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Chinese Government Sanctions on UK Citizens

Volume 692: debated on Tuesday 13 April 2021

Before I call the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), I wish to make it clear that it is in the public interest that Members should be able to speak and act freely in raising issues of concern. They should not be impeded in carrying out their duties—and that includes the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. They are democratically elected representatives and nothing should interfere with the democratic process.

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on recent sanctions imposed by the Chinese Government on UK citizens.

The Government stand in complete solidarity with those sanctioned by China. As the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have made clear, this action by Beijing is utterly unacceptable and unwarranted.

The House will recall that on 22 March, the UK, alongside the EU, Canada and the United States, imposed asset freezes and travel bans against four senior Chinese Government officials and one entity responsible for the violations that have taken place and persist against the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. In response, China sanctioned nine individuals and four organisations, including Members of this House and the other place, who have criticised its record on human rights. It speaks volumes that while 30 countries are united in sanctioning those responsible for serious and systematic violations of human rights in Xinjiang, China’s response is to retaliate against those who seek to shine a light on those violations. It is fundamental to our parliamentary democracy that Members of both Houses can speak without fear or favour on matters of concern to the British people.

The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have made absolutely clear the Government’s position through their public statements and on 22 March. I also summoned China’s representative in the UK to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to lodge a strong, formal protest at China’s actions. This Government have been quick to offer support to those who have been sanctioned. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary held private meetings with the parliamentarians named in China’s announcement. My noble Friend, the Minister for human rights, Lord Ahmad, met other individuals and the entities that have been targeted. Through this engagement, we have provided guidance and an offer of ongoing support, including a designated FCDO point of contact and specialist briefing from relevant Departments.

Just as this Government will be unbowed by China’s action, I have no doubt that Members across this House will be undeterred in raising their fully justified concerns about the situation in Xinjiang and the human rights situation in China more broadly. I applaud the parliamentarians named by China: my hon. Friends the Members for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), for Harborough (Neil O’Brien) and for Wealden (Ms Ghani), my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), the noble Lord Alton and the noble Baroness Kennedy for the vital role they have played in drawing attention to the plight of the Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang.

This Government have worked with partners to build the international caucus of those willing to speak out against China’s human rights violations and increase the pressure on China to change its behaviour. We have led joint statements at the UN’s human rights bodies, most recently joined by 38 countries at the UN General Assembly Third Committee in October, and we have backed up our international action with robust domestic measures. In addition to the global human rights sanctions announced on 22 March, the Foreign Secretary announced a series of targeted measures in January to help ensure that British businesses are not complicit in human rights violations in Xinjiang. The United Kingdom will continue to work alongside its partners to send the clearest possible signal of the international community’s serious concern and our collective willingness to act to hold China to account for its gross human rights violations in the region.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I thank the Speaker for granting this urgent question and for his robust support, together with that of the Lord Speaker, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Minister today. I suppose I need to declare an interest as one of the five right hon. and hon. Members of this House who have been placed on the Chinese Government’s sanctions list, apparently for “maliciously” spreading “lies and disinformation”; in the language of the Chinese Communist party, of course, that is a euphemism for speaking the truth. As parliamentarians we have been singled out, together with Lord Alton and Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws, presumably for our vociferous calling out of the genocide against the Uyghur people by the Chinese Government, the industrial-scale human rights abuses in Tibet and the suppression of free speech and liberty in Hong Kong. That is what parliamentarians do, without fear or favour, in a democracy. To be sanctioned by a totalitarian regime is, therefore, not only deeply ironic and laughable, but an abuse of parliamentary privilege of this House, by a foreign regime.

What further action are the Government considering against the Chinese Government to emphasise how unacceptable and unfounded their action is? Will the Minister assure the House that the Government will not be proceeding with any new agreements with the Chinese Government while these sanctions remain in place?

The other individuals named were Newcastle University academic Dr Jo Smith Finley and Uyghur expert lawyer, Sir Geoffrey Nice QC. Does the Minister agree that this also represents an attack on academic freedom and the independence of the legal profession in the United Kingdom? What support are the Government offering to those two individuals?

Given growing concerns about the malign influence of the Chinese Government in sensitive research projects in our universities, the sinister tentacles of the Confucius institutes on campuses and increasingly in our schools, not to mention the wide-scale buying of influence in UK boardrooms, will the Government commit to a detailed and transparent audit of Chinese influence in our education system, our military capability, our business and our infrastructure projects, and, if found to be acting against British interests, send them packing?

Given the disgraceful recent dressing-down of our ambassador in Beijing for supporting on social media the role of a free press, will the Minister confirm that British diplomats will not be bowed and will be fortified in calling out abuses by the Chinese Government wherever they happen, as we sanctioned parliamentarians have been fortified to call out the abuses of the totalitarian Government in China by their badly-thought-out and counterproductive use of sanctions, which we will wear as a badge of honour? Will the Minister signal, clearly and firmly, that project kowtow is over and that Britain will not flinch from standing up and calling out Chinese Government abuses, which they have got away with for far too long?

I thank my hon. Friend for his questions and for his bravery in the work that he and other right hon. and hon. Members have done, which led to these extraordinary measures by China.

We have been absolutely clear with China that its sanctioning of UK individuals and entities is unwarranted and unacceptable. My hon. Friend is right to shine a light on these measures. We will not allow this action by China—neither will our diplomats—to distract attention from the gross human rights violations in Xinjiang. We will continue to work alongside our partners to send the clearest possible signal of the international community’s serious concerns and our collective willingness to act.

My hon. Friend mentioned Jo Smith Finley, who is another of the individuals named. Academic freedom and freedom of speech are fundamental UK values and a cornerstone of the world-class UK higher education system. The attempt to silence those highlighting human rights violations in Xinjiang in academia is absolutely unwarranted and unacceptable. We are offering support to Jo Smith Finley, as we will and have for all those impacted by these sanctions.

The Labour party stands in solidarity with the nine British citizens, including Members of both Houses, who have been sanctioned by the Chinese Government solely for calling out Beijing’s appalling human rights abuses against the Uyghur people in Xinjiang. We welcome the Prime Minister’s invitation to those who were sanctioned to meet him, and we hope that the Government are providing those individuals with adequate advice and support. However, we are deeply concerned about the rank hypocrisy and inconsistency in the Government’s actions regarding China.

When Beijing introduced the Hong Kong national security law last summer, the UK withdrew from two UK-China Government investment forums: the joint trade and economic commission and the economic and financial dialogue. However, it is reported that those forums are now reopening. Will the Minister confirm that?

On Hong Kong, does the Minister now agree with the Opposition that British judges who serve in Hong Kong are only lending a veneer of credibility to a broken system and that they should therefore withdraw? Lord Reed’s review was announced in November. When will its conclusions be published? Where are the Magnitsky sanctions against Carrie Lam and the human rights violators in Hong Kong?

In January, the Foreign Secretary said that “we shouldn’t be” doing trade deals with countries committing human rights abuses

“well below the level of genocide”,

yet the Government whipped their MPs against the genocide amendment to the Trade Bill. Will the Minister explain that rank hypocrisy and why the Foreign Secretary says one thing in public and something else altogether in private? The Government claim to be alive to the threat that Chinese state-backed investment poses to Britain’s economic security and prosperity, so why on earth is the Business Secretary weakening our defences by watering down the National Security and Investment Bill? Today, Taiwan suffered the biggest Chinese military incursion into its airspace to date of 25 planes. What conversations is the Minister having with his counterparts about that worrying development?

It is clear that the Government have no strategy on China at home and no strategy on China abroad. Will they now commit to an audit of every aspect of the UK-China relationship so that we can finally call time on the Conservatives’ failed golden era strategy and replace weakness, division and inconsistency with an approach that is instead based on strength, unity and consistency?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions. The reality is that the UK has always wanted a mature, positive relationship with China. That has to be based on mutual respect and trust. There is still considerable scope for constructive engagement and co-operation, but we will not sacrifice our values or our security. It is worth getting it on the record that China is an authoritarian state with different values from the UK. We continually act on matters on which we do not agree, including human rights and Hong Kong.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Hong Kong. The prosperity and way of life for Hongkongers relies on respect for fundamental freedoms, which includes an independent judiciary and the rule of law. We are fully committed to upholding Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and rights and freedoms under the joint declaration. On the national security law, the imposition of the new rules including disqualifying elected legislators and changes to election processes, clearly constitutes a serious breach of the joint declaration. We consider Beijing to be in a state of ongoing non-compliance with the Sino-British joint declaration.

On Taiwan, yes, we are clearly concerned by any action that raises tensions in the Taiwan strait and risks destabilising the status quo. We have a long-standing policy that the Taiwan issue needs to be settled peacefully by the people on both sides of the Taiwan strait through constructive dialogue. We continue to work with Taiwan constructively on economic trade, education and cultural ties, and I think our relationship brings huge benefits to both the United Kingdom and Taiwan.

I thank Mr Speaker for his opening statement of support, which is absolutely right, and the Minister for his response. Surely the key question is: where do we go with our relationship with China? China has sanctioned, without reason, British politicians, people beyond the political sphere and organisations. It has also sanctioned people in Europe and in America. Surely it is now time for the Government to lead our allies in Europe and the United States in saying to China that there can be no preferential trade, economic or commercial deals done while our citizens are sanctioned. Will the Minister resist any moves by any other part of Government to water down any of the measures in the new National Security and Investment Bill, which is going through Parliament?

I commend my right hon. Friend for his continued work on this subject. The Government see China’s increasing international assertiveness at scale as potentially the most significant geopolitical shift in the 2020s, but it is vital that we co-operate with China to tackle the most important challenges facing this generation, not the least of which is climate change. We will do more to adapt to that growing impact and to manage our disagreements. We need to defend our values but co-operate where our interests align. We must pursue a positive economic relationship as well as tackle global challenges. I said in response to a previous question that the House should be in no doubt that China is an authoritarian state, with different values from those of the United Kingdom. We will continue to act on matters on which we do not agree, including human rights and Hong Kong.

As Members have said, the sanctions fit into a wider pattern of action that Beijing has been taking forward across the European continent and the US, reaching beyond politics and into academia and elsewhere. From the perspective of the Scottish National party, the whole point of democracy is that we can disagree, if not as friends then certainly as colleagues, and I have no hesitation in expressing our total support and total solidarity with the right hon. and hon. Members across the House and those elsewhere who have been sanctioned in this way. I am quite sure it will not silence them; it certainly will not silence SNP politicians in the Scottish Parliament or in this place.

Beijing has taken advantage of mixed signals from the UK Government. Although the Government have not done nothing, they could be tougher. It was a Conservative Government who whipped their own Members against a genocide amendment to the Trade Bill—a matter of great regret—and the UK still does not define the situation in Xinjiang as genocide. Does the Minister not agree that we need to be tougher on this? It is high time that the UK Government follow the lead of others, define what is happening in Xinjiang as genocide and make it clear that the UK will not do business with genocidal regimes anywhere?

The amendment to the Trade Bill that was passed is consistent with our long-standing policy that any judgment on whether genocide has occurred is a matter for a competent court, rather than for Governments or non-judicial bodies, and should be decided after consideration of all the evidence available in the context of a credible judicial process.

I want to put on the record my thanks to Mr Speaker for his robust support. He fully understands that sanctioning MPs was not only about intimidating us, but about threatening the integrity of this House.

It is absurd for MPs to be sanctioned for producing a Select Committee report that talks about slave labour in Xinjiang. My question to the Minister is this: if we know that the United Nations is broken when it comes to determining genocide, what are we to do now that the Chinese communist party has decided to sanction those Members who dared to speak about it? The Minister spoke about the work the Government are doing with businesses to make sure that modern slavery is not in supply chains, but that is now worthless, because every business doing the right thing that was identified in our report is now being threatened by the Chinese communist party.

Finally, alongside many colleagues, I led on the genocide amendment to the Trade Bill. Although it is good that the Government’s compromise tackled genocide, it is shameful that it excluded the Uyghur. I do not expect a change in the law, but I do expect the Minister to say that the Uyghur people can now come forward in any process in this place that is established to see whether genocide is taking place.

I thank my hon. Friend for her persistent work in this area. She—and other colleagues and entities that have been sanctioned—obviously have the full support of the Foreign Office. I know that her work on the issue of genocide has been long standing, but I do think the Government’s amendment to the Trade Bill is consistent with our policy. Select Committees will be able to come up with a report that the Government have to consider. Depending on the response of the Select Committees, that could very well lead to a meaningful debate on the Floor of the House.

The Liberal Democrats offer full solidarity with colleagues and organisations who have been sanctioned for daring to speak out against atrocities committed by China. If the purpose of those sanctions was to try to muzzle them, I am sorry to say that all it has done is made all of us even more determined to speak truth to power in this place.

On 8 April, US Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Menendez announced a bipartisan agreement on new comprehensive China legislation. What consideration has the Minister given to seeking cross-party support for a comprehensive and nuanced new foreign policy settlement towards China that protects democracy and human rights? As he will have seen from the strong support for the genocide amendment to the Trade Bill, such a settlement would be welcomed across the House.

Four months ago, the Foreign Secretary initiated a small, interdepartmental, Minister-led group on China, working on the exact point raised by the hon. Lady. It is absolutely right that we react after seeing China’s increasing international assertiveness in recent years. As I said previously, these are some of the most significant geopolitical shifts that we have seen in the 2020s. We will continue to hold China to account by bringing together the coalition through statements at the UN, and by working with and having alongside us 30 countries regarding the measures that we recently announced that have led to these sanctions. That should give the hon. Lady some comfort that the UK Government are working together with our international partners to shine a light on these gross violations.

Does my hon. Friend agree that if China wishes to rebut claims of human rights violations made by this Government or this House, the easiest thing it can do is to allow free and unfettered access to the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner?

My hon. Friend is spot on. That would help to clear up a lot of these issues. The Foreign Secretary has made it clear that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights or another independent fact-finding body must be given unfettered access to Xinjiang to check the facts. We have called for this repeatedly in joint statements and national statements at the UN. It is vital that China allows such access without delay. If, as China claims, these allegations are fabrications and falsehoods, how can it object to granting access?

China sees the UK Government refusal to allow our courts and Parliaments to make judgments about genocide in relation to trade agreements as a sign of weakness, and its sanctions against UK citizens is the latest move to show that it will suppress democracy, abuse human rights and flout the rule of law. Since bullies only respond to strength, will the Government now use their chairing of COP26 and the G7 to bring unity in our trade and financial agreements to strongly support our shared values and our shared environment?

The hon. Gentleman raises a point about genocide that I have answered on previous questions. We are absolutely committed to ensuring that our trade policy is consistent with our international obligations, and it is absolutely clear that more trade does not have to come at the expense of human rights. We have a high level of ambition for our trade and investment partnership with China, but it should not come at the expense of human rights.

Many in Newport West were delighted by the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, and I for one was among them. The Minister will know that the American Government have taken action where we have not, so can the Minister be clear? He has already been asked the question, but I was not clear on his answer. Does he intend to bring forward further sanctions on other entities and more senior individuals in relation to the appalling situation in Xinjiang? A simple yes or no will do.

We have acted to hold to account senior officials and a senior organisation responsible for the human rights violations taking place in Xinjiang. We have also acted with 30 other countries on an agreed set of designations. We have increased the reach and impact of these measures, and we have sent the clearest possible signal of the international community’s serious concern and collective willingness to act. As I have said many times at this Dispatch Box, it is not particularly wise to speculate on further such designations.

Does my hon. Friend agree with me that we should be focusing not only on sanctions, but on the measures that stop businesses in the UK profiting from forced labour in Xinjiang?

My hon. Friend is spot-on, and I agree with her. That is why on 12 January we announced a series of measures to help ensure UK businesses and the public sector are not complicit in human rights violations in Xinjiang. These measures target in a forensic way those profiting from forced labour or those that would financially support it, whether deliberately or otherwise.

I thank the Minister for his response. I spoke to the Minister beforehand, so he knows my question in advance. Will he further outline what support has been offered to those who have left China and Hong Kong and taken up UK citizenship? They are being called by the Chinese embassy to pick up letters—as my constituents have been over the last few weeks—with no further information about what is in the letters or even the need for them to attend in person to pick up the letters. They have been shaken by this secrecy and what some of them term as the “threat” of these letters. This is happening right here in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

I thank the hon. Member for his point, and up until a few minutes ago I was not aware of the reports to which he refers. He will know the level of support we are offering to those coming from Hong Kong, not least the £30-some million announced by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government last week, to help people assimilate within communities. If he were to write to me formally with more detail, I would be more than happy to provide a full response or indeed to meet the hon. Member.

When it comes to the call to accuse China of genocide in Xinjiang, I am reminded of the work of Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who wrote in “The Friends of Voltaire”, as an illustration of Voltaire’s beliefs:

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.

Therefore all of us, perhaps especially those of us who have had China visas denied in the past for alleged misdemeanours, should show our solidarity with colleagues so sanctioned.

Does the Minister agree with the statement made the other day by the former Foreign Secretary William Hague? He said that

“it’s very important to find a framework of co-operation even with a rival power when there’s so much at stake in the world on climate change, arms control and on the future stability of the financial system.”

Does my hon. Friend agree that this has to be the way forward?

My hon. Friend speaks with a great deal of experience on China. It is the case that China has different values from the United Kingdom, and as I have said, its increased international assertiveness is the most significant geo-political shift in recent years. A recent publication on international relations highlights that we will do more to adapt to China’s growing impact. We need to manage those disagreements, defend our values, but co-operate where those interests align. That includes pursuing the positives. As the former Foreign Secretary William Hague pointed out, this is a difficult balancing act, but we must pursue a positive economic relationship. That includes tackling all sorts of other challenges, but we have to call out China when it commits human rights violations. In great contrast to the sanctions that China has placed on right hon. and hon. Members, the sanctions that we issued, alongside our international partners, were thought out. They took some time to deliver, but they had a legal basis to them, contrary to the recent sanctions on our colleagues that we have seen from China.

I, too, put on record my thanks to Mr Speaker for granting this Urgent Question. The Foreign Secretary described what is happening in Xinjiang as

“barbarism we had hoped was lost to another era”—[Official Report, 12 January 2021; Vol. 687, c. 160.]

The growing evidence of Uyghur Muslims being repeatedly violated and used as slaves to farm cotton is indeed barbaric. When will the House be presented with Government legislation to firm up section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, so that all companies have a responsibility to prove that their supply chains are free from forced labour, and to reinforce sanctions for non-compliance?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question and for her support of the Government policy that will come forward to the House. Evidence of the scale and severity of the human rights violations being perpetrated in Xinjiang against the Uyghur people is far reaching and, as I am sure she will agree, paints a truly harrowing picture. We are looking forward to hearing about further measures, but hon. Members should be in no doubt that the Government will take action to ensure that slave labour is not used in any United Kingdom supply chains.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we should stand in solidarity not just with those Members facing sanctions in this House, but with all those law makers and others who have faced sanctions for speaking out against China in the United States, Canada and the EU? We will not be silenced.

My hon. Friend is right. We have made it clear that we regard China’s attempts to silence those who highlight and shine a light on human rights violations in Xinjiang as unwarranted and unacceptable, and we stand in solidarity with all those sanctioned by China. We are in close contact with the United States, Canada and our European partners, who have also had citizens or entities sanctioned.

Have we now reached the point where the Minister should confirm that the Government will not countenance any form of trade talks with the People’s Republic of China while it continues to sanction UK citizens?

I am not aware of any formal talks towards a formal trade partnership with China currently taking place, but we must be clear eyed about this. We must co-operate with China, but we will not be held back from shining a light on human rights violations.

Freedom of speech is a fundamental part of our British democracy. Can my hon. Friend confirm that he unequivocally supports the right of Members of this House to criticise China over human rights abuses? Does he agree that it is our duty to draw attention to outrages perpetrated by the Chinese Communist party in Xinjiang and elsewhere whenever we learn of them?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The fundamental difference between our two countries is that parliamentarians in the United Kingdom have freedom of speech and are allowed to raise issues in this place and outside it without fear or favour—that is the fundamental difference that China does not quite seem to understand. Its attempt to silence those highlighting violations in Xinjiang is not only, frankly, ridiculous; it is unacceptable and unwarranted. The Prime Minister has made it clear that the freedom of parliamentarians to speak out in opposition to human rights violations is fundamental, and that is why this Government stand firmly with all those who have been sanctioned.

The Chinese approach to geopolitics is grim to behold. At the United Nations, scores of countries have signed up to China’s distorted view of human rights. What is the UK doing at the United Nations to build an alliance that will take on China when it needs to be taken on?

The hon. Member raises a good point. As we have heard, this is a big year for the United Kingdom on the multilateral stage. We have built alliances. To be able to get 38 countries supporting our statement last October in the UN and to pull together an international caucus, with a number of countries that has risen from the early 20s to the late 30s, is by no means a small achievement. The ability also to work with international partners—every country in the European Union, the United States and Canada—to deliver the announcement the other week on our global human rights sanctions is a significant achievement.

May I associate myself with the tributes paid to Cheryl Gillan, the late Member for Chesham and Amersham? She was a dear friend, and we will miss her.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Members who have been sanctioned by the Chinese, be they hon. or right hon. Members, are heroes of this Parliament for speaking up for free speech? Is this not just a thinly veiled attempt to distract the public from the horrific crimes that the Chinese Government are committing against not only the Uyghurs but other minority communities in China?

I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend’s remarks about our former colleague Cheryl Gillan. I was her Whip for a time when I first became a Whip. I had not realised that Cheryl had also been a Whip and knew how the game worked, and she very politely reminded me of that. I remember her telling me, “If you need to be bothering me as a former Whip over this particular vote, Nigel, then you really are in trouble as a Government.” She will be sorely missed.

I also wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend’s comments about whether this is a thinly veiled attempt to distract attention from the horrific crimes. Well, of course it is. I agree 100% that we must not let this action by China distract from the horrific violations taking place in Xinjiang. We will continue to work with our international partners to send the clearest possible signal that the international community has a collective willingness to act.

I shared a room with Dame Cheryl for a period of time, and it just shows the strength of Dame Cheryl that she was able to put up with me for so long. We sat on the Council of Europe together and, Dame Cheryl, we are going to miss you greatly.

I thank the Minister for responding to the urgent question, which, as the Speaker intimated, hits at the very heart of the democracy in this country. We are now going to suspend for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.