Britain is gearing up to take action against China once it receives an “accurate read out” of reforms lined up for Hong Kong, according to a minister.
The Foreign Office’s Nigel Adams warned there is “concerted action to stifle democracy” in Hong Kong, and urged the authorities to “step back” from action to further restrict the rights and freedoms of Hongkongers.
He added the UK is “carefully and closely” considering imposing sanctions against individuals.
MPs called for sanctions against key figures, including Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam, and for the UK to end its “two-faced” approach to China.
Ms Lam has said the city’s government “fully welcomes” electoral reforms proposed by Beijing which will increase central government control over local politics.
Chinese authorities have said the draft decision before China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) would mean the largely pro-Beijing committee that elects Hong Kong’s leader would also choose a large part of the legislature to ensure that the city is run by “patriots”.
Half of Hong Kong’s legislature is directly elected by voters under current arrangements.
Speaking in the Commons, Mr Adams said the Foreign Office is “deeply concerned” about the proposals.
He said: “This week, meetings of China’s National People’s Congress are taking place behind closed doors.
“We understand that the agenda includes proposals for changes to Hong Kong’s election processes.
“Though the detail is yet to be revealed, these measures might include changes to the election of the chief executive, the removal of district councillors from the chief executive election committee, and the possible introduction of vetting for those standing for public office to ensure that they are described as patriots who govern Hong Kong.
“Such measures, if introduced, would be a further attack on Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms.”
He said the UK has raised its concerns, adding it could “possibly” be this week when there is a better understanding of what has emerged from the NPC.
Mr Adams went on: “Who knows when we’re likely to be able to get an accurate read out.
“We’ll closely examine what comes out of this and make clear what action we’ll be taking once we’ve seen them.”
Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran (Oxford West and Abingdon), who tabled the urgent question, said: “On Hong Kong, China behaves like a bully, and bullies only understand words when they are followed by concerted action. Does he really believe that they are going to step back?
“So will the Government now impose Magnitsky sanctions and other measures on the officials responsible like Carrie Lam and Xia Baolong?”
Labour former minister Chris Bryant added of the sanctions: “We should be using them because it feels as if the Government is completely two-faced on this – not individual ministers, but the Government.
“One day the Government says ‘yes, it’s terrible what’s happening in Hong Kong, yes it’s terrible what’s happening in Xinjiang province’ and the next day the Prime Minister says he’s ‘fervently Sinophile’.
“Frankly, we should be calling this out with a great deal of urgency and using every single tool in the box.”
Conservative chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee Tom Tugendhat said: “We really do need to see greater action and I welcome what the Foreign Secretary has said in the past in championing these Magnitsky sanctions and making sure that they come into law.
“What we now need to see is names put to those charges, because this has now gone on long enough. We know that the abuses of human rights in Hong Kong have continued and we need to stand up for those who are being targeted.”
Mr Adams replied: “We don’t speculate on who may be designated, they are just one tool in our arsenal.”
Conservative former leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said: “The real problem we’ve got here is we sit and wait for something really substantial to happen – other countries have moved.”