MPs raise extradition law and Umbrella Movement trial in UK Parliament debate

On 10 April 2019, the UK Parliament held a debate on the status of freedoms and the rule of law in Hong Kong. The debate was called by Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland, and 19 MPs from 6 political parties joined a wide-ranging discussion about the proposed amendments to the extradition law, the 9 April 2019 verdict of the trial of Umbrella Movement leaders, the status of the rule of law, and the implementation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

Video: Hong Kong Free Press

Mr Carmichael opened the debate with a comment on the Umbrella Movement trial, saying: 

“The prosecution and now conviction of nine leaders of the Umbrella movement is the latest in a series of egregious human rights abuses by the Government in China. Using the criminal justice system and public order offences in this way is an abuse of fundamental and internationally protected human rights…”

Mark Field MP, the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office responsible for Asia, refused to directly comment on the case, as sentencing is on 24th April, but referred to the Foreign Secretary’s recent statement that “on civil and political freedoms, Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy is being reduced.” He added that:

“It would be deeply concerning if the [Umbrella Movement trial] ruling discourages legitimate protest in future or discourages Hong Kong citizens from engaging in political activity.”

Mr Carmichael also highlighted wider concerns about Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms, arguing that:

“…these convictions are not an isolated incident. Over the past five years, we have seen the abduction of Hong Kong booksellers who published titles critical of China’s rulers; a political party banned; a senior Financial Times journalist, Victor Mallet, expelled from the city; and, now, proposals to change Hong Kong’s extradition laws to enable suspected criminals to be extradited from Hong Kong to mainland China, which is something that not only political activists but businesspeople fear, as they believe they could be in danger if the change goes ahead.”

Other MPs also highlighted concerns about Hong Kong’s proposed new extradition law. Helen Goodman MP, the Labour Shadow Minister for Asia; Fiona Bruce, the Conservative MP for Congleton; Geraint Davies, the Labour MP for Swansea West; and David Morris, the Conservative MP for Morecombe and Lunesdale, all raised this issue. Fiona Bruce MP, Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, asked:

“Does the Minister agree that Hong Kong’s proposed new extradition laws, which may result in political activists and even international business people being in danger of extradition to mainland China, would fundamentally undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy, do irreparable damage to one country, two systems, and destroy business confidence in Hong Kong as a result? Is it not in all our interests, especially business, to defend Hong Kong’s freedom, autonomy and rule of law, which underpin its status as an open, international financial centre?”

In response, Mark Field MP said that:

“We are seriously considering the implications of these changes, including how the proposals might affect UK citizens and, indeed our current extradition arrangement with Hong Kong. Considerably more time should be given for a full and wide consultation with interested parties. 

“…it is important that any changes to extradition arrangements from Hong Kong to mainland China must respect Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and cannot and must not affect the rights and freedoms set out in the joint declaration.”

Labour’s Shadow Asia Minister, Helen Goodman MP issued a strong challenge to the UK government:

“A serious discussion in this House on the situation in Hong Kong is overdue. China’s erosion of the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Hong Kong Basic Law has been growing since the pro-democracy Umbrella protests in 2014. The last few years have seen an increasing crackdown on dissent and protest, with political parties banned, pro-democracy candidates blocked and journalists expelled. The conviction of nine leaders of the Hong Kong Umbrella movement yesterday—they could face seven years in prison for organising peaceful protests—is totally disproportionate and clearly politically motivated. The proposals to change Hong Kong’s extradition law means they could serve sentences thousands of miles away in mainland China.

The Sino-British joint declaration is a legally binding treaty registered with the United Nations, and the British Government are a joint guarantor, with China, of the rights of Hong Kong citizens. I have one simple question for the Minister: how will the Government fulfil their legal responsibilities to the citizens of Hong Kong?”

In response to this challenge, Mark Field MP highlighted the ongoing commitment of the UK to Hong Kong, as well as the belief that the ‘one-country, two-systems’ approach is in China’s interests:

“We take one country, two systems very seriously, and we will continue to do so… Our view is that the approach is very much in China’s interests, and China has implicitly recognised the importance of Hong Kong as a financial capital market and business centre. It is therefore equally important that we impress upon China that the uniqueness of Hong Kong will be properly maintained, with Hong Kong reaching its full potential, only if we ensure that “two systems,” as set out in the joint declaration, is every bit as important as “one country.””

Stephen Gethins, the international affairs spokesperson of the Scottish National Party argued that judicial independence was in the best interests of Hong Kong as a commercial hub and was therefore in China’s interest:

“Does the Minister agree that judicial independence is absolutely critical to commercial investment and certainty, and that it is in the interests of China as well? Secondly, what Hong Kong-related discussions have he and his colleagues had with regard to trade talks, and what reassurances have Ministers sought over China’s commitment to Hong Kong’s autonomy and the independence of the legal system?”

The Minister, Mark Field said:

“We have made it very clear that for Hong Kong to fulfil its potential—and, indeed, for China to do so in areas such as the belt and road initiative—the independence of, dare I say it, a common law system such as the British legal system is seen as more reliable for investors than perhaps the more doubtful, or at least less orthodox, systems in Shanghai and elsewhere. Although Pudong in Shanghai is a very important financial centre for China and does a lot of domestic work, Hong Kong still enjoys the confidence of many international capital markets.

On the specifics of free trade agreements in a post-Brexit world, clearly Hong Kong would be towards the top of the list, given the strength of our relationship. We have made it very clear to China that one of the reasons we want one country, two systems to be properly promoted is that it is very much in the interests of China’s plans for its own economic development in the years to come. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his focus on that particular issue, but we should not deny that human rights issues will remain extremely important as far as our own commitment to one country, two systems is concerned.”

Richard Graham MP, the Chair of the China All Party Parliamentary Group, raised the importance of Hong Kong’s rule of law. He said:

“The six-monthly Foreign Office report on Hong Kong, which is circulated by the all-party China group that I have the honour to chair, recognises the close bilateral Hong Kong-UK relations on culture and trade in many sectors, but the Minister is right to highlight the continuing pressures on Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy. Will he confirm that, in relation to the pro-democracy activists found guilty of public nuisance, the appeal process is still very much open and that the higher courts including, if needed, the Court of Final Appeal must take into consideration the freedoms of assembly and speech guaranteed under the joint declaration?”

Mark Field responded by saying:

“I am happy to confirm that. As I said, we have highlighted our hope that a range of recent court rulings do not discourage lawful protest in the future. I stress that Hong Kong citizens are guaranteed the rights to freedom of assembly and demonstration under the joint declaration and the Basic Law.”

For details of the remaining 13 speeches, please read Hansard here or watch the Hong Kong Free Press Video link above. Party members of the Conservative Party, Labour Party, Liberal Democrat Party, Scottish National Party, Democratic Unionist Party and Plaid Cymru were all represented in the debate.