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Detention of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang

Volume 679: debated on Wednesday 9 September 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Michael Tomlinson.)

I am grateful to have secured this Adjournment debate so that I can take this opportunity to press the Government, in the strongest possible terms, to take much stronger action against the Chinese Government and their campaign of genocide against the Uyghur people of Xinjiang. This crime can longer go unpunished, and someone has to say, “enough is enough”.

While we were away from this place for the summer recess, I wrote an article entitled, “Genocide does not rise for recess”. Over the past few weeks, that has proven to be the case. Even amid growing international fury in many quarters, the Chinese Government continue unhindered with a campaign of what can only accurately be described as genocide, but where we should expect leadership and action, there is only a yawning void.

We learned this week of one of the most striking examples of choosing to look away from what is happening to an entire people at the hands of the Chinese Government. The Disney Corporation, that self-styled beacon of wholesome positivity, chose to film its latest blockbuster movie, “Mulan”, in the very province where the Uyghur people are being interned, tortured and forcibly sterilised. Disney even thanked the state authorities in China for their co-operation. There is a particularly savage irony in a story of family, friendship and emancipation being filmed against a real-life background of forced sterilisation, families torn asunder and cold-blooded torture—in short, against a backdrop of genocide.

The repression of Uyghur Muslims by the Chinese Government has a depressingly long history, but in the last few years the state has become bolder and more belligerent in the scale of atrocity that it is willing to commit—its bullishness is matched only by its brazenness. It is estimated that more than 1 million people are being held at internment camps in Xinjiang, and the Chinese Government are showing no signs of pausing their orchestrated campaign.

We have all seen the horrific drone footage showing men being rounded up, and we have all heard the stories of forced labour camps. The testimony of witnesses is becoming ever more disturbing. Earlier this month, a Uyghur doctor spoke to ITV:

“She speaks of participating in at least 500 to 600 operations on Uighur women including forced contraception, forced abortion, forced sterilisation and forced removal of wombs. She told me that on at least one occasion a baby was still moving when it was discarded into the rubbish.”

In the same programme, a Uyghur man spoke of his experience of being tortured in an internment camp:

“The torture was relentless. They beat me with the twisted wire and pipe nonstop. There was no place left without bruising. They tortured me for three hours, I couldn’t cope any longer so I begged them to take me down from hanging…After screaming and begging for so long I passed out.”

Those are two short examples of the atrocities being committed. I could go on, for the charge sheet is long and horrific.

Over the summer, a coalition of human rights organisations reported that many of the world’s biggest fashion brands are complicit in human rights violations perpetrated against the Uyghur people in Xinjiang, including the use of forced labour. Does my hon. Friend agree that multinational corporations have an urgent responsibility to ensure that their supply chains are free from such gross abuses of human rights?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I will come on to talk about forced labour, the supply chain and actions that we might take against the Chinese Government and companies.

I will not give way just yet; I will see how we get on. I know that there is a lot of intense interest in this debate, and I have had representations from many Members. That makes the case for not only how seriously Members from across the House take this matter, but how much people want to debate it and get a response from the Government. I think we should aim for more debates on the Floor of the House with more time, rather than end-of-day Adjournment debates like this one.

The genocide convention, to which China is a signatory, defines genocide as specific acts against members of a group with the intent to destroy that group in whole or in part. These acts include killing, causing serious bodily or mental harm, deliberately inflicting conditions of life to bring about the group’s physical destruction, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. Any one of these categories constitutes genocide. The overwhelming evidence of the Chinese Government’s deliberate and systematic campaign to destroy the Uyghur people clearly meets each of them.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on holding this very important debate. She has very clearly laid out the tenet of what is required in international law to say that genocide is taking place in Xinjiang. Unfortunately, though, China’s power within the UN means that the UN is a busted flush, so it is up to our Government—our Foreign Office—to say that enough is enough and we will hold our own tribunal to work out what the evidence suggests, which will no doubt be that genocide is indeed taking place.

I thank the hon. Lady and agree with everything she said. Her remarks are testimony to how much cross-party agreement there now is about what is happening to the Uyghur people at the hands of the Chinese Government. I would certainly welcome an opportunity to work closely with her and other Conservative Members so that we can lobby their Government to take the action that we would all, I am sure, like to see.

We should all be alarmed and appalled by what we are seeing, but we should all also resolve to forge a path forward for Uyghur freedom. I do believe that, as the hon. Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani) said, our Government can play a key role in averting disaster. The time has certainly come for Magnitsky-style sanctions on individuals, whether state or non-state actors, where there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the person is involved in serious human rights violations in Xinjiang. There is no good reason to explain why these have not already been activated. I believe that the Government’s current position is that the evidence is not there yet—a position that I have to say I find incredible. If the evidence we already have is not strong enough, then could the Minister tell us what more is required? What line has to be crossed before we say that sanctions are now appropriate?

Sanctions alone will not, of course, be enough. We should go further in using and enforcing domestic avenues of accountability—in particular, corporate accountability relating to supply chains, as my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) remarked. We cannot allow the fruits of forced labour to end up on our shores and in our homes. I know that British people everywhere would be appalled to think, for example, that the personal protective equipment that we have all come to rely on could have been produced by the abused and subjugated people of Xinjiang. If our words on eradicating modern slavery are to mean anything, then surely the commercial goods that the Uyghurs and others in Xinjiang are forced to make should be squarely in our sights.

Both these options relate to following and then attacking the money. As distasteful as it may seem, money does matter a very great deal. The Chinese Communist party has busily been buying up influence and the silence of other countries. A challenge based on restricting the flow of money for key regime individuals, and also for companies, both Chinese and others, that are benefiting from these crimes would hit where it hurts and send a clear message too.

There are legal options as well. I know that the situation is complicated—China is of course a permanent member of the UN Security Council—but we should not let that stand in our way, as the hon. Member for Wealden made clear. I know that the Government are proud to have co-ordinated a joint UN statement, and I am sure that the Minister will remark on that. I do not wish to sound uncharitable as to the actions that the Government have been trying to co-ordinate. I know that even getting to that point, faced with a concerted counter-effort by the Chinese Government, is significant, but I also know we can do better. As the Bar Human Rights Committee has said, we should lead efforts to establish an impartial and independent UN mechanism such as a special rapporteur, or maybe an expert panel, to closely monitor the situation in Xinjiang.

We should investigate the viability of more innovative legal approaches that could be taken, as we have seen in respect of the Rohingya. The International Criminal Court has intervened to probe the violence against Myanmar’s Rohingya community because part of the crime—deportation—has taken part in Bangladesh, which falls within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court even though Myanmar itself does not. Similarly, we know that deportations are taking place from Jinjiang to Tajikistan and Cambodia, and people are then repatriated to China and later murdered, tortured or sterilised.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this very important debate. Does she agree that if the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing and genocide are not prosecuted—as in the case of the Burmese military, despite the now overwhelming evidence—it is likely that genocide will become a policy tool for China and many other countries and leaders around the world? It is on our country and our Government to show leadership here.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We can be in no doubt as to the ambitions that the Chinese Government have: President Xi Jinping made clear in his 2050 vision statement the sort of dominance that his country wishes to achieve. If the current actions of the Chinese Government are allowed to go unchecked for any longer, we are heading for a very dark century indeed, which is why we must all take action and press the Minister today.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this very important debate. What is happening with the Uyghur people is absolutely diabolical. As she rightly pointed out, the alarming reports coming out of China indicate genocide, ethnic cleansing on an industrial scale, and the destruction of a people and their language, religion and culture. That is why, rather than uttering mere platitudes, our Government should be spearheading an international movement to shine a light on the situation and force the Chinese Government to mend their ways.

The points that my hon. Friend highlights go to the fact that many of us now think that the tests for what constitutes genocide are being met by the Chinese Government. It is truly depressing that because of the growing dominance of the Chinese Government and the way in which the United Nations institutions work, so much of the international community is just completely unable to effectively stand up and say, “This is not going to happen.” Too often the world just says, “Never again.” We were supposed to have “Never again” on genocides decades ago, yet they have continued to take place and one is taking place even now. What will it take for the world to act? That is why I want to push the Minister very strongly on that point.

The Government can do more to consider more innovative legal approaches. I will refrain from making comments on the rule of law, which everybody has been discussing in the past 24 hours with regard to our treaty obligations, but the Minister will know, because he has to have the conversations with his Chinese counterparts and others, that Britain must be believed to be a country that stands by its international obligations and the rule of law. That is one of the great gifts that we have and it is one of our key strengths as a country when we play our role on the international stage. The Government should right what they have done wrong in the past 24 hours so that we can make representations with the full force of moral and legal authority that we have enjoyed for a long time.

One thing is indisputable: nothing will change unless co-ordinated, robust political force and pressure are applied while commercial, financial and legal routes to take action against the Chinese Government are navigated and explored. The UK now has a choice as to whether to lead the charge or turn our backs and allow these atrocities to continue once the outrage has inevitably subsided.

I support the actions that the Government have taken and intend to take in relation to Hong Kong citizens and I have supported the Government’s decision in relation to Huawei. In fact, I think it is high time that we as a country took a more realistic and clear-eyed approach to our relationship with China. As the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), has said, we have frequently rolled out a red carpet for the Chinese Government but got nothing in return. Surely, the perpetration of a genocide necessitates a full review and reset of our relationship.

I declare an interest as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, and I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter forward. China stands condemned in the world courts for its persecution of the Uyghur Muslims, and also for murders, killings, injuries and human rights abuses. Does she therefore agree with me and many others in this House that the genocide against the Uyghurs is one of the worst crimes of the 21st century?

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. The scale of what is happening in China defies belief. The videos that we have now seen and that are being pursued by commercial television news channels such as ITV lay out starkly the reality of what is happening, and we cannot turn away. As he says, one of the great crimes of the 21st century is being committed before our very eyes. Whatever happens next, we will not be able to say that we did not know. We did, we do, and we must act, because it is not too late for us to avert the worst of this developing atrocity. History will judge us for the unforgivable lack of action thus far, but it will also judge us for the choices we make in the coming days and weeks.

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this important matter before the House. As we all here agree, UK values are built upon our shared belief in, and celebration of, liberty, freedom and pluralism. We therefore understand that people are not truly characterised by their race or religion, and that they are characterised by their innate human value. Sadly, their intrinsic value is not recognised by the People’s Republic of China for millions of people, whether Falun Gong, Muslims or Christians. If we cannot get change by talk alone, does she agree that we need to move into sanctions and other measures to get the Communist party of China to move?

That is exactly why I have laid out—with some clarity, I hope—the case today for Magnitsky-style sanctions, for action against companies that are benefiting from the forced labour in the camps and for approaches that can be pursued in the arena of international law—difficult though that is, given the position we are in with the United Nations and China’s status as a permanent member of the Security Council. It is in our gift to stand up to the Chinese Government. It is in our gift to give voice to those Chinese citizens who are, as I speak, being shaved, sterilised, dehumanised and brutalised. It is, in short, in our gift to do so much more to halt this genocide. Enough is enough. Britain must lead the way.

May I start by saying how incredibly grateful I am to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) for securing this debate and for her powerful speech? I very much acknowledge the strength of feeling around the Chamber on this important issue. That has been characterised by the number of people who have intervened on her speech. I will try my best to respond to all the points that she has raised.

Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang are continuing to experience significant restrictions to their freedom of religion or belief, their freedom of speech and their freedom of association. The Chinese authorities have banned everyday expressions of religious observation, to which every person should be entitled. We are also aware of credible reports that mosques and other religious sites have been closed to worshippers or, even worse, demolished.

There are reports that Disney has filmed its new film, “Mulan”, in Xinjiang, the area that is the subject of this debate where people are being forcibly held against their will. There are very concerning reports of further things. What assessment has the Minister made of Disney filming “Mulan” in Xinjiang?

My hon. Friend raises something that has been in the news over the last few days, and I know that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood mentioned it in her comments. I very much note the concerns about the filming of “Mulan” in Xinjiang, and the comments made by the actresses. This has also been brought up by other Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), who has mentioned the crediting of the state authorities in the film’s titles. As everyone should know, this Government have said that UK businesses—bearing in mind that Disney is not a British business—operating in the region should be conducting due diligence to ensure that their activities do not support, or risk being seen to support, any human rights violations.

We have seen evidence that Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities are being used as a source of forced labour across China, following release from the internment camps. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood referred to this. If individuals refuse to participate, they and their families are threatened with extrajudicial detention.

We have great concerns about forced organ donation, which is carried out on a commercial scale in China against Uyghur Muslims, Christians and Falun Gong. It is time that China caught themselves on. The world has a role to play as well, which is not to send people over for those transplants.

It is a great pleasure and a great surprise to be responding to an intervention from the hon. Gentleman. We take those allegations absolutely seriously. We have consulted the World Health Organisation and our international partners. The evidence provides disturbing details about the mistreatment of Falun Gong practitioners, for example, and raises worrying questions about China’s transplant system. We are keeping the matter under review, and welcome any and all new evidence on the issue.

We have been talking about these issues for so long, yet there does not seem to be international action to deal with them. In Xinjiang province, people are living in fear, with 1 million people incarcerated and threats of sterilisation, yet we are not taking any action. Does the Minister agree that, as well as taking the action that we can take, we should get the international community behind us so that we can take concerted action to deal with this?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to make that point. In recent months, we have seen deeply troubling allegations of forced birth control measures and sterilisation against Uyghur women in Xinjiang. We have also seen reliable reports that Uyghur children are being forcibly separated from their parents and taken to state-run orphanages, where lessons are taught in Mandarin and where political education, for want of a better phrase, is a key part of the curriculum.

Over 1 million Uyghurs, which is more than 10% of the Uyghur population, have been detained in internment camps without trial. Recent reporting, based on analysis of satellite images, suggests that the Chinese authorities continue to construct new internment camps.

I thank the Minister for giving way and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) on securing this debate. The situation in Xinjiang is serious and Members from all parts of the House are talking about it. What is happening in Xinjiang is deeply disturbing, but it replicates what has happened in Tibet over the past few decades. We know the kind of oppression that Buddhist people have faced in Tibet. Does the Minister agree that it would be a welcome first step if the Government added the people from the Chinese Government who are responsible for these crimes to the list for Magnitsky sanctions?

I will come on to our approach. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise that point, and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood also raised the idea of sanctions. I will address it later in my remarks.

I am slightly concerned about how much time there is left. How long do I have? [Interruption.] Until 7.49 pm—jolly good. I had better crack on. I do apologise.

The construction of new internment camps runs counter to the statement of the Chairman of Xinjiang in December that all detainees had, in his words, graduated from the camps. It is not known for how long each individual is detained, what chance they have of release or whether they can appeal against their detention. What is clear is that these detentions have split families, left children effectively orphaned and created a culture of fear. Our diplomats visited Xinjiang in November 2019, and their observations supported much of the recent open-source reporting on the region and reports by non-governmental organisations.

China’s initial response to allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang was to deny the existence of the camps. After a significant amount of evidence was reported and international attention increased, that position became untenable. China now describes the camps as education and training facilities. It claims that they are part of a legitimate and necessary policy to prevent extremism, and it has repeatedly dismissed international concerns, claiming that the UK and others are politicising matters and interfering in its internal affairs.

We believe that, based on all the available evidence, China’s actions in Xinjiang constitute an egregious abuse of human rights and, as a strategy to prevent extremism, are grossly disproportionate and deeply flawed. Untold numbers of innocent citizens have suffered under these policies and will continue to do so unless China implements UN recommendations to close the camps. It must also allow UN observers unfettered access to the region. China is contravening its obligations under the 1948 universal declaration of human rights and its own constitutional provisions on freedom of religion.

The human rights situation in Xinjiang remains a priority concern for me, the Foreign Secretary and the Government as a whole, and as the Foreign Secretary told the House on 20 July, the UK wants a positive relationship with China. He said:

“There is enormous scope for…constructive engagement. There are wide-ranging opportunities, from increasing trade to co-operation in tackling climate change…but as we strive for that positive relationship, we are also clear-sighted about the challenges that lie ahead.”—[Official Report, 20 July 2020; Vol. 678, c. 1831.]

The Foreign Secretary has underlined our grave concerns regarding the gross and egregious human rights abuses being perpetrated against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, which is why we have repeatedly taken a leading international role in holding China to account for its gross human rights violations in Xinjiang.

Let me come to some of the points that the hon. Lady raised in the time that I have left. She raised the issue of sanctions. We are carefully considering further designations under the global human rights regime, which we introduced in July, and we will keep all evidence and potential listings under close review. I know that this is something that other hon. Members have raised. It is important, though, that sanctions are developed responsibly and on the basis of evidence. It is definitely not appropriate to speculate on who may be designated in the future as to do so may reduce the impact.

I thank the Minister for giving way. I just want to say that there is intense interest across the House on the issue of Magnitsky-style sanctions. Can he perhaps give us an indication of timings of when we might expect the Government to develop their position on sanctions, so that at least we will know when we may get further detail from the Government on this point?

What I can tell the hon. Lady—she is very wise to push me on this—is that those sanctions are under constant review and it would be unwise to speculate on this. I am sure that she will understand why at this time.

The hon. Lady mentioned the definition of genocide. She will know that it is our long-standing policy that the determination of genocide should be made only by a competent court rather than by Governments or non-judicial bodies. However, we are closely monitoring those developments. She also mentioned what we have done in terms of holding China to account. As I have said, we have raised this issue twice in a joint statement at the UN. I do feel that this is a subject that needs to be raised in the House in a longer forum than a half-hour Adjournment debate, Madam Deputy Speaker.

To conclude, the UK Government strongly condemn the actions of the Chinese authorities in Xinjiang. China is pursuing policies that deny the Uyghur people their right to freedom of religion or belief, freedom of speech and freedom of association. One million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities have been extrajudicially detained. We have repeatedly urged China to end these disproportionate and damaging policies, and I repeat that call from the Dispatch Box today. It is in the interests of China’s international reputation and the long-term stability of Xinjiang that China honours its commitments to its own constitutional provisions on freedom of religion or belief and to the universal declaration of human rights. It is precisely because we respect China as a leading member of the international community that we expect it to live it up to its own international obligations. Its human rights obligations are no exception to that, so we urge the Chinese Government, without further delay, to change course and meet their commitments for every single one of their citizens.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.