HL Deb 01 July 2003 vol 650 cc728-32

3.2 p.m.

Lord Goodhart

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have made representations to the Government of China or Hong Kong about the terms of the National Security (Legislative Provisions) Bill which is about to be considered by the Legislative Council in Hong Kong.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, we have made frequent representations to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government about their draft national security legislation under Article 23 of the Basic Law. We have also discussed the issue with the Chinese Government. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary did so with the visiting Chinese Foreign Minister last week. My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Mr Rammell, issued a further statement about the draft legislation yesterday, 30th June.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, I am aware of and grateful for the concern which the Government have expressed on a number of past occasions on this issue, but we are now getting to the crunch point when the Bill will be voted on. Indeed, I understand that there has been a big demonstration against the Bill in Hong Kong earlier today. Do the Government agree that there are still serious defects in the Bill which raise concerns about the rule of law in Hong Kong? Are the Government aware that the democratic movement in Hong Kong sees intervention by the Government as a last hope of achieving changes in the Bill? Will the Government therefore make representations to the authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing at the highest possible level?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am aware of the demonstrations and I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, that we are following this issue very closely indeed. I have made the point that my honourable friend Mr Rammell and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary have made representations. I also had some brief discussions about this matter last week.

We welcome the fact that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government have improved the legislation in many areas from the original proposals put forward last autumn and the legislative proposals published in the spring. We are particularly concerned about the proposed new provisions on prescription, which I believe may be the issue troubling the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. We believe that these provisions blur the dividing line between the separate Hong Kong and mainland legal systems by introducing into Hong Kong legislation links to mainland law. That is the real problem and the nub of the issue. We share the view of many in Hong Kong—who may well have been demonstrating today—that this is inconsistent with the one country/two systems principle that underlies the joint declaration.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, did we not tell the people of Hong Kong six years ago that they would not be forgotten? Does the Minister agree that the rule of law and freedom under the law that we bequeathed to Hong Kong is its most precious asset today? While I am glad to hear that some of the effects of the Article 23 measures and subversion legislation may have been modified—or, indeed, exaggerated in the first place—will the Government nevertheless be very bold indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, suggested, in pointing out to the Government in Beijing, at the highest level, that their pressure for these changes could lead to very serious long-term damage for Hong Kong? Does the Minister agree that quiet dialogue is no longer the appropriate medium for handling this issue? Does she further agree that we must avoid the accusation being levelled at the British Government—as it has been—that they are mere spectators in this very serious situation?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, if such a charge is being levelled at the Government it is quite unfounded. Quiet dialogue has its place and it is important that we are able to engage frankly with both the SAR and Chinese Governments on this issue. That does not and has not precluded our making quite robust public statements. I remind the noble Lord that the former Lord Chancellor and Mr Rammell have put across our concerns in person when visiting Hong Kong. There was a period when such visits were not possible because of the SARS outbreak, but we have continued these exchanges at official level and we have made frequent representations. On 20th June, Mr Rammell sent a personal message to the Secretary for Security on this issue and, as I indicated in my original Answer, the matter was raised only last week by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary with the visiting Chinese Minister. We have also spoken out on this issue—not only in private but in public. We have now issued three statements—on 18th November last year and on 27th March and 30th June this year—and we have led international efforts to improve the legislation, with the US, the EU, Canada and Australia following our lead. The EU, of course. issued a statement yesterday.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, does my noble friend hold out any hope that there will be a change of heart on the part of the authorities in Hong Kong or in Beijing? What has been the Chinese response to the many representations made by the Government?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the Chinese Government have responded today in relation to the statements that have been made. I have referred to the statement put forward by the EU yesterday and the United States Government have also made a statement. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has said that the allegations made in these statements are "unfounded" and that Article 23 is an internal matter in which foreign countries have no right to interfere. That is the public statement being made by the Chinese Government. That is why I was so emphatic in saying to the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, that this is not only a matter for public exchanges; there also have to be quiet exchanges between those who are able to talk frankly to each other. Of course we should say what we believe to be the case publicly but it is enormously important not to lose the value of quiet diplomacy.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that this objectionable law is likely to come into effect as early as 9th July? Does she see any prospect, in the short time remaining between now and then, of achieving changes in the sweeping provisions which are liable to affect the media, the churches and groups such as Falun Gong?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Lord is right. This continues to be a matter for discussion in Hong Kong. Our representations and the representations of others have led to some changes in the original points put forward by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government. We now have a period of about eight days. I have told the House what the Chinese Government have said. Your Lordships are in a position to make judgments, as are the British Government, about how much progress we are likely to make by shouting the odds at the Chinese Government rather than trying to pursue some well-argued points with them. In your Lordships' anxiety to do the right thing, I hope that your Lordships will not lose sight of the importance of diplomacy as well as public statements.

Lord Geddes

My Lords, I wish that the Minister's remarks had been used in the two, three or four years immediately before the hand-over. That is now history. The Minister mentioned several times representations being made in this respect to the government in Beijing. I am sure that the House welcomes that. Have representations also been made directly to Mr Tung Chi Hua, the chief executive of the Hong Kong SAR? If not, could they please be made?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, yes. I had hoped that I had made that clear in my initial Answer, when I said that we had made frequent representations to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Regional Government about the matter. We shall of course continue to make sure that they are left in no doubt about our views on this issue.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, given that there has been a strong statement from the White House, which the Minister has confirmed, that there has been a statement from the European Union, and also repeated representations from the British Government, will the Minister consider drawing to the attention of the Chinese Government the damaging effect on foreign direct investment that this is likely to have, if it is pursued in its present form? If Hong Kong, as the Minister indicated, does riot have full recognition of its special status, there is likely to be concern among foreign investors about continuing to invest in that region.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I would add that there have also been statements made by Australia. This is a difficult issue and I appreciate that your Lordships are enormously concerned and wish to leave no stone unturned in the arguments that may be put forward. There are judgments to be made about the efficacy of what might be seen as a threat in relation to what otherwise might be seen as encouragement. I was specific in reading out what I understand is the reaction of the Chinese government.

We have to make some quite difficult judgments over the next few days about the most efficacious way to proceed. If I may say very gently to the noble Baroness, it is just possible that pointing out what might happen over foreign direct investment—which I would suggest is self-evident—might be seen as more on the threatening side, rather than on the persuasive side, of the equation.

Lord Eden of Winton

My Lords, the original Question of noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, referred to the fact that the issue is about to be considered by the Legislative Council in Hong Kong. Can the Minister say whether the Legislative Council is in a position to amend or reject the proposed Bill, and if so, what would be the consequences?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as I understand the matter, it does have some powers of amendment, although they might not be the same types of powers enjoyed, not so much by your Lordships, but by another place. The matter is under consideration and the discussions should be completed by 8th July. As I understand it, there is some room for manoeuvre. I hope that we focus on the continued good will and persuasion of those who feel that there are some outstanding issues about the effect on the Joint Declaration, and the whole point about one country/two systems and the consistency of what is suggested in the legislation, even as it stands with that principle in the Joint Declaration.