Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 29 November.
“I find it hard to believe, given his powers of persuasion, that this is the honourable Gentleman’s first Urgent Question. He is an ever-present ray of sunshine in Parliament, and we love him for it.
As the Foreign Secretary made clear yesterday, the arrest of a BBC journalist while covering the recent protests in Shanghai is a deeply disturbing and wholly unacceptable situation. Journalists must be able to do their job without fear of arrest of intimidation. The BBC has stated that the journalist was beaten and kicked by the police during his arrest, and was held for several hours before being released. In response, we are calling in the Chinese ambassador to make clear the unacceptable and unwarranted nature of those actions and the importance of freedom of speech, and to demand a full explanation. We have also been in close touch with the journalist and the BBC throughout to gather the facts and provide consular support.
We recognise that the covid-related restrictions in China are challenging for the Chinese people. We urge the Chinese authorities to respect the rights of those who decide to express their views about the situation. Moreover, as the Prime Minister made clear yesterday in his Mansion House speech, the media—and, for that matter, our parliamentarians—must be able to highlight issues without fear of sanction or intimidation, whether in calling out human rights violations in Xinjiang and the curtailment of freedom in Hong Kong, or in reporting on the recent protests.
This, of course, follows the recent incident in Manchester. As we have previously made clear to the House, the apparent behaviour of staff at the Chinese consulate general was wholly unacceptable. In view of the gravity of that incident, we summoned the Chinese chargé d’affaires on 18 October and delivered a clear message through our ambassador in Beijing. There is now an ongoing investigation and it would be wrong to pre-empt the findings.
More broadly, we recognise that China poses a systemic challenge to our values and interests, which, again, the Prime Minister highlighted yesterday. That challenge grows more acute as China moves towards greater authoritarianism. That is why we are taking robust action to protect our interests and stand up for our values. That includes imposing sanctions, leading action at the UN and strengthening our supply chain resilience. Let me assure Members that, as part of our frank relationship with China, we will continue to raise our human rights concerns at the highest levels.”
My Lords, I start by welcoming the Government’s prompt response, summoning the ambassador and providing consular support for Mr Lawrence. The Minister will be aware that we debated the International Relations and Defence Committee report recently, which stressed the need for an overall China strategy covering all aspects of our relationship, so that civil society, government departments and local government all know what direction the Government are taking.
In response to the Urgent Question, Minister Rutley said that the Government
“have not committed to publish a separate China strategy, but we will continue to maintain as much transparency as possible and keep Parliament updated on our approach to China. The integrated review will be the main focus for that.”—[Official Report, Commons, 29/11/22; col. 784.]
Of course, the Minister then said that the Government will be updating the integrated review, which we know has been promised before. Can the Minister explain why we cannot see an overall China strategy and when we will see the updated integrated review?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord and, like him, I welcome the prompt action that was taken and of course the release of the journalist. I assure all noble Lords that we remain in direct contact with him. The ambassador was summoned here in London and our consul-general extended support to the individual in the country as well.
At this time, there is nothing further I can add to the response given by my honourable friend in the other place, but I reassure the noble Lord that we remain very focused on key priorities when it comes to our relationship with China. As he will know, we are focused on areas of human rights where we have been very clear in the support we extend to persecuted minorities. Of course, we are also very cognisant that there have been particular measures taken against Members of your Lordships’ House and the other place by the Chinese authorities. It is ironic, and a reflection of the strength of the UK’s position, that we stand by the rule of law, as that is something that has been sadly missing in the response to protests and the current action China has taken against Members of your Lordships’ House and the other place.
On the issue of the integrated review, as my honourable friend said in the other place, we will be working through specific aspects of our relationship with China and that will be presented and, I am sure, debated in the usual way.
My Lords, in saluting the courage of Edward Lawrence, who returned to his role as a BBC journalist even after the assault occurred, will the Minister also pay tribute to those Chinese citizens, from Tank Man in Tiananmen Square and Bridge Man before the recent CCP congress in Beijing, to the young man who this week led protesters in Shanghai calling for Xi Jinping’s removal and who was then seized by police and has disappeared? Will he reflect on the role of surveillance technology in attempting to suppress dissent, which was referred to here in the debate on the all-party amendment last night, and the comment yesterday to parliamentarians by Dr David Tobin of Sheffield University, who said
“It is exceptionally important that we don’t import that technology here”?
Does the Minister promise to at least give new consideration to the all-party amendment passed last night?
My Lords, I was not in the Chamber when the specific amendment was discussed, but of course it is important that these things are looked at. The noble Lord will be aware, on the issue of surveillance, of the recent statement made by the Cabinet Office about government security and issues of Chinese surveillance. We need to remain very vigilant on this. The issue of cyber challenges and threats posed by many states is very real and we need to be ever vigilant, particularly when it comes to surveillance in our own country.
On the broader issue of the protests, ultimately it is not for the UK to speculate on the leadership within China, but it is very clear that the issue of human rights is a priority. The noble Lord knows of my personal commitment on this; I join him in recognising the strength, character and courage that must be present in those who are seeking to stand up bravely in the protests. The fact that innocent journalists were caught up for simply doing their job is again a reminder of the importance of championing media freedom.
My Lords, what attempts are His Majesty’s Government making to work with our partners in the UN to build an international consensus, so that China, which is seeking to raise its profile as an international power, hears from all quarters that suppressing journalists, not least those who are doing their duties, and arresting people for these demonstrations is simply unacceptable in the modern world?
The right reverend Prelate is right, and I agree with his second point. In the world we live in today, we have seen journalists lead the charge, reporting on conflicts and on violence. I pay tribute to them, and that is why I was proud that the United Kingdom teamed up with others, including the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, to ensure that we have a really focused and laser approach on the issue of suppressing media freedom and the rights of journalists.
On the right reverend Prelate’s point on the UN, of course China is a P5 member and is now looking increasingly at contributions to various UN agencies. It has a particular view of the world that we do not share, and it is important that we rebut that very strongly. We should not just rebut it but present an alternative vision, one in which all freedoms and strengths of human rights are reflected, and make the case strongly to countries currently perceived as fragile and embarking on the road of democracy that pluralist democracies are the best model. Issues of freedom of religion, freedom of media and the rights of journalists are very much part and parcel of that process.
My Lords, first I pay tribute to the Minister for his great work on human rights globally. As well as the assault on Edward Lawrence, the BBC’s former China correspondent who reported and exposed truths about Xinjiang’s re-education camps, including about sexual violence against Uighur women, had to be moved to Taiwan following pressure and threats from the Chinese authorities. Was the Foreign Office able to raise that in meetings with the Chinese ambassador in this country?
My Lords, on the noble Baroness’s specific question, the summons was specific to the incident that had taken place. When a summons happens, having led a few myself, they are pretty short, sharp and to the point. I accept the noble Baroness’s broader point about the continued suppression of rights that we continue to see and the challenges we find. Recently, as she will be aware—perhaps this is why I am looking a degree jaded—for the last 48 hours we have had a really intense conference on preventing sexual violence in conflict, with more harrowing accounts from particularly young girls and women but also young men who have to endure this violence around the world.
It was also appropriate, I felt—and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in this respect—to ensure we showcase that, when we talk of conflict, we are not talking just of war; we are talking of the suppression of rights in conflict. Often, when wars are perceived to be at an end, conflict continues, and the suppression of vulnerable communities, minorities and, indeed, women and girls, continues. I assure noble Lords that we will continue to update the House on specific issues we pick up and, most importantly, to be informed by the expert opinion in your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, I absolutely agree with my noble friend and I assure him that, when I talk of human rights internationally, I always use the phrase, “We never forget our own backyard”. Our human rights were hard fought and there were incredible champions. We are talking about issues of religion, equality and justice, and it is important that we never lose sight of the fact that human rights is never a job done. That applies equally at home as it does abroad.
My Lords, as a member of the International Relations and Defence Select Committee, may I press the Minister further on his response to my noble friend Lord Collins on a coherent strategy? It is now some time, more than two years, since the committee asked the Government to come up with a coherent strategy. It is very disappointing that all we are getting is an ad hoc response to everything that happens in China, rather than a proper framework within which we can operate our foreign policy.
My Lords, as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, the updated integrated review will provide the coherent strategy the noble Baroness articulates. I do not think we are disjointed or not linked up: I think we have seen a quite coherent approach across government on issues we have raised consistently. When it comes to China, it is important, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, reminded us, to act jointly on issues of surveillance.
Internationally, we are looking at the growing influence of countries that will have different objectives to our own on destabilisation or, indeed, on long-term debt, which was talked of earlier in your Lordships’ House. On the suppression of human rights, there needs to be coherence in our approach. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is, if I can put it this way, the custodian of our international and global response and I assure the noble Baroness that in whatever we are doing, including the review, we are working coherently and together with key departments across His Majesty’s Government.