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Anti-lockdown Protest in Shanghai: Arrest and Assault of Edward Lawrence

Volume 723: debated on Tuesday 29 November 2022

We come now to the urgent question. I believe this is the first time Jim Shannon has had one.

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on the arrest and assault of Edward Lawrence by Chinese authorities while covering an anti-lockdown protest in Shanghai.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for giving me the opportunity. It has been 12 years of waiting—patience is a virtue.

I find it hard to believe, given his powers of persuasion, that this is the hon. Gentleman’s first urgent question. He is an ever present ray of sunshine in Parliament, and we love him for it.

As the Foreign Secretary made clear yesterday, the arrest of a BBC journalist while covering the recent protests in Shanghai is a deeply disturbing and wholly unacceptable situation. Journalists must be able to do their job without fear of arrest of intimidation. The BBC has stated that the journalist was beaten and kicked by the police during his arrest, and was held for several hours before being released. In response, we are calling in the Chinese ambassador to make clear the unacceptable and unwarranted nature of those actions and the importance of freedom of speech, and to demand a full explanation. We have also been in close touch with the journalist and the BBC throughout to gather the facts and provide consular support.

We recognise that the covid-related restrictions in China are challenging for the Chinese people. We urge the Chinese authorities to respect the rights of those who decide to express their views about the situation. Moreover, as the Prime Minister made clear yesterday in his Mansion House speech, the media—and, for that matter, our parliamentarians—must be able to highlight issues without fear of sanction or intimidation, whether in calling out human rights violations in Xinjiang and the curtailment of freedom in Hong Kong, or in reporting on the recent protests.

This, of course, follows the recent incident in Manchester. As we have previously made clear to the House, the apparent behaviour of staff at the Chinese consulate general was wholly unacceptable. In view of the gravity of that incident, we summoned the Chinese chargé d’affaires on 18 October and delivered a clear message through our ambassador in Beijing. There is now an ongoing investigation and it would be wrong to pre-empt the findings.

More broadly, we recognise that China poses a systemic challenge to our values and interests, which, again, the Prime Minister highlighted yesterday. That challenge grows more acute as China moves towards greater authoritarianism. That is why we are taking robust action to protect our interests and stand up for our values. That includes imposing sanctions, leading action at the UN and strengthening our supply chain resilience. Let me assure Members that, as part of our frank relationship with China, we will continue to raise our human rights concerns at the highest levels.

I thank the Minister for having a certain firmness in his response, which is what we wish to hear. I welcome the news that the Chinese ambassador has been summoned by the FCDO to account for this arrest. I encourage the Minister to share—hopefully he can—all the justifications that will be given at that meeting. The reason given to the BBC by the Chinese authorities was that they had arrested Edward Lawrence for his own good in case he caught covid from the crowd. Wow, what a pathetic answer! My goodness. Such was their concern for him, a senior journalist in the BBC and a British citizen, that the Chinese police beat him and kicked him as he tried to lawfully cover a peaceful protest in Shanghai. He had all the necessary permits and licences, and is a veteran reporter in China.

The first question we need to ask is: what assessment has the FCDO Minister made of the safety of British journalists in China following this assault? It is important to remember that the arrest and assault of Edward Lawrence is not the first attack on freedom of speech, but just another example in a long line of journalists and human rights defenders who have been silenced, arrested or simply disappeared by the Chinese Communist party. This is the sixth urgent question granted in this parliamentary term on human rights abuses by the Chinese Communist party. We have seen the CCP establishing incognito police stations in the UK, the assault of Bob Chan outside the Chinese consulate in Manchester, the Xinjiang police files highlighting horrendous crimes against the Uyghurs, and the arrest of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. This is unprecedented and needs urgent action.

This incident is part of a clear pattern of behaviour of increased crackdowns and restrictions on Chinese people within China and on British soil in the run-up to, and following, the 20th national congress of the Chinese Communist party last month. Last night at the Lord Mayor’s banquet, the Prime Minister gave a speech stating that the “golden era” of China-UK relations was over. I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment, which is worthy of saying. The director general of MI5 said that China represents

“the biggest long-term threat to Britain and the world’s economic and national security”.

Clearly, tougher action is needed to protect British citizens, human rights defenders, pro-democracy activists, and religious and ethnic minorities targeted by the CCP.

As always, my friend the hon. Gentleman raises important points, and he can be assured that when the Chinese ambassador is called in to the FCDO, they will be raised, particularly the immediate point about the arrest, its unacceptable manner and the justification, which as he highlighted is incredibly thin. In that meeting, we will also raise the wider point he has mentioned about the safety of journalists. He raises a number of other important points, including about Chinese police stations. As the Minister for Security, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), made clear in his statement to the House on 1 November, reports of undeclared police stations in the United Kingdom are extremely concerning and will be taken seriously. The Home Office is reviewing our approach to transnational repression, and the Minister for Security has committed to providing an update on that work to the House in due course. The hon. Gentleman rightly says that there are wider concerns about the increasing authoritarianism and muscular foreign policy of the Chinese, and the Prime Minister rightly set out a new era of robust pragmatism, which we have seen grow over recent years, but which was clearly articulated by the Prime Minister yesterday.

May I congratulate our friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on successfully securing this urgent question? He raises a series of very important points. We all absolutely and rightly condemn the brutal treatment yesterday of Ed Lawrence, the BBC cameraman, that saw him dragged away and beaten. I have seen a text from him to a colleague saying that he was beaten hard during the course of his detention.

With all the other issues that have been raised—the chasing and incarceration of journalists in Hong Kong, the crackdowns and genocide on the Uyghur—there is now an endless litany of China’s bad behaviour, so I simply ask my hon. Friend the Minister this. How is it that yesterday the Prime Minister, who previously said that China posed a “systemic threat”, has now moved to saying it poses “a systemic challenge”, and that our strongest policy statement now, in terms of our reputation and relationship with China, is that we are going to be “robustly pragmatic”? Can he please explain to me how “robustly pragmatic” will worry the Chinese any one bit?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. He is a long-standing campaigner on these issues, and I listen keenly to what he says, as does the Foreign Secretary. What the Prime Minister set out yesterday was a co-ordinated and coherent approach in which we do more to adapt to China’s growing impact. As he knows, we will revise and update the integrated review, which will help us to invest in our alliances and in the serious capabilities that we need to counter the actions that we see in China’s foreign policy.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing his first urgent question in the House—who would have known that it was the first?

I turn to the serious matter of the arrest and detention of journalists, which is deeply shocking and, in this particular case, concerns our own BBC. Sadly, this is the approach and tone that we have come to expect from an increasingly authoritarian Chinese regime. That has been further demonstrated this week by the case in Hong Kong of the independent media outlet, Apple Daily, whose founder, Jimmy Lai, faces court cases in Hong King on basic freedom of expression for local people. We must show solidarity in that terrible situation, not just in Hong Kong but across the People’s Republic of China.

I welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary has summoned the Chinese ambassador, as well as the consular support that has been provided for Mr Lawrence. The robust response is a welcome change to the Government’s previous handling of Chinese overreach in Manchester, which the House thought did not match the severity of the violence outside the Chinese consulate. Our support for the work of the press must be unified, and we stand squarely behind the Government in making it clear to Chinese officials that their treatment of journalists doing their job is not and never will be acceptable. The Opposition have made it clear that the BBC must be protected in its crucial work abroad, tackling disinformation and providing reliable, accurate reporting—I am sure the Minister agrees with that.

I have one question for the Minister. We are in the middle of profound cuts to the BBC World Service, including of Chinese journalists. Will the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office say on the record today that it will not defund Mandarin-speaking journalists, because, particularly in covid lockdown, it is crucial that individuals can listen to good journalism on our BBC World Service?

I thank the hon. Member for her considered and important words. Of course, with the calling in of the ambassador, we will raise those matters, and to hear them raised across the House helps to add strength to what we are going to say, so we are grateful for that.

The hon. Member made an important point about protecting journalists across the board, and I will raise that with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and with the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), who is responsible for the Indo-Pacific and is currently travelling.

The hon. Member made some important points about Manchester, and I assure her that we do not have any intention of giving the Chinese Government any excuse to make this a political issue. It is about law, and we will see it through.

The hon. Member made points about the BBC World Service. There is a move to a digital platform, and we have set out our funding plans with the World Service. I will meet it shortly on the wider points that she made.

Another day, another blatant abuse of human rights by the Chinese communist Government. Who but that Government would think that arresting, cuffing, kicking and beating a journalist could be construed as for his own good?

We have had an awful lot of calling in the Chinese ambassador. If robust pragmatism is to mean anything, should there not be clear consequences? We have still not expelled the Manchester consulate general, and there should be sanctions against Chinese officials who are waging seriously cruel oppression on brave protesters who are simply trying to stand up for their rights in China and against the oppressive lockdown, which resulted in the deaths of over 100 people in a fire in Wuhan last week. When are we going to get serious about China?

My hon. Friend makes a good point: the case against the BBC journalist was thin to say the least, and we will raise that with the ambassador today. He raises an important point about Manchester, about which an investigation is ongoing. Unlike the Chinese, we will see that process through before we take action—and we will. On his broader point about the action that we will take, we have put sanctions in place in relation to the atrocities in Xinjiang, so action is being taken. We are also refreshing our integrated review, which will help us to create the framework in which further action can be taken as appropriate.

I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this urgent question and I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting it. It is important for the House to take account of the issue. Journalists deserve a special status anywhere: they tell the truth, they shed a light and they do a public service. They need support, so we express our support for Edward Lawrence. I am glad to hear that the ambassador will be summoned to the FCDO, but, frankly, I would like to hear about more consequences. Bluntly, the Manchester investigation also seems to be taking longer than it needs to; I think the House would support consequences on that.

There is a wider issue at play. I am deeply concerned about the pressure that is building within China. The Communist party has boxed itself into a zero covid strategy that has been coupled with a terrifyingly low vaccine uptake, particularly among the elderly. That huge pressure could tend towards greater authoritarianism and a more violent crackdown. What assessment has the FCDO made of the risk to UK nationals in China? Does the advice need to change? On a humanitarian level, is there scope for assisting the Chinese state, for all its faults, with a catch-up vaccine roll-out? That might go some way to alleviating the humanitarian pressure that could tend towards worse consequences for the people of China.

As I have highlighted, consequences have been put in train in relation to other situations, particularly in Xinjiang, and we will be having a robust conversation with the ambassador today. The hon. Member talks about Manchester; I have already highlighted that we are awaiting the details of the police investigation. It is absolutely right that we get that done properly so that we can then take informed action, which was clearly not the case with what happened to our BBC journalist.

On what is happening more broadly with the Chinese Government and their approach to covid, that is for them to decide. We have scientific co-operation and, if and when appropriate, that dialogue can take place. Ultimately, they need to make a decision about how they tackle covid within their borders.

May I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this crucial urgent question?

The Government must always do all they can to protect the safety of His Majesty’s subjects abroad; that is a fundamental duty. I wonder what effect calling in the ambassador will have and whether more does not need to be done urgently that actually has an effect on the Chinese operation in the UK. Should we not be looking to expel diplomats; to take tougher actions in international forums where Chinese interests are at stake; or to do things that the Chinese would not want us to do, such as improving our relationship with Taiwan or inviting the Dalai Lama on a formal visit by the British Government to show that we are not a pushover and will not support the communist running dogs?

At the calling in today, those issues will be raised in a robust manner. Of course, the safety of our citizens is absolutely key across the world and in China, so we will raise those issues. In terms of providing a robust, muscular approach, as we have seen, given the concerns that have been raised in the House about Uyghur minorities, sanctions and trade guidelines have been put in place. We will continue to take the appropriate action to counter what we believe are incorrect practices.

Last night, the Prime Minister said that our relationship with China would be characterised by “robust pragmatism”. I have no idea what that means, and nor, I expect, do tech start-ups trying to decide about Chinese investment; universities looking at Chinese funding; journalists trying to decide how to cover Chinese stories; businesses looking at their supply chains and market strategies; and Chinese activists risking their lives. Is it not time that we had the long-promised China strategy, not just another hollow slogan?

As I said in answer to a previous question, we will be updating the integrated review to ensure that we continue to invest in our alliances and the capabilities that we need. We have not committed to publish a separate China strategy, but we will continue to maintain as much transparency as possible and keep Parliament updated on our approach to China. The integrated review will be the main focus for that.

This disgraceful episode reminds us of the importance of the BBC’s work in China. About a decade ago, ringfenced funding was stopped for the BBC World Service and BBC Monitoring. Some ringfenced funding has now been restored for the World Service but not, as far as I know, for Monitoring. Will the Government undertake to look at that matter? The degree of investment in such services should not be competing with commercial BBC considerations.

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. I have already highlighted that a broader strategy is taking place with the World Service, but I will follow up about Monitoring and get back to him in more detail.

The Chinese people are living with this authoritarian rule and they are taking immensely brave actions in protesting against it. We all remember—they will remember better than we do—Tiananmen Square and the way that the Government cracked down on that protest. There is a serious threat and a serious challenge, and now we have “robust pragmatism”—I am trembling at those words. Words mean nothing; action is desperately needed. Manchester is less than 20 miles from where I live, so this is on our doorsteps. We must take action now and start sanctioning to let the Chinese Government know that we are taking them seriously. They are laughing up their sleeves at us in this state.

The hon. Member makes an important point about the protests that are taking place and we urge the Chinese authorities to respect those who decide to express their views about the current situation. The freedom to protest must be respected. She also makes an important point about Manchester, which is not far from my constituency either. We have these concerns, but we need to go through due process. We have taken steps on sanctions in response to the situation of the Uyghurs and the integrated review will set out a wider strategy.

The violent, aggressive crackdown against journalists and protesters is yet another completely unacceptable act by the Chinese Communist party. I have seen at first hand how UK Ministers and our brave diplomats are prepared to stand up against autocratic bullies across the world; often, we are one of the few countries that will do that. When it comes to robustness, I urge my hon. Friend to continue to ensure that the UK is a leader in standing on the side of freedom, especially freedom of speech.

That is something that we take great pride in and is fundamental to our values and those of many other countries. We need to speak up for those values. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for her incredible work at the FCDO in making the case and highlighting the robust action that we take and will continue to take.

What happened to Edward Lawrence was not a one-off or isolated incident. It is part of a deliberate strategy to ensure that reporters in China do not tell the rest of the world what is going on there. This week, the other place will debate the Report stage of the Procurement Bill and will consider an amendment in the name of Lords Alton, Blencathra, Coaker and Fox. It would require the Government to set out a timetable

“for the removal of physical technology or surveillance equipment from the Government’s procurement supply chain”

where there is evidence that the supplier has been engaged or involved in modern slavery, genocide or crimes against humanity. Is the Government’s policy now sufficiently robust to accept the noble Lords’ amendment, or does the Minister think that pragmatism will lead them to vote against it?

I am not aware of that amendment, but I am sure the relevant Ministers will listen to what the right hon. Member has said. I would highlight that action is being taken, however. On 24 November the Government announced that companies subject to the national intelligence law of the People’s Republic of China should not be able to supply surveillance systems to sensitive Government sites. Actions are being taken, and I will get back to the right hon. Member on the particular amendment he talks about.

The Chinese Communist party’s attacks on freedom of speech and democratic institutions abroad show that its domestic authoritarianism is now spreading overseas. Following recent revelations about overseas police stations, attacks on the free press, and now crackdowns on peaceful protestors, what steps are the Government taking to stand against totalitarianism and for British values of democracy and freedom of speech at home as well as abroad?

I have just returned from my first ministerial visit to Latin America—Colombia and Panama—and it is very clear that our amazing civil servants and diplomats speak up, actively call out any authoritarian activity and speak true to our values. We will continue to do that, including this afternoon when the Chinese ambassador is called in.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on obtaining this urgent question, but I must warn you, Mr Speaker, that I think you have set him on a new trend. He was always concerned as to why he was the last person to be called in questions, but now he has found a method to be called first, so just beware, Mr Speaker, because I think you are going to get a tsunami of requests from him.

Is the Minister not concerned that increasingly autocratic regimes seem to think they can kill our citizens, attack people on our own territory, tear up agreements made with us, and affect our vital interests by their behaviour? Does he not have some concern that the message being sent out by the Prime Minister that we will be pragmatically robust—whatever that means—will not scare the Chinese and will not stop them doing what they are doing at present? Given the vital interests we have in the China sea, where China is expanding, and in Taiwan, where China is increasingly aggressive, and given the stranglehold China is seeking on resources across the world through colonialism, the pragmatic—

It is indeed a team effort; we have seen our colleagues work together on these issues before, but it is good to be able to respond to both of them. The points the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) makes are important and we are updating the integrated review and our broader strategy. We are very committed to investing in the alliances and capabilities we need to counter the growing threats and challenges the right hon. Gentleman highlighted in his important contribution—even if it was a bit long.

I spent much of my early career working as a presenter on BBC World Service TV news. Its correspondents and crews then as now put themselves at risk in order to tell the truth to the world, and we owe them all a debt of gratitude. Can my hon. Friend assure the House that he will be extremely firm and robust in future conversations with China, and indeed with other countries, in insisting that protecting journalists’ rights to report freely is absolutely non-negotiable?

My hon. Friend makes his point with real conviction and experience. We are grateful for his work and owe a debt of gratitude to the reporters who do invaluable work. He can be assured that we will make that point today to the Chinese ambassador.

Whether it is Chinese Communist officials beating up pro-democracy protestors on the streets of Manchester or Chinese authorities arresting British journalists on the streets of Shanghai, it is deeply worrying and sinister that the so-called Chinese Communist police stations overseas, including in this country, are even a factor that is occurring. May I through my hon. Friend encourage the Minister for Security to come back to this House as soon as practically possible for an update on what actions the British Government will be taking to close down such agents of the Chinese Communist party acting here in British cities?

That is an important point and was well made. As I highlighted earlier, the Minister for Security has committed to coming back to update the House, and the Home Office is reviewing our approach to transnational oppression and will provide an update in due course.