Statement: Hong Kong

As Minister of State for Asia and the Pacific, Mark made the below statement to the House of Commons on the ongoing situation in Hong Kong. The debate that followed Mark's statement can also be found below and viewed in the above video.

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The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

The proposed changes to Hong Kong’s extradition laws have understandably caused grave concern in Parliament and across the country. Already this week I have responded to an urgent question and an Adjournment debate on the issue. I should now like to update the House on the latest developments.

Overnight on 11 June, thousands of mainly young protesters blocked the roads around the Hong Kong central Government offices and the Legislative Council complex. There have also been violent exchanges between protesters and police. I appreciate that these scenes will have shocked many Members of the House and many millions of our constituents, and I should like to take this opportunity to appeal again for calm and considered dialogue.

Freedoms of association, speech and expression are all guaranteed by the joint declaration signed in 1984 by the Government of the People’s Republic of China and the United Kingdom and enshrined in the Hong Kong Basic Law. I am sure that the House will join me in expressing grave concern at the violence that has occurred. It is imperative not only that any protests are conducted in a peaceful manner, but that the authorities’ response is proportionate.

Despite the violence that occurred yesterday—I should report that since that time, there has mercifully been calm in the vicinity of the Hong Kong buildings to which I referred—it is important to recognise the unprecedented and overwhelmingly peaceful expression of public opposition that we saw at the march on 9 June, with families, church groups, business owners and professional associations all well represented. This was one of the largest single demonstrations of public concern in Hong Kong since the handover in July 1997.

There can be no doubt that the strength of public feeling in Hong Kong is profound about the proposed changes to Hong Kong’s extradition laws, and of course their broader implications. As the Foreign Secretary made clear in his statement yesterday, we urge the Hong Kong Government, even at this late stage, to heed those concerns and to engage in meaningful dialogue with local and international stakeholders. Now is surely the time to pause to reflect upon the impact of these controversial proposals. It is vital that the measures are subject to full legislative scrutiny and that the Hong Kong Government give proper consideration to all alternative proposals.

The proposed Bill had been due for a Second Reading on 12 June. However, the planned debate has been postponed until further notice owing to the protests. A vote on the proposals was due on 20 June. It is not clear yet whether the protests will affect that timetable.

Madam Deputy Speaker, you will already be aware that the UK Government are fully engaged on this issue. I spoke on Monday about some of the actions we have already taken, including the Foreign Secretary’s joint statement with his Canadian counterpart on 30 May, the British consul general’s statements locally, and our engagement with all levels of the Hong Kong Government, including the Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, herself. In all these contacts we have reiterated our message of ​allowing time for proper consultation, and for adequate safeguards to be included in any legislation to address key human rights concerns.

In addition to the Foreign Secretary’s statement yesterday, in which he called upon the Hong Kong Government to listen to the concerns of the people and to take steps to preserve Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms and its high degree of autonomy, he also made those concerns clear directly to the Chief Executive, Carrie Lam. We shall continue to engage the Hong Kong Government on this critical issue and to raise our concerns with the Chinese Government, reiterating the fundamental importance of upholding the Sino-British joint declaration.

The British consul general to Hong Kong, Andy Heyn, most recently discussed developments in Hong Kong, including the extradition proposals, with the Director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing in April 2019.1 have been in very close contact with him in recent days.

I note that the Chinese ambassador to London commented on the BBC’s “Newsnight” programme last night that the joint declaration is, as he put it, an “historic document” that has “completed its mission”. Once again I strongly disagree. The joint declaration remains as valid today as it was when it was signed over 35 years ago. That joint declaration is a legally binding international treaty, registered with the United Nations. Its objectives clearly apply to both of its signatories—the Government of the People’s Republic of China and the UK. It remains in force, and it remains acutely relevant to the conduct of day-to-day life in Hong Kong. We expect China to abide by its obligations.

I should make it clear that we do not believe that the proposed changes to the extradition laws in themselves breach the joint declaration, as the treaty is silent on matters of extradition. However, we are concerned that the proposals, as currently framed, risk leaving the extradition process open to political interference. That could, of course, in future undermine Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and the rights and freedoms, guaranteed in the joint declaration, that are of course central to its continued success. Those concerns are heightened by the knowledge that the court system in mainland China lacks many of the judicial safeguards that exist in Hong Kong. We remain concerned about the continuing detention and trials of human rights lawyers and defenders, and the lack of due process and judicial transparency within mainland China. There is, of course, alarm at the prospect that fear of politically motivated extradition to China could cause a chilling effect on Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms, and more insidiously might result in increasing self-censorship.

Hong Kong matters hugely to the United Kingdom, not only because of our shared history. There are some 300,000 UK citizens living there, and many more travel to and through Hong Kong every year. Hong Kong is one of the most thriving, exciting, dynamic cities in the world. It retains its distinctive identity, both within China and internationally. It is, of course, a global financial centre and serves as a gateway to one of the biggest markets in the world.

We remain committed to strengthening our rich and wide-ranging relationship with Hong Kong. We shall continue to work together as partners in support of global free trade, and we shall continue to develop our ​bilateral trade links with Hong Kong. However, it is also vital for Hong Kong’s continuing success that one country, two systems is fully protected, and that the rights and freedoms that make Hong Kong such a prosperous city are safeguarded.

To conclude, I once again call on the Hong Kong Government to pause, to reflect and to take meaningful steps to address the concerns of the people, businesses, the legal professionals, judges and the international community about the proposed changes to the extradition law. We must, and we shall, continue to press them so to do. I commend this statement to the House

Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab)

I thank the Minister of State for advance sight of his statement, and for the customary tone of concern and deliberation that he brings to these issues. At the outset, I should like to ask him a couple of specific questions about the proposed extradition Bill, which I do not think were covered in his statement.

First, have the Government sought or received any safeguards from the Hong Kong authorities that, once that proposed Bill is on the statute book, the powers it contains cannot and will not be extended to include the extradition of political activists and dissidents? Secondly, what safeguards have been sought or received with respect to British citizens living in Hong Kong and British national (overseas) passport holders, should the proposed extradition Bill be passed?

However, as the Minister of State has rightly observed, our concerns go deeper than those specific issues—the implications of the extradition Bill and the violent protests we have seen on the streets of Hong Kong in recent days. Our concerns also must go to what has undoubtedly been the steady erosion over recent years of compliance with the joint UK-Sino declaration, signed in 1984—the agreement that was supposed to enshrine the one country, two systems approach, to ensure

“a high degree of autonomy”

for Hong Kong and to protect its political, cultural and social rights and freedoms for at least 50 years after the 1997 handover. Just 22 years on, we see those freedoms and that autonomy being steadily taken away.

Last September the Hong Kong National party was banned, on so-called grounds of “national security”—the first time since 1997 that any Hong Kong party had been outlawed by the authorities. In April, nine individuals—students, professors and human rights activists—were found guilty of “incitement to public nuisance”, just for the supposed crime of organising the 2014 umbrella protests, facing sentences of up to seven years in prison. Now we have the proposed extradition Bill, which many fear is the thin end of the wedge when it comes to Hong Kong’s judicial independence. No wonder opinion polling by the University of Hong Kong has found that public confidence in the one country, two systems commitment has fallen from 77% in 2008 to just 40% today. No wonder our Foreign Affairs Committee has said that China is moving closer to a “one country, one system” approach. It is, sadly, no wonder that we have, as a result, seen protests in Hong Kong in recent days, and the growth of the pro-independence movement in recent years.​

So the big question today is, what are the UK Government prepared to do to demand that the Chinese authorities go back to the commitments that they made in the 1984 statement? As the Minister of State has said, the Chinese ambassador said last night that that is an historic document. But, you know, the Chinese have been saying that for two years. Two years ago they said it was an historical document which had no “practical significance” and was “not binding”. I agree with the Minister of State when he condemns those comments, but we have to ask, is it any wonder that the Chinese are so dismissive of the joint agreement, and prepared to commit flagrant breaches of it, if we as a country are not prepared to protest when they do so? Let me make it clear: I mean that not as a personal criticism of the Minister of State, but as a general indictment of the Government’s approach over recent years, which has not been as clear and robust as just set out by the Minister of State.

I am not the only one making that indictment. Last year it was Chris Patten, the former Member for Bath, the last British Governor of Hong Kong, who described the Government’s stance toward China as craven, in seeking a trade deal at the expense of advocacy for human rights in Hong Kong. He said that a series of

“outrageous breaches”

of the 1984 declaration had prompted little more than

“a slightly embarrassed clearing of the throat”

and some

“tut-tutting”

from the Government. This is a theme going back to 2015, the year after those umbrella protests, when George Osborne visited China and was praised by the state-run media for being

“the first Western official in recent years who has stressed more the region’s business potential instead of finding fault over the human-rights issue”.

Last year, after her own visit. the Prime Minister was praised by the Chinese state media for “sidestepping” human rights in favour of “pragmatic collaboration”. They concluded:

“For the Prime Minister, the losses outweigh the gains if she appeases the British media at the cost of the visit’s friendly atmosphere.”

But those losses do not outweigh the gains if they amount to the erosion of democracy and autonomy in Hong Kong, if they amount to the abandonment of the 1984 joint agreement, and if they amount to the endangerment of the rights and freedoms of Hong Kongers, including British nationals and passport holders.

Let me end by asking the Minister what action he and the Government will be taking, not just to express concern about these recent events, but to end their “craven” approach to China and to demand that the Beijing Government return to honouring the terms of the 1984 agreement.

Mark Field

I thank the shadow Foreign Secretary for her contribution, and I strongly agree with what she said towards the end of it. We clearly must stand up at this stage, as indeed we have. I think it is a misapprehension to suppose that we have been “craven” in relation to the very delicate issues in relation to China, which are broad-ranging and involve not just trade but other aspects of a relationship with a leading nation in global affairs.​

We believe it is vital that the extradition arrangements in Hong Kong are in line with the high degree of autonomy and the rights and freedoms set down in the joint declaration. We believe that that is vital not just to Hong Kong’s best interests, but to China’s. It is very evident that, even if there is a self-interest on the part of the People’s Republic of China, from its perspective a recognised global offshore financial centre providing not just financial but legal services—the idea of a common law legal system, and the idea of having the confidence of international capital markets—will be vital to its own economic growth, and not least to the future of its ambitious belt and road initiative.

We are, however, very concerned about the potential effects of these proposals, and we would like to see a pause. As the right hon. Lady will know, this issue came to the fore not—according to our understanding—at Beijing’s behest, but as a result of a particularly difficult case: that of a Hong Kong national who had allegedly committed a murder in Taiwan and then returned to Hong Kong for his extradition to be made to Taiwan. The Taiwanese authorities have not demanded that. None the less, that has made for a difficult situation as far as extradition is concerned.

As I said on Monday in response to the urgent question from the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), we fully understand that there are wide ramifications, such as the prospect of relatively minor offences being subject to extradition involving UK or, indeed, other non-Hong Kong nationals and their being sent back to China on what might be trumped-up political charges, particularly given the anti-corruption drive introduced by President Xi’s Administration.

I hope that you will indulge me, Madam Deputy Speaker, and allow me to say a bit more. The right hon. Lady raised some general issues about the UK-China relationship, and I think that it would be appropriate to erase them at this stage.

We all know that the growth of China presents great opportunities, but also challenges. It is in our interests for China to support a rules-based international system, but it is pushing back in some key areas in that regard. We believe that the system is under huge strains, for a variety of reasons. We are entering a period of greater strategic competition, and engaging with China is vital for the preservation and evolution of existing structures. However, we do and will continue to challenge it when we disagree with, for instance, its approach to freedom of navigation in the South China sea. We speak up very strongly on human rights violations, such as those in Xinjiang.

We are active in ensuring that Hong Kong’s specific rights and freedoms, and high degree of autonomy, are respected in full. We take a very clear view of our own national security, along with other countries. Only last December, we named China as being responsible for a particularly damaging cyber-intrusion.

As we look to the coming decades, it is clear that our relationships with high-growth economies such as China will be increasingly important, not only to our growth but to the shape of the global system in the face of technological transformation. Striking a balance—there will, inevitably, always be a balance, but striking the right balance in our relationship—will be more important than ever.

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend East) (Con)

I am a sinophile, but Beijing’s current interactions with Hong Kong are deeply unhelpful, which is a particular issue because Hong Kong can be a bridge into and out of China. In 2017, on the eve of Carrie Lam’s ascension to the role of Chief Executive, I visited Hong Kong with other Members of Parliament, and met not only civil society groups but members of the legislature. Even back then, there was a palpable sense that there was a wrong trajectory, and a wrong pace towards greater integration. What message can we send from the House to civil society in Hong Kong, and in particular to members of the legislature, to show that we are there for them and are watching what is happening?

Mark Field 

My hon. Friend obviously takes a great interest in these matters, having been a Foreign Office Minister in the past himself. I think that the biggest message we can send is the very fact that so much attention has been paid to the issue. This is the third parliamentary debate on it. Our debates are clearly followed avidly in Hong Kong, and will continue to be so.

We want to see peaceful demonstrations. It is worth pointing out that the rule of law does apply to demonstrations. At the time of some of the Occupy movement demonstrations, when there was an over-reaction, or a perceived over-reaction, from the Hong Kong police, fines and indeed prison sentences were meted out. We want to ensure that the rule of law and the autonomy that allows freedom of expression in Hong Kong are maintained. That is underpinned in the joint declaration, and, indeed, in all the arrangements that underpin the essence of one country, two systems.

Hannah Bardell (Livingston) (SNP)

I am grateful for advance sight of the Minister’s statement, and I welcome his strong words, but those strong words must be matched by strong actions.

Legal professionals have expressed concern about the rights of those sent across the border to be tried. The conviction rate in Chinese courts is as high as 99%, and arbitrary detentions, torture and denial of legal representation of one’s own choosing are common.

I am sure the Minister will agree that the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and assembly have been shown to be at risk in Hong Kong, with at least 72 protesters hospitalised by police. I wonder whether he has seen some of the social media reportage of protesters who have been protecting journalists. One journalist working for CBS Asia had been given a helmet and protected from tear gas by protesters. The protesters were also turning up the next day to clean up rubbish and ensure that it was recycled. I think that demonstrates the spirit in which they are trying to express their views.

Does the Minister agree that police violence such as this is unacceptable? What representations has he made, and will he make, to his counterparts in Hong Kong about the need for a de-escalation?

Many Hong Kongers fear that authorities will use the proposed extradition law to target political enemies, and have expressed concern about arbitrary detentions and the use of torture. Following a recent report from the Foreign Affairs Committee which called for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to redouble its efforts to

“hold China to account through UN mechanisms, public statements and private diplomacy for its human rights violations”,​

what conversations have the Foreign Secretary, and the Minister himself, had with his Chinese counterpart about the need to protect human rights and freedom of expression?

Mark Field

I thank the hon. Lady for her constructive comments. I think we know from what we have seen on our television screens and on the vast social media that this issue is of grave concern—as she said, 72 people have apparently been hospitalised. As I said in my response to the urgent question on Monday, our biggest single concern is that the Chinese legal system is so disaligned with the Hong Kong system, which has led to arbitrary detentions, delays and the like.

We clearly want to see no violence either from protestors or in disproportionate action from the police, and clearly we would hope, and very much expect given what has happened with the Occupy movements in years gone by, that those guilty of disproportionate action or indeed of violence would be properly brought to account.

Representations are made to the Chinese Government on a vast range of areas; they are meat and drink to all of us as FCO Ministers, as they are to Ministers in a number of other Departments. We will continue to have a six-monthly report on Hong Kong; we are criticised at every opportunity by the Chinese embassy for so doing, but we believe the one country, two systems model must be maintained. The management of it is obviously a matter for the Hong Kong Government; however, the Chinese Government are on record as supporting the extradition proposals. We will continue to raise Hong Kong at all levels with China, and clearly, as the hon. Lady will appreciate given the importance of the issue, over the course of this week there have been plenty of opportunities, both with China and our Hong Kong counterparts, to make clear our grave concerns, which are shared by millions of our constituents.

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con)

The Minister has made a very important statement today. He has absolutely confirmed that the Government are going to step up their support for the joint declaration treaty and look at what more we can do to enforce it, and of course that is welcome, but I am very concerned—as I am sure others across this Chamber and across the nation are—for the more than 300,000 British citizens who are in Hong Kong now. While we all want to see a peaceful resolution through strong diplomacy to resolve this issue, what assurance can the Minister give us that the FCO stands ready to support our citizens should the situation deteriorate?

Mark Field

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we will do our level best and do whatever we can from our side to calm some of the passions, not least because of our 300,000 UK nationals there. We are not aware at present of any British nationals being caught up in the violence of the past 48 hours. The question of British nationals overseas was brought up by my hon. Friend’s constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), and we do have some ongoing obligations in that regard.

We are concerned about the potential detrimental impact of these extradition proposals on the rights and freedoms of all people resident in and travelling through Hong Kong. At present the FCO is not providing ​specific advice relating to the proposed extradition Bill as it affects British nationals overseas, particularly as this legislation is still under consideration. However, we do believe that it is of the utmost importance that any extradition arrangements respect the high degree of autonomy and the rights and freedoms of the Basic Law. The arrangements will of course apply to all citizens, but we particularly have British nationals overseas and UK nationals very much in our heart, and will ensure our consul general does all he can to deal with any of the concerns raised.

Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)

Yesterday a young Hong Kong woman came to my office and showed me pictures of what had happened to friends of hers who had been protesting in Hong Kong. She showed me videos of tear gas being used and the injuries they had sustained as a result of rubber bullets being used. These things happen because the authorities that employ these methods think they can get away with it. She understood, as I think we should all understand, that the joint declaration is now under attack not just from the People’s Republic of China but from Carrie Lam’s Administration in Hong Kong itself.

As the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) said, the question is what signals we send, and I have to say to the Minister that the signal that he sends today in saying that the UK Government do not see the extradition changes as a breach of the joint declaration is fundamentally wrong and has to change. The purpose of that joint declaration is to protect the human rights of the people of Hong Kong. The legislation proposed by Carrie Lam’s Government is a fundamental attack on these human rights, and if we are to stand by the joint declaration we should be opposing these changes unambiguously and vigorously at every turn. I have to say to the Minister that it is not good enough to hide behind a question of legal construction when this is actually about our political determination.

Mark Field

I think that is a rather unfair characterisation of our position, if I may say so. I know that the right hon. Gentleman has a long-standing interest in Hong Kong—this has been our third exchange at the Dispatch Box over the course of this week—but I was merely making the point that the joint declaration was silent on the issue of extradition. We very much feel that the spirit of the joint declaration is fundamental, for the reasons I have set out about the high degree of autonomy, freedom of expression and the like, but I was just making the narrow point that extradition was not raised in the joint declaration of 35 years ago.

The right hon. Gentleman touched on the use of tear gas and rubber bullets, and I would therefore like to talk a bit about export licences; I know this has been brought up in the pages of The Guardian today. The last export licence from the UK for tear gas hand grenades and tear gas cartridges used for training purposes by the Hong Kong police was in July 2018. The last export licence for rubber bullets was in July 2015. We rejected an open licence for riot shields as recently as April 2019. The issue of export licences is close to all our hearts, and it comes up time and again in our work overseas. We are monitoring the situation very closely and will of course undertake to review all current export licences. We will have no qualms in revoking any licences found no longer to be consistent with the consolidated criteria, ​including criterion 2, which I think the right hon. Gentleman will be aware of, dealing with respect for human rights.

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Change UK)

The Minister rightly criticised the Chinese ambassador’s remarks on “Newsnight” yesterday, but is this not part of a pattern, as has been said? Is it not clear that there is no independent judiciary in mainland China, so anybody who is either taken illegally—as has been the case in the past, as with the booksellers—or taken with the complicity of the Hong Kong Government authorities is actually potentially facing an unfair trial by the Communist regime, with terrible consequences? Is it not time that we were more robust in what we say about the nature of the Chinese regime, and that, instead of pulling our punches because we are so afraid that our economic situation post Brexit will make us weaker, we stood up for our values and the commitments we made when we signed and agreed the joint declaration and said that for 50 years there would be one country, two systems?

Mark Field

We absolutely stand up for one country, two systems, and will continue to do so. On the Floor of the House on Monday I expressed some deep concerns about the Chinese legal system, which have to be borne closely in mind when we are considering any changes that potentially lead to individuals being extradited from Hong Kong to the mainland, and we will continue to make those robust statements.

We are in a world where China is rising, however, and we have to maintain an engaged relationship, as I am well aware the hon. Gentleman understands. That points to the balance in diplomacy that I mentioned earlier. I would like to think we have worked together in forging constructive collaboration on a range of shared challenges including microbial health, climate change, the illegal wildlife trade, money laundering and even threats to international security over North Korea.

There are therefore a range of global challenges on which we have to build trust with China, but we also must accept that our values are fundamentally different, so I am afraid that there will always be a block. Rightly, we must have the confidence, along with partners, to stand up for the values that are close to our heart, but we also have to recognise from our own history that those values evolve over time. Working together and building a sense of trust with China, and indeed with rising nations in other parts of the world, is an important part of diplomacy and we shall continue to do so.