This speech was originally made by the author in the House of Lords on 24 October 2019
This House takes note of the recent political unrest in Hong Kong, and of the calls to offer residents of Hong Kong citizenship in another country.Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
My Lords, the purpose of today’s debate is to gain a better understanding of why up to 2 million people have felt compelled to participate in mass popular protests in Hong Kong; of how regressive changes in China have created a storm of anxiety; of why the UK has a moral and legal obligation to stand with its people, and of how the international community, including the Commonwealth, can provide guarantees to Hong Kong that will give its people an insurance policy of security and solidarity.
On more than 20 occasions in the past year, I have highlighted the weakening of the guarantees contained in the 1984 Sino-British joint declaration—which is an international treaty—the disturbing erosion of “two systems, one country” and the changes in China that have caused such apprehension in Hong Kong.
The joint declaration, through the Basic Law, enshrines the fundamental principles of the rule of law, democracy, human rights and free speech—not just a treaty but for Hong Kong’s people a way of life, now placed at grave risk.
What began as a rejection of Beijing’s erosion of the territory’s Basic Law and Carrie Lam’s unjust extradition Bill has become a broader fight about Hong Kong’s autonomy and very future.
It is hard to disagree with the proposition that Hong Kong is the new front line in a clash of value systems.
In the aftermath of the 1997 handover, Beijing upheld “one country, two systems”, but in the past few years, both Hong Kong’s freedoms and trust have been undermined and eroded increasingly dramatically.
The final straw was Beijing’s attempt to compromise the judicial system.
The people of Hong Kong are well aware of how the Chinese courts administer justice.
In 2018, according to the Wall Street Journal, the courts in Jiangsu province acquitted just 43 people while convicting 96,271.
They are the ones who are actually given a trial, unlike Lam Wing-kee, a bookseller in Hong Kong for 20 years, who was abducted and incarcerated for eight months, and whom I met in Taiwan last month.
He told me that highly placed Communist Party officials bought books from him.
Without irony, he said that his bestsellers included George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The Chinese authorities told Mr Lam, “If we say you have committed a crime, you have committed a crime”.
Denied all contact with his family and left in degrading conditions, he contemplated suicide.
Belief in the rule of law has been further compromised by Carrie Lam’s unenforceable ban on face masks and her decision to invoke emergency powers—always a harbinger of autocracy and the latest in a long list of blunders.
Amnesty accuses the Hong Kong police and points to,“an alarming pattern of … reckless and indiscriminate tactics”,beatings and torture.
Dominic Raab has condemned the use of force as “disproportionate”, with calls for an independent inquiry.
The brutality of China’s agents was underlined last week when Jimmy Sham, a leading voice for democracy, was viciously attacked by five hammer-wielding assailants.
You will never create a harmonious and law-abiding society by using agents provocateur, tear gas, iron bars and live ammunition. Shooting teenagers is no solution. The rule of law is not rule by law; it is simply inflammatory.
If all this leads to diplomats issuing a formal warning to businesses in the region, there will be a flight of capital. Beijing would therefore be far wiser to seek dialogue and compromise, rather than killing the goose and the golden egg—China’s most profitable financial centre.
In recent months, I have asked about the expulsion of journalists and the banning of political parties, and I have worked with Hong Kong Watch, of which I am a patron.
I particularly thank Luke de Pulford and Ben Rogers for their work and for bringing to Westminster the umbrella movement’s founders, Nathan Law and Joshua Wong, both of whom are totally committed to peaceful, non-violent protest but were jailed, with Nathan disqualified from the legislature.
During this debate, we must discuss what the future holds for young people like them and for the city’s courageous people.
Some 173 Members of both Houses have pressed the Foreign Secretary to lead an international initiative to guarantee second citizenship.
The noble Lord, Lord Popat, will say more about this later, and I will refer to the position of BNO passport holders, but I think it would be helpful to the debate if, when the Minister comes to reply, he could tell us exactly how many people he believes are currently BNO passport holders.
We will also hear today from many noble Lords with a great love of Hong Kong and its people, not least the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, and my noble friend Lord Wilson of Tillyorn, and many others with incredible knowledge about Hong Kong and China.
My own Hong Kong connections began when I was a student volunteer teaching English to families who had settled in Liverpool—home to one of Britain’s oldest Chinese communities—having escaped the cultural revolution.
One of their descendants is my goddaughter.
Liverpool was also the birthplace of William Gladstone, a vociferous opponent of the appalling opium trade, which he said was “at variance with justice”. The Opium Wars led, in 1842, to the treaty of Nanking, to the opening of five treaty ports to foreign merchants, and to the ceding, of course, of Hong Kong Island to the British Empire.
It was in 1980, as a young Liverpool MP, that I first visited Hong Kong, and I subsequently went to Shanghai.
There, I secretly met persecuted Christians whose bishop, Cardinal Ignatius Kung, had languished for 30 years in Chinese jails.
In 1979, it was against this backdrop that Margaret Thatcher had to negotiate with Deng Xiaoping the restitution of Hong Kong. In 1982, Deng told her:“I could walk in and take the whole lot this afternoon”.
In a characteristic retort, the Prime Minister replied:“There is nothing I could do to stop you, but the eyes of the world would now know what China is like”.That is equally true today.
The eyes of the world must stay trained on Hong Kong.
Last week, the free world did just that when the US House of Representatives passed four pieces of bipartisan legislation, three of which were related to Hong Kong.
But our eyes have seen other things too.Thirty years ago, in Tiananmen Square, we saw the Red Army massacre 10,000 pro-democracy demonstrators, many of them young. We have also seen how Xi Jinping has been turning the clock back on Deng Xiaoping’s welcome attempts at reform.
In June, on the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen, the regime said that the brutal suppression of those pro-democracy demonstrations had been good for society, describing it as a “vaccination” against political instability.
We have also seen how Xi is repressing political dissent and religious belief.
The assault on religion in China is the most systematic since the lethal cultural revolution, when churches were desecrated, looted, and turned into storerooms and factories.
The religious were incarcerated, tortured, some burnt alive, some sent to labour camps, with Christians publicly paraded through cities and towns and forced to wear cylindrical hats detailing their crime of belief.
Over the summer I met Hong Kong’s Cardinal Zen and Martin Lee, the founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party—a meeting that the Chinese authorities tried to stop.
I heard their fears that religious persecution will be visited again on Hong Kong. President Xi may not yet have a Little Red Book, but he has replaced the 10 commandments with his sayings.
In addition to the lack of religious freedom, churches, mosques and temples have been shut or demolished, leaders imprisoned and surveillance cameras installed. The European Parliament described the situation as “a new low”.
Writing about surveillance, George Orwell famously said in Nineteen Eighty-Four:“Big brother is watching you”.
But not just watching—Orwell said:“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever”.and that:“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history”.
For Buddhists in Tibet and Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, Xi’s Sinicisation programme seeks to do just that.
To ensure that their history is obliterated, over 40 Uighur cemeteries have been destroyed, with bones and ancestors’ remains scattered.
At the APPG for Uighurs, of which I am vice-chairman, we heard disturbing evidence about the vile incarceration of 1 million Uighur Muslims, for them to be re-educated, brainwashed, intimidated, and reprogrammed.
We have also seen disturbing evidence suggestive of why Uighur DNA is tested. Falun Gong practitioners told a parliamentary hearing how bodies have been turned into sources of forced human organ harvesting.
An independent tribunal, chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, concluded that there is “incontrovertible evidence” that this has happened.
We will hear more about this from my noble friends Lady Finlay and Lady Grey-Thompson.
The Minister has the names of Chinese officials involved in this and other forms of persecution. Perhaps he will tell the House whether Magnitsky powers will be used to pursue those culpable.Ministers and their officials need to be alive to China’s use of censorship, economic pressure and fear and favour to try and silence criticism and to close the world’s eyes to what is happening in Hong Kong.
Perry Link, a Princeton academic, describes China’s heavy-handed attempts to close and censor debates as the “anaconda in the chandelier”. But the anaconda is not just in the chandelier—it is the chandelier.
President Xi’s “great firewall” and dystopian “cyber sovereignty” is entrenched by laws that can result in job loss, years-long prison sentences or exile.
This is not the free air of Hong Kong with unimpeded access to the internet, and Hong Kong has been watching all this with alarm.
In 2008, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate the late Liu Xiaobo, along with hundreds of others, published the pro-democracy and human rights manifesto Charter 08. He received a sentence of 11 years’ imprisonment.
He wrote that his crime was to,“oppose systems of government that are dictatorships or monopolies … Opposition is not equivalent to subversion”.He looked to the day when,“different values, ideas, beliefs, and political views … can both compete with each other and peacefully coexist”.
The same thought was captured in the 1984 joint declaration, which said that Hong Kong’s,“life-style shall remain unchanged for 50 years”.This included,“freedom of the person … of the press, of assembly, of association … of demonstration … of belief”.
But we have watched with dismay as promises have been broken, legislators disqualified, mass arrests take place, employees dismissed and live ammunition replace any attempt to cultivate dialogue or to find solutions.
And we have seen China tell the UK—the only other signatory to a legally binding joint declaration—that we have no right to express a view.
We have seen China say that the 1984 treaty is null and void: a “historical document”, with “no practical significance” and no binding effect on the Chinese central Government’s management of Hong Kong.
So what must we do?
The United Kingdom has a unique moral and historic duty to bring together the international community in defence of the rule of law, democracy, free speech and human rights, and of “two systems, one country”.
We should form an international contact group of like-minded nations to co-ordinate an international response.
At next year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, in Kigali, countries should be urged to give all Hong Kong citizens an insurance policy of second citizenship and a place of abode, to be available if China continues to resile from the joint declaration.
I chaired a hearing about British National (Overseas) passport holders, including former police officers and the 250 military who served the Crown.
Their plight was said by the late Lord Ashdown to be “worse than Windrush”.
In a letter to me this week, the Home Secretary said that the Government have,“no plans to amend the law”.
BNO passport holders are vulnerable and so are others with proven UK links.
Perhaps the Minister can confirm that there is no legal impediment to us giving full British citizenship to those at risk and say whether we will help forge a comprehensive international solution for the people of Hong Kong.
Nobody wants anyone to have to leave Hong Kong.
People are more likely to stay if they know that there will be ways to leave should the need arise.
We should join the US in introducing legislation to strengthen the monitoring of the Sino-British joint declaration, with Magnitsky sanctions and the enactment of a Hong Kong human rights and democracy Act to hold perpetrators to account when it has been breached.
We should ensure that, after Brexit, no free trade agreement is made with Hong Kong or China without a robust clause tied to the freedoms guaranteed in the Sino-British joint declaration.
Trade law is critical and more enforceable than other forms of international law.
To conclude, the answers to Beijing’s fears about separatism and its desire for unity, and a stable future are to be found in the free air of Hong Kong, not in the Uighur re-education camps of Xinjiang or in a repeat of the massacre at Tiananmen, or through surveillance cameras or oppression.
As Margaret Thatcher rightly said, the eyes of the world are on Hong Kong.
We must stand in solidarity with them. In our day, we must neither avert our eyes or silence our voices.