Urgent Question: Hong Kong

As Minister for Asia and the Pacific, Mark responded on behalf of the Government to an Urgent Question tabled by Alistair Carmichael MP regarding Hong Kong. Mark initial statement and responses can be found below, and you can find the debate in its entirety on Hansard by clicking here or by watching the above clip.

Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the subject of democracy and protests in Hong Kong.

The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

The huge protest march this weekend was a further demonstration of the passionate strength of feeling among the people of Hong Kong about the proposed amendments to extradition laws. The people of Hong Kong have peacefully exercised their rights in recent days to freedom of speech, assembly and expression, all of which are guaranteed by the Sino-British joint declaration of 1984 and enshrined in Hong Kong Basic Law.

The most recent march was, thankfully, free of the scenes of violence witnessed during protests on 12 June. I note the allegations of inappropriate use of force by the Hong Kong police, which should, of course, be fully investigated by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government.

It is positive that, on 15 June, the Government committed to pause, reflect and consult widely before taking further action. However, it is clear that this commitment did not fully address the concerns of the people of Hong Kong. I welcome Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s statement today, in which she said that she would not proceed with the Second Reading of the Bill if the fears and anxieties of the people of Hong Kong could not now be addressed.

In considering the way forward, it is vital that Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and the rights and freedoms set out in the joint declaration are respected in full. Those principles, along with the commitment to one country, two systems underpin Hong Kong’s future success and prosperity. As a guarantor of the joint declaration, the UK has a responsibility to monitor its implementation. This is a responsibility that we all take very seriously.

The joint declaration is a legally binding international treaty between the United Kingdom and China, and it remains in force. It is as relevant today as it was at the time of the handover in 1997. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer both raised the situation in Hong Kong and the importance of upholding the joint declaration with Chinese Vice Premier Hu during the UK-China economic and financial dialogue that took place in London yesterday.

The permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office also held a meeting in the Foreign Office with the Chinese ambassador yesterday, reinforcing our view that the joint declaration is an extant document underpinning one country, two systems and it is guaranteed until 2047. It must be upheld. I can assure the House that the UK Government are, and will remain, fully committed to the preservation of Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy.

I am delighted that, in addressing this matter on the Floor of the House for the fourth time in six sitting days, there is such widespread support from all corners ​of Parliament for the rule of law, independence of the judiciary and the freedoms for the people of Hong Kong.

Mr Carmichael

I thank the Minister for that answer and I thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing this urgent question. There are literally millions of people in Hong Kong who follow the proceedings in this House and who look to us for support in their fight to protect their human rights. It matters to them there that we here remember their position, and it is right that we should recognise your role, Mr Speaker, in getting this issue ventilated in the House.

The news that the Executive in Hong Kong had suspended the legislation for the extradition amendments was welcome as far as it went, but the message should go out from this House that it did not go far enough. We in this House stand with the 2 million people who took again to the streets in Hong Kong on Sunday to say that suspension is not enough. That legislation must be withdrawn for good. Will the Minister make it clear to the chief executive that that is the position of this country and that that is what her Administration must now do?

In recent weeks, the Chinese Foreign Ministry declared that the Sino-British joint declaration was meaningless and that it no longer had any realistic meaning. I welcome what the Minister has said on this today, but will he assure us that that will continue to be put forcefully to the Chinese Government at every opportunity, because for a fellow permanent member of the UN Security Council to take this view undermines the very idea of a rules-based international order. Will the Government now demand of the Chinese Government that they should resile from the view that they have previously expressed in relation to the joint declaration? It is a binding bilateral treaty registered with the United Nations. China cannot be allowed to pick and choose the obligations in international law that it will observe and honour.

People across the world were shocked to witness the violence used against peaceful protesters in Hong Kong last week. Legitimate democratic Governments do not use tear gas and rubber bullets against their own people when they choose to exercise their democratic right to protest. We hear that the Chief Executive is due to make an apology today to the people of Hong Kong for her handling of the affair. Does the Minister agree with me that that apology should extend to those who were harassed and injured as a result of what was done, and can we in this House send the message that we continue to watch what happens in Hong Kong and we will not sit mute as those who protested then are prosecuted when the spotlight of world attention has moved on?

The events of recent weeks in Hong Kong have been horrifying, but they should not have been surprising. For years now, the People’s Republic of China has been salami slicing the commitments it gave under the joint declaration. Sadly, the Executive Council has too often been complicit in that, but the commitments that have been broken are commitments to which this country has been a party. Will our Government now send the strongest possible message that we will not stand by and allow that process of salami slicing to continue?

Mr Speaker

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. As the House knows, it is not for the Chair to arbitrate between the Government and the Opposition—between the policies of one party and those of another—and I do not do so, but this question has been granted, and it is the third time the House has treated of this matter in the last week, precisely because I sense that the House of Commons is genuinely shocked and outraged by what is happening. We respect the position of those demonstrators and we utterly deplore the treatment of them. This matter will continue to be aired in this Chamber for so long as Members wish it to be aired here.

Mark Field

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am grateful that the whole House has a similar view on these concerns. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) is absolutely right; we are addressing these matters, this debate will be shown in Hong Kong and it is important that we stand by the Hong Kong citizens whose rights are part of the duty that we have to uphold in order to ensure that one country, two systems is maintained.

We have called for the suspension of the extradition Bill and for further consultation. That is the right thing to do for two fundamental reasons. First and foremost, this must ultimately be a matter for the Hong Kong people. It is absolutely unacceptable for the UK Government to dictate terms, as it is for the Chinese Government to dictate terms in Hong Kong or other parts of the world. We are standing by the joint declaration and its terms, but ultimately it must be for the people of Hong Kong to determine. I am very well aware that, in diplomatic terms, it is important that we find a way for face to be maintained; that is important in the part of the world we are discussing. Therefore, the most desirable outcome would be a severe suspension sine die, but this is ultimately a matter for Hong Kong. Indeed, any judicial aspects of the matter are for an independent and free judiciary—a system that we believe is being upheld in Hong Kong, in contrast to what happens elsewhere.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point regarding the rules-based order. As he says, given that both the UK and China are permanent members of the UN Security Council, there are opportunities there to raise the specific concerns he mentioned. We have made it very clear that not only do we regard the joint declaration as being extant—it will continue to be in place for the period of the one country, two systems approach—but we will also continue to have six-monthly reports. We have made this very clear to the Chinese ambassador to the UK and to other officials. We get criticised every six months and we will make very plain our concerns including that, although we think that one country, two systems is operating fairly well, there is clearly some strain, not least in relation to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Clearly, the next report will go into great detail once the dust has begun to settle on what has happened. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for continuing to express his strong interest, and I know he speaks for many in the House. The Foreign and Commonwealth office led with a statement last week, and we will continue to keep the House updated.

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con)

I hear what the Minister says about this being a matter for the Hong Kong Government, but does he agree that some 2 million ​people repeatedly taking to the streets in Hong Kong is a sign of wider concerns about Hong Kong’s increasing democratic deficit over the past few years—with booksellers being abducted, democratically elected representatives not being allowed to take their seats and academics being imprisoned over freedom of speech? It is not just about the proposed extradition Bill; there are concerns much more widely about freedoms in Hong Kong. Does the Minister agree that the Hong Kong Government should be initiating democratic reforms to avoid a repeat of such incidents?

Mark Field

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Hongkongers are used to having rights, freedoms and the rule of law, but they do not have access to the political levers that citizens of other advanced economies take for granted, so when their Government try to push through a law that the great majority of the public bitterly oppose, they cannot simply vote that Government out of office; and because so many opposition legislators have been removed, they also cannot rely on their elected representatives to block the law. As a result, action on the streets has tended to be the only answer. We think there should and must be another way. Perhaps we will discuss later during this urgent question some of the democratic reforms that might be put in place.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab)

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question; I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing it.

Hong Kong is one of the most important international cities in the world, but in the past fortnight it has been plunged into utter chaos. Over the weekend, 2 million people took to the streets to protest against the extradition Bill. That is nearly one third of the entire population of Hong Kong. Although the Opposition welcome the suspension of this disastrous Bill, suspension is not enough. The Bill needs to die. It is an affront to democracy and the rule of law in Hong Kong, and a fundamental breach of the one country, two systems principle. A grovelling apology by Carrie Lam this morning and promises of greater consultation do not change this fact. The Hong Kong Executive now have a choice to make. If they listen to their citizens, the Bill will be scrapped. These protests should also prompt serious reflection on the condition of democracy in Hong Kong, and on the increasing crackdown on dissent and protest. It is time to put democratic reform back on the agenda in Hong Kong.

I am disappointed that the Minister does not feel able to take a view on the contents of the Bill. We do not have an extradition agreement with China, so why should Hong Kong? I raised my next point during the last urgent question on the subject, but did not get a very clear answer, so let me ask the Minister again: if the Hong Kong Executive decide to push on with the Bill’s implementation, will the Government review the UK’s extradition arrangements with Hong Kong?

Mark Field 

The hon. Lady will be aware that extradition issues are a Home Office matter—that is not to try to get out of the issue, but clearly I do not want to step on the toes of another Government Department in making a firm commitment along the lines that she would have me make. We agree very much with her view that ​although the proposal is not necessarily in breach of the joint declaration, which is silent on the issue of extradition, it is clearly in breach of the notion of one country, two systems as well as the sense that there should be the rule of law and the idea of the common law system that is in place.