It is important to show the Chinese Communist Party that there are fierce consequences when countries flout international law

On the 23rd of January, I secured a Westminster Hall debate on the ‘Future of human rights in Hong Kong’. The timing of the debate was particularly pertinent as it coincided with China’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations. The UPR is a device allowing member states of the UN Human Rights Council to peer review China’s human rights record, and the lack of. The debate allowed Parliamentarians and I to highlight the injustices affecting contemporary Hong Kong including the Chinese Government’s increasing oppression of what they deem as political threats, such as Jimmy Lai, a 76-year-old man on trial in Hong Kong under National Security Law. As one of the MPs sanctioned by the Chinese Government (CCP) and Chair of the Tibet APPG, I regularly raise longstanding concerns about human rights violations by the CCP, not least against Tibetans and Uyghurs Muslims, in Parliament.

We are now approaching the fourth year of Hong Kong’s inclusion under the notorious National Security Law (NSL), where Beijing bypassed the territory’s own Legislative Council to enforce the programme. The NSL criminalises any acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign and external forces, and is completely open to the interpretation of Beijing officials. It flagrantly breaches the British-Sino Joint Declaration 1997 which saw the handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese Government, enshrining the concept of “one country, two systems”. Under this, Hong Kong was supposed to enjoy a “high degree of autonomy”, maintaining, for example its own legal system, judiciary and borders, however under current circumstances those commitments have turned into hollow words.

Beijing’s clampdown on civil liberties has manifested itself in a multitude of ways. The breakdown of the Joint Declaration does not contain any penalties for China if it breaches the agreement, the lack of disincentives to comply have only emboldened the CCP’s continuous breach of international and joint laws. As of December 2023, 285 people have been arrested, among whom 172 were prosecuted for allegedly “endangering national security”. Moreover, the law has also led to the closure of more than 100 NGO and civil society groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. By encompassing Hong Kong within NSL, the Chinese Community Party (CCP) has clearly aimed to eradicate any form of political opponent. In 2024, Hong Kong now has one of the fastest-growing political prisoner populations in the world, rivalling authoritarian states such a Cuba, Myanmar, and Belarus. The astronomical rise in political prisoners (from 0 to 1,775 between 2020 and 2023), has seen the persecution of prominent pro-democracy figures including politician and social activist, Lee Cheuk-yan, professor of Law at Hong Kong University, Benny Tai, and of course British citizen and Apple Daily (pro-democracy) media owner, Jimmy Lai. Jimmy Lai is currently under trial for sedition and collusion with foreign powers under NSL demonstrating how the law is one of the most egregious examples of the intolerance, illiberalism and injustice faced by Hong Kongers since CCP clampdown in June 2020.

Beijing’s clampdown and increased centralised control was a reaction to a resurgence of pro-democracy protests, such as those in 2014 and 2019, and the success of pro-democracy politicians in the island’s 2019 local elections. Politically, the complete overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system, that allows for “Patriots-only” elections, has led to a complete collapse in voter turnout from 71.2% in 2019 to 27.5% in 2023. There is no greater demonstration of the disastrous impact of these laws than the mass exodus of approximately 500,000 residents leaving Hong Kong since 2021. Many of them have cited China’s stronger grip over the territory as the primary reason to leave. The Home Office launched the BNO visa scheme on 31st January 2021, according to the Home Office, as of February 2023, over 144,500 Hong Kongers had moved to the UK.

In closing the debate, I called for the UK and Ministers to work with global, democratic partners to call out and hold China accountable for its human right abuses in Hong Kong, and coordinate consequences. The UK’s progress to date has been slow, and while at last Jimmy Lai has been recognised as a British citizen, no sanctions have been made against CCP officials when sanctions against other foreign individuals and powers have been quickly enforced. It is important to show the Chinese Communist Party that there are fierce consequences when countries flout international law, strangling the golden goose that was once a beacon of liberty and entrepreneurialism.

Tim Loughton MP

Tim Loughton is the Conservative MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, and was elected in 1997.