[Phil Wilson in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered human rights in Xinjiang.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I am delighted to have the opportunity to discuss this issue. I am also pleased to see a good number of other MPs in the Chamber, given the importance of business elsewhere in the Palace. I am grateful for their support. I place on the record my appreciation of the work in this area of various non-governmental organisations, including Amnesty International, Christian Solidarity Worldwide—CSW—Human Rights Watch and the World Uyghur Congress.
I also add the BBC to that list. It was a remarkable 10-minute report by John Sweeney on “Newsnight” in August 2018 that first brought this issue to my attention; I am ashamed to say that I knew nothing about it until that point. In that 10 minutes he described very graphically the scale of what is happening in Xinjiang province and well illustrated the human cost. Even if the BBC does nothing else worth watching over the next 12 months—I do not completely discount that possibility—that 10 minutes alone justifies the licence fee.
The concerns that I and, I hope, others will raise are all supported by evidence, although there are other concerns that are not so well evidenced. However, even on those concerns for which evidence exists it is impossible to be entirely accurate, as we shall see when looking at the numbers affected. That is principally a consequence of the secrecy and surveillance of the government of the Xinjiang province, which is said to extend not only within the province but outside it as well. Uyghur Muslims living in this country feel very much under the same pressure as those who live in Xinjiang. Parenthetically, I hear anecdotal reports that the Chinese secret service has been recruiting Chinese students at British universities to spy on other Chinese students, thus continuing and worsening the climate of secrecy and fear.
However, thanks to the evidence of “Newsnight” and the efforts of Amnesty, CSW and Human Rights Watch, we have an emerging picture on an epic scale. What is being done in Xinjiang is also happening in Tibet, where mass detention camps have been a feature of the landscape since 2014. The so-called re-education camps, officially known as centres for transformation through education, are principally, but not exclusively, targeted at the Muslim community.
CSW lists reasons for detention in the camps including, among other things: someone having WhatsApp on their phone; having relatives who live abroad; accessing religious materials online; having visited certain “sensitive” countries; participation in communal religious activities; and behaviour indicating “wrong thinking” or “religious extremism”. Indeed, sometimes no reason is given at all.
Amnesty gives some useful context, stating:
“China’s Constitution, laws and ethnic policies all stress ethnic unity and prohibit discrimination against ethnic groups…But China’s expressed determination to eradicate the ‘forces of terrorism, separatism and extremism’ leads officials to pursue discriminatory policies that target members of ethnic groups merely for exercising their rights to freedom of religion and belief, thought, peaceful assembly, association, movement, opinion, expression and access to information.”
Quite incredibly, the Chinese Government continue to deny the existence of these camps. However, eyewitness accounts, documentation relating to the construction and procurement of the camps, and satellite imagery all contradict that denial. The number of detainees is said to be between several hundred thousand and just over 1 million, with CSW saying that it may be as high as 3 million. We can be certain that that number is rising.
What goes on within these detention facilities has been described as Orwellian, which I think, because of what we know, does some injustice to George Orwell. If George Orwell was commissioned to write in the style of Franz Kafka, that might come close. Inmates are required to chant Communist party slogans, recite party thought and take part in self-incrimination sessions.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I thank the Minister for his help in answering several of my questions on this issue. Does the right hon. Gentleman share the concern of many in my constituency, most importantly Mohammed Haroun, representing the Uxbridge Street mosque, who wrote to me to say that the scale of Muslim persecution in China makes what is happening in Myanmar pale into insignificance, and that we must act?
I always think it invidious to try to compare persecution in one country with that in another. However, the hon. Gentleman’s point is a good one. I suspect that we do not hear more about this issue because of the difficulty in getting reliable information out of the province. I will return to that point.
To give a bit more of a human flavour of what goes on in the camps, I will share with the House, and place on the record, a couple of the testimonies from that “Newsnight” report in August. The first is from Azat, whose family are detained in the camp. He describes having been allowed to visit his family, saying:
“It was dinner time. There were at least 1,200 people holding empty plastic bowls in their hands. They had to sing pro-Chinese songs to get food. I never dreamt the place was so huge. The cell windows were barred. From the lights, I knew there were many more people inside as well. I estimate that there were at least 3,500 people in there.”
He describes them, saying:
“They were like robots. They seemed to have lost their souls. I knew many of them well—we used to sit and eat together—but now they didn’t look normal to me. They behaved as if they weren’t aware of what they were doing. They were like someone who’d lost their memory after a car crash.”
There was a further interview with a re-education centre survivor called Omir, who said:
“They have a chair called the tiger. My ankles were shackled, my hands locked into the chair, I couldn’t move. They wouldn’t let me sleep. They also hung me up for hours and they beat me. They had thick wooden and rubber batons, whips made from twisted wire, needles to pierce the skin, pliers for pulling out your nails. All these tools were displayed on the table in front of me, ready for use at any time. You could hear other people screaming as well.
You have no freedom at all. You must do everything according to the rules set by the Communist party: recite what they say, sing red songs, thank the party, think like a robot. You do whatever you are told.”
It is hard to listen to some of those descriptions of the situation in the camps and the psychological pressures placed on people. Has the right hon. Gentleman heard evidence, as I have, that DNA samples and biometric data are also being obtained from Uyghurs in the camps, perhaps for the possibility of organ harvesting? That issue has been raised in relation to China before.
I have heard that suggested. The evidence around the purpose of the use of DNA harvesting—I think, clearly the fact that it is suggested demands proper investigation. I think it is something that we as a country could do, and that we should lead on exerting pressure for such an investigation; but whether or not that is actually happening, I do not honestly know and I am careful not to overstate the case. What we know, and what is evidenced already, is certainly bad enough.
The human rights report produced by the Minister’s own Department, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in June 2018 said of Xinjiang that
“the authorities introduced intrusive security and surveillance measures and cultural restrictions targeted at the Uyghur Muslim population. Thousands of Uyghurs were held in re-education camps after returning from abroad.”
I would suggest, on the basis of what we know now—what has come to light since then—that if anything, that is something of an understatement. I will look with interest to see how that statement is revised in this year’s human rights report.
I am conscious of the shortage of time and am grateful for the support of colleagues who have turned up for the debate. I could say a lot more, but I will focus now on why this matter should concern us and what my asks are of the Minister. First, it should concern us because the United Kingdom is a party to several declarations of human rights, including the universal declaration. The defining characteristic of human rights is surely their universality. An abuse or denial of human rights anywhere is a denial that affects us all.
The issue affects a number of Uyghur Muslims living in this country. “Newsnight” spoke of one case in which a family member had lost contact with up to 20 members of her family, who had possibly been taken into detention. What we know about the threats to the Muslim population in Xinjiang province raises serious questions for our own asylum policy. We know that there are some 10 Uyghur Muslims with active asylum claims at the moment. I know that this is not directly within the Minister’s responsibilities, but the Government should consider following the example of Sweden and Germany and introducing a moratorium on returns to China of Muslims from the Uyghur province.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter to the Chamber for us to debate. The issue is not only the need for pressure in relation to asylum applications and so on. Other authoritarian states are copying that example and piling in and persecuting citizens in a similar way.
That is absolutely the case. It is the contagion of the abuse of human rights. We have seen it times without number in different parts of the world down the decades.
What consideration have the Government given to the use of section 13 of the Criminal Finances Act 2017 in response to gross human rights abuses? This could be a good first test of that section. Most importantly of all, what will the Government in this country do to see that an independent investigation is carried out into what is happening in Xinjiang province? The Chinese Government have said that they would be prepared to co-operate with a UN-led investigation. As a permanent member of the Security Council and as an advocate and strong promoter and defender of human rights, our country could take an important lead in making that sort of investigation happen. We should not be relying on groups such as Amnesty, Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Human Rights Watch to find out what is going on.
Human rights are to be defended wherever they are challenged. The right to religious belief should be defended, and everyone has a right to due process. None of these things features in the way in which Uyghur Muslims and others in Xinjiang province are treated. We have a direct interest at play also. It is obvious that the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang is now acting as a recruiting sergeant for Daesh, for IS. As that happens, yes, of course its primary focus will be in relation to China, but we know from our own experience that Daesh, IS, does not confine its activities to any single country, so Britain has a very direct interest in ensuring that the rights of Muslims and others of religious faith in Xinjiang province are protected, and that the abuses are brought into the public domain so that their human rights and those of others can be protected.
Order. Several people want to speak, and I want the Back-Bench speeches to finish at 28 minutes past 3 so that we can give the three Front Benchers 10 minutes each and then allow two minutes for the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), who moved the motion, to conclude his remarks, so I ask people to keep their speeches to about five minutes. I do not want to impose a time limit. If we play it that way, we should get everybody in.
It is a privilege to speak in this debate, and I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for securing it and for his speech, with which I very much concur.
Last week, as chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, I was able to meet a Uyghur Muslim who is now living in Washington DC and part of the NGO the Uyghur Entrepreneurs Network. He said that, about two years ago, Uyghurs who use Washington as a base—there are now about 3,000 of them—started reporting that relatives in China were disappearing. He says that, now, every Uyghur he meets there has a relative who has disappeared. Indeed, all of his own relatives have disappeared. The last one was his father, who sent a message to him saying, “Son, they have come for me.”
As we have heard, reports suggest that there are huge numbers—quite possibly more than 1 million—in the camps. People are often there for no reason at all. I am told that the difficulties experienced by Uyghur girls are such that they are even selected for Communist party officials to have relationships with them and used for bartering in exchange for their family’s freedom.
The religious dimension to the detentions is self-evident. Detainees are predominantly, although not exclusively, Muslim; they include people of Uyghur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz ethnicity. In this climate of fear, Uyghur Muslims have stopped public and communal religious observance. We have been told about the treatment of people once they are in the camps. Detainees have been not only forced to renounce their religion but forced, we understand, to eat pork or drink alcohol, in violation of their right to freedom of religion or belief. Conditions in the camps are extremely difficult, as we have heard.
The awful treatment extends even to children in the camps. Children as young as three can be detained, although sadly the children of those detained are often left to fend for themselves. We were told last week of one child who was found frozen—they had died when their parents were taken away. Children are often mistreated or sent to retraining centres. We have heard of children as young as six months old being locked up like farm animals in a shed.
Let me also draw the Minister’s attention to the concerns about DNA testing of Uyghurs, about which we have heard, and the potential that that might be being used for forced organ harvesting. I know that that is currently being investigated by the independent China tribunal, chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice, QC. It would be interesting to hear the Minister’s comments on that.
Bob Fu, of China Aid, told us last week that the human rights violations in terms of religious persecution are at their worst for some 40 years in China. I am grateful to the UK, during the universal periodic review, for calling on China to implement the recommendations of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and to allow the UN to monitor the implementation. But the UK needs to do as much as it can to ensure international accountability for the human rights violations, so can the Minister say whether he will support the calls for the UK to work with others in the international community to establish an independent, impartial and comprehensive UN-led investigation and to work towards the establishment of a mechanism for accountability on this issue?
Let me also draw colleagues’ attention to concerns in America. In relation to what is said to be happening in China, the Washington Post says:
“It’s hard to read that as anything other than a declaration of genocidal intent.”
This month, members of Congress and the Senate introduced the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which calls for the President to condemn the abuses, for the Secretary of State to co-ordinate closely with the traditional allies on targeted sanctions and restrictions, and for the appointment of a US special co-ordinator for the Uyghur autonomous region. It also calls on the private sector to conduct due diligence in dealings with China, and asks the FBI to track and take steps to hold accountable officials from China who harass, threaten or intimidate US citizens and legal permanent residents. I hope the Minister will join me in welcoming this action from the US and that he will co-ordinate with his counterparts there on this situation.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I want to thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for securing this important debate on a topic that is overlooked.
We have all been made aware of the plight of the Uyghurs in the last year or so by the media coverage, the satellite images, and those who have family and friends in the region, who talk about the abuses taking place. Last week I met with several human rights groups to discuss the reports of widespread abuse in the Xinjiang region. The experts I spoke to emphasised that while tensions between the Communist party and the Chinese citizens of non-Han identity have been present for some time, the last two years have seen violent escalation in the state policy. Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities are now facing unprecedented levels of repression.
Since 2017, a network of enormous holding camps has been built, with as many as 1 million Uyghurs said to be currently detained in them. As evidence of these camps has become indisputable, thanks largely to investigative journalism, we have seen a shift in the rhetoric of the Chinese state. Colleagues will be aware that for a long time the Chinese Government denied the reports that the camps existed and that people were falsely detained in them. Now, of course, they say, “Oh yes, there are camps, but they are vocational training centres and educational centres.” I am not the only one who is very sceptical of this. The United Nations and our Government have publicly expressed deep concerns about those sites.
Given that individuals are forcibly placed within them, we must recognise that they are camps. There has also been evidence of physical abuse and torture of the people there, as eloquently set out by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland. We know that the Chinese Government have argued that the measures are justified by the growing threat of religious extremism and separatist activism in the region. However, it should go without saying that whatever the perceived threats, the measures have lost all sense of proportion. Uyghurs outside the camps are now also subject to some of the most pervasive and intrusive surveillance systems in the world, including being on a register of DNA samples and blood types, and constant tracking by facial recognition cameras. Thousands of police stations have sprung up across the region and correspondence with family members outside of China is either banned or closely monitored.
We have heard of various religious and psychological violations. In a secularised society such as Britain, choices of food, drink or dress may not seem so fundamental, but for those of faith, who are brought up in cultural environments where certain foods are prohibited and alcohol is not drunk, forcing people to abandon those articles of faith is deeply dehumanising. Not only are they prevented from practising their religion, but they are forcibly fed with meat that they do not normally consume and forced to drink alcohol, which they do not normally do. That is surely traumatising. They are prevented from fasting in the month of Ramadan, their dresses are cut to make their clothing more in line with everyone else, they are asked to remove their headscarves, and they are asked to quote the Communist manifesto and learn about China. Forcing them to do these things takes away their identity.
When the state begins to isolate and discriminate against a minority group, it has overstepped the mark of acceptability. When the state sends citizens into camps without legal representation or international oversight, the door is left open to something truly terrible. We have to condemn such actions in the strongest terms. History has shown us that such actions can lead to even worse atrocities. If the world stands by and does nothing, in light of what is happening, what is to say that it will not continue and escalate to another level?
China has said that it welcomes an inspection, as long as the UN restrains itself from interfering in domestic matters. What does that mean? Will the Chinese Government give the investigators the right to visit these prison camps? Will they give the investigators the freedom to speak to the people there? Will they allow the investigators to investigate things properly? If they are saying that those things are not happening, they should allow for it to be openly investigated, so we can all know whether they are happening or not. The Chinese Government should realise—as should Governments worldwide—that when they start suppressing their own people, they do not solve any problems. If anything, they make the problems worse.
I ask the Minister, what specific representations have been made to the Chinese Government about these concerns? Have these issues been raised with the embassies of those countries with large Uyghur diasporas, including Kazakhstan and Turkey? What steps are we taking, to ensure that our position on the Human Rights Council is used to place real pressure on the Chinese Government to reverse those measures? What efforts are being taken to gather evidence on the ground and apply diplomatic pressure on the Chinese Government? Does the Minister agree that the UK border authorities should make every effort to ensure that the Turkic and Uyghur Muslims residing in the UK are not deported back to Xinjiang, because of what they would face?
There are more than 10 million Uyghurs living in Xinjiang. They speak a Turkic language. They are Muslim. In many ways, they are culturally and geographically closer to central Asia than central China. Over the past decade, due to outbreaks of protest and violence, and the subsequent harsh crackdowns from the Chinese authorities, hundreds of lives have been lost in Xinjiang.
A BBC investigation said:
“Over the past four years, Xinjiang has been the target of some of the most restrictive and comprehensive security measures ever deployed by a state against its own people.”
That includes the large-scale use of technology and penalties to curtail Islamic identity, stopping them practising their religion. Uyghurs face severe travel restrictions and are subject to ethnic profiling at thousands of checkpoints. Most alarmingly, as we have heard already, the Chinese authorities are building and operating high-security camps on a huge and growing scale. Testimonies from Uyghurs living abroad confirm that they are detention camps, where inmates are often beaten, terrorised and brainwashed. This is the brutal subjugation of an ethnic minority aimed at crushing their identity.
The detention camps in Xinjiang are the most recent Chinese human rights abuses to draw the world’s attention, but we must not forget that human rights abuses in China are the norm, not the exception, especially for China’s ethnic minorities. Of the roughly 1.4 billion people living in China, over 1.2 billion are Han Chinese. Ethnic minorities with distinct cultures and identities, such as the Uyghurs—and the Tibetans, who are better known—live mostly in the outer regions of China and tend to be seen as threats by China’s one-party state.
Within China a small number of people dare to speak up for human rights, but their voices are invariably silenced. Those of us who have the freedom to do so, therefore, have an even greater moral responsibility to speak up. The Chinese authorities tend to take the line that what happens inside China is not the concern of foreigners, but China is a member of the United Nations, and the belief that human rights are universal is at the core of the UN’s vision.
Of course, there is an argument that our criticism makes no difference, but that is untrue. China’s leaders care a great deal about its reputation and invest huge resources in its global image. The problem in recent years has been that our Government, alongside most other western Governments, have been cowardly about speaking out. Many western countries see China as an indispensable trade partner, and China’s rulers have used its economic power to withhold access to its own huge market from countries that have spoken out on human rights issues. Consequently, almost every country in the world has stopped speaking up on human rights abuses in China.
How can we break the silence? Three things need to happen. First, there must be a domestic political cost for any British Government who do not speak up on Chinese human rights abuses; parliamentarians, the media and the public need to demand action.
Secondly, we must all wake up to the importance of international human rights, because China’s actions pose a threat not only to its own people. The Chinese Government are no longer trying just to crush dissent internally, but to become a global superpower with influence over the wider world. The Chinese Government’s view of the world is not democratic, inclusive or based on the rule of law; they are trying to undermine many aspects of the international order that has existed for the last 70 years. We need to develop a clear awareness that China is a more serious threat than familiar rivals such as Russia, because of its growing economic and military power. The unflinching defence of human rights issues is key to the battle about values that will certainly play out over the next decades.
Thirdly, countries that believe in human rights need to stand together because, apart from the US, no individual country has enough power to stand up to China’s bullying. Collectively, however, we would have that clout.
A practical way forward could be to create policies of reciprocal access. The principle of reciprocity exists in economic trade deals and it could be applied to other areas too. Chinese journalists and officials are free to go anywhere in most western foreign countries, but foreign journalists and diplomats do not have anywhere near the same freedom to travel in China. Last year, the US passed a law that bans officials who are involved in restricting access to Tibet from coming to America. The EU considered similar measures at the end of last year.
Human rights abuses flourish in the dark, so it would make a big difference if journalists and diplomats were free to travel everywhere in China. I encourage the Government to examine reciprocal access policies, alongside their European and global allies. Human right abuses will stop only if we dare to call them out. We must be prepared to defend human rights as the pillar on which our democratic societies and the whole international order are built.
I will do my best, Mr Wilson. I have filleted my speech as I have been sitting here.
Last October, a senior editor from Foreign Policy, James Palmer, was interviewed about his work and about human rights in Xinjiang. It was a heart-wrenching watch. He said:
“All of my Uyghur sources are gone”,
and then apologised as he broke down in tears. He continued:
“I can’t talk to people because they’re gone. I cannot reach them.”
Even his Han Chinese sources had been arrested for talking about what is happening to the Uyghur people. They are disappearing from the streets and being put into camps. The Government appear to be trying to erase the memory that they even existed. Mr Palmer made it clear that he is no longer trying to contact Uyghur people because his attempts could put them in danger.
In October, in response to a question from me, the Minister stated that according to credible reports an estimated 1 million people—at least—were being held, including Uyghurs and other minority ethnic Chinese. As has been said, Chinese officials describe the camps as,
“vocational education and employment training centres”
“criminals involved in minor offenses”,
but Human Rights Watch has gathered evidence that points chillingly to something else.
Basically, there are reports of beatings, solitary confinement, psychological abuse and even inmates being forcibly given psychotic drugs in the camps. We are told that people with serious mental and physical health conditions receive no special treatment; nor do heavily pregnant women. There are reports of deaths inside the camps. Survivors have described to Human Rights Watch how they were chained to a bed or to an iron chair for days, or even hung from the ceiling, as they were interrogated. They eventually confessed to whatever they were charged with, whether that was owning a religious book or having a friend who had been abroad.
Apparently, that is what the Chinese Communist party is calling its “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism”. Under that regime, as we have heard, Turkic Muslims are identified as belonging to one of three categories: trustworthy, average or untrustworthy. Muslim citizens have to not only keep out of trouble, but actively display their loyalty. From a place such as this, it is hard to imagine what it must feel like to live with such suspicion and in constant fear of saying the wrong thing, being with the wrong person or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Chinese artist and defender of human rights, Ai Weiwei, spent 16 years of his childhood in exile in Xinjiang province because his father, a poet, had fallen out of favour with the authorities. His international fame as a dissident artist is evidence that that kind of repression is eventually ineffective as well as cruel. He has said about the current situation that we have to think about human rights and human dignity as one, and that if anyone’s rights are violated—whatever minority, whatever religion they are—we have to think of it as our rights being violated. I could not agree more.
The Government have been asked several times about the steps we can take to improve the human rights situation through our trade with China. Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon said:
“China is an important strategic partner, and it is because of the strength of our partnership that we are consistently able to raise these issues”.
Although I agree that raising issues bilaterally is important, the level of abuse documented calls for something stronger. Given what is going on in the Chamber at the moment, I worry that human rights might be viewed as an inconvenience or a threat to our trading relationship.
I hope that the Minister will commit to concrete steps today. Statements of concern are simply not enough. We need economic sanctions against those responsible and we need to follow Germany and Sweden in offering expedited asylum processes for Turkic minorities from the province.
My apologies for hearing only the end of the speech by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), whom I congratulate on securing this debate to discuss the important issue of human rights in Xinjiang.
I declare three interests. First, I am chair of the all-party parliamentary China group. Secondly, for eight years, I was the director of the Great Britain-China Centre. Thirdly, in 1993, I was a member of the first-ever successful crossing of Taklamakan desert in Xinjiang, as part of an Anglo-Chinese and Uyghur crossing by foot. That led me to spend more time in Xinjiang than probably anyone else in the House of Commons, and has left me with a strong affection for that enormous, harsh and beautiful land of different minorities and peoples.
It is worth highlighting the all-party group’s expedition to Xinjiang some two and a half years ago to look into some of the issues raised by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland and other hon. Members, and other issues as well. During that expedition, we were accompanied by the Minister’s enterprising now private secretary, who was then with the embassy in Beijing. More recently, the all-party group has had updated briefings in Beijing and London.
I have arrived at five thoughts to share with hon. Members. First, Xinjiang, which means “new land” in Mandarin, was known as East Turkestan for a long time. Although the name has changed, the essential cultural differences of that huge province remain fundamental to the way of life of its residents.
Secondly, the UK, which reopened formal relations with China in 1972—56 years ago—is now an important strategic partner of China and the depth of that relationship allows for respectful differences of view. Although we acknowledge and hugely recognise the vast progress that China has made in the living standards of its enormous population, and its contribution to the world’s economic growth—a consistent 30% for the last three decades—we can also express real concern about specific human rights issues in China and work with her on reforms to the rule of law, including on the death penalty, which has been one of the achievements of the Great Britain-China Centre.
Thirdly, on Xinjiang today, there can be no doubt that relations between the peoples of Xinjiang, by whom I mean predominantly the Uyghur community, but also other ethnic minorities—Kazakhs and people who would normally be found in Kyrgyzstan, the Kyrgyz—have deteriorated considerably. They have worsened recently after a clampdown on the freedoms of expression, gathering and religion, and other freedoms that have been mentioned. Much of the evidence is anecdotal because it is very difficult to access information at first hand either by visiting the province or through journalists and others who have been there.
I understand the hon. Lady’s point. It would not be impossible for her or others to go to Xinjiang. The question is what they would see and how genuine it might be. The point I want to highlight is that in recent times there has been much greater use of artificial intelligence and sophisticated control mechanisms to clamp down strongly on what we would regard as the fundamental freedoms of the people living there. The Minister might want to comment on this, but the opportunity is for the UK to try to help China recognise that some of the evidence coming out will not necessarily act in China’s own interests.
Of course, China has considerable security interests. For example, the bombing of the railway station in Yunnan a few years ago by Uyghurs was absolutely unacceptable, just as terrorism in this country is unacceptable. It is important that there are training and skills opportunities available to Uyghurs as there are in other parts of the country. But a large-scale detention policy of large numbers of people, or other repressions of freedoms such as Islamic boys under the age of 18 not being able to go and pray in a mosque, are not justified. Such issues will affect China’s belt and road initiative across central Asia, which is predominantly Muslim in religion, and there are issues that will damage China’s reputation internationally and affect the world’s acceptance of the increasing leadership role that China is taking on a range of global issues.
It is worth highlighting China’s report to the United Nations General Assembly on China’s human rights. In the report submitted in August last year—some 25 pages long—only one paragraph in the entire report is on Xinjiang, as I am sure the Minister knows. The report refers to the year of building people’s livelihood initiative, the disposable incomes of urban and rural residents and free education programmes, all of which are no doubt worthy in their own right, but they do not address the issues that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland and others have raised today.
Although China would regard our interest in such matters as fundamentally interfering in her own domestic situation, the truth is that in this House we debate issues across the world for the benefit of all mankind. Today’s debate therefore shines a torch on the fact that we need to work closely with China on how the situation in Xinjiang will develop and on what changes might be made that will benefit the people of Xinjiang, particularly the Uyghur community, and China’s own standing in the world. Our role should be to work closely with her on some of those difficult issues.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Wilson, and I thank you for calling me. I also thank the Minister, who, we know, has a deep interest in human rights and I am sure we will get a positive response from him when he replies. Finally, I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for securing this important and timely debate just a week after Orkney was named the happiest place in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—we already know that, as it is epitomised by the right hon. Gentleman. However, we are gathered here to discuss a serious issue.
The debate is timely because it takes place in the week of Holocaust Memorial Day, when we remember how millions of people were rounded up and placed in camps and harassed, tortured and killed simply because of their religion. It is deeply saddening that some 70 years later we are having a debate to discuss the fact that potentially millions of innocent Chinese citizens are being rounded up and placed in camps because of their religion. It seems we have yet to learn the lessons of the past—oh, that we had looked back at the past and learned the lessons.
It is important to note that just yesterday evening, right here in Parliament, where today we are discussing persecution by the Chinese Government on an unimaginable scale, the Chinese ambassador to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Foreign Secretary were guests of honour at a celebratory reception for the Chinese new year. It is a coincidence: we are discussing very serious issues within 24 hours of a celebration. Although I am a firm believer in friendly and open dialogue, I am not sure what message that sends to the world and to the millions currently in detention camps in China about the UK’s commitment to human rights and defending those who are persecuted for their religion.
Hon. Members know that I chair the all-party group for freedom of religion or belief. Our group stands up for those of Christian faith, other faiths and no faith. Hon. Members have rightly raised the plight of the Uyghurs, but I want to make sure we do not forget the plight of some of the other religious or belief minorities suffering at the hands of the Chinese Government: for example, practitioners of Falun Gong and Chinese Christians. Twice a year the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and I co-sponsor events in this House for Falun Gong. I want to put on the record our thanks to Becky James, who works so hard to make it happen.
In 2018, Cristian Solidarity Worldwide recorded extremely concerning violations against Catholic and Protestant churches in Henan province, where authorities have demolished crosses and churches and destroyed religious materials. From March to June, dozens of independent house churches also reported cases of harassment, fines, confiscation of property and forced closure of churches. Many Christians have also been arrested or disappeared. For example, Lu Yongfeng, a member of the Church of Almighty God, was arrested with her husband in June 2018. The following month she died in police custody, reportedly as a result of torture. I look to the Minister to ask him this: can we make inquiries about what happened to that lady? She died in custody because she is a Christian. That was the reason for her death.
Similarly, thousands of practitioners of Falun Gong have been arbitrarily imprisoned by the Chinese Government. There are credible reports that China is using prisoners of conscience to supply organs for its vast, lucrative transplant industry. In response to such accusations, the UK Government have said that the World Health Organisation believes that China is implementing an ethical, voluntary organ transplant system. However, many who argue that China is involved in forced organ harvesting often point to the fact that the average time to get a kidney transplant in the UK or the United States is two to three years, whereas in China it is two to three weeks. It is fairly obvious; you do not have to be a mathematician or Einstein to work out that something is wrong there. It is almost like a conveyor belt of organ transplant in China, and that needs an answer.
Has the Minister asked either the World Health Organisation or the Chinese Government how they can explain such a remarkable difference? Also, does the Minister know whether the World Health Organisation has assessed the wealth of evidence compiled by former Canadian Cabinet Minister David Kilgour on this issue? It is a phenomenal evidential base. If not, will he suggest it does do so? Might he also suggest that it assesses the evidence being presented to the ongoing independent people’s tribunal being led by Sir Geoffrey Nice, QC?
The tribunal recently released an interim judgment that reads:
“We, the tribunal members, are all certain, unanimously, beyond reasonable doubt, that in China forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience has been practised for a substantial period of time, involving a very substantial number of victims”—
“by state organised or approved organisations or individuals.”
The horrifying nature of the charges makes them difficult to believe and we must rightly assess the evidence before jumping to any conclusions. However, we also must make every effort to gather and assess evidence honestly, and not just turn our backs on the issue because what we may find out might not be palatable. We must speak out when we see the evidence, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because how can we ever hope for a peaceful and secure world when a permanent member of the UN Security Council is rounding up and abusing millions of its own citizens?
Such crimes against humanity—affronts to human dignity and to the very concept of justice and morality—cannot be allowed to pass by with muted and occasional condemnation. There is a time for quiet diplomacy, discreet dialogue and private conversations. This is not it. This is a time to stand up for what is right. This is a time to let every oppressor and would-be tyrant know that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—and the rest of the world—will not tacitly accept the systematic, sinister destruction of entire communities. This is a time for the world to rally together and proudly declare, in one unified, powerful voice, that enough is enough. That should be our message today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing this important debate.
I shall not speak for long. I just want to say a little about Hikvision, one of the world’s biggest CCTV companies. It provides equipment for the massive prison camps in Xinjiang and has been used in Tibet to develop an extremely intrusive police and security apparatus. Hikvision uses facial recognition technology that can distinguish entire ethnic populations from the Chinese. It puts Tibetans and Uyghurs at serious risk. While the company is now subject to bans by the US and Australian Governments, Hikvision was revealed to be Britain’s biggest supplier of CCTV equipment in 2016.
Absolutely. The point is well made and I share the hon. Lady’s concerns.
The Government of this country must speak up. They must make it clear that we will not accept the abuse of human rights, and the Chinese Government must and will be called out. The abuse of the Uyghurs is abhorrent, but abuse has been going on in Tibet for much longer.
Is the Minister aware whether any UK Government agencies purchase surveillance equipment from Hikvision? Are questions being raised about the security implications of its unfettered access to the UK? Does he share my concerns, and if he does not have answers to my questions, will he follow those matters up?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing the debate.
I, like many other hon. Members, was not aware of the difficulties that many people are suffering in China until a number of my constituents brought the matter to my attention. When I looked into it further, the work of many NGOs and a BBC documentary brought home to me the extent of the abuse taking place. A recent report by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination suggested that there was widespread detention of the native Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. About 1 million adults are detained, most of whom are Uyghur. Alleged forms of torture include forcing detainees to denounce Islam and forcing them to abandon their native language, religious beliefs and cultural practices.
Sadly, the world’s response has not matched the gravity of the situation. The Chinese Government’s claim that the camps are vocational training schools is not credible. There is now significant discussion among US and European leaders of economic sanctions to be directed at key Chinese leaders and security companies. I understand that the Foreign Secretary raised the situation of Uyghur Muslims with his counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, during the official visit to China in July 2018. However, continued human rights abuses suggest that clearly more needs to be done.
Will the Minister provide urgent assurances that the British Government will step up their efforts to hold the Chinese Government to account for those blatant human rights violations and urge the Chinese authorities to stop the practice of mass internment and close the camps? Will he give an update on the current situation and tell us what representations the Government have made to the Chinese authorities?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson.
I am pleased that the debate has such a good turnout, and that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) was able to secure it. I think even more Members would have come if it had not been on such an important day for votes to do with the European Union. It is great to see so many participants from across the House. I am vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on China, and it is encouraging that many Members are joining, to discuss not just trade opportunities but the important human rights element of our dialogue with China. I was pleased that at last night’s reception the chair of the all-party group, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), mentioned in his keynote address that the group has that concern.
I am also pleased that, following a parliamentary question to the Minister, the issue emerged in the FCO reporting cycle. That is not recent; for several months it has been taken seriously by FCO officers. However, I should like an update from the Minister today, and a sense of the ultimate direction of travel. What can be done, if the reports are indeed true—as we believe they are, given the evidence coming before us? What is the endgame, in terms of what the Government will do?
The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) spoke about the position of children. China is a signatory of the UN convention on the rights of the child. It is worrying that the children of individuals detained in camps have been sent to state-run orphanages, training centres or welfare facilities, and that it is reported that children as young as six months old have been locked up like farm animals in a shed. The reports come from Human Rights Watch, Radio Free Asia and ChinaAid, which I believe to be independent and to be reporting from a place where reporting is difficult. As the hon. Member for Gloucester said, it is not easy just to go there and see what is happening.
I want to mention the good things that have happened in China as a result of the convention on the rights of the child, to show that issues can be tackled. A lot of work has been done in China on human trafficking, and good results have come from that. Action to tackle climate change and air quality, and the effects on children in polluted cities, has also borne some fruit. I do not want to give a counsel of complete despair. With challenge and dialogue, we can move forward.
I want briefly to consider our response in the UK. First, could the Minister please tell us exactly how independent our own FCO investigations might be? Who are our international partners, and what kind of resources are we using? Secondly, is there a forum in which to challenge tech or other companies that could wittingly or unwittingly be supporting the crushing of dissent, and compromising on the Uyghur people’s human rights? Thirdly, what is the Minister’s plan for reporting back regularly to interested Members in the House?
We have had an excellent debate, very measured but also very concerned, expressing great worry about what is happening to the Uyghur people in China, but focused on seeking a more action-based response from the Minister.
I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) not just for bringing the debate to the House, but for his work to increase awareness of the issue in Xinjiang province. As he said, we are relying a lot on reports. The evidence is difficult to gather, and that is one of the big issues for us. However, we know that the state in China is not just promoting its values and principles, but using its position to commit cultural genocide and scapegoat an entire culture. History has taught us the danger of such intolerance.
It was interesting to hear the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) talking about his experiences in Xinjiang province, but I want to correct him on one thing. He said that the UK and China had had diplomatic relations since 1972, and that that was 56 years ago. Having been born in 1972, I must tell him that it was 46 years ago.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland and the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) gave descriptions of the horrific torture and conditions in the detention camps, and several Members made comparisons with other horrific situations. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said that this debate was timely as it was being held in the week in which we remember the holocaust, and many of the conditions that have been described this afternoon are very similar to those found in the horrific concentration camps during the second world war. The hon. Gentleman also drew our attention to the plight of the Falun Gong community, and of ethnic Christians in China, who are also subjected to human rights abuses. The hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) spoke about religious abuse and Muslim people being forced to eat particular meats, or drink alcohol or wear inappropriate clothing—all things that we recognise would impact on someone’s freedom to practise their religion.
Reports from former detainees claim that women have been forced to take unidentified medication, which in some cases has stopped menstruation, and in other cases has resulted in severe bleeding. The use of female detainees as sex slaves was highlighted by the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) who, together with the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), raised serious concerns about the plight of children in detention centres, as well as those kept in separate locations. To hear reports of children as young as six months old being locked up without care or parents is disturbing and shameful for us all.
Dangerous propaganda is being peddled against the Uyghurs. It has been reported that the Han Chinese people who live in the region have been put through state-mandated self-defence drills; that as part of China’s suppression campaign, education portrays the Uyghurs as potentially dangerous extremists; and that a steady stream of Government news paints the Uyghurs as unsophisticated and uneducated.
Interestingly, China has said that it would welcome UN officials to Xinjiang if they follow China’s procedures and restrictions, but that is not how it works. There must be open access without any restrictions. If such a UN investigation concludes that Chinese activity in the region constitutes a violation of human rights, there must be decisive diplomatic condemnation and consequences for China. Human rights violations cannot go unchecked, particularly if sanctioned by the state on a massive scale.
The hon. Members for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) and for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) mentioned a worrying trend developing in Chinese domestic and foreign policy, and respect to human rights abuses more generally. That trend includes sinister practices such as the collection of biometric data, including DNA and voice samples, and the use of biometrics for automated surveillance purposes should be causing us concern—the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee) also raised that point. China holds more data on its citizens than any other country in the world, and we must wonder why it needs that data and what it is doing with it. None of us would object to our data being collected if we knew the purpose for it—data on health is fine, traffic data is okay, but we need to know the purpose and the ways it is being used. In China, however, those systems are being deployed without effective privacy protections in law, and people are unaware that their data is being gathered in that way.
Concerns about human rights records in China extend beyond what it does to its own citizens, and it is now trying to prevent meaningful international scrutiny, including at the UN. Human Rights Watch recently reported that Chinese officials are working to weaken key human rights reviews at the UN. China remains a designated human rights priority country for the UK, but with trade and investment becoming more important for the UK in a post-Brexit Britain, there is a concern that the UK’s performance regarding human rights in China is far weaker than it should be. The Scottish First Minister met Chinese officials in April 2018, and she specifically raised human rights in China. Has the Minister done the same, and if not, does he intend to?
Over the past few days we have had debates on subjects involving human rights in different countries. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is utterly wrong to be selective about where we see human rights abuses, and that we should call them out wherever they are, most importantly in China?
Absolutely, although not “most importantly in China”—we must call out human rights abuses everywhere. Look at Saudi Arabia and what it is doing in Yemen, yet we are still selling arms there. We must think carefully about our trading partnerships.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland raised the issue of Chinese students, which is slightly controversial, and we must think about policy decisions that we take here and how they impact. A few years ago the post-study work visa was removed, and the diversity of our international students was greatly reduced. Far more Chinese students were happy to come for one or two years and go back, as opposed to in the past when students wanted to stay and work here. Because of that, the situation is ripe for exploitation, because different students can monitor the activity of other Chinese students. We need to be aware of what we are doing, and I call on the Minister to discuss the reinstatement of the post-study work visa. There are unintended consequences to such decisions.
Finally, will the Minister take every opportunity in public and private to condemn China’s use of these camps and all forms of non-legal detention? Will he speak up for the rights of children and use all possible levers to cease the practice of forcibly removing children from their homes and families? Will he call out human rights abuses, including violations of the right of freedom of religious belief, and will he seriously consider sanctions against policy makers responsible for human rights abuses in China? Finally, given the high risk to those returning to Xinjiang and other parts of China from overseas, will he hold discussions with his Home Office colleagues to ensure that those who are under threat are not forcibly removed from the UK and sent back to a harmful and dangerous situation in China?
It is nice to see you in the Chair, Mr Wilson, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing this important debate. We are extremely grateful to him, because it gives us an opportunity to send a united message from this House to the Chinese Government about the unacceptability of what is happening in Xinjiang at the moment, and of our shared desire to see the detention camps closed.
I will begin my speech where the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) began his, because on Sunday afternoon I went to a holocaust memorial service in Bishop Auckland in my constituency. Everybody said, “Never again”, and “How did it happen?” It is all too clear how these things happen: they happen when it is too unpleasant or too inconvenient to think about them and people have a desire to look away. On Sunday, we pledged
“to proclaim release to the captives,
to let the oppressed go free”.
We should make a reality of that commitment in the work that we do with respect to the Uyghur community in Xinjiang.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland set out the fundamental problems with the detention camps that have been set up, which we now believe are imprisoning about a million people, perhaps more. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) made a fearless speech; she is becoming well known for being fearless on human rights issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) described the denial of people’s religious rights. She gave a clear insight into how that might feel for this minority. The hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) said that we should look for more reciprocity with the Chinese Government. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) gave powerful testimony and pointed to the important work undertaken by the voluntary sector.
The hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), who has been to Xinjiang several times, said that it was difficult because Xinjiang is in a very closed part of China, but that none the less we need to shine a light on the situation. The hon. Member for Strangford spoke about Christians being persecuted. My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee) raised important concerns about the use of modern technologies to oppress people. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) asked how the Government would keep reporting back to us. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) spoke about the impact on children; I am particularly grateful to her for organising a meeting last summer at which we heard from academics who had looked at satellite images, from refugees and from relatives of people who are suffering.
It is absolutely clear that the situation in Xinjiang has deteriorated over the past four years. It is beginning to emerge and become clear to the rest of the world that what was suggested to be an attempt to prevent extremism and terrorism has morphed horrendously into the systematic oppression of a whole ethnic minority, who are being physically abused and psychologically indoctrinated. I am glad that the Minister has answered a number of parliamentary questions that I have tabled about Xinjiang; we know that Ministers have raised the matter and British diplomats have been in Xinjiang and gathered mounting evidence about the problem, but we can do more than tell the Chinese that we do not like the situation.
What can be done? Clearly it is important that we maintain public condemnation of the treatment of the Uyghur Muslims, and that we echo the call of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination for the Chinese authorities to shut down the re-education camps and facilitate the immediate release of all detainees. It is clear that there has been a lot of focus on work at the UN level; I do not know whether the Minister has also discussed the matter with European colleagues, but I urge him to do so. The Government have the opportunity to continue to challenge the Chinese Government through intergovernmental forums. We would also like them to initiate calls for UN access to Xinjiang, including access by the UN Human Rights Council.
Many of my colleagues have spoken about the problems that asylum seekers face in this country. I know that that is a Home Office responsibility; none the less, it is all very well to talk about human rights abuses—we need to treat refugees well. I hope that the Minister will talk to the Home Office about that.
One possibility that the Government did not have a year ago is to use Magnitsky powers for personal sanctions. An obvious candidate for such sanctions is the Xinjiang state secretary, because it is since his arrival in that part of China that the oppression has screwed down in a particularly nasty way. Well, we have a lever now—let us use it. As well as looking at the activities of particular companies, I would like the Government to consider using export controls on surveillance technology that is used by the Chinese Government to monitor and oppress Uyghur Muslims. They should also review the operation of companies in Xinjiang. The simple message is that we are horrified by this state of affairs and we must always prioritise human rights over trading relations with the Chinese.
I commend the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for securing this important debate. Mischievously, perhaps, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) put it to us that Orkney and Shetland may be the happiest constituency in the country; on a day like today that may have something to do with its proximity to Norway, but I will not make too much of that point. There used to be a quiz question asked about the right hon. Gentleman and me because my constituency is the nearest to Westminster, while his is the furthest away.
As a last bit of levity in this important, serious and high-profile debate, may I say that it is great to hear from the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse)? She knows that I have a German mother; we used to tease my mother about her malapropisms. If the hon. Lady’s only problem is that she has difficulty in saying the word “reciprocity”, I am sure that very few of us could answer that we know much about Gegenseitigkeit. I thank the hon. Lady and all hon. Members present for the high quality of their contributions today; this is a serious debate and I do not wish to use any more levity.
If I may, I will update the House on the current situation in Xinjiang and the action that the Government propose. I do not have anything like the depth of knowledge of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), but I have visited the region, not as a Minister, but on my very visit to China some 16 years ago. I was struck even then by the atmosphere of tension. There was clearly a very large Muslim population in many of the towns and cities of the autonomous region close to the Mongolian border, but there was also a sense—this was only a couple of years after 9/11—that human rights issues were beginning to crowd in. We have seen that happen with much more serious effect in recent years.
The ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang have faced a variety of restrictions on their freedom of religion and belief, freedom of speech and freedom of association over several years—indeed, for decades past. Xinjiang’s energy reserves and geopolitical significance are likely to be key factors in the Chinese Government’s close involvement in the region: Xinjiang is home to China’s largest gas fields, half of its coal deposits and an estimated 20% of its oil reserves.
The Strike Hard campaign was initiated following an outbreak of violence, including bombings and knife attacks, in 2009. As many hon. Members have said, it has developed into the intensive crackdown that we are seeing today. The situation has deteriorated rapidly over the past two or three years, particularly—as the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) rightly pointed out—since the appointment of a new regional party secretary, Chen Quanguo. He had previously held the same position in Tibet, where he obviously earned his spurs as far as the Chinese authorities were concerned.
Mr Chen has introduced many of the techniques that he used in Tibet to monitor residents in Xinjiang. In fact, he has developed them further and fused them with a system of “political re-education camps”. However, we should also be clear that although Mr Chen has been a leading architect of the crackdown on the Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, culpability for the worsening situation does not lie with him alone. His actions have been supported at the highest levels by the Chinese leadership.
Many hon. Members have already said that there are credible and important reports by non-governmental organisations describing the restrictive and oppressive measures being employed by the Chinese authorities, and quoted those reports. Our own diplomats visited Xinjiang as recently as December last year and their report painted a similarly bleak picture of the oppression being suffered by over a million Uyghurs and other minorities.
Let me speak for a moment about the specific measures that the authorities are using in Xinjiang. Among other things, traditional and unexceptional expressions of religious observance are now banned, from giving children religious names to having an “abnormal” beard or wearing a veil; I think the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) went into some detail about some of the oppressive practices that are being imposed on the local community.
As part of an apparent attempt to redefine Islam and to sinicise the Uyghur culture, extensive cultural restrictions have also been introduced, including the restriction on the use of the traditional Uyghur language. Contravention of the rules is likely to lead to detention and other punishments.
Uyghurs and members of other minorities with overseas connections, whether they have family members living abroad or a history of travel themselves, are deemed to be particularly suspicious and are highly likely to be detained. Families are monitored closely, including by Han Chinese officials, who they are obliged to host in their homes for several days at a time. Outside the home, Uyghurs and other minorities are reportedly watched closely through extensive use of sophisticated technologies, as has been pointed out already, which is supported by a heavy police presence. However, as has also been mentioned during the debate, what most concerns many of us is that over 1 million Uyghur Muslims—more than 10% of the Uyghur population—and other ethnic minorities have at one time or another been held in extra-judicial camps, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) pointed out.
It is not known just how long each individual is detained, what chance they have of being released or what the mechanism for release might be, or whether they can appeal their detention. However, what is clear is that these detentions have split up families, left many children effectively orphaned, as the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) pointed out, and created an overbearing culture of fear.
Much of this activity was considered by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in its report last August. It issued very detailed recommendations, including that China should
“Halt the practice of detaining individuals who have not been lawfully charged, tried and convicted for a criminal offence in any extra-legal detention facilities”.
In addition to the extra-judicial camps, and according to Chinese Government data, criminal arrests in Xinjiang accounted for an alarming 21% of the total number of arrests in China in 2017, when the population in Xinjiang makes up only 1.5% of China’s total population.
As a number of Members have pointed out, China’s response to the increasing expressions of international concern was initially simply to deny the existence of these camps. Later, it sought to brand them as education and training facilities, and it justified them on the basis of counter-terrorism. As I think all of us know, there have been incidents in the past, but this is a wholly unprecedented and unwarranted over-reaction to that matter.
China claims that the camps are a necessary part of the policy to prevent extremism and that other countries have no right to interfere in its internal affairs. The Chinese authorities naturally have the right to address genuine security concerns in Xinjiang. However, all the evidence to hand suggests that their action is disproportionate and indiscriminate, and it is a response that, as a number of Members have pointed out, will be counterproductive in the long term, because it will exacerbate a whole range of ethnic tensions.
In this way, I believe that China is causing untold suffering to millions of its own citizens. It is also contravening its own constitutional provisions on freedom of religion and indeed its obligations under the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UK is, of course, deeply concerned about the situation in Xinjiang. We believe strongly that everyone everywhere should enjoy equal rights and protections under the law. That is why we are promoting and defending human rights, including the right to freedom of religion or belief, as a fundamental part of our own foreign policy.
It was right that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green pointed out that in areas such as climate change, anti-money laundering and increasingly in combating modern-day slavery, we are making some progress alongside the Chinese authorities. Despite that co-operation, and notwithstanding our deep and strong relationship with China, we must and will have no hesitation about raising these issues of concern. Realistically, doing that at the UN Security Council will not have a great impact. Therefore, doing it in Geneva and through the European Union, as the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland rightly pointed out, is the more productive way forward.
The situation in Xinjiang is one of the most serious areas of human rights concerns in relation to our relationship with China.
Forgive me; I will not give way because I am running out of time and I want to touch on all the issues.
Our lobbying of China takes place both bilaterally and in multilateral forums. I myself raised the issue of Xinjiang during my visit to five cities in China last July, as did my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary during his visit to Beijing later that month.
In the UK’s “item 4” statement at the UN Human Rights Council in September, we raised several of our concerns about Xinjiang. And during China’s universal periodic review at the UN on 6 November, we pressed China on when it would implement the recommendations of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. In our formal statement during the review itself, we urged China to
“Immediately implement the Committee’s recommendations on Xinjiang and allow the UN to monitor their implementation.”
Additionally, we have applied such pressure both in private and in public, working strategically with likeminded international partners, in particular, of course, with EU member states and others, to raise awareness of our concerns.
I will touch on one or two of the specific concerns that were expressed in the debate. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland asked about the moratorium on returns of failed asylum seekers. As has been pointed out, that is a Home Office competency and responsibility. However, I understand that the Home Office has recently updated its guidance notes for asylum caseworkers, which I think reflects the latest situation in Xinjiang, and those guidance notes will be kept under constant review.
The hon. Member for Bolton South East called for an independent inquiry. The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has said that her office is seeking access to Xinjiang as a matter of urgency, to verify what she regards as very worrying reports about the “re-education camps”. We support her call for access and we continue to urge the Chinese Government to grant unrestricted access to the UN, so that it can take care of this matter.
The hon. Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee) talked about Hikvision CCTV, which is a very specific case. We are obviously aware of the reports of Hikvision’s specific role in providing facial recognition cameras for use in Xinjiang. I will be happy to write to the hon. Lady with more details about that, and indeed I will be happy to write to other Members to deal with the one or two other matters that came up during the debate that I am not able to discuss now.
To conclude, the Government watch with very deep concern the Chinese authorities’ crackdown on Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang, and in particular the huge numbers of people in detention, apparently without recourse to due process of law. In the interests of the people of Xinjiang and for the long-term stability of that region, and indeed in the interests of China’s own international reputation, it is vital that China implements the recommendations of the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and honours its own human rights commitments. We shall continue to urge the Chinese Government to change their course and to meet those commitments.
Thank you very much, Mr Wilson, for calling me to speak again.
I thank the Minister for that response. We should not fool ourselves that we will probably be the main focus of the world’s attention in Parliament today. However, in many ways that is unfortunate, because the debate we have had here today illustrates what is possible in this place when we manage to put aside differences, and find areas of common concern and work together.
In that regard, I hope that today is not just an event itself but the start of a process by which we might take forward our concerns on an ongoing basis, because a very clear message has been sent out from here today, which I hope will be heard not only in this country but in China itself. It is that we know what is going on in Xinjiang and we are not just going to sit back and be bystanders, watching it happen.
I had hoped that today I would be in my constituency, which was confirmed this weekend—in the latest in a long line of similar reports—as the happiest and best place to live in the country, as today is Up Helly Aa day in Shetland, when we celebrate our Viking heritage through a fire festival and burning a boat. Unfortunately, I have to be here, not just for this debate but for other business. So, I thank you, Mr Wilson, for chairing the debate and I thank everybody else who has taken part in it. I wish you all a very happy Up Helly Aa day.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered human rights in Xinjiang.