Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 13 April.
“The Government stand in complete solidarity with those sanctioned by China. As the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have made clear, this action by Beijing is utterly unacceptable and unwarranted.
The House will recall that on 22 March, the UK, alongside the EU, Canada and the United States, imposed asset freezes and travel bans against four senior Chinese government officials and one entity responsible for the violations that have taken place and persist against the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. In response, China sanctioned nine individuals and four organisations, including Members of this House and the other place, who have criticised its record on human rights. It speaks volumes that while 30 countries are united in sanctioning those responsible for serious and systematic violations of human rights in Xinjiang, China’s response is to retaliate against those who seek to shine a light on those violations. It is fundamental to our parliamentary democracy that Members of both Houses can speak without fear or favour on matters of concern to the British people.
The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have made absolutely clear the Government’s position through their public statements and on 22 March. I also summoned China’s representative in the UK to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to lodge a strong, formal protest at China’s actions. This Government have been quick to offer support to those who have been sanctioned. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary held private meetings with the parliamentarians named in China’s announcement. My noble friend the Minister for Human Rights, Lord Ahmad, met other individuals and the entities that have been targeted. Through this engagement, we have provided guidance and an offer of ongoing support, including a designated FCDO point of contact and specialist briefing from relevant departments.
Just as this Government will be unbowed by China’s action, I have no doubt that Members across this House will be undeterred from raising their fully justified concerns about the situation in Xinjiang and the human rights situation in China more broadly. I applaud the parliamentarians named by China: my honourable friends the Members for East Worthing and Shoreham, for Tonbridge and Malling, for Harborough and for Wealden, my right honourable friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, for the vital role they have played in drawing attention to the plight of the Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang.
This Government have worked with partners to build the international caucus of those willing to speak out against China’s human rights violations and increase the pressure on China to change its behaviour. We have led joint statements at the UN’s human rights bodies, most recently joined by 38 countries at the UN General Assembly Third Committee in October, and we have backed up our international action with robust domestic measures. In addition to the global human rights sanctions announced on 22 March, the Foreign Secretary announced a series of targeted measures in January to help ensure that British businesses are not complicit in human rights violations in Xinjiang. The United Kingdom will continue to work alongside its partners to send the clearest possible signal of the international community’s serious concern and our collective willingness to act to hold China to account for its gross human rights violations in the region.”
My Lords, I believe that all sides of the House stand in solidarity with the UK nationals—including Members of both Houses—who have been sanctioned by the Communist Party of China as a consequence of calling out the genocide and horrendous human rights abuses. In standing in solidarity, we must also offer support. I understand that a number of individuals have been subject to cyberattacks; can the noble Lord tell us what support we are giving on that? Is our infrastructure sufficiently resilient to any further such attacks? Can he also say why at this time the Government are reopening the two UK-China government investment forums, which were closed when Beijing introduced the Hong Kong national security law last summer?
My Lords, I agree totally with the noble Lord, Lord Collins, about our solidarity and our support for Members of both Houses of Parliament, and equally those beyond it, who have been sanctioned. Ironically, those who have stood up for human rights are having their rights suppressed for speaking out. We absolutely support them. On the specific areas the noble Lord raised about support being given to Members of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, as well as those outside Parliament, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have met with parliamentarians who have been sanctioned by the Chinese Government. Equally, I have led on direct engagement with those individuals outside Parliament, including organisations, who have been impacted. We have direct points of contact in the FCDO to offer them whatever support they require. There is active engagement and we are ready to support whatever concerns or issues of security, cyber or otherwise, they may have. On our trading relationship with China, no active trade agreement is currently being negotiated. On the specifics of the investment forum, if there are further details I can share with the noble Lord I will of course do so.
My Lords, given that the major parties in the European Parliament have said that until sanctions against their MEPs are listed they will not ratify the EU comprehensive investment agreement with China, is it to be business as usual for us while UK parliamentarians are being sanctioned for exposing genocide in Xinjiang? Will my noble friend confirm for the record that this country would never make bilateral trade agreements with any country guilty of genocide?
My Lords, first, let me assure my noble friend that, while acknowledging that we have important trade between the UK and China, we are not currently negotiating a trade agreement with China. On the issue of genocide, which has been debated in your Lordships’ House as well as the other place, we have already made the Government’s position absolutely clear: that is a determination for the courts and there is a due process to go through before that determination is made. But I can share with my noble friend the actions we have taken, notwithstanding that issue being determined or otherwise. We have acted and led on action against China, both with direct sanctions, as we have imposed recently against senior government officials in Xinjiang, as well as in multilateral fora such as the Human Rights Council, where we have seen increased support for the United Kingdom’s position and statements.
My Lords, the Minister will know that the Chinese Communist Party’s sanctions against parliamentarians should always be seen in the context of the harrowing evidence of genocide and human rights violations given by courageous witnesses to the All-Party Parliamentary Groups of which I am an officer. Parliamentarians must not be cowed or intimidated into silence or losing focus on those substantive issues because of sanctions. In a week in which young Joshua Wong, who has spoken in your Lordships’ House, has seen his prison sentence extended, did the Minister also see that 75 year-old Koo Sze-yiu, a pro-democracy campaigner who has already served 11 prison sentences, said when defending himself in a Hong Kong Court that he would not seek mitigation or leniency for treatment of his cancer as he fully intended to continue protesting? He said:
“The next time, I will deliberately break the National Security Law. Do not be lenient or take pity on me.”
Does not such courageous dignity demonstrate to the CCP that it has united East and West, young and old and parliamentarians from all political traditions? Was not Liu Xiaobo, who suffered at the CCP’s hands, right when he said:
“Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity and the mother of truth”?
I remind noble Lords of the need for brevity.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Government for the support they have given to those who have been sanctioned by China. It is vital that we defend the right to freedom of speech, by parliamentarians in particular but by academics and others as well. Last time the Uighurs were discussed in the House, the Minister agreed to write to me about why the head of the Communist Party in Xinjiang province, who has overseen the atrocious abuses there, was not included in the UK’s list of those sanctioned. As I have not received a letter, will he answer my question now?
My Lords, first, on the letter and the response to a specific question, I shall of course follow up on that with my officials. Without speculating on future sanctions, an evidence threshold needs to be met that is tested robustly before we apply sanctions to any given individual.
My Lords, the Minister will recall that yesterday I asked him a question based on a passage at page 63 of the Integrated Review, which said:
“We will not hesitate to stand up for our values.”
Is that not exactly what our colleagues in this House and the other place have been doing, which, as a consequence, entitles them to our unanimous and unfailing support?
My Lords, on 23 February I said in this House that the Uighurs were calling out for justice and freedom. Our colleagues have been sanctioned by the same Chinese authorities who deny the Uighurs justice and freedom. The Minister in the other place, Nigel Adams, said yesterday:
“The Prime Minister has made it clear that freedom of parliamentarians to speak out … is fundamental”—[Official Report, Commons, 13/4/21; col. 165.]
and that the Government will stand firmly with them. So what does “standing firmly” actually mean, and how does it translate into real action against the Chinese authorities—not nice words, but real action?
My Lords, first, the solidarity that has been shown in your Lordships’ House and the other place with colleagues across both Houses and beyond reflects the unity of purpose and action in support of those who have been sanctioned. The Government are offering direct support, as I said in response to an earlier question, to all those organisations and individuals who have been sanctioned, and we will continue to do so. Because there is ambiguity in what the sanctions actually mean for those individuals, we continue to press the Chinese authorities for that further detail.
While these outrageous sanctions persist, is it not incumbent on Ministers—and, indeed, all parliamentarians—to formally suspend any co-operation in the various bilateral mechanisms that we have between parliamentarians in the UK and China, such as the people to people dialogue and the UK-China young leaders bilaterals?
My Lords, I can speak from my experience as a government Minister, and we have been very clear in calling out the human rights abuses in China. We have called out the issues within Hong Kong. However, equally, I recognise, as we do in multilateral fora, that there are issues such as the environment and conflicts such as the situation in Myanmar which require direct dialogue with the Chinese authorities, because they are part of the solution. There are many things we disagree on but, equally, we recognise the important role China continues to play in the international community.
My Lords, I declare my position as the co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong. The sanctions on UK citizens make it very clear that the Chinese Government are seeking to silence democratic dissent and free speech around the world. They are also doing that more and more in Hong Kong. I am sure the Minister is aware of reports of plans to criminalise any collective call to leave ballot papers blank or otherwise spoiled in internal elections. Are the Government taking any steps to make representations on this, to highlight it or take any action regarding it?
My Lords, the noble Baroness is right to raise the recent decisions taken by the Chinese authorities about the future operation of the legislative bodies within Hong Kong. She also rightly raises a number of other concerns, and I can assure her that we are raising them directly. The implications are such that the democratic right and will of the people of Hong Kong is being totally and utterly diluted and denied, and we will continue to defend that right. Let us not forget that China is also party to an agreement to protect the democratic will of the people of Hong Kong. It should stand by that international agreement. It is lodged with the UN. I assure the noble Baroness that, whether it is in international fora or directly with the Chinese, we will continue to raise that, because the rights of the people of Hong Kong matter to us all.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed, and I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, that there was not time to take her question.
We now come to questions on a Statement made in the House of Commons on Tuesday 23 March, on the new plan for immigration. I first call the Front Bench speakers, starting with the noble Lord, Lord Rosser.