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Chinese Products and Companies: Human Rights Violations

Volume 814: debated on Tuesday 20 July 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to curtail reliance on Chinese products and companies linked to violations of human rights.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and in so doing declare my interests as the vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Uighurs and patron of the Coalition for Genocide Response.

My Lords, in 2020, China was the UK’s third largest import market, and in 2019, more than 60,000 UK VAT-registered businesses imported goods from China worth about £46.4 billion. We want a positive and constructive trade relationship with China, but we will not sacrifice our values in doing so. In January, the Foreign Secretary announced a comprehensive package of measures to help ensure that no UK organisations are complicit in the serious human rights violations being perpetrated against the Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang.

My Lords, given what the Minister just said, why has Hikvision, the Chinese company banned in the United States, which makes the surveillance cameras used to oppress Uighurs in Xinjiang, where the House of Commons has determined that a genocide is under way, and which has installed CCTV cameras all over the United Kingdom, not been banned here? Will he say what the cost of the 1 billion lateral flow tests that this country bought from China was, whether slave labour in China was used to produce them and why they could not have been produced in the United Kingdom?

That was a series of questions from the noble Lord, and I start by applauding his persistence on this important subject. On his questions relating to the US, I shall have to write to him, but I may be helpful to him by saying that ensuring a tough response to modern slavery, which is part of what we are trying to do here, remains a great priority of this Government. The Government have already committed to strengthening the landmark transparency provisions contained in the Modern Slavery Act 2015, following the transparency and supply chains consultation.

My Lords, what steps are Her Majesty’s Government taking to follow the example of Japan and the United States and encourage our companies to relocate key supply chains out of China and, where possible, back to the United Kingdom?

I hope I can be helpful to my noble friend by saying a little more about the measures we are taking—which are being implemented by the Government—including strengthening the overseas business risk guidance; a review of export controls; introducing financial penalties under the Modern Slavery Act, alluded to earlier; and increasing support for UK government bodies to exclude suppliers complicit in violations or abuses.

My Lords, I fully support the need for sanctions against China and Chinese products for the gross abuse of human rights in the persecution of the Uighur Muslims and other minorities, and the people of Hong Kong. Does the Minister agree that our actions would carry greater weight if we looked closely at our policies? Does he agree that refugees fleeing the Middle East are human beings, and that jailing them for daring to try to escape their misery is hardly consistent with Christian teachings?

The noble Lord makes an important and, indeed, a moral point. The UK launched the global human rights sanctions regime in July last year, giving us the power to address the very worst human rights violations across the world. We have already used that regime to place sanctions on more than 70 individuals and entities around the world. The noble Lord will know that this, for the first time, includes assets that are frozen and travel bans on four Chinese government officials.

My Lords, according to the latest ITUC Global Rights Index, the UK now has trade deals with dozens of countries with the worst track records in the world for exploiting workers. During debates on the Trade Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, argued forcibly against my amendment and that of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, because the FCDO’s Human Rights and Democracy report

“touches on many relevant issues”,

and would be

“enhanced in further reports.”—[Official Report, 23/3/21; col. 766.]

When I read the report that was recently published, it is clear that no enhancement has been made. Trade agreement is not even mentioned once. Can the Minister explain what has happened? Why have not the Government kept their word?

We have taken a lot of action in this respect, and at the UN Human Rights Council in February 2021 the Foreign Secretary called on China to allow the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights or another independent expert urgent and unfettered access to Xinjiang. More countries than ever are speaking out about Xinjiang; China has already been forced through our actions to change its narrative about camps, and its denial of these violations is increasingly hard for it to sustain. We believe that the actions that we are taking are having effect, but it is not, of course, always a fast process.

My Lords, I declare an interest as an officer of the APPG on Magnitsky. The Minister did not manage to answer any of the questions of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, about lateral flow tests. We are exhorted to take those tests twice a week before coming into the Chamber or into your Lordships’ House. Why are all those tests made in China and what due diligence has been carried out to ensure that none has been made using slave labour?

My Lords, I do not have any information in my pack about lateral flow tests. Picking up on what the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, I will certainly look into that and make sure that I write to him and the noble Baroness on those points.

My Lords, we live in a “chips with everything” world and have recently seen what disruption to the supply of semiconductors can do in closing down vital manufacturing industries in this country. Taiwan is the biggest supplier in the world of semiconductors, and what happens there matters. What plan or strategy do the Government have to ensure that our manufacturing industries can deal with any disruption of supply?

Supply to these markets is obviously important, certainly when talking about the Far East. Looking at that area, although I do not have figures on Taiwan, some crucial goods are imported and exported, and it is therefore important to keep those lines open.

My Lords, I know that the noble Viscount says that he has no information about lateral flow tests, but he must surely know that during the public procurement of those tests for the NHS, only 25% passed through all stages of validation, including assessments of performance and quality standards. Surely the Government must be concerned at the poor quality of imports, often from very dubious sources. Is it not the case that his department must be concerned that the UK becomes self-sufficient?

I cannot comment on that; it is certainly a point that I am taking extremely seriously, as I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I will take back the three questions on lateral flow tests, which is clearly an important subject.

My Lords, several countries have accused China of committing genocide, and so has the House of Commons. The FCDO said in a Written Answer to me that China is running concentration camps, yet we are encouraging more trade with a country that is behaving like Nazi Germany. Is it not high time that we brought in sanctions to prohibit organisations and individuals doing business with companies known to be associated with the atrocities taking place in Xinjiang province?

I alluded earlier to the named people affected by the sanctions system, which is ongoing and working. On 12 January, the Foreign Secretary announced the series of measures to which I alluded, which includes a review of export controls to make sure that we are doing all that we can to prevent the export of goods that may contribute to human rights violations.

Last week, President Biden released formal guidance for US businesses operating in Hong Kong following the increased restriction of freedoms as a result of the national security law. When will the UK Government issue similar guidance?

The UK has no plans at the moment to issue guidance but I am very aware of the United States export administration regulations, which contain a list of the foreign entities, including businesses, that are subject to specific licence requirements.

My Lords, the global economic power that China has established must concern us all. What assessment have Her Majesty’s Government made of the intentions of that global reach? Is it purely about the economy or is China in fact trying to establish a hegemony that will lead to it being able to dictate to the rest of the world how it behaves?

It might be both of those but if we look at the work being done through the G7, which is the high-level stuff, trade Ministers have committed to work together to protect individuals from forced labour, including mitigating the risks of it. We are convening a technical discussion in order to share lots of data and evidence. G7 leaders are committed to continuing to work together through domestic means and multilateral institutions to protect individuals. That very much relates to my noble friend’s question on China.