The persecution of the Uyghur is a scar on the conscience of the world. I urged the UK government to publicly oppose China’s election to the UN Human Rights Council, to deploy Magnitsky sanctions against senior CCP officials and to stop UK firms using forced labour in supply chains.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the Petitions Committee for securing this vital debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for making such a powerful and passionate speech to introduce the debate, and my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood), for Bradford West (Naz Shah), for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), and for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali), who made compelling contributions, both passionate and forensic. Members across the House have shown today that there is no doubt about the strength of feeling in Parliament.
The plight of the Uyghur people is a scar on the conscience of the world—of that there can be no doubt—and the fact that the Chinese Government continue to act with impunity leaves us all with a sense of burning injustice. It is vital and urgent that the international community comes together to speak with one voice, and to say loud and clear to Beijing, “We will not stand idly by while Uyghur people are imprisoned in these so-called re-education camps. We will not look the other way in response to reports of the forced sterilisation of Uyghur women. We will not react with indifference to any efforts to destroy the Uyghur language, culture and way of life.”
It is equally vital and urgent that the UK Government take a leadership role in convening and co-ordinating the international response. Our greatness as a country is based on our resolute and unshakeable commitment to human rights and the rule of law. The British people know that if our country is to be a force for good in the world, those values must be applied universally. Regrettably, attempts to show leadership on this issue are handicapped by the fact that, for several years now, the approach of successive Conservative Governments to China has been naive and complacent.
In 2015, David Cameron and George Osborne announced a new golden era in Sino-British relations. The premise was simple. The UK would open its markets and infrastructure to China and in return Beijing would reciprocate, while integrating with the rules-based international order.
Fast forward five years and where do we stand? We are still running a £19 billion trade deficit with China, and the Chinese Government have dealt a hammer blow to democracy in Hong Kong, committed egregious human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet, and stepped up their military activities in the South China sea. The fact of the matter is that the golden era strategy has been an unmitigated failure. Successive Conservative Governments have rolled out the red carpet for Beijing in the hope of reciprocity and constructive engagement, but the past five years have seen the emergence of a China that increasingly pursues policies that undermine international norms and violate what should be international and universal values.
We have deep respect for China’s history, culture and civilisation, and we fully acknowledge and recognise its great power status. The relationship between the peoples of the UK and China is deep, of long standing and valued by both. There is a pressing need to improve mutual understanding and friendly co-operation, but the Chinese leadership must understand that their breaching of international law and violation of human rights benefits no one, least of all themselves. China is deeply integrated into the global economy, and it needs globalisation to work for its people, just as much as we do. But if it continues to pursue zero-sum policies that place dominance ahead of consensus and crushing one’s critics ahead of compromise, the international community will have no choice but to toughen its stance by exerting further political, diplomatic and economic pressure on Beijing.
Against that backdrop, we call on the UK Government to commit to a fundamental strategic reset in Sino-British relations. We must seek constructive engagement based on mutual respect, but respect is a two-way street. The leadership of the Communist party of China respects strength and unity, and it is contemptuous of weakness and division. We must find ways to co-operate with the Chinese Government on crucial global issues such as climate change and pandemics, while also challenging them when they undermine international law.
To achieve that, the following needs to happen. First, we must rebuild our strategic independence. Successive Conservative Governments have left our country over-reliant on supply chains that originate in China and open to hostile takeovers by Chinese state-backed enterprises and investment vehicles. The UK is now dependent on China for 57 categories of goods that relate to our critical national infrastructure. This over-reliance on China dramatically diminishes our ability to stand up for our interests and project our values. There needs to be a far more joined-up approach across Whitehall on these issues.
Secondly, the UK Government need to build an alliance of democracies to champion co-operation based on shared values and promoting human rights. Successive Conservative Governments since 2016 have shown that they are adept at burning bridges. This Government must now show that they know how to rebuild trust with our European allies while engaging more effectively with democratic governments, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region.
I turn to the mass atrocities that are taking place in Xinjiang. We urge the Government to take the following actions. First, it is imperative that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is given full and unfettered access to Xinjiang and the Uyghur people who are being detained there, so that the true scale and nature of the crimes can be established and documented. For that to be possible, far more intense and co-ordinated pressure must be applied, and we therefore urge the UK Government to publicly oppose China’s election to the UN Human Rights Council in the forthcoming elections, and to hold firm to that position until such time as Beijing provides the High Commissioner with access to Xinjiang.
Secondly, the Government must deploy Magnitsky sanctions against senior CCP officials who are responsible for human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The Minister will say that that is under review and should not be rushed but, frankly, that is not good enough. MPs have been expressing concerns about the plight of the Uyghur since 2017, and the Magnitsky legislation was passed in 2018. I therefore encourage the Minister to provide some clarity: what is the real cause of this mysterious delay, and can the Opposition be of any assistance in removing the roadblock, whatever it is, so that the Government can get on with taking long-overdue action?
Thirdly, the Government should explore additional legal avenues for challenging what is happening in Xinjiang, including an assessment of whether China’s actions constitute a violation of the 1984 convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, to which China is a state party. The Government must consider infringement procedures if such a determination is made.
Fourthly, the Government must publicly support the UN International Law Commission’s draft convention on the prevention and punishment of crimes against humanity, which would close an important gap in international law.
Fifthly, as many hon. Members have raised today, the Government must mobilise action across Whitehall to ensure that British businesses conduct thorough due diligence of supply chains, such that British companies withdraw without delay from any and all supply chains that potentially involve forced labour or other human rights abuses. I trust that the Minister will give careful consideration to those recommendations, in terms of both the fundamental reset that is required, and the specific issues with Xinjiang province.