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China: Treatment of Uighurs and Taiwanese Airspace Incursions

Volume 811: debated on Thursday 18 March 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to reports of the government of China’s (1) treatment of Uighurs, and (2) incursions into Taiwanese airspace, what discussions they have had with other governments about what action can be taken in response.

My Lords, the UK has led international efforts to hold China to account for its gross violations of human rights in Xinjiang, working closely with a wide range of international partners. In October, 38 countries joined the UK in a joint statement at the UN, expressing deep and shared concern, sending a powerful message to China. We do not support any action that risks undermining stability in the Taiwan Strait and are in regular touch with partners.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. The integrated review of UK foreign policy makes it clear that progress on any of the major issues of today, including democracy and human rights, will be achieved only by co-operating with new and old allies. Will HMG now engage with national, regional and international groups, such as the Five Eyes, the quad, D10 and ASEAN, to deter China from continuing its ever-increasing threats to Taiwan’s sovereignty and the Uighurs’ integrity?

The noble Baroness is right to point to the integrated review, which sets out how we will work with international groupings, including our Indo-Pacific tilt and our international leadership of the G7 and COP 26 this year. The UK has led international efforts to hold China to account, including by leading the first two joint statements on this issue at the UN. Last week, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary released a joint statement with his G7 counterparts, expressing their concerns at the continued erosion of rights in Hong Kong.

Following on from the noble Baroness’s question, is it not true that the Foreign Secretary still thinks that we should continue to trade and not worry too much about human rights, as he said to members of Foreign Office staff yesterday, which was leaked to the Guardian? Secondly, can we take note of what America is doing with companies that are trading with China and other countries that are causing genocide? Should we not be putting on the same pressure and asking the same questions of companies here, particularly those in the garment trade?

The noble Baroness should see what my right honourable friend said in full, at least what he said in his speech at the Aspen Security Forum this week or what we say in the integrated review, which makes clear that open countries such as the UK need to engage with China and remain open to trade and investment. We will engage with confidence, which is important because China is an increasingly important partner in tackling global challenges, including climate change, biodiversity and preventing future pandemics.

My Lords, the integrated review sets out that open trading economies such as the UK need to engage with China, but we must also protect ourselves against practices that have an adverse effect on prosperity and security. We will do so standing up for our values and human rights. The integrated review sets out that these are all held in balance.

My Lords, what is the present situation with Her Majesty’s Government joining the quadrilateral security dialogue of the US, Japan, India and Australia? If so, what does the Minister see as our potential role?

My Lords, there are no plans for the UK to join the quad although, as set out in the integrated review, we will continue to look positively at ways to increase our engagement with regional security groupings in the Indo-Pacific. We noted with keen interest the outcomes of the first quad summit, convened by President Biden last week, notably on vaccine distribution, climate change and technology co-operation.

My Lords, will we be laying before the United Nations Security Council the 25,000-page report on the Uighurs published last week? It said that the Chinese Communist Party had breached every article of the 1948 convention on the crime of genocide. Or will we, as the House of Commons votes on the House of Lords genocide amendment next Monday, continue to shelter behind the fiction of an imaginary judicial mechanism capable of declaring a Uighur genocide—a declaration that has been made by the Canadian and Dutch parliaments, the United States and elsewhere?

On the noble Lord’s second point, as he knows, it is a long-standing policy of the British Government that any judgment of whether genocide has occurred is for a competent court, rather than governments or non-judicial bodies. The UK has led international efforts to hold China to account at the United Nations, including by leading those first two joint statements on this issue at the UN. The Foreign Secretary addressed the Human Rights Council, in February, calling for China to grant urgent and unfettered access to Xinjiang for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights or another independent fact-finding expert.

My Lords, the Minister keeps repeating that the UK is leading the way on this issue. Yesterday’s FT reported Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, identifying 24 officials whose actions have reduced Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy after China passed its law last week. Blinken warned that any financial institutions that had significant business with these officials would also be subject to sanctions, so why can we not mirror our strongest ally on this issue? Why can we not work together?

My Lords, I repeat the point that the impact of our diplomacy is reflected in the growing number of countries supporting the statements that we are leading at the UN and elsewhere, and that we are working with our closest allies. Earlier this month, the Foreign Secretary issued a statement about the decision to charge Hong Kong politicians and activists. In January, he released a statement with his Australian, Canadian and American counterparts underscoring our concerns at the arrest of politicians and activists under the national security law.

My Lords, when in discussion with other countries, will the Government promote Taiwan as an observer of the UK-proposed D10 alliance?

As the noble Lord knows, the UK’s long-standing policy that we do not recognise Taiwan as a state remains unchanged. But we have a vibrant unofficial relationship and support Taiwan’s participation in international fora where statehood is not a requirement.

What consideration have Her Majesty’s Government given to the suggestion of a diplomatic and economic, rather than full-scale, boycott of the 2022 Beijing winter Olympics, in response to China’s ongoing repression of the Uighur Muslim minority?

My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made clear that we are not normally in favour of sporting boycotts. The broader question of the participation of the national team at the winter Olympics is a matter for the British Olympic Association, which is required to operate independently of the Government under the International Olympic Committee regulations.

My Lords, I welcome the steps that the Government have taken to help ensure that no British companies are complicit in the appalling human rights abuse in Xinjiang. However, a BBC investigation earlier this month reported that Uighurs are being forcibly resettled around the country, and women are being sterilised, raped and assaulted. Can my noble friend reassure me that these reports have been taken into account and will be reflected in further government guidance?

I thank my noble friend for her support for the action that we have taken to ensure that UK businesses are not complicit in human rights violations in Xinjiang. They also show China that there is a reputational and economic cost to its policies there. As well as the financial penalties for organisations that fail to comply with the transparency obligations of the Modern Slavery Act, we have funded research to help build the evidence base and provided guidance to help UK businesses to conduct due diligence to ensure that their supply chains are free of forced labour.

My Lords, how will the Government ensure supply chain transparency and determine links to Xinjiang and its human rights abuses, so that we have up-to-date evidence that is accessible to members of the public who are rightly concerned about buying ethically? How will the Government commit to full transparency about where official development assistance funding is being used in China, so that no government or taxpayer funds are contributing to these human rights abuses?

On the noble Baroness’s second point, all UK ODA spend, including to China, complies with the OECD’s ODA rules. Relevant details are provided in the statistics on international development, which are published on GOV.UK. The action that my right honourable friend outlined in January is strengthening the transparency of supply chains for UK consumers and businesses.

My Lords, the Minister surprised me with a catalogue of compelling evidence, revealed in yesterday’s BEIS Committee report, that many major companies with large footprints in the UK are complicit in the forced labour of Uighurs in Xinjiang. Does he agree that a Minister-led campaign of business engagement—as the noble Lord the Minister of State at the FCDO proposed on 19 January at column 1139—is an insufficient response? Simply put, companies that do not meet their obligations to uphold human rights throughout the supply chains should not be doing business in the UK.

The noble Lord refers to the work we have been doing to strengthen the overseas business risk guidance to make clearer the risks to UK business. That applies as well to the public sector: we have increased support for UK public bodies to exclude suppliers where there is evidence of human rights violations from their supply chains. He refers to the BEIS Select Committee report, which was published only yesterday in another place, and we will of course look at that with interest. The department will reply to it in the usual way.