Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Questions (37)

Richard Boyd Barrett


37. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the discussions he has had with the Chinese Ambassador and-or his counterparts across the EU in response to the recent anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25587/19]

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Oral answers (12 contributions) (Question to Foreign)

The power of mass movements and people power to face down repressive, brutal and authoritarian governments has been demonstrated in spectacular fashion in the past couple of weeks in Hong Kong. I mention also in passing the similar heroic protests against brutal repression in Sudan. However, I have to say that although the question is about Singapore, there is a deafening silence from the Government and European-----

It is about Hong Kong, not Singapore.

Sorry, it is Hong Kong. There is deafening silence about this repression and I wonder why that is the case. Are we so silent when this fantastic movement of people power faces brutal repression because we feel compromised by our significant trade relations with China?

I am glad the Deputy has given me the opportunity to put a statement on the record concerning what has been happening in Hong Kong. The disturbances in Hong Kong last week are a matter of deep concern. However, I welcome that the demonstration which took place on 16 June passed off by and large peacefully. Public demonstration and protest are an important element of any democracy and the right to protest should not be curtailed. These rights come with responsibilities and it is important that the demonstrators protest peacefully. It is equally important that security forces respond to demonstrations with full respect for citizens' rights and the utmost restraint. I hope the situation develops calmly and the authorities and demonstrators find ways to accommodate legitimate protest, which is a hallmark of democracy.

The European Union released a statement concerning the disturbances in Hong Kong through the spokesperson for High Representative Mogherini on 12 June in which Ms Mogherini reiterated that the fundamental right to assembly and freedom of expression must be respected while calling for restraint on all sides. The statement set out that the EU shares the concerns of the citizens of Hong Kong regarding the extradition reforms and that it has conveyed these concerns to the Government of Hong Kong. Ireland fully supports this statement.

While I have not had any direct contact with the Chinese ambassador or my Chinese counterpart on this matter, our consul general in Hong Kong, together with the EU office and other EU member states, has engaged directly with the Hong Kong authorities with regard to the proposed Bill. Officials in the Consulate General in Hong Kong, the Embassy of Ireland in Beijing and my Department are closely following developments relating to the demonstrations.

An updated travel advice notice alerting people to the demonstrations and advising that areas of potential unrest should be avoided has been issued by the Department. We will continue to monitor the situation closely and, together with our EU partners, we will engage with the Hong Kong authorities and others. The statement by the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region that this legislation has been suspended indefinitely is a very welcome development.

The persistence of millions of protesters, mostly young people, on the streets of Hong Kong forced the Chief Executive, Ms Carrie Lam, very reluctantly to back off, after first trying brutal repression involving rubber bullets that injured about 80 people. Ms Lam did so because the protesters did not give up, although she will still not resign after what she has done. Let us be clear. Carrie Lam is dancing to the tune of a brutal, authoritarian and undemocratic regime in China. It is interesting that this is occurring close to the 30th anniversary of the massacre in Tiananmen Square when the Chinese authorities butchered students and rolled over them with tanks. Since then, they have ruled with an iron fist, attacking civil rights activists and lawyers who defend people and their human rights. They have also been responsible for the persecution of about 13 million Turkic Muslims, the Uighurs, the people of Tibet and Kazakhs. They use vicious repression. The extradition Bill in Hong Kong was an attempt to go after and extradite many people who have fled to Hong Kong from China. What are we saying about China's ruthless authoritarianism?

Ireland's relationship with China is probably better now than it has ever been. It is also more honest than it has ever been. I have met many Chinese ministers during my time in a number of Departments, including the Chinese foreign minister. In recent months, the Chinese foreign minister attended a Foreign Affairs Council meeting in Brussels where he opened up to questions over lunch from anyone who wanted to ask about the economic relationship and human rights issues. Based on my experience as human rights spokesperson in the European Parliament and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I believe the way to engage with China is through respectful dialogue and discussion. It is a huge country. We have concerns relating to certain human rights issues and we raise those matters. As long as they are raised in a way that is not lecturing but involves honest and straight discussion, I find that we are listened to. The kind of language we have heard from Deputy Boyd Barrett is not the way to deal with this.

I find that approach amazing.

I do actually because in certain circumstances, we would be very happy to condemn and denounce violence, repression and the destruction of human rights but then we want to pedal softly with China because we have many trade relationships with it. The same goes for Saudi Arabia and I suspect the reason for the silence around Sudan is not dissimilar. The problem with that approach is that if the Hong Kong regime, operating on behalf of the Chinese regime, had succeeded in using violence to repress the mass protest movement, we would have done nothing about it. Thankfully, the people power movement overcame that - for now - but let us remember Tiananmen Square and think about the millions who are being oppressed by the Chinese regime. Should we not be a little more robust in calling out this stuff? Do we take a soft pedalling approach because we think we must develop our trade relations with China and that, therefore, we should just be silent about this stuff? Very little was said at the height of this by the Government or European leaders.

I just quoted the statement from the European Union, which came from the highest foreign policy source in the EU. The Deputy chooses to ignore that because it does not suit his argument.

No, I am saying it was a weak statement.

I have not said that we pedal softly. That is the Deputy's language. What I said was that in terms of getting a real response from China on issues, I have found it more effective to raise them directly and face to face rather than using megaphone diplomacy. If the outcomes in Hong Kong had been different and there had been a lot of violence as part of an inappropriate response to a huge public demonstration of legitimate concern, we would have been very vocal about that but that did not happen. I am glad that, for now, the outcome seems to have calmed public concern regarding this issue. The approach Ireland takes to its relationship with China is much more effective than approaches we have taken in the past.