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Volume 803: debated on Wednesday 17 June 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of their relationship with the government of China; whether they intend to alter that relationship; and if so, how they intend to do so.

My Lords, our approach to China is rooted in our values and strategic interests. As a leading member of the international community and as a major economy, China has to be involved in solving global issues. However, when engaging China, we stand up for our principles, including international law, human rights and national security. We want a mature, pragmatic relationship with the Chinese Government, which means collaborating where our interests align, being clear where they do not, and working to resolve our differences.

Given China’s economic and political dominance, its threats to Hong Kong and Taiwan, and in the South China Sea, and its eternal suppression of human rights, do the Government still think that there can be a golden age of engagement with China? Given that we cannot do this alone, with which countries are the Government working to achieve this?

My Lords, as the noble Baroness knows, I am an eternal optimist: there can of course be a new golden age, in every sense. We are working with China on the important issue of Covid-19; indeed, China has helped not just us but others with PPE procurement. Other areas where there is scope for collaboration include issues around trade and the environment, a cause close to the noble Baroness’s heart. We are working collaboratively on COP 26, because, without China’s participation, COP 26 will not achieve its ambitions. We work constructively in all these areas. As I said earlier, where we have differences, we raise them—privately, at times, but in international fora at other times.

My Lords, inevitably, trade and defence issues will play an important part in our relationship with China. Will the Minister assure us that issues of freedom of religion or belief will not be overlooked? Estimates suggest that between 900,000 and 1.8 million Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other Muslims have been detained in Xinjiang province. What plans have the Government made to join our American allies in sanctioning those responsible for the oppression of Uighurs in Xinjiang?

The right reverend Prelate raises an important human rights issue, and in particular the situation of the Uighurs in China. He will know that, as Human Rights Minister, I have consistently raised this issue, as has my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, both through bilateral engagement with the Chinese authorities and the Chinese Government, and through the Human Rights Council, as we are currently doing—yesterday a statement was made specifically on Hong Kong. We are working with other partners, a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, to ensure that there is consistency of message and delivery. Where there are human rights abuses, we will stand up, with our partners, and challenge China, to ensure that the rights of all are guaranteed.

Concern about China’s actions in Hong Kong has been expressed in your Lordships’ House. Will my noble friend the Minister specifically indicate to the House this morning what steps Her Majesty’s Government have taken to establish an international contact group to put pressure on China to respect its legal and moral obligations towards Hong Kong?

My noble friend raises an important point about the responsibilities that China has. I assure him that we will push on that, not just through the contact group but through bilateral conversations with key partners. He will acknowledge that we remind China that the imposition of the proposed law in Hong Kong is in direct conflict with its international obligations under the joint declaration. As my noble friend knows, that treaty has been agreed by the UK and China, and registered with the United Nations. We will continue to push on that. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has made clear the actions that we will take if China continues to persist in imposing this law.

My Lords, on 2 June, at Hansard col. 683, the Foreign Secretary said that the Government would provide BNO citizens in Hong Kong with a “pathway to citizenship” if China enacted its new security legislation. For over four and a half years, the Home Office has been “actively”—to use its word—considering applications for right of abode for veteran members of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces living in Hong Kong. Will Her Majesty’s Government now honour their obligation to these veterans under the military covenant?

This is a point that the noble and gallant Lord has raised before and one on which he continues to campaign, and I pay tribute to him. We have made very clear our position on BNOs. I will take back his specific point on those who have served in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces and will write to him with an update on the matter. I share his sentiments in this respect.

My Lords, following on from the question from the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, have Her Majesty’s Government conveyed to the Government of China that, as the UK is the other party to the joint Sino-British declaration on Hong Kong, which is a treaty, the Chinese are mistaken in claiming that the UK is meddling in its internal affairs?

As I have said already, the UK Government have made our position absolutely clear to the Chinese authorities, very much along the lines that the noble Baroness has outlined.

My Lords, the Minister is aware that, according to Amnesty International, more executions are carried out in China than in the rest of the world. Areas of concern identified by human rights groups include the death penalty, the legal status of Tibet, freedom of the press, and a lack of legal recognition of human rights. Is the Minister also aware of the skirmishes that took place, according to breaking news, at the border between India and China? What is being done to make representations, so that peace will prevail in this area? Perhaps the Minister can place a copy of his reply in the Library, so that we can read about what is happening in the areas I have mentioned.

My Lords, I am aware of the concerning situation on what is one of the largest borders. We call upon both sides to de-escalate. If there are other matters in relation to this on which I need to update the House, I will of course do as the noble Lord suggests.

My Lords, the Chinese Government will pay more attention to the wishes and interests of the UK if we are seen to be more fully involved in trade and security collaboration in the Asia-Pacific region. Does the Minister agree that an early application for UK accession to the CPTPP both fits well into our post-Brexit trade policy and shows China that we are standing shoulder to shoulder with other countries, such as Japan and Australia, that share our commitment to representative democracy, the rule of law and free trade? Will my noble friend tell the House when he expects that our application letter might be sent?

I agree with the points that my noble friend has raised. I will write to him on the specific date of the letter. The situation in the South China Sea is well documented, as is the position of Her Majesty’s Government.

My Lords, yesterday, the Chinese killed 20 Commonwealth soldiers and flew military planes over Taiwan, and of course they continue to be involved in the affairs of Hong Kong. Since we in the United Kingdom have a responsibility towards Hong Kong, and since thousands of young people from Hong Kong attend our universities and boarding schools, will the Government give some consideration to easing the means of getting British passports for people from Hong Kong, so that they can attend educational institutions in the United Kingdom?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point about students—not just Hong Kong students but Chinese students—who study here. That will be very much in the mix in the announcements made on the BNO issue.

My Lords, it is two years after the sanctions Act, and the noble Lord assured us that we would see secondary legislation on Magnitsky. Two weeks ago, the Foreign Secretary even said that these new powers of targeted sanctions could be used in respect of breaches in Hong Kong, police brutality and other actions. Will the noble Lord assure us that we will use those sanctions and that they will be in force before the Summer Recess, and that we will be able to target those abuses, so that we have action on human rights abuses and not simply words?

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that I am cognisant of his continued interest in this respect. To quote the Prime Minister: “Watch this space.”