave a minute or so at the end for Mr Loughton to wind up. [Interruption.] He says he is happy not to wind up, so you have a free rein, Minister.

15:48
Anne-Marie Trevelyan Portrait The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Anne-Marie Trevelyan)
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for securing this important debate and for his characteristically powerful and challenging speech on this issue. I welcome the contributions of all right hon. and hon. Members. I will do my best to respond in the time remaining, using the information that I have brought with me. I commit to writing in response to those issues that I am not able to cover today.

China committed to uphold the Sino-British joint declaration until at least 2047. This treaty set out many of Hong Kong’s human rights or, to use the language of the joint declaration, “rights and freedoms”. However, as colleagues have articulated so clearly and forcefully, the national security law, introduced in 2020, has irretrievably damaged Hong Kong’s promised rights and freedoms. Freedom of speech, assembly and the press have deteriorated dramatically.

When Beijing imposed this law in 2020, the authorities promised it would be used exceptionally and that it would target only a small number of criminals. Instead, the law has been applied far beyond genuine national security concerns. The Hong Kong authorities have used it to target critics across society time and again. They have prosecuted pro-democracy campaigners, journalists and community leaders. The vague provisions of the law have created a culture of self-censorship, as a number of colleagues have highlighted, restricting Hong Kong’s extraordinary vibrancy.

The high degree of autonomy promised in the joint declaration has also been compromised by an overhaul of electoral systems, which has meant that Hongkongers are no longer legitimately represented, and meaningful political opposition has been all but eliminated. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) set out how powerfully that is understood by those who have been able to come here and see what a democracy still in full flight looks like.

The Foreign Secretary has called on the Chinese authorities to repeal the national security law, and to end the prosecution of all individuals charged under it. The UK made clear our strong opposition to the national security law immediately, declaring its imposition a further breach of the joint declaration. We took robust action as soon as the national security law came into force, including by creating our bespoke visa route for British nationals overseas—an avenue for those who wish to leave the city. To date we have granted more than 184,000 visas, and that door remains open.

We suspended the UK-Hong Kong extradition treaty indefinitely, and extended to Hong Kong the arms embargo that has applied to mainland China since 1989. We continue to alert British nationals and businesses to the impact of the national security law and the risk that it poses through our travel advice and overseas business risk guidance on gov.uk. That is kept under close review. We always try to signpost everyone to it, so that they are fully aware of the realities.

Colleagues have reiterated today the strength of their feeling about the imposition of sanctions on those responsible for the erosion of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong. I continue to listen closely to those views, as do my officials, and we will continue to consider designations under the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020.

As colleagues know, I appreciate the frustration, but we do not speculate about future designations, as that could reduce their impact. However, I can confirm that we never rule out sanctions or other designations on any individual entity; I hope that reassures my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith).

Tim Loughton Portrait Tim Loughton
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I waived my right to reply, but will the Minister accept a challenge? Everything that she has said endorses just about everything that I have said, but there are no consequences. Every time we have a debate, in every petition she answers, and in every parliamentary question that she responds to, the answer is, “We are keeping it under review.” What will it take for the British Government to shift from “keeping it under review” to “We have had enough. We will sanction these Chinese individuals, just as the US and other countries have done—and we had a particular duty to do that long before now”?

Anne-Marie Trevelyan Portrait Anne-Marie Trevelyan
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I absolutely hear my hon. Friend’s point, but I will continue to reiterate that line, for very good reason. I hope that we can, as we have many times before, discuss in the Lobby the practical reasons for that. We will continue to do that, and nothing is off the table.

Jimmy Lai’s name has been raised many times today. That extraordinary prominent publisher and journalist, an incredibly brave man, is on trial accused of foreign collusion and sedition under the national security law, which we have repeatedly called to be repealed. Mr Lai has been targeted in a clear attempt to stop him peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression and association. He is a British national, and the UK Government stand alongside him at this difficult time. I know that colleagues are frustrated by the Chinese refusal to accept Jimmy’s British nationality due to China’s own nationality legislation; it is not alone in that. As my hon. Friend has said, that does not stop my officials continuing to demand consular rights for Jimmy in prison. The Foreign Secretary has called on the Hong Kong authorities to end the prosecution, and to release Mr Lai. We will continue to press for that.

Catherine West Portrait Catherine West
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I am very pleased, as I am sure other Members are, about the change of heart and language on the citizenship question. What assessment has the Minister personally made of the Prime Minister’s role in this? We have won the battle with the Foreign Secretary; what about the Prime Minister?

Anne-Marie Trevelyan Portrait Anne-Marie Trevelyan
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I thank the shadow Minister for her question, but I do not speak for the Prime Minister. I think it was made clear in the Foreign Secretary’s comments a few weeks ago—he had the opportunity to meet Sebastien Lai shortly after he took up his post—that our commitment and continuing resolve will continue.

On the ongoing trial, as Members have mentioned, British and other foreign nationals have been named in the prosecution. That is unacceptable, and we have made clear to the Chinese authorities, through officials in the UK, our concern that British nationals, including the former British consul-general to Hong Kong, Andrew Heyn, have been named in the prosecution. British nationals named—they have been highlighted already—include Lord Alton, my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely), Ben Rogers, Luke de Pulford, Bill Browder and Andy Heyn; they have all been listed in various forms. I recently met a number of those people, who are bravely speaking out on freedom of speech and human rights concerns, despite threats against them. We continue to work with them and support them. In my private conversations with them, I continue to share the message about the support that the UK Government can provide, as they may need it.

Since the trial began, our diplomats in Hong Kong have attended Mr Lai’s court proceedings daily, and will continue to do so. As noted in our latest six-monthly report, Hong Kong’s legal and judicial systems are at a critical juncture. The courts are having to adjudicate on an opaque law that we think should be repealed, and which places the authority of the Chief Executive above that of the courts on security matters. Hong Kong’s national security trials are dominating current perceptions of Hong Kong. They are damaging the city’s international reputation and status as a financial centre. Thousands who were arrested during the protests in 2019 are still waiting to learn if they will face trial. We urge the authorities to provide certainty to those individuals.

Last year, we saw a new pattern of behaviour emerging: arrest warrants were issued and bounties were placed on individuals based overseas, as a number of colleagues have mentioned. We have been clear that we will not tolerate any attempts to intimidate, harass or harm individuals or communities in the UK. That is a threat to our democracy and to our fundamental human rights. We formally démarched the Chinese ambassador in July 2023, following that first wave, and we have continued to raise the issue at senior level with Chinese and Hong Kong officials. Let me be clear: the national security law has no extraterritorial authority in the UK. The UK has no active extradition agreement with Hong Kong or China. This Government will always protect the right of individuals peacefully to exercise freedom of speech. We will provide police support if individuals have particular concerns.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green raised questions about Interpol and an early warning system around extradition issues. I will take that away to discuss more fully with Ministers across Government, but I can confirm that the UK Government take any misuse of Interpol very seriously. Article 3 of Interpol’s constitution forbids the organisation from making any intervention or undertaking activities of a political, military, religious or racial character. I hope that gives a little reassurance in the meantime.

Conscious of time, I will pick up on the point made by the shadow Minister and others about the universal periodic review of China, which is, as they say, ongoing. I will put on record the statement the UK has made, thanking colleagues for taking note. It was important to us that we set out clearly the issues of concern.

There were four calls: cease the persecution and arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and Tibetans, allow genuine freedom of religion or belief and cultural expression, without fear of surveillance, torture, forced labour or sexual violence, and implement the recommendations on Xinjiang by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; guarantee an impartial judiciary and cease the harassment of lawyers, the use of the death penalty and residential surveillance in a designated location; cease the restriction of civil society and independent media, end forced repatriations, and stop targeting human rights defenders; and repeal the law on safeguarding national security in Hong Kong, as recommended by the UN, and cease prosecutions, including of Jimmy Lai.

To conclude, we will continue to stand against the deterioration of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong. There is a reputational cost to China undermining international values, as it is doing. We are clear that it must protect what remains of Hong Kong’s unique social and political character, as well as its distinct economic system. We must see the repeal of the national security law, the ending of the prosecution of all individuals charged under it, and the restoration of the rights and freedoms promised to the people of Hong Kong under the Sino-British declaration.

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
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Mr Loughton, you do have some time, if you want to wind up.

15:58
Tim Loughton Portrait Tim Loughton
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I would never let a minute go to waste, Mr Twigg. I thank everybody for taking part in the debate. There has been a great degree of cross-party consensus, because we all recognise the situation as an international outrage. All I can say is that a regime that has no time for the judgment or endorsement that democratic processes bring, for the scrutiny that a free press provides, or for the rigour that adherence to the rule of international law instils, is not a strong regime. It is weak, insecure, illegitimate and in denial. That is the case of the Chinese Government. We must not be in denial in this House, and this Government must not be, either. We should follow the example of the United States and others, and work with the international community to not just call out China, but convince it that there can and will be consequences if it continues this affront to liberty and freedom in Hong Kong, in the rest of China, and beyond.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).