Stephen Kinnock (Aberavon) (Lab)
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Ghani. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Gedling (Tom Randall) on securing this extremely important debate, and I pay tribute to all those who have contributed. It is striking to see how united we are across the Chamber in our condemnation of the behaviour and activities of Beijing. I hope that the Minister will note the united message that he is hearing. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) and for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for their powerful and passionate contributions.
The Chinese Government’s assault on Hong Kong’s democratic institutions and their ongoing persecution of pro-democracy activists is a scar on the conscience of the world, but it is of particular importance to our country. Beijing’s actions represent a flagrant violation of international law via the multiple breaches of the Sino-British declaration, including the introduction and application of the national security law. They show contempt for the Hong Kong Basic Law, riding roughshod over the one country, two systems framework, and represent a relentless crackdown on established universal rights and freedoms, such as the right to free speech, media freedom, judicial independence and the right to peaceful protest.
We have seen opposition lawmakers being forced out of office and then a new law being imposed to prevent critics of Beijing from standing for office. We have seen Lee Cheuk-yan, the trade union activist, sentenced to 18 months in prison, simply for attending democratic protests, and others like him have also been targeted. And we have seen Jimmy Lai, the media owner, being jailed for more than a year on spurious charges, while Radio Television Hong Kong’s independence has been compromised, and BBC world radio has been taken off the air following the banning of BBC News in China, which itself came as a result of the BBC’s outstanding and important investigation into the persecution of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang.
Perhaps most tragically of all in Hong Kong, we have seen the arrests and sentencing of scores of liberal pro-democracy activists, including brave young leaders such as Joshua Wong, Ivan Lam and Agnes Chow, and the Hong Kong eight. Increasingly, trials take place in secret and without a jury, utterly undermining the basic foundation of judicial independence upon which Hong Kong’s rule of law is built. In short, the Chinese Government are doing all they can to crush the democratic rights of the Hong Kong people and to assert their own authoritarian and despotic system.
Let me be clear that the Labour party will stand up for democracy, human rights and the rule of law everywhere, and will call out violations wherever they take place. We apply these principles without fear or favour, and we will always encourage the Government to work in partnership with our international allies to defend the values that we cherish.
It is, therefore, a matter of real regret that the UK Government have at times left us in a position of weakness. Consecutive Conservative Governments since 2010 have been naive and complacent in their dealings with the Chinese Communist party leadership. These successive Conservative Governments have eroded the UK’s leverage and influence: first, by leaving the British economy over-reliant on Chinese imports and supply chains, as, shockingly, 57 of our critical national infrastructure supply chains are now reliant on China; and secondly, by failing to form or maintain the alliances on the world stage to defend our values and interests.
In 2015, David Cameron and George Osborne, with enthusiastic support from Boris Johnson, who was then London Mayor, proclaimed a “golden era” of UK-China relations, a strategy designed to open up UK markets to Chinese business and investment, in the expectation that China would fall in line with international norms on trade and human rights. The opposite has happened. Uncompetitive market behaviour by state-backed Chinese firms has contributed to the £19 billion deficit that we are still running with China and, in short, the Chinese Government have failed to align themselves with any of the values or norms that the “golden era” was supposed to be based on.
We have seen the compromising of national and economic security by increased reliance on China, and we have also seen a concerning tendency towards lack of consistency across Government. Of course, we saw the divisions on the genocide amendment to the Trade Act 2021. The UK Government chose to block it, which was a matter of profound regret to the Labour party.
We therefore need a long-term strategy. The Prime Minister has a unique opportunity to deliver this at the G7. It means rebuilding our strategic independence by reducing our exposure to Chinese investment in supply chains. It means addressing the national security issues, particularly around Taiwan. And it really does mean looking at areas where China holds a de facto global monopoly, particularly around rare earth metals, for example.
In the shorter term, we must do more to support the people of Hong Kong. We need more Government support for British nationals overseas, including language support and access to GPs and to housing. We must see a clear route to citizenship for Hongkongers born after 1997 and we must not give up on those who are still campaigning. We need the Magnitsky-type sanctions that have been mentioned by many hon. Members. We need a judge-led inquiry into police brutality, and we need—as the Labour party is calling for—British judges to leave Hong Kong.
British judges are simply lending a veneer of credibility to the undemocratic, broken system. Have the UK Government made an assessment of whether UK judges are protecting the rule of law in Hong Kong or simply legitimising an authoritarian regime? Will the UK Government join the Opposition in taking a clear and principled position? We also need to see action on banks such as HSBC, which, as hon. Members have said, appear to be doing the dirty work of the Chinese Government.
There are so many important actions that the Government can and should take. We should bear in mind that democracy is in retreat across the world. A recent report showed that, for the first time since 2001, authoritarian regimes outnumber democracies. We should take very careful note of that. Hong Kong needs the free world, and the free world needs Hong Kong. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response on these important issues.