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Governor of Xinjiang: UK Visit

Volume 727: debated on Thursday 9 February 2023

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on the planned visit to the UK of the Governor of Xinjiang.

We understand from the Chinese embassy that the governor of Xinjiang may visit the UK next week. To be very clear, he has not been invited by the UK Government or the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and we have no confirmation that he will, in fact, travel. Our expectation is that he will travel on a diplomatic passport, and therefore he has not yet been granted a visa. If he does visit, I assure this House that under no circumstances will he be dignified with a ministerial meeting.

China’s actions in Xinjiang are abhorrent and we will not legitimise them in any way. However, robust engagement to challenge human rights violations and to stand up for the rights of the oppressed is at the core of the UK’s diplomatic work around the world. We must be prepared to use diplomatic channels to achieve that end, hence officials would be prepared to offer him a meeting. In line with that principle, there is only one reason why such a meeting would take place—to make absolutely clear the UK’s abhorrence of the treatment of the Uyghur people and to say that we will not relent from exposing the horrors to which they are subject. That point needs to be set out clearly to China. It is only right that people responsible for human rights violations are confronted on these issues.

The UK has played a leading role in international efforts to hold China to account on Xinjiang. In 2019, we became the first country to step up to lead a joint statement on China’s actions in Xinjiang at the UN. Since that first statement, which was supported by 23 countries, we have worked tirelessly through our global diplomatic network to broaden the caucus of countries speaking out. Our leadership has sustained pressure on China to change its behaviour and consistently increase the number of countries speaking out. Most recently, our diplomatic effort helped to secure the support of a record 50 countries for a statement on Xinjiang at the UN third committee in October.

We have imposed sanctions on four individuals and one entity in Xinjiang, and have introduced robust measures to tackle forced labour in supply chains. We have consistently raised our concerns at the highest level in Beijing. Let me be absolutely clear that we will continue to emphasise at all levels that the world is watching what China’s authorities say and do in Xinjiang. They cannot hide their abuses. The UK and our allies will not turn away.

I find that response from my hon. Friend, for whom I have the highest respect, to be a very weak turn from the Foreign Office. The Uyghur region in north-west China has been the site of severe human rights violations, crimes against humanity and genocide for more than six years. In 2017, satellite imagery confirmed that a network of internment camps had been set up throughout the region. Throughout this time, Erkin Tuniyaz has been responsible for the murderous and repressive policy, alongside its architect, Chen Quango.

Testimony from camp survivors—who are absolutely appalled to hear that a Foreign Office official will meet this individual—and leaked official Chinese Government documents, satellite images and drone footage indicate that the camps are sites of severe mass arbitrary detention and severe human rights abuses, including systematic sexual violence against women, torture and the forced sterilisation of many women. Reports of cultural and religious oppression, mass digital in-person surveillance, forced labour, mass sterilisations and abortions and a system of mass criminalisation and arbitrary detention are also completely documented.

The weak response from the Foreign Office hides something. It is not that it has invited him here, but it has made it clear that when he comes, he will be welcome to see officials. Whether or not the Foreign Office is tough, this is a propaganda coup for the Chinese Government. Governor Tuniyaz has defended the use of mass detention centres and doubled down and expanded their use. During his tenure, more than 1 million Uyghurs and other people from predominantly Muslim minorities have been detained in Xinjiang. A man who declares that nothing is going on is hardly likely to be bothered by a Foreign Office official telling him, “Now, now, you’ve got to stop this.”

I remind my hon. Friend the Minister that in 2021, the House of Commons in this United Kingdom declared for the first time that genocide is taking place against the Uyghurs and other minorities in the Xinjiang region of China. Let us compare our response with that of the United States. The UK has sanctioned only three rather junior people. The US has introduced 107 punitive sanctions, five new laws, 11 specific investment bans and 10 sanctions on individuals, including Chen Quanguo and Erkin Tuniyaz. I call on the UK Government to rescind this invitation and sanction Erkin Tuniyaz and Chen Quanguo for their role in this crime against humanity and genocide. The place to deal with these individuals is in a tribunal or court of law, not in the quiet office of a Foreign Office official.

I appreciate sincerely the long-standing interest of my right hon. Friend in this issue, and he speaks with great sincerity and power. He draws a comparison with the sanctions regime in the US. The numbers might be different, but that reflects our desire and approach to use these opportunities to deliver a very strong and robust message. It is institutionally the judgment of the FCDO that we are better off not denying ourselves the opportunity to send extremely robust and strong messages of condemnation of the brutality that has been carried out by the Chinese state in Xinjiang. He alluded to that difference of approach, but we are confident in its utility.

My understanding is that, in advance of the suggestion of this meeting, the invitation was extended to human rights groups in the UK to afford them the opportunity to send a very strong message to this individual about their view of repression in Xinjiang. That was at the heart of what was judged to be useful about the prospect of such a meeting.

I thank the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for bringing this urgent question to the House. The issue of Xinjiang has been debated in both Chambers of this Parliament, and following a Back-Bench motion, Members of this House voted that genocide had occurred in this area of China.

In September last year, the UN high commissioner for human rights said that the treatment of the Uyghurs may constitute crimes against humanity, and this House has made clear its view that the treatment of the Uyghurs amounts to genocide. It is therefore deeply worrying to learn of the planned visit to the UK of the governor of the very province in which these outrageous and systemic acts have taken place. Has the Minister made an assessment of the relationship between Chen Quanguo, who is an international pariah, and this particular individual?

I am acutely aware of, and in principle agree with, the general points that the Minister has made about engagement. However, we have to be very robust with regard to human rights. Is the meeting essential to UK-China relations? I do not think it is. I fear that this planned visit to the UK highlights the serious lack of political leadership at the Foreign Office. The Minister knows the views of this House and should have made it clear that this meeting was ill-judged and inappropriate.

When were Ministers first made aware of the planned visit, and did it receive personal approval from the Foreign Secretary? What assessment has been made of the moral injury that this would cause to the Uyghur minority in this country, who have come to the Houses of Parliament to tell us of their suffering? Has this decision been informed by the moral injury that it will cause? Finally, will the invitation to visit the UK now be rescinded? What action will the Foreign Office take as a result of this urgent question?

I am grateful for the constructive tone and characteristic interest that the hon. Lady shows. Is this meeting essential? We judge that this might be an opportunity to send a very strong message to someone who is involved in the governance of Xinjiang. That is at the heart of the judgment that was made about this opportunity.

The hon. Lady asked when Ministers were aware. I know that Ministers were aware in the usual, routine way and made a judgment that, on balance, it was useful to endorse the prospect of officials engaging with this individual.

The hon. Lady makes a good point about the risk of moral injury. It is important to say that, with regard to this specific proposition, FCDO officials were keen to invite Uyghur human rights groups in the UK so that they have an opportunity to express their views to this individual as a means of delivering a very strong message of condemnation. That judgment was at the heart of the decision, but she makes a good point about moral injury.

The hon. Lady asked whether the invitation will be rescinded and, of course, it is not an invitation. The FCDO did not invite this individual. Our expectation is that he is travelling on a diplomatic passport. I am grateful to have been able to answer these questions, and I am grateful for her constructive spirit.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) on securing this urgent question but, Minister, I am afraid this is simply not good enough.

In Xinjiang, women are being forcibly sterilised and children are in concentration camps. There are forced labour camps and systematic rape, yet the Minister has just confirmed from the Dispatch Box that Ministers approved of this visit by one of the masterminds of this genocide. Worse, a Cabinet Office Minister claimed this week that the complicity of Chinese state-run companies, such as Hikvision, in Xinjiang is “contested.” Exactly what position are this Government taking? There is no legitimate reason to allow this man, Erkin Tuniyaz, into our country. The only meetings with him should be in a courtroom.

Will the Government now sanction Erkin Tuniyaz, as well as Chen Quanguo, the butcher of Xinjiang? We have to refuse to meet them. Like-minded EU countries have already announced that they will not meet this man when he comes to Brussels. We should not only refuse to meet him, as our like-minded friends have, but we should deny him a visa.

Will we now introduce a sanctions regime specifically for Tibet, where we are seeing the exact same thing? Millions of children have been kidnapped from their parents and put into concentration camps so that they can be assimilated and so that genocide can be committed against their culture. This is wrong. I am sorry, but the Government have to get a grip on China issues. We let Chinese officials flee this country, having given them a week’s notice, and now we are inviting them into the halls of Westminster. It is not good enough. We have to get a grip.

I do not think they will be coming to Westminster, as we would have to give permission. Let us not open that debate.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) for her long-standing interest. She rightly mentions the suffering of women and children, specifically in Xinjiang, which has moved us all. Our judgment is that Erkin Tuniyaz is not travelling because of an invitation from the Foreign Office. Given that our expectation is that he is travelling on a diplomatic passport and will be here, because he is not sanctioned—

Because he is not sanctioned, we therefore judge that this is a useful opportunity to deliver an extremely strong message to this individual. Of course, colleagues will note that there is a differential approach with regard to the US sanctions regime.

Order. I am in the Chair. Members are meant to speak through the Chair, not face towards the back of the Chamber.

The judgment of Ministers is that such opportunities are useful in offering a chance to express a very forthright condemnation of the outrages in Xinjiang. I think this reflects the Government’s policy of robust pragmatism when it comes to China, which is at the heart of our wanting to continue such dialogue.

The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) is absolutely right that the Government have handed a propaganda gift to Beijing.

In 2020, the Uyghur tribunal found that, beyond any reasonable doubt, China is responsible for crimes against humanity and the crime of genocide, yet today we find that someone at the heart of those crimes is coming to the UK next week—a man accused by the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China of playing a central role in the persecution of the Uyghurs.

As we have heard, the Government’s position on China has been appallingly weak and goes no further than to urge the Chinese authorities to change their approach. Given that, hitherto, they have failed to move Beijing one iota in its treatment of the Uyghur people, why does the Minister believe that allowing this man to come to the United Kingdom and to meet FCDO officials will suddenly change things? Will it not be exactly the same message that they have given before, and will the Chinese not treat it with exactly the same contempt? Given that that is what will happen, why does the Minister honestly believe that meeting this man will make the slightest difference to Beijing’s approach?

The hon. Gentleman is questioning the utility of this kind of diplomacy, and it is a reasonable question, but our judgment, institutionally, is that opportunities to send strong messages to these sorts of individuals are useful and will be taken heed of by the state apparatus. I think the expectation of officials was that an invitation should be extended to Uyghur human rights groups in the UK to enable them to engage with this individual directly and send that strong message. I think that was at the core of the judgment that was made.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for making it absolutely clear that this man is not getting in here, even if the Minister is going to give him space in the office. But I ask you this, Sir: is not the very fact that an announcement of his intention to travel has been made—in the language habitual to the Government of China—“a provocation”?

I think this is an opportunity to send a robust message from our side about everything we judge completely outrageous and unacceptable in Xinjiang. We therefore judge that there is utility in the prospect of officials meeting this individual.

Is this the best we can do? This country used to have a tradition—on both sides of the House, in both major parties—of standing up to tyrants, butchers, fascists and great persecutors. That seems to have been abandoned. Is not the only conclusion to be drawn in Beijing from the actions of this Government that we will do nothing to stand up to them?

We have stood up to China when it comes to Xinjiang. We have sanctioned individuals, and we continue to make the strongest possible representations. That is in line with our policy of robust pragmatism. We will be robust, but we will also engage and send a strong message when opportunities arise.

I welcome the question from the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), and her reference to the actions of Europe. One of the key freedoms I thought we had secured by leaving the EU was the freedom to act and to lead. Indeed, yesterday we heard powerfully in Westminster Hall from the President of Ukraine just how much the residents of Ukraine appreciate that leadership of the international community’s support for Ukraine. When this country speaks, the world listens, so can my hon. Friend explain why the UK Government appear unwilling to hold China to account with the same determination and vigour on this matter?

My hon. Friend is right to say that we have shown leadership on Ukraine, and we seek to show the same leadership on matters relating to our relationship with China and the travails and suffering of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang. Of course, we may take a slightly different approach on the numbers of individuals or entities sanctioned in relation to Xinjiang. That is based on the notion that a greater degree of engagement allows us to send extremely robust and strong messages of condemnation, and that is at the heart of our approach in this regard. I should also put on record that, of course, this individual would not be invited into King Charles Street—into the FCDO. This would be an external meeting, if indeed it took place.

Well, that will really show them, won’t it? There is really only one reason for having a meeting like this: to keep that man talking until the rozzers arrive with a stout pair of handcuffs. As I understand the Minister’s position today, the approach of His Majesty’s Government to sanctions for people like this is that they allow us to deliver robust messages. If that is the strategy—and it has been for some years now—can the Minister offer the House the list of areas where progress has been made as a consequence? In what way have things got better for the Uyghur population in Xinjiang?

We seek in a whole range of ways to condemn China’s brutality in order that it might be lessened, and we also seek expressly to advocate for individuals. The utility of this sort of engagement is often on behalf of specific individuals. I will not comment on individual cases here, but I do know that thorough engagement is carried out in the interests of specific and individual human rights activists imprisoned in Xinjiang, and I am sure that advocacy is appreciated.

The treatment of the Uyghur Muslims in China is absolutely outrageous—a genocide, and one that the whole House condemns. My hon. Friend is of course quite right that this individual is not sanctioned, but that prompts the question: why is he not sanctioned, given that he is the governor? I understand that the survivors of the camps have actually applied to the Attorney General for permission for him to be arrested on arrival. Will my hon. Friend take back to the Foreign Secretary the urgent need to review the number of people who are actually sanctioned? In fact, if the governor of that province is not sanctioned, the question is: why not?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his questions and, indeed, for his long-standing interest. I am sure the Foreign Secretary will be taking note of these proceedings in the House today. We do not speculate about future sanctions, and we always keep these sorts of issues under constant review.

It would be helpful to understand exactly why this particular individual has not been sanctioned. Can the Minister give some more clarity on that point, not least because my constituents—and, I suspect, the constituents of everyone else in the House who has spoken or is going to speak on this urgent question—will be profoundly concerned about the level of human rights violations taking place towards the Uyghur community, for which this man appears to be very directly responsible?

I think colleagues will know that, when it comes to the metrics for such things, the judgment has been made that it is worthwhile maintaining the opportunity to engage with some of these sorts of individuals. Of course, all of these cases are kept under review. We will not speculate on future sanctions, but I think it reflects the approach of more engagement in order to deliver strong messages, rather than less, and therefore more sanctions.

What is happening in Xinjiang is an absolute disgrace, and the whole House clearly condemns it. The Minister says that inviting this gentleman over—sorry; not inviting, but allowing this gentleman over—will send a strong message, but what message is going to be sent that has not already been sent to the Chinese? The Minister also said that the meeting will not happen in King Charles Street—at the FCDO—so where exactly will it be happening? In the spirit of democracy, openness and the freedom to protest we have in this country, will he tell us where it is, so that those who want to protest can actually go and protest outside this meeting?

This is not organised by the FCDO, and our expectation, with the oversight that Ministers have, is that directors might meet this individual. The details of that are yet to be confirmed, if indeed it does happen. I think the opportunity therein was that they would give very strong messages, including on individual cases of human rights activists imprisoned in Xinjiang, and that was therefore the utility of such a proposition.

The strongest action, the most forthright message, or the robusto, would of course be for the Government to sanction this individual. That is the bottom line. Given how the Government are confronting this issue in Xinjiang, I fear for other parts of China. As a result of this soaking-wet response this morning, I fear even more for Hong Kong. The Government have been sitting on a sanctions report since a formal submission in November last year, calling for the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to involve himself in sanction moves against 16 individuals in China. When are the Government going to report back on that sanctions request?

I note the hon. Gentleman’s question and he makes a good point in drawing a comparison with Hong Kong. I will not comment from the Dispatch Box about future sanctions, but we note the content of that report.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) on securing this urgent question. I hear what the Minister says about us taking a different approach, but what assessment is the FCDO making about whether that approach is working? Surely the fact that this individual is going to come to the United Kingdom, when we know they would not go to the United States, is evidence that the approach is not working and we need to rethink.

The Government’s approach is one of robust pragmatism, but we would always keep that under review and pay a great deal of attention to the actions of our allies.

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am really struggling with the Minister’s thinking on this. On one hand he says that what is happening in Xinjiang is abhorrent, illegal under international law and a crime against humanity, but on the other hand he is facilitating meetings with the governor of that province. That is not a sustainable position, and it certainly does not hold China to account. When will the Government get a grip on this issue, finally and definitely stand up for human rights and against crimes against humanity, and tell China that this is not acceptable and the governor of Xinjiang is not welcome here?

We will continue to send those messages, and my expectation is that directors, were they to meet this individual, would be sending exactly those messages. More broadly, we will keep our approach under review at all times.

The Minister knows how much I respect him, as we all do in this House, but his answers this morning have been incredibly disappointing. I have to say that—I know it may not be his Department to answer, and he has been given the job. Two years ago Parliament voted to declare the treatment of the Uyghur Muslims to be genocide. Erkin Tuniyaz has not only had direct involvement in those activities, but is one of the lead offenders, directly responsible for implementing mass detentions, forced sterilisations, sexual abuse, slave labour and even organ harvesting. A person responsible for such crimes should never, ever be welcome on British soil.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question and I respect him enormously—he knows that. Of course we all share a deep sense of sorrow about the appalling abuses of human rights in Xinjiang, and that is at the core of everything we do in our advocacy for human rights. With regard to the current issue, of course we will keep this approach under review.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I seek through you a correction by the Minister of something he said earlier? He said that the Foreign Office had invited those who have fled Xinjiang and are here in the UK to meet this murderous man, but in fact they were never invited; they were only invited to submit their thoughts about this to the Foreign Office, or perhaps to meet one of the officials.