Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I approach this debate with a great deal of reticence and, indeed, almost reluctance. I have long admired China and the Chinese people, although one should of course acknowledge that the population of China is made up of 56 different ethnic groups. I have long admired their ancient civilisation. Not only is China a country of great natural beauty; it is the nation that invented the compass, gunpowder, paper, moveable-type printing, kites, fireworks, silk, tea and porcelain, to name a few. I will perhaps omit noodles from my list of admirable inventions. My Chinese friends are among some of the most educated, industrious and cultured people I know. China is the fourth-largest country by land mass and has the largest population of any country in the world. Over many decades, we have developed extensive trade links with China, and it is in its interests and ours for us to share in commerce and seek to find common cause for the good of the world.
Yet I feel I cannot remain silent in the face of such a wide range of human rights abuses. Lying behind our profound differences is a vast cultural gulf that was laid bare most recently for me when I read President Xi’s speech at the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party last month. He said:
“We will … continue to take the correct and distinctively Chinese approach to handling ethnic affairs … We will remain committed to the principle that religions in China must be Chinese in orientation and provide active guidance to religions so that they can adapt to socialist society.”
He also said:
“We have effectively contained ethnic separatists, religious extremists, and violent terrorists”.
To those here who are familiar with China’s history of human rights abuses, these are worrying words.
We have seen the tragedies of the
“distinctively Chinese approach to handling ethnic affairs”
in Xinjiang province and, before that, in the sinicisation of Tibet. We have also seen the consequences of the Chinese Government’s direct influence on religion—I will focus most of my comments on this; I will say a few other things towards the end, but I know that others will range more widely—whether that be through the treatment of Uighur Muslims by forced imprisonment and, reportedly, sterilisation, of Falun Gong, or of Chinese Christians. Similarly, characterising religious adherents as “religious extremists” has become a common part of the Chinese Government’s authoritarian approach. The Chinese state has persecuted many Christian leaders, particularly those who exemplify the values underpinning the Christian faith, such as the affirmation of the dignity of human life, opposition to tyranny and a willingness to stand up for the persecuted.
We have seen China’s approach exemplified with the treatment of Joseph Zen, the 90 year-old cardinal who was arrested in May this year for acting as a trustee to a humanitarian relief fund which helped some pro-democracy protestors. He is currently on trial. Many commentators have described it as a show trial, where he will almost certainly be convicted. What discussions have His Majesty’s Government had with China regarding the release of Cardinal Zen?
The events in Hong Kong over recent years have led to large numbers of citizens leaving to come to the UK. Incidentally, I pay tribute to His Majesty’s Government for the way that that has been and is being handled. I am hugely grateful for that. I have met a good number of Hong Kongers who are now living in my diocese. Quite a number of them have joined our churches and many are already making a wonderful contribution to our national life.
Over the summer, a very old friend who had been working in Hong Kong for a number of years contacted me because he felt it so oppressive and restrictive, and he really had to get out of the country very quickly. He stayed with me for about four months while he was getting his affairs sorted out. He told me that Hong Kong had become so oppressive because of the high levels of surveillance. He told me how he could not even go to church without being filmed and recorded. It no longer felt safe.
This treatment is limited not just to Christians but to anyone who is not prepared to align their faith with the aims and objectives of the Communist Party of China. This has meant the detention of imams, the demolition of mosques and, in some cases, situations where people have been sent to psychiatric hospitals for challenging the Chinese Government’s decision to demolish their religious buildings. In Yunnan province in the south of China, the Chinese Government’s religious affairs bureau has banned children from attending churches with their parents, installed surveillance cameras outside churches to detect children during Sunday services, frozen churches’ bank accounts and removed crosses forcibly.
Article 300 of the Chinese criminal code prohibits the organisation of any religion deemed a “heterodox teaching”. This law has been used to restrict freedom of religion and belief across China. In 2015, this article was revised to include life imprisonment as one optional punishment for participating in any unsanctioned religious group. In the past few years, we have seen Chinese Christians and Falun Gong practitioners arrested, detained and persecuted for practicing their faith, sometimes when they were practising it only in their own homes.
Again, I reiterate that the words of President Xi Jinping last month are an explicit endorsement of measures against individuals and faith groups. Will the Minister tell us His Majesty’s Government’s assessment of these laws and what steps we can take to support people of faith who are being persecuted by the Chinese state?
Although I have chosen to address most of my comments to the subject of religious persecution in China, this is certainly only the tip of the iceberg, and I know other noble Lords will range more widely over other human rights abuses. We all know that China continues to use the death penalty, in some cases for non-violent or political offences, and fails to produce any official statistics about numbers. According to some groups, China has executed around 8,000 people a year since 2007, which, it is estimated, accounts for around 90% of the global total of executions.
Additionally, China has a well-catalogued history of using political psychiatric abuse against dissidents, sending critics of the regime to psychiatric hospitals under the pretence that they are mentally ill. In these institutions, individuals are subject to beatings, forced medication, electroconvulsive therapy and repeated incarceration.
I am not going to say too much more because others will be able to set out the problems. I end by asking the Minister to tell us his assessment of these allegations against the Chinese state and what representations His Majesty’s Government have made to the Chinese Government.
My Lords, the whole House is indebted to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for the—as always—exemplary way in which he spoke to the Committee and introduced today’s debate, and for focusing our attention again on the CCP’s human rights violations. I declare my non-financial interests in the register.
The International Relations and Defence Committee’s report on China, trade and security describes the UK’s China policy as lacking strategic coherence—confusion that was reinforced this week at the G20 summit. During the leadership election, Rishi Sunak said that “for too long” western leaders had
“rolled out the red carpet and turned a blind eye to China’s nefarious activity and ambitions.”
Liz Truss upgraded the UK’s recognition of China from “systemic competitor” to “threat”—as have our allies in the United States—and described China’s actions in Xinjiang as “genocide”.
However, on Tuesday, Mr Sunak was no longer citing the director-general of MI5, who said that that China represents
“the biggest long-term threat to Britain and the world’s economic and national security”,
preferring instead to describe the CCP regime as a “challenge.”
North Korea, Iran and Russia are all described by the FCDO as a threat. Why is China not to be described in the same way? Yesterday, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, a former leader of his party, warned the Prime Minister that
“it now looks like we’re drifting into appeasement with China.”
There is an old saying that when you want to understand something you should follow the money. We have been spending literally billions of pounds in China, ratcheting up a trade deficit of some £40 billion. We have seen British taxpayers’ money being spent on goods made in a state that uses slave labour to undercut its competitors and is credibly accused of genocide.
We have now added insult to injury. On 15 November, earlier this week, Will Quince MP confirmed in the House of Commons that the Government are spending £770,000 a day to store 120 million items of PPE in China. That is more than £280 million a year. Think of how that could be used to fund nurses’ salaries, patient care, any number of public services or the promotion of human rights. Perhaps the Minister will tell us how much has been spent in total so far, and explain how much longer we will go on paying these exorbitant sums to the CCP regime.
What does all this say about national resilience and dependency? Have we learned nothing from Germany’s dependency on Putin and the consequences of indebtedness? Drifting back to the Cameron-Osborne golden era would be a huge error. It would be a betrayal of all those who suffer at the hands of the CCP: persecuted religious minorities, journalists, human rights defenders, and those who have had the right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly and association suppressed. It would be a betrayal of all those driven out of their homes in Hong Kong and welcomed to the United Kingdom in an exemplary way by His Majesty’s Government—I agree with the right reverend Prelate. Think of the betrayal of the 50 million victims of the CCP. The Italian scholar, Massimo Introvigne, says:
“No organization in human history killed more human beings than the CCP.”
My question to the Minister is: what has changed in the extremely short period between Liz Truss leaving and Rishi Sunak arriving at No. 10 that justifies this U-turn in relation to China? Have the atrocities against the Uighurs and other Turkic minorities stopped and been proven untrue? Has Hong Kong seen a restoration of democracy? Are Ben Wallace’s comments on Taiwan to the International Relations and Defence Committee part of this new rapprochement? In answer to a question from me, he said:
“It is in China’s plan to reunify Taiwan to mainland China … it is not a secret. Britain wants a peaceful process towards that.”
The 23 million people of Taiwan have never been part of the PRC. Why should we aid and abet that process? Why should we suggest that there is something inevitable about this? Since when has that been an object pursued by His Majesty’s Government?
On Monday I chaired a meeting, here in the House, addressed by Bill Browder and young Hong Kongers. Pleas were made for Magnitsky sanctions against those who have abused human rights, upended democracy, subverted institutions and corrupted the rule of law. Political show trials in Hong Kong have become the norm under the new national security regime, with the verdict in Jimmy Lai’s so-called fraud trial coming next week, as well as the verdict in the trial of the 90 year-old Cardinal Zen, referred to by the right reverend Prelate, and the other trustees of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund.
Given the growing number of political prisoners in Hong Kong and upcoming national security cases, including that of Jimmy Lai and Apple Daily journalists on 1 December, will the Minister tell the Committee what the Government are willing to do to stand by their legal, moral and historic commitments to Hong Kong and to Jimmy Lai, who is, after all, a United Kingdom citizen? How does the Minister respond to my noble and learned friend Lady Hale, former President of the Supreme Court, who has warned in the last 24 hours of Hong Kong’s “unacceptable laws” and said that British judges should search their consciences and vacate their seats in the Hong Kong courts?
What, too, of the CCP’s subversion of international jurisprudence and bodies? Only a few weeks ago, we saw how the CCP can silence the very UN body that was tasked with accommodating dialogue about human rights violations, the United Nations Human Rights Council, of which China is a member—rather like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. On 6 October the Human Rights Council rejected a proposal, of which the UK was a co-sponsor, to even have a debate on Michelle Bachelet’s findings that “serious human rights violations”, potentially including crimes against humanity, of the Uighur and “other predominantly Muslim communities” may have been committed in Xinjiang. The proposal was defeated by 19 votes to 17, with China’s position supported by those other great champions of human rights: Eritrea, Pakistan, Sudan and Cameroon. Study the links and note that many of those opposing even a debate have a substantial belt-and-road indebtedness to the CCP. How do we intend to take this issue forward? Do we intend to table a resolution at the General Assembly of the UN?
Closer to home, when can we expect the Greater Manchester Police report on the assault of Bob Chan, whom I have met, and other protesters outside the city’s Chinese consulate? What is the Foreign Secretary doing to take action to protect the very rights now denied in Hong Kong, including reports that the CCP is establishing overseas police stations in the United Kingdom? At a meeting this morning, I learned of the harassment of Hong Kong students by mainlanders in Edinburgh and at other universities. What are we doing to protect the human rights of the Hong Kongers who have settled here?
Following the welcome decision yesterday, on security grounds, to prevent the takeover of our biggest producer of semiconductors at Newport Wafer Fab, what assessment have the Minister and the Security Minister, Tom Tugendhat, made of the ambitions to create a mega PRC embassy on the site of the Royal Mint? Will the Minister agree to talk to Mr Tugendhat and ask Michael Gove to consider calling in this application? The deal led to 200 British citizens having the freehold of their homes sold to the Chinese state, over their heads. After what happened in Manchester, and what happens throughout China, families are scared and angry but have been utterly ignored. Will the Minister write to me detailing who brokered the Royal Mint deal, how much money passed hands, and what was the independent valuation of the site?
If the Minister, who is always so kind and generous in dealing with the questions that I put to him, cannot undertake to answer them today, will he at least agree that they are legitimate questions which deserve to be answered and that he will write to me about them? I once again thank the right reverend Prelate for giving us the opportunity to say some of these things.
My Lords, I too congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans on securing this important and, indeed, most timely debate. I declare an interest as co-chair of the British-Taiwanese All-Party Parliamentary Group.
China has been back in the global spotlight this week, with the attendance of President Xi at the G20 summit in Indonesia. It had been hoped, at least by Downing Street, that this gathering would include a meeting between President Xi and our own Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak—the first encounter between a UK Prime Minister and a Chinese Head of State since 2018. Indeed, No. 10 briefed journalists that Mr Sunak would
“encourage China to use its place on the global stage responsibly to resolve geopolitical tensions, ensure regional stability and play its part in tackling the devastating global impact of the war in Ukraine.”
In the end, that meeting did not take place because of the terrible missile incident in Poland. That was unfortunate—as was the missile incident—because I would have welcomed Mr Sunak’s feedback after meeting his Chinese counterpart.
I cannot recall a United Kingdom Prime Minister ascending to power with so little known about his stance on so many foreign policy issues. His position on the Northern Ireland protocol falls into that category, given that the protocol came about as part of an international agreement. The Answer I received to a Written Parliamentary Question last week did not fill me with any great faith in his expertise on the protocol, since it advised that Mr Sunak failed to visit Northern Ireland even once during his tenure as Chancellor of the Exchequer. However, that subject is for another day.
In relation to China, your Lordships will be aware of my long-standing support for the Taiwanese people and my steadfast opposition to the aggressive stance the Chinese state continues to adopt towards them. Your Lordships will be equally conscious of my deep frustration with the weak positions held by a conveyor belt of UK Prime Ministers, who, with the exception of Liz Truss, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned, have failed to truly stand up to the Beijing bully boys over Taiwan. Ms Truss can claim some kind of legacy on this issue at least.
It is not just our Prime Ministers who have provided wiggle room for Chinese aggression. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, also mentioned, when giving evidence to the International Relations and Defence Committee of this House earlier this month, the United Kingdom Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, a man for whom I generally have the utmost respect, said:
“It is in China’s plan to reunify Taiwan to mainland China. That has been in its 50-year plan, or whatever the plan is called, so it is not a secret. Britain wants a peaceful process towards that.”
That statement surely had President Xi and his coterie rubbing their hands with glee. In contrast, I have no doubt that these words had the good people of Taiwan holding their heads in despair—and, indeed, fear.
The topic of today’s debate is human rights abuses in China. The world is gaining greater awareness of the appalling crimes committed by the Chinese Communist Party regime against the Uighur Muslims, including killings, mass detentions, torture, forced mass sterilisation and cultural persecution.
The United States has accurately described China’s treatment of the Uighurs as genocide, with the Belgian, Canadian, Czech, Lithuanian and Dutch parliaments passing resolutions accusing the Chinese Government of committing genocide against them. So too has the UK Parliament, when a Motion approved in the other place last year resolved that
“Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities … are suffering crimes against humanity and genocide”.
This is the opinion of our Parliament, but unfortunately it is not the formal view of His Majesty’s Government, who instead have held steadfastly to the position
“not to make determinations in relation to genocide”.
I warmly commend my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, for bringing forward his Private Member’s Bill, which would enable the High Courts in England and Wales and Northern Ireland and the Court of Session in Scotland to make preliminary determinations as to what constitutes genocide, in accordance with the UK’s obligations under the genocide convention. I urge your Lordships to give the noble Lord’s Bill their full support. It will certainly have mine.
Failing to stand up to state-led aggression, sabre-rattling and worse has terrible consequences, as the brave people of Ukraine are experiencing each and every day. Russia invaded Ukraine because President Putin believed he could get away with it. I hold the same fears about President Xi’s attitude towards Taiwan.
I conclude my remarks by referring back to the Defence Secretary’s publicly stated view that His Majesty’s Government are seeking a “peaceful process” towards Taiwanese reunification with China. I put two direct questions to the Minister, for whom I have the highest regard and who has been handed the difficult task of responding to this debate.
First, knowing what we know about ongoing Chinese human rights abuses, in his view why would the Taiwanese people want to be part of a state that commits such heinous crimes against so many of its own people? They are freedom-loving people who would have no say in this.
Secondly, why would our country, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, wish to be in any way complicit in further crimes by assenting to what would effectively be a Chinese annexation of Taiwan? I would like to think that we as a nation are better than that. It is just a shame that the current UK Government appear not to agree. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Rogan. I will touch on Taiwan in a moment, and I commend the work he does in the British-Taiwanese All-Party Parliamentary Group, of which I am a proud member. The noble Lord sought to give us a little detour away from Beijing, to Belfast. I admire him for squeezing that in. After four long days in Committee on the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, the Minister will be relieved that I am not asking him about this—although I did ask on a number of occasions what the Prime Minister’s views on the Northern Ireland protocol were.
The right reverend Prelate is to be commended on bringing this debate. He should not have had any reluctance or reticence to bring it to the Grand Committee, because it is of profound importance for the future of our country. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, indicated, on 20 October we debated in Grand Committee the International Relations and Defence Committee’s report on China. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, is an esteemed member of that committee, on which I served, and he was absolutely right to say that we were challenging the void in the Government’s strategy on China. Indeed, the terminology in the committee report highlighted a void.
When it comes to the serious issue of Taiwan, of significance are not simply the UK’s foreign relations with Taiwan but the UK’s strategic interests with Taiwan as a major trading partner. We are reliant on technological imports from Taiwan. It is also a significant export partner for some of our key export sectors. Therefore, the consequences of what will happen in the relationship between the PRC and Taiwan are of direct UK interest.
Not only that—there is also a soft power interest. I have been to Taiwan on a number of occasions. On one of my visits, I was there with our former colleague, my noble friend Lord Steel, and we met with President Tsai Ing-wen. She said that it was Lord Steel, as leader of the Liberal Party, who inspired her to be involved in politics in Taiwan; she was studying at LSE at the time. The fact that Taiwan and the UK both have strong, deep views on the principles of democracy and rights is of great importance. Therefore, it is an appropriate prism through which to look at UK relations with China, human rights and China’s increasingly aggressive posture.
I join the right reverend Prelate in saying that the relations between the people of the UK and the people of China are of deep and significant importance. You cannot go to a campus, speak to a business or go to a high street and not see that depth of relationship. But of course, as in our previous debate on our relations with India, that does not mean we should be blind to some of the serious challenges that exist.
In the context of having reviewed the Government’s integrated review and the Minister’s response to the Select Committee, I read the US Department of Defense’s recently published national defence strategy. It now refers to the PRC by highlighting its
“increasingly provocative rhetoric and coercive activity towards Taiwan”
along with the risk of destabilisation, risk miscalculation and threats to peace and stability. It also mentions China’s other abilities, including using cyber and digital technology. The US now considers the PRC as
“the pacing challenge for the Department”.
However the noble Lord, Lord Alton, is right that at the same time the UK’s posture is confusing, to say the least. In the debate in the committee, I asked about the status of the China strategy because the Government had said that it was held by the National Security Council. That council was then abolished; now it has apparently been recreated under the Prime Minister. It is interesting that the Government say they have recreated the National Security Council but the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, told me that it had not been abolished in the first place. That is a microcosm of the lack of clarity about where we are.
The seriousness of this is that in many of our key sectors, as highlighted by the director-general of MI5, and by me in many of our debates on trade policy and elsewhere, we in the UK are overreliant on imports from China. That dependency is a worry. This is in the absence of a strategic industrial strategy for the UK which would look at digital, ecommerce, privacy, intellectual property and supply chain resilience, as well as some of our key areas. One area we raised in the past is wafer technology. When the Government refused to call in a purchase, we were told repeatedly that there were no concerns. Then after parliamentary pressure, I think, the Government did call it in and the news this week is broadly welcome. That highlights how it does not seem as though BEIS, the Treasury and the FCDO are working in complete alignment.
Last year, I raised the fact that we had the biggest trade deficit on goods imports for any country in our nation’s history. It was more than £40.5 billion. That has declined slightly but by only £2 billion, so we now have a trade deficit with China of £39 billion on imports, which means that we need an industrial strategy and a resilience review across the key sectors. It also means that we should be looking at screening investments by UK firms in some of those key sectors in China. The recent reports that the German Government are operating this should be an indication that we need to do the same. I say this because the latest trade figures with China, published on 2 November, highlight a 20% increase in UK investment in China and Chinese enterprises, including state-owned enterprises. I simply do not know what the Government’s strategy is when we hear from the noble Lord, Lord Alton, what the new Prime Minister had said; now that is represented in the growth of investments in these enterprises.
The final thing I raise regarding Hong Kong and the UK is that the Government have not moved fast or far enough in reviewing what property assets party leaders and state-owned enterprises in Hong Kong have in London and the UK, which individuals have them, how transparent that is and how much they have invested in UK investment funds. I have repeatedly questioned whether any of the agreements signed by David Cameron and President Xi in 2015 have been reviewed, because they offer increased UK market access to Chinese enterprises, including investment in UK pension funds. I do not know whether state-owned enterprises, party leaders or those who have been either directly linked with or complicit in human rights abuses in China are increasing their purchases of British pension funds. Local authorities, individuals and investors need to know. It is the Government’s responsibility to tell us. We need a China strategy as well as resilience, because we cannot simply bemoan human rights abuses in China if we are silent at home.
My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for initiating this debate, which I welcome. One thing I am certain of is that we will not be able to address all the issues we need to in a one-hour QSD. Nevertheless, this debate is a good agenda-setting point, where we can focus on the direction that we think we should go in. A point that the right reverend Prelate made in his introduction that I would emphasise is not only how important the people of China are, and how important their history, tradition and culture are to the world, but how without China’s engagement and co-operation we will not be able to address the global challenges that we face, particularly climate change and pandemics. Global health is a critical issue for us all.
As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, highlighted, the IRDC report on China set out clearly that the Government’s approach has too often reflected a strategic incoherence. As the chair of that committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, said in our recent debate, which the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, also highlighted, it is unclear how the Government intend to balance human rights issues with their economic relationship with China, and how they will prioritise when these considerations clash. In that debate, the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, and I raised where the strategy sits and who has responsibility. When the Minister replied to the committee’s chair he said that the strategy was being dealt with but through the National Security Council, et cetera. The simple fact is that what we need is not just about government policy, as that report highlighted that all sections of our society—business, civil society and trade unions—need to be aware of how to react to and deal with these things.
The Government have a good record on supply chain issues and modern slavery. I have raised with the Minister on previous occasions my concern that promises to strengthen that seem to be made, but there is no action. I want to know from him what his department is doing to engage with business and civil society on modern slavery and supply chains. That is a critical issue about how we trade with China. No one is suggesting that we can stop trade with China; apart from anything else, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has highlighted how big that trade is. This is not about trade agreements or some of the clauses that we have managed to put into the legislation about trade agreements. It is about procurement and how we help businesses to deal with this issue.
As noble Lords have said, this is a cross-departmental issue. We have the FCDO making clear, positive statements and the Department for International Trade and other Westminster departments saying the complete opposite. That is why we need a coherent strategy. We have the pieces in place; they just need to be joined up.
I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alton. He has been consistent in raising these issues and has suffered because of it. The Chinese Communist Party has decided to sanction him, a parliamentarian, for raising these issues, and we should make note of that.
Our focus has been particularly on the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, who face a brutal campaign of oppression. The right reverend Prelate has raised other issues, particularly religious minorities, but I want to focus on Xinjiang. The UN has said that this may constitute crimes against humanity and, as we know, the House of Commons has voted to recognise this as genocide. It is very clear that we must have stronger action from the Government. Can the Minister highlight not only the actions we have taken at the UN but what we are doing in terms of imports from Xinjiang or a potential ban on cotton that we know is produced by slave labour? This is really important. Many of my noble friends have raised in the Chamber ways we can address that issue more effectively. It requires a firm, strong, consistent approach and, of course, it is not linked to just one region.
We have also raised with the Government and have had successes in pursuing the disgusting issue of human organ farming. We think we are in a civilised world, but this is going on and it is not restricted to China. The products are being exported all over the place and people are going to China to access these organs. We need a much stronger approach.
While sanctions have an important role to play in responding to the most serious instances of human rights abuses, we must also utilise our influence at the UN to raise these violations. The Minister is the Minister for the United Nations. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, raised the vote at the Human Rights Council which rejected a resolution to hold a debate on China’s violations in Xinjiang. I am of course pleased that the United Kingdom supported that resolution; let us acknowledge it. The Minister will no doubt come back and say that we pushed it, supported it and encouraged others to vote for it, but what are we going to do next? That is what I want to hear from the Minister. Can he say what our mission will do to secure a further debate on it, particularly at the General Assembly?
We often focus on the limitations of the UN, but I know the Minister agrees that we should also see that it is an opportunity to enter into discussions with a wide range of countries, particularly those that have been influenced by China. We should be building those alliances in a much stronger and more coherent way.
We must be alert to human rights abuses caused by China elsewhere. Noble Lords have raised Hong Kong, the attack on international agreements and commitments made to the people of Hong Kong, and our response to that. I hope the Minister can tell us what assessment the Government have made of those further attacks on civil liberties since the flawed election of John Lee. I know the response will be, “I’m not going to discuss future designations for sanctions”, but I think we want to hear that we are going to take those abuses seriously, use the powers we now have with the human rights sanctions and look at how they can be addressed effectively. I hope the Minister can respond to all the contributions and give us an assurance that we will be more consistent in standing up for human rights across China.
My Lords, I thank every noble Lord who has taken part in this debate, in particular the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for tabling this very important debate. We have heard deep, expert insights on human rights in China.
As the UK Human Rights Minister, I welcome this amplification and continued spotlight on this issue. On a personal note, it certainly strengthens my hand in discussions I have with colleagues across government. It is important that we continue to raise these issues because, to put it simply, it matters. We have had two debates on this issue today, and it is right that we continue to focus and hold the Government to account on what more they can do in this respect.
The right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, drew important focus to the people-to-people links between China and the United Kingdom. That is perhaps unique to the United Kingdom and, arguably, the United States—two countries that quite often, when we talk about international affairs, have reflective domestic insights as well. The Chinese culture, communities and, most importantly, people, as British citizens here, are vital to the vibrancy, diversity and strength of the United Kingdom.
I acknowledge and thank the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for their kind remarks on the BNO policy and the United Kingdom Government. I add, particularly to the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, that their advocacy is equally important because it brings that focus and attention to these issues. I recall those debates and discussions. At times I cannot answer fully because we are restricted by some of the sensitive discussions, but they acted as a real catalyst for ensuring the joined-up thinking and close working with our colleagues. I also pay tribute to the then Home Secretary for ensuring that the procedures and processes were put in place to offer that warm welcome to people who wanted to come to the United Kingdom for the right reasons. That continues to be the case with BNOs.
I turn to the important issue of human rights violations. I listened carefully on some of the trade issues. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, and others that I will consult my colleagues in the Department for International Trade and write in that respect, as I will on a couple of questions on the property and the site that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, raised.
I will go through some of the measures that I know we have taken which we can amplify. I subscribe to what the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said about supply chains. It is right that the Government have made these statements, but we also need to go into the detail to ensure what the impact is. We know that sanctions can be circumvented. It is important that when we act, as we have in the case of Xinjiang, we do so in concert with our key partners to ensure that there is a consistent approach in this respect.
I turn to the situation in China. China’s ongoing human rights violations include in Xinjiang—and let us not forget Tibet, which has not come up specifically—as well as the erosion of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong, as we have heard.
I will take Xinjiang first. Frankly, the evidence of the scale and severity of human rights violations being perpetrated against the Uighur Muslims paints—I state this quite deliberately—a harrowing picture in every sense. As noble Lords will know—I have certainly discussed this with the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Alton—I held bilateral meetings with the then high commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, to ensure that her visit happened. We were long-standing advocates of that. Yes, it was a managed visit, but the report she produced was very telling in its detail. We welcomed the fact that the report happened. Noble Lords including the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Purvis, pointed out the issue of the vote that happened, which was just on the procedural motion. In the end the tallied figures, after there was a small discrepancy, showed that the difference was just one vote, 20 to 19. Nevertheless, that shows the strength of Chinese influence, ironically, on members of the Human Rights Council.
This is not part of my formal script but I will say it because it needs to be on the record: it is an extreme disappointment that we do not see the Islamic world—the Muslim countries themselves—standing up against the biggest internment of the Muslim community anywhere in the world. When issues of Islamophobia are raised with me, because we do have challenges of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in the United Kingdom, that immediately throws a spotlight back on the discrimination and total internment of Uighurs on which there is, frankly, a deafening silence. I assure noble Lords that the issue is very close to my heart and I continue to raise it bilaterally with a number of countries.
The report itself sets out a range of evidence, including first-hand accounts from victims, of arbitrary and discriminatory detention, torture, sexual and gender-based violence, violations of reproductive rights and the destruction of religious sites. Perhaps most notably, the report also states that the extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detentions of members of Uighur and other predominantly Muslim groups
“may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”
That is a very damning but factual assessment from what was a limited visit by the then human rights commissioner.
The report also corroborates the growing evidence we have of China’s human rights violations in the region. While the recent focus on Beijing’s violations has been about Xinjiang, there are of course a number of other long-standing human rights issues in China. In particular, I note the issues around the situation in Tibet—issues that noble Lords have mentioned about freedom of religion or belief, and the reports of Tibetan parents being coerced and intimidated into sending their children to state boarding schools.
I acknowledge fully the points made by the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Rogan, the right reverend Prelate and all who raised the issue of persecutions, not just of the Uighur Muslims but of Christians, Buddhists, Falun Gong practitioners and others, simply on the grounds of their religion or belief. I was humbled yet honoured to host the freedom of religion or belief conference earlier this year, but a conference alone will not resolve the issues. Nor will this debate, but it is important that the focus remains.
Regrettably, we have also seen ongoing Chinese assaults on Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms. The national security law, which we have debated and had questions on in your Lordships’ House, continues to be systematically used to restrict rights and freedoms and silence dissenting voices. The authorities’ decision to target leading pro-democracy figures for prosecution in Hong Kong is unacceptable. Hong Kong’s way of life, prosperity and stability rely on respect for fundamental freedoms—rights and freedoms, let us be clear once again, that China itself undertook to uphold as a co-signatory of the Sino-British joint declaration. They are also protected in Hong Kong’s Basic Law. It is their law, something the Chinese Government and state signed up to, and it should be upheld. It was an internationally agreed statement lodged with the United Nations.
Noble Lords raised a number of points. First, on the issues around Cardinal Zen, Jimmy Lai and Andy Li, I assure the Committee that the United Kingdom has spoken repeatedly, and will continue to do so, about China’s arbitrary arrests and prosecutions in Hong Kong, including the names I have mentioned. Where trials are taking place, we also have consular attendance. I will of course keep noble Lords updated in this respect.
Before the Minister leaves that really important point about the way the judiciary has been subverted in Hong Kong, will he respond to the remarks of my noble and learned friend Baroness Hale, reported in today’s newspapers? Do the Government support her view that jurists should search their consciences before they participate in such proceedings?
Perhaps I will cover that specifically in the note but, as I said, I certainly agree with the principle of the importance of jurists, and of asking whether they are able to fulfil their obligations in the way that they are designed to within the construct that has been set up. Ultimately, it is the jurists’ decision, but it is important. Very able jurists will ask themselves that question.
On the Prime Minister’s position, which was raised several times, at the recent G20 meeting in Bali he set out the view that China is both a systematic competitor and
“the biggest state-based threat to our economic security”.
There have been different perspectives, but we have a long-standing commitment to Taiwan. As noble Lords will be aware, my right honourable friend the Trade Minister also visited Taiwan recently. The UK’s long-standing position on Taiwan has not changed. While we do not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, we have a strong unofficial relationship based on growing ties in a wide range of areas, including trade, and we share the common values of democracy, which Taiwan also propagates. We do not support any unilateral attempts to change the status quo. I have often said in your Lordships’ House that it is for both sides of the Taiwan Strait to address these issues. I have noted a number of other points that were raised, such as statements made to committees by colleagues of mine in the Government. I have not seen the full details; it would be remiss of me not to respond, but I will do so once I have had time to review them.
I turn to what the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said about UK action. We continue to work within the context of the UN. I mentioned the Human Rights Council. At the UN Third Committee last month we also supported the latest joint statement on China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang. Following a concerted effort with our partners and the UK’s network of embassies and high commissions, a record 50 countries, representing six continents, supported that statement. We have taken opportunities to raise our wider concerns in international fora, including in relation to Tibet, and we remain active and resolute in calling China out on its actions to undermine Hong Kong’s way of life, as all noble Lords alluded to.
I am short of time. I have already committed to consulting with colleagues, particularly in the Department for International Trade, but I assure noble Lords that we have introduced new measures in the modern slavery Bill that require businesses and public sector bodies to report on specific areas in their modern slavery statements, including due diligence. We have improved the application of UK export controls.
To conclude, I assure noble Lords of our continued commitment to the primary importance of human rights for all communities within China and our continuing commitment to the relationships we have with key areas, including Hong Kong and Taiwan. December will mark the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That affirms the universal character of human rights as inherent, inalienable and applicable to all human beings. That will remain our moral compass.