I beg to move,
That this House
has considered UK policy towards China.
It is my honour and privilege to lead this debate. I must start by declaring an interest. Last year I was pleased to visit China as part of a delegation from the all-party parliamentary group on China, very ably led by my hon. Friend Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown and superbly well organised by Saki Reid, the all-party group’s administrator. That visit is one of the reasons I called for this debate—not the only reason, but one of them.
My simple proposition is that our policy approach to China should rest on three pillars: expertise, realism and wisdom. To start with expertise, it is important that we exert every effort institutionally to understand and gain expertise about modern-day China, and about the remarkable scale of the impact that its recent rise will have on all of us and on our children. Since 1978, when Deng Xiaoping started his reform and the opening-up of China, at least 600 million people have been lifted out of poverty. China’s GDP has risen from $150 billion in 1978 to $12 trillion last year. China now has a defence budget of $228 billion, which is second only to that of the United States. The rise of China and the growth of its economy is the single biggest event shaping global politics today, and indeed shaping issues such as climate, for example. It is therefore our duty to gain expertise in order to understand that.
The scale of the impact of the rise of China can be seen in, for example, Chinese pork consumption. That is perhaps an unexpected example, but it provides an interesting insight—the scale of China’s impact on the world can often be seen in areas that one does not necessarily think about. Since the 1970s, when Deng Xiaoping put in place agricultural reforms, among other reforms, the scale of Chinese pork consumption has risen sevenfold. China now consumes almost 500 million pigs annually, which is actually half of the global production of pigs—I am quoting from an excellent report by The Economist.
That increase in consumption is about more than just calorific impact; it is also about the symbology of the new Chinese middle class being able to enjoy pork, which their parents were unable to do, and that represents a triumph over hardship that is part of the Chinese story. Also, the scale of that consumption has significant consequences for climate change. Water and accessible and available land are so scarce in China that it does not grow enough pig-feed to feed all those pigs, so more than half of all global feedstuffs goes to feeding Chinese pigs.
That has an impact all the way around the globe, because 1 kg of pork requires 6 kg of feed, mainly soy or corn, and whole swathes of what had been Amazonian rainforest in Brazil and other countries are now given over to the production of soya beans that are purely for Chinese pigs. In Brazil, more than 25 million hectares of land are used to cultivate soy. China is not one of the countries that has signed up to the soy roundtable, which is a group of countries that have agreed not to consume pigs fed on soya beans cultivated on newly deforested land.
As the hon. Gentleman is talking about international matters, does he agree that we should also be mindful of the human rights abuses in Tibet when we are thinking about trading with China? I think that is a very important issue.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. I entirely agree that, along with climate change and other important global impacts, we should certainly consider human rights when thinking about our relationship with China. I look forward to having a free and frank discussion about human rights later in the debate.
The environmental impact of the rise of China is absolutely huge. I gave the example of pork consumption because it provides quite a good mechanism for understanding the significance of the rise of China.
It is also important to understand the historical context of China’s re-emergence as a global power, and that is exactly what it is; what we have seen over the past 40 years is not the emergence of China as a global power, but the re-emergence. Until the first opium war in 1842, China was indeed a serious global player, and in Chinese eyes the century between that war and the victory of Mao Zedong in 1949 represents a century of humiliation, which they are now trying to put behind them. That is especially the case because, in addition to the degradations of the opium wars, following the first world war Chinese ports such as Qingdao were handed to the Japanese. That humiliation is keenly felt in China even today.
It is really important to understand that historical context, because it is a central part of the new doctrine of China that has replaced the quiet rise under Deng Xiaoping. The new doctrine of Xi Jinping is much more assertive and seeks to return China to what it regards as its historically rightful place as an assertive and outward-looking global power. Xi Jinping has himself describes this new era as “the Chinese dream”, not least at the 19th party congress in 2017. That must guide our thinking about China, and we therefore need to be very realistic.
The second pillar of the approach that I am proposing is therefore realism. We must be very clear and realistic in our understanding of what is driving the new doctrine of Chinese engagement with the world, because Xi Jinping, as well as seeking to return China to its historically rightful status, has reaffirmed the absolutely central role of the Chinese Communist party in the affairs of the Chinese state. This is about the party having absolute control not only domestically, but in relation to engagement abroad.
In seeking to understand the absolute priority placed on the role of the Chinese Communist party, it is useful to quote the evidence that Kevin Rudd, the former Prime Minister of Australia, gave to the Foreign Affairs Committee, which, as Members will know, recently produced an excellent report on China. Rudd, who is a noted sinologist, was talking about the central role of the party in Xi Jinping’s China. As quoted in the Committee’s report, he said:
“[W]hat are the core priorities of Xi Jinping’s Administration at home and abroad? They intersect in this institution called the Party. The interest of the Chinese political leadership is for the Party to remain in power. That is the No. 1 priority, the No. 2 priority and the No. 3 priority.”
When we consider China’s foreign policy and its engagements with the rest of the world, we need to understand the absolute priority placed on the role of the CCP. We need to bear that in mind when we understand the belt and road initiative, or Chinese defence policy and the rapid, and quite alarming, increase in that country’s naval capabilities—as a member of the Defence Committee, I have called for an inquiry into that. We also need to bear it in mind when we consider China’s treatment of Hong Kong and of Muslim Uyghurs and other minority religious groups, and its attitude towards human rights more broadly.
The absolute priority placed on the role of the CCP also drives China’s attitude towards domestic interference, which we in this country have experienced. I recommend to Members Charles Parton’s excellent report for the Royal United Services Institute. That report lays out the range of influence, moving towards interference, that China has carried out in this country, particular with regard to academia. It is certainly food for thought.
When we consider our response, we must be clear and realistic. We must ground our relations with the Chinese state in a keen understanding of the risks, as well as the opportunities, of dealing with it. Of course, there are clear benefits—we have to be very clear about that. Our commercial relationship alone is worth some £68.5 billion a year, and we should also be seeking positive relations through joint efforts to tackle climate change and deal with issues such as UN peacekeeping. There are significant positive areas that we should be focusing on; our challenge is to have the wisdom to know what is good and what is bad, and to be able to focus on the positives. We need to recognise and deal with the duality in the relationship.
We need what I call a two-handed approach. On one hand, we should be reaching out a hand of friendship, co-operation, and commercial exchange with our Chinese friends. On the other hand, we should be clearly delineating with red lines those areas that are off limits, including critical national infrastructure, over which we should have absolute sovereignty. That other hand should also call out domestic interference, if that is taking place, and call for reciprocal respectfulness. It should make clear our unwavering commitment to our own rule of law, which is not something we should ever put up for negotiation. In my view, dealing with China through our foreign policy is not a zero-sum game. We need to have nuance, flexibility and duality in our mind, which requires wisdom.
Someone who was very wise about China was, of course, Dr Henry Kissinger. He was better placed than most to understand the Chinese state. In his magnificent tome, “On China”, he calls for what he terms a “coevolution” through which China and the US, and by extension its western allies,
“pursue their domestic imperatives, cooperating where possible, and adjust their relations to minimize conflict. Neither side endorses all the aims of the other or presumes a total identity of interests, but both sides seek to identify and develop complementary interests.”
I propose that that spirit should guide our relations with China, and those of our western allies. That doctrine precludes clumsy belligerence in the South China sea and requires an energetic China policy, based on expertise, realism and wisdom.
In conclusion, I will put three direct questions to my right hon. Friend the Minister. I would be grateful if he could explain what institutional effort is being made to increase the number of Mandarin speakers and other sinologists in the Foreign Office, because that is an issue of gaining sufficient institutional expertise and capacity. I would be interested in him describing in his own words what he understands the “golden era” to mean, in terms of the duality and balance in the relationship between the UK and China. Finally, I would be grateful if he could state what Britain’s ambition is for our relationship with China in a post-Brexit world.
It is a great pleasure to follow Leo Docherty, who made an excellent case and covered quite a lot of areas I would like to cover.
I want to declare an interest: I went to China through the all-party parliamentary China group, although that was in September 2017, so it was a long time ago. As a result, I formed the all-party parliamentary group for the belt and road initiative and China-Pakistan economic corridor, which is working hard to get UK businesses involved in the multitrillion-dollar belt and road initiative.
I appreciate that the subject of this debate is wide ranging, but I will limit my remarks to the issue of international trade policy. The key question for UK trade policy towards China is how best to engage with the belt and road initiative, which is China’s signature foreign policy. Last week, I chaired a panel discussion on Britain, Brexit and the belt and road initiative. As we prepare to leave the world’s single largest trading bloc, I asked how post-Brexit Britain should respond to China’s BRI, the world’s biggest ongoing infrastructure project. If Britain is to take a lead as an upholder of the multilateral, rule-based system, we need to be asking ourselves that question. Estimates of China’s intended investment in the BRI range from $1 trillion to $8 trillion; it is a project on an unprecedented scale, yet UK awareness and understanding of it are very limited.
At the belt and road forum two years ago, the Chancellor described the UK as a “natural partner” in that project. It is true that this country is well placed to complement that initiative. There is a lot of scope for the UK’s strong legal, professional and technical services sectors to support the delivery of BRI projects. Britain also has deep historical ties with China, as well as with key BRI partner countries, such as Pakistan. A project of that scale needs international co-operation and partnership, which is something we are well placed to provide. However, our international co-operation must be tied to a commitment to uphold human rights, as well as social and environmental protections. The hon. Member for Aldershot mentioned the Uyghur community in north-west China, as well as the significant role that China can play in climate change. That is really important.
Too often, we are offered two competing visions of China: the paranoid western image of China as a threat to the global order, often endorsed by advocates of Trump’s protectionism, or the image of China as a benevolent state, which is promoted by its state officials. If we are to cut through those narratives, we need to strengthen our multilateral institutions.
At the heart of the BRI is a spirit of mutual co-operation, but China can best embody that spirit by acting with more transparency, embedded in the rules-based international order. The UK can be at the forefront of that order by acting as a strong, independent voice on the global stage. In doing so, we can reject the failed doctrines of free trade orthodoxy and Trump’s tariff wars, to promote a just trade agenda.
In an era when unilateralism and protectionism are on the rise, it is more important than ever that we reject self-imposed isolation and explore fresh opportunities for UK businesses overseas. Under the right leadership, we can do that in a way that reflects our core values of mutual respect and shared prosperity. China should be no exception.
I will make a brief contribution. When I was appointed as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Nigeria, I was called in by the Department for International Trade and told that I would have to develop my own personal policy in relation to China, as I was going to come into contact with the Chinese all the time. Nothing was more exact than that. They are everywhere; they are bidding for all the major infrastructure projects, and doing so in a largely transparent way. That provides an enormous opportunity for us if we can get the terms of the deals right.
It was made clear that it was up to me how that should be handled. Should I see the Chinese as the enemy, as opponents or as potential friends and allies? Because I am that sort of person, I wanted to see them as potential allies. However, doing so means identifying the areas in which we can establish projects with them where we can, effectively, be subcontractors to them.
But does it not strike my hon. Friend as a little strange that a country that for 4,000 years was half the world’s GDP, and that as our hon. Friend Leo Docherty pointed out is reasserting its position now as a quarter of the world’s GDP and, by some standards, as the world’s largest economy, is one in relation to which our Department for International Trade believes it has to subcontract policy to a trade envoy?
No, I do not find that strange at all. It gives me the flexibility I need as the trade envoy to Nigeria to deal with the Chinese in the way that best suits the opportunities that are available. That is certainly what I have done.
As I was saying, I am a friendly sort of individual, and I would like to see relationships built with the Chinese. However, doing that is difficult for a number of reasons. First, I quickly found that, whatever the product is, it is often quite shoddy. Do we want to be associated with that? Secondly, I found that no projects can be changed without a reference back to Beijing. That makes it difficult to deal with the projects on the ground as flexibly as I would like. Nobody on the ground has the ability to make the decision.
The last thing that I found, which is by far the most important, is that the Chinese leave nothing behind. When they come over to do a project, they bring an army of people to do it. They do not involve the local community or leave behind anything in the way of knowledge transfer or anything tangible. That is so different from the approach of British companies. For example, Unilever, which I know is a hybrid company, has taken on board the modern slavery agenda, and has largely eradicated these problems from not only the company itself but its supply chain. I have met some of the individual non-governmental organisations that have been involved with that.
My overall feeling is that we should treat the Chinese with caution, and examine the details of projects carefully to ensure that we can add value to the local community. Otherwise, there is no point doing them. There is no point helping to develop a country if we cannot involve people in the project itself.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. As we consider our Government’s relationship with China, we must not lose our ability to speak openly and frankly about the actions of the Chinese Government. China’s prosperity is highly impressive, and China has developed innovative solutions on many fronts to bring unprecedented numbers of people out of extreme poverty. I am sure that all Members present agree that, whatever the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, a strong relationship with China is essential. However, it is simultaneously necessary that we discuss areas where its Government may have fallen short of the standards that we expect of our trading partners and allies.
Last week, Ramadan began across the world. However, we have strong reason to believe that few of the Uyghur minority in Chinese eastern Xinjiang could practise their faith. In recent years, authorities have termed fasting a sign of extremism, dangerously conflating a mainstream religious practice with radicalism. Any sign of so-called extremism—such signs include wearing a veil, regular prayer and avoidance of alcohol—can lead to imprisonment in one of the huge internment camps that have been springing up across the region over the last few years.
I commented earlier on China’s record with regard to human rights, particularly in Tibet. These things have been going on since the 1950s, and we really have to focus on them.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend.
Last week, official briefings by the Pentagon claimed that as many as 3 million people could be imprisoned in those detention centres. Although the exact numbers are open to debate, it is clear that an enormous number of people—at least 1 million—are being locked up against their will. We all want to have a trading relationship with China, but how can we ignore the fact that 1 million people are being detained? That is the minimum figure; the maximum could be 3 million.
Furthermore, although Chinese officials maintain that what they call “vocational training centres” do not infringe on the Uyghurs’ human rights, they have consistency refused to share further information about those detention centres and have prevented journalists from examining them. Where reports have escaped the camps, we have heard rumours of forced indoctrination, harsh discipline and even torture. Such claims are profoundly troubling. In January, I spoke in another Westminster Hall debate on this issue, and it is worrying that little seems to have been done. With little discernible action from the Government, we are left only with mounting estimates of the numbers who have been imprisoned.
Tragically, just as prisons are rising out of the desert, ancient buildings are reportedly being razed. While the world rightly mourned the damage to Notre Dame last month, few heard of the total erasure of another ancient building over the last year. Satellite pictures show that an 800-year-old mosque, the Keriya Aitika in south Xinjiang, appears to have been flattened, depriving people of an important piece of their cultural heritage. According to a detailed article in The Guardian today, two journalists have investigated and found that at least 24 places of worship have been erased, including Imam Asim’s shrine. Many people used to travel to that shrine three times a year, which was equivalent to completing the Hajj. It has been erased, and that is part of a wider demolition programme that appears to be being pursued across the province in an attempt to destroy its Muslim heritage.
Recent reporting also shows a more sinister element. The wider ecosystem of traditional policing and new technology is being used to construct what may be the world’s most heavily monitored area. On top of a growing network of police stations and the centrally planned roll-out of DNA profiling, Chinese start-ups are developing algorithms that track members of the Uyghur community, specifically targeting them to analyse their movements and assess the “threat” they pose. That is possibly a unique development—intentional mass racial profiling through artificial intelligence—and the technologies are no longer being used only in Xinjiang. The New York Times reported that law enforcement bodies in the central Chinese city of Sanmenxia ran a programme that screened whether residents were Uyghurs 500,000 times in a month. The dangers of such technologies cannot be overstated. While the rest of the world is waking up to the danger of unintentional bias in code, China’s Government are reportedly funding purposely discriminatory artificial intelligence. Ethical boundaries are being crossed with incredible speed.
There is also evidence that the issue does not just affect Uyghurs in China. Uyghur communities in Turkey, Pakistan and the US have stated that their family members have warned them against further contact for fear of persecution. Investigative research by Middle East Eye found that the World Uyghur Congress, a group that has represented Uyghurs at the UN, had apparently been put on a terrorist blacklist, yet hardly any country had made the case for that or asked for it.
Encroachments on freedom to travel, the ability to access funds and the right to remain in contact with one’s family are fundamental deprivations of the most basic rights. Clearly, these issues require robust responses, and there are a number of avenues that we should be pursing. More research needs to be done to understand which companies are involved in creating apps that are discriminatory by their very design. More broadly, our Government must provide more clarity over precisely what steps they are taking to provide Uyghurs with the support they need. Realpolitik claims that economic concerns should be prioritised are morally bankrupt and fail to face up to the enormity of the claims being made.
Perhaps the allegations are all false. Perhaps the satellite images and the other evidence are all made up. I am sure that the Chinese Government would want to dispel the rumours, and they can do so very simply. An independent group, whether led by a UN body, a human rights organisation or even a delegation of MPs, could be allowed to travel there to see first hand what is taking place. Unless that happens, we must recognise that moral lines may be being crossed that we can no longer ignore.
I have already asked this question once: what representations has the Foreign Office made to the Chinese authorities up to now? More importantly, what has their response been? Have they said, “This is all a load of rubbish. It is all made up. Come and have a look and we will show you what is really going on”? Will they allow an independent organisation to travel there to see? If China says that it is not doing any of this, and that these are false allegations, that is fine, but it must let an independent body in to have a look. That would also be beneficial to China, as it would dismiss the negative discussions taking place in our Parliament and in other places across the world.
The convention now seems to be that business interests are paramount in everything, but the human cost, and human rights, must come in somewhere. I am not comfortable that I can have a nice home—nice everything—at the expense of people in a number of countries we need to trade with who have no rights. That cannot be right. It is an immoral state of affairs. I ask our Government to find out if the allegations are correct. Whether they are or not, the Chinese Government should explain.
It will not surprise colleagues or the Minister that I want to focus on issues of human rights, persecution and freedom of religion or belief. I agree that we should reach out with a hand of friendship to China, but a true friend does not flinch from telling another what might be unpalatable truths. I welcome the assurances from the Foreign Secretary on
“raise those concerns with China at every opportunity.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 657, c. 916.]
However, I am concerned that that is simply not enough.
In June 2016, the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, which I have the privilege to chair, launched a report on human rights in China entitled, “The Darkest Moment: China’s Crackdown on Human Rights, 2013-16”. At the launch, an MP who knows China well expressed agreement with all our findings. His one criticism was with the title. It was, he said, premature: “It will get even darker.” From what I have observed over the past three years, he was right.
Last week, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom published its 20th annual report. It is an independent, bipartisan, US federal Government commission. It monitors the implementation of the right to freedom of religion or belief around the world in accordance with international law standards, and it makes policy recommendations to the US Government.
In its 2019 report, it identifies the ever-deteriorating situation of different religious groups in China. I will mention a few of its findings. First, the Chinese Government continues to take steps
“to ‘sinicize’ religious belief”, which not only diminishes or prevents the right to freedom of religion from being in anyway meaningful, but is also erasing
“the cultural and linguistic heritage of religious and ethnic communities”.
The groups mentioned as particularly affected are the Tibetan Buddhists and Uyghur Muslims, about whom we have already heard today.
Secondly, in the summer of 2018, reports emerged that the Chinese Government were detaining hundreds of thousands, possibly up to 2 million Uyghur and other Muslims in Xinjiang, in so-called re-education camps, allegedly to address the issue of extremism. Continuing reports come from those camps of abuse, primitive living conditions and disappearances.
Thirdly, it reports that more than 900 Falun Gong practitioners were arrested in 2018 simply for practising their beliefs or distributing literature about Falun Gong. The Government have also raided or closed down hundreds of Protestant house churches, including Zion church, Rongguili church and the Early Rain Covenant church. I will go into a little more detail about this, if I may.
Churches are being destroyed. Christians are being arrested, imprisoned and tortured. Members of the family are under surveillance, Christians are forced to deny their faith and young pupils in schools are investigated for their religious backgrounds. In the case of the Early Rain Covenant church in the city of Chengdu, police arrested more than 100 of its members in December 2018, including the pastor, Wang Yi, and his wife, Jiang Rong. They are being charged for inciting subversion, a crime that carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison. A statement signed by 500 house church leaders says authorities have removed crosses from buildings, forced churches to hang Chinese flags and sing patriotic songs, and barred minors from attending. Indeed, one of the most disturbing issues in recent developments is that the Chinese regulations on religious affairs, which were implemented last year, banned five categories of people from attending church, including children under 18.
I know I have said some of this before, but I was interested to hear the Bishop of Truro being interviewed on Radio 4 on Sunday. He has just issued his interim report on the persecution of Christians worldwide—the interim report of the inquiry instituted by the Foreign Secretary himself—and has said that he is shocked by the scale, scope and severity of the persecution of some 250 million Christians worldwide. Almost 100 million are in China, and one of the things that I was interested in was that he said, “A lot of this has been out there, but it’s not really being heard.” That is why we have to keep repeating these issues.
“Last year’s crackdown”— on Christians—
“is the worst in three decades.”
The pastor of Guangzhou Bible Reformed Church, Huang Xiaoning, said:
The tragedy is that the authorities in China now see faith as a threat to their authority.
Those statistics are just the tip of an iceberg of issues that are identified in the report I have mentioned, and which are happening all over China. Many Members of this House will be aware of the Open Doors organisation, which produces a watch list of persecution across the world. It rates countries according to the level of persecution. In the 2019 list, which was launched in January, China jumped from 43rd place in 2018 to 27th. Bearing in mind what I have just said, I do not believe that that will change. If anything, I think China will make its way closer to the top of the list.
Open Doors emphasises the Chinese Government’s plans to contextualise the Bible to make it more culturally acceptable—in other words, to rewrite it. However, the Bible is a sacred text. We hear of Christian preachers who are being required to adapt their texts to include the core values of socialism, and to have their sermons pre-checked by the authorities before they deliver them. Facial recognition cameras are being placed in front of pulpits so that the authorities can check on who is attending services and ensure that no one from the five forbidden categories is there.
In October 2018, the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China counted at least 1,422 prisoners of conscience in Chinese prisons, which does not include the mass detention of the Muslims in Xinjiang. The violations of human dignity that are involved in mass surveillance in China should cause us real concern. Apparently, 13 million Uyghurs are being monitored and watched in Xinjiang, often by smartphone technology and facial recognition cameras, as I have mentioned. An app is used by police to assess China’s integrated joint operations platform, or IJOP, which is a mass surveillance database gathering information from checkpoints on the street and in gas stations, schools and workplaces. It monitors individuals’ every action and triggers alerts to the authorities. Some of this very sophisticated intelligence can actually monitor the facial traits of categories of people such as the Uyghur Muslims.
A recent data leak from Chinese police contractor SenseNets revealed that the IJOP app had collected almost 6.7 million GPS co-ordinates in a 24-hour period, tracing 2.6 million people, mainly in Xinjiang. We hear that China has plans to have 400 million CCTV cameras in place across the country by the end of 2020. Is it not reasonable that we have concerns about Huawei and what it proposes to do by using its technology in the UK?
I certainly will.
Having heard some of these findings, I question what religious freedom is in China. Does it mean anything, and are we doing enough in the UK to challenge what is happening in China? Other states have taken a stronger stance on the issue. In response to the situation in Xinjiang, the US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, has called on China to allow international observers to visit, and for the release of people imprisoned there. He has mentioned that if China does not comply, the US could invoke sanctions. May I suggest that our Government should look to take much stronger steps on challenging human rights grievances in China?
I had not actually intended to participate when I decided to come to this debate, but I find that I really want to. Although I accept that there are very considerable issues about the treatment of various groups in China, it seems that there is a much larger issue, to which my hon. Friend Leo Docherty began to attend in moving the debate. It really is very important that we should begin to attend to it.
The fact is that the world is being remade before our eyes. Between them, China and India are very likely to be the dominant features of our globe in the latter half of the current century, and they might simply reassert a position that was the norm until the industrial revolution. We should remind ourselves that after the industrial revolution, we in Britain were among the leaders in a period of imperialism and colonialism, and of aggressive mercantilism, in which appalling scandals were visited on both India and China. We inherited power in India at a time when the country accounted for 23% of world GDP; when we left, it accounted for 3%. I declare an interest in this issue: I am leading a project on India and China at the Legatum Institute—incidentally, I am the vice-president of the Great Britain-China Centre. Actually, one need not be involved in these things at all to know what the history looks like.
On China, the opium wars, which have been mentioned, were correctly described by an independent observer of the scene—namely William Ewart Gladstone in this House—as probably the most awful scandal that had ever until that time occurred in the relations between one country and another. We fought a war in order to force very large numbers of people to accept the export to them of a dangerous drug. It is not surprising, therefore, that India and China have certain issues with the west, and Britain in particular.
Nor is the construction of the so-called international rules-based order, which has been referred to, anywhere near as unequivocal as people often imagine. It is, in point of fact, a construct of the western liberal victors of the second world war. The whole international rules-based system, which is being replicated in a completely different way in the institutions surrounding the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, has embedded in it western liberal values to which I happen to subscribe, but which are not at all the values of the entire tradition of Indian thought and postcolonial Indian thought from Nehru onwards, nor of Chinese thought, ancient or modern.
The abuses and problems in China that have been referred to are reminiscent of things that went on in our country for many centuries. It is helpful in many respects to think of Xi Jinping’s regime as a kind of Tudor monarchy. The Tudors in this country, operating in part from this building, engaged in torture and religious persecution, and did all sorts of things of which we now do not approve. They also presided over the most vibrant cultural and economic renaissance that this country has ever seen, which gave great benefits to the world. They also initiated what became an industrial revolution—the greatest explosion of human progress and development, in economic terms, that had ever happened until the Chinese outdid it.
As my hon. Friend pointed out, in the past few years China has brought out of poverty the greatest number of people that has ever been brought out of poverty anywhere in the history of the world. It may in due course be overtaken by India, but unless and until that happens, it has a striking world record in improving the quality of life of its people. The fact that it is doing so in a way that does not wholly meet with the approval of western liberals is, first, no surprise, and, secondly something that, although I agree it should not be ignored, should not lead us to think that the major issue is what we think about China.
The major issue is a quite different one. My hon. Friend quoted Kevin Rudd, who happens to be one of the most sober-minded and sensible of the commentators, but in certain circles in Washington a powerful narrative is developing—this is why I asked him whether he really thought the Department for International Trade should be advising him to invent his own foreign policy vis-à-vis China—that foresees, almost as if it welcomes it, the prospect of an encounter, which actually means a world war, between the United States and China as China rises. Some of the more pessimistic texts have analysed cases in which one power has risen and succeeded the hegemony of another, and have found that rather few of such encounters have been peaceful. When Germany rose and sought to supplant Britain in the early part of the 20th century as the world’s leading economic and colonial power, the first world war eventuated. There are many other cases of such shifts occurring, not because of ideological difference, but simply because one power overtakes another. That thesis is now prevalent in some parts of Washington. Alongside climate change, I think it probably constitutes the biggest single danger to our children and grandchildren.
What therefore seems overwhelmingly more important than our criticisms of China’s internal arrangements, which we have a right, albeit a limited one, to criticise, is that we work with our allies to ensure we fashion a world for our children and grandchildren that does not disappear in a wholly unnecessary nuclear conflagration. That is a much bigger issue for humanity. Unless we start taking China and India seriously—not just in this country but in the west as a whole—unless and until the west as a whole recognises that it cannot expect to maintain hegemony in a world in which, on a very wide reckoning, there are 1 billion westerners and 2.6 billion Indians and Chinese, and unless we reconcile ourselves to a peaceful coexistence based on a radical reassessment of the whole post-war structure, which was designed around the principles of western hegemony, we are heading for a very great catastrophe. That above all is the issue that we need to debate.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend Leo Docherty on securing this important debate, and on setting out a very wise and thoughtful approach to relations with China. Too often in this place we concentrate on short-term issues that are driven by the news cycle, while entirely overlooking critical strategic questions that will have a massive impact on our constituents over many years and decades. That shortcoming contrasts with China’s approach. I hope that we can find a way of addressing it as we seek to reform our political system as we leave the EU and start to think with long-term vision about the UK’s place in the world and our relationship with key allies and new partners.
The focus on the UK’s relationship with China under the previous Administration, driven by Chancellor George Osborne, was welcome, if perhaps prematurely enthusiastic in certain sectors. It has reaped tangible benefits—notably, the impetus to make London the biggest renminbi trading hub outside China. However, Chinese influence within the UK is not without risk, and other big policy announcements deriving from that effort, such as the Chinese investment in Hinkley Point, threw up tricky questions about security and dependence. Broadly, we have a decision to make about our approach: do we wholeheartedly embrace the relationship with China; do we welcome what it can bring but handle with care; or do we take a cautionary approach that would exclude whole sectors of our economy from Chinese input, even if that means that we do not gain an understanding of its technological advances or benefit from its investment?
The Huawei case encapsulates that dilemma and highlights some of the trade-offs at play in our relations with critically important allies such as the United States. It should also make us ask why the western world got so behind in the development of 5G technology that it became reliant on Chinese telecoms firms. I would be grateful if the Minister could let us know whether there is work under way within Government and with allies to identify strategic areas in which China is gaining a competitive edge, particularly in autonomous weaponry and cyber-warfare, and how that edge might be leveraged in future.
Similarly difficult questions must be posed about the impact of Chinese wealth as that nation moves more decisively on to the world stage. China has a population of 1.4 billion, so even a tiny percentage of the most mobile and wealthy Chinese citizens will have a profound impact on global cities. I have travelled to Australia several times in recent years, and I was taken aback by the marked change I saw on my most recent visit due to growing Chinese influence, particularly due to the affluent student population and tourist numbers. That can be enormously positive, but how that wealth is handled— particularly in relation to investment in domestic property markets—has the potential to cause public unease in the years ahead. Skyrocketing house prices in Auckland, New Zealand, have led to a ban on foreigners buying homes there, and there are already stringent rules on overseas investors in the Australian and Singaporean property markets in response to such concerns. London may have to review its own openness.
Antipodean nations are at the sharp end of some of those policy dilemmas. They are keen to have a positive relationship with a strategically important near neighbour, but nervous of dependence or exposure. That nervousness is something we can both learn and benefit from as we seek a new role in the world at the same time as allies step up efforts to diversify risk. In that regard, although new free trade agreements with the likes of Australia and New Zealand may derive only modest benefits due to their market size, both countries have valuable experience from which we can learn. New Zealand was the first country to strike an FTA with China, and each antipodean nation has suggested smarter ways in which we might work together—for example, by fulfilling the demands of the burgeoning Chinese middle classes for safe, high-quality agricultural produce. I welcome my hon. Friend’s tremendous exposition about pork markets.
We must be realistic and pragmatic about the power dynamic at play. We must place our relationship with China neither on an outdated sense of economic or technological superiority, nor on fawning weakness that leads us to be cautious about upsetting the apple cart. With respect to the latter, we should not underestimate what we bring to the table or allow ourselves to be cowed when we think that China gets it wrong, including on the kinds of issues that have been discussed, such as religious freedom.
China is aware of the growing unease about its expanding global influence and seeks credibility of the kind the UK can lend. That is partly why the Hinkley investment was so critical to Chinese ambitions in nuclear power. Last week the International Trade Committee heard from the Institute of Directors, which, in response to growing demand, is considering setting up a Chinese branch where Chinese directors could be trained in corporate governance. The picture is similar for UK corporate law firms.
Worries about the structure and terms of Chinese investment—
Certainly. I was going to say that my views on the belt and road initiative are similar to those of Faisal Rashid. I also wanted to touch on my own observations from an all-party parliamentary group visit to Huwei’s Shenzhen facility in November 2017. I was rather alarmed by how some of the facial recognition technology was deployed, which woke me up to some of the issues that we will have to handle.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot for securing such a fantastic debate. We really need more time to discuss such issues, which will be critical in the years ahead.
I am pleased to have the chance to speak in this debate. China is the biggest country in the world—even with a properly scaled map, it is difficult to understand its scale—with a population twenty times bigger than the UK’s, and a land area two and a half times bigger than the whole of Europe. China is on its way to becoming the biggest economy in the world. Its potential as a partner for trade, cultural and educational exchanges is clearly enormous and the Government should rightly seek to explore such links.
As we have heard from a number of hon. Members, there is another, much darker, side to China that must be considered at the same time as potential deals, not just as an afterthought. China continues to operate one of the most authoritarian regimes in the world. For the majority of its vast population, the rights to express opinions, to participate in the democratic process, to read and write what they want, to believe what they want and to practise those beliefs, are at best severely curtailed and, all too often, completely absent.
A couple of hon. Members have spoken passionately and knowledgably about the persecution of religious minorities. Some of those minorities represent 1 million, 2 million or 3 million people. We are talking about the rights of a huge number of people. The Foreign Affairs Committee recently reported that credible evidence shows that over 1 million people have been held in detention camps in Xinjiang province simply because of their Muslim faith. They are not a danger to anybody, they are not criminals or terrorists, and they have not done anything wrong; all they have done is believe in something and seek to live in accordance with that. As Fiona Bruce so eloquently expressed, Christian communities in China very often meet with the same persecution, as do other religious minorities.
The response of the Chinese authorities is similar to responses to such atrocities elsewhere. First, they deny that detention and persecution is happening. Then they say that although there may be some harsh treatment, it is reserved for people who are a danger to national security. Finally, they say that what happens to human rights in China is China’s business and nobody else’s.
We simply cannot give any credence to that assertion. Will the Minister give an assurance that China will not be allowed to put up a border against international and universal human rights? We have human rights because we are human, and it would be a denial of the universality of human rights if we allowed the prospect of trade deals or inward investment to silence criticism of China, or any country that shows such contempt on such a huge scale for what should be international norms of behaviour.
There are also concerns about the degree to which China does or does not respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other countries, including those nearby. As we have heard, we must remember that China’s history with other countries has not been happy. For an awful lot of the past 200 or 300 years, China’s experience has been one of other countries oppressing its people, who retain, unsurprisingly, a significant degree of suspicion and wariness of anyone who introduces ideas that differ from traditional Chinese culture and beliefs. However, China cannot be allowed to trample on the rights of its own citizens, or those of other countries, under the guise of protecting itself from external threats.
A potential downside to the rapid advancement of China’s home-grown technology industries is that it is now easily capable of causing significant harm to others, including the United Kingdom, should it wish to do so. We are not allowed to know how serious that risk is—apparently, we are not even allowed to know whether the National Security Council has considered it—but the United States has concerns, as do a number of other traditional friends and allies of the United Kingdom. Will the Minister confirm that those concerns will not simply be swept away or sacrificed at the altar of a preferential trade deal?
The belt and road initiative has been mentioned. Although there is no doubt that it could provide a way for the wealth generated by China’s economic resurgence to be more fairly distributed, we need to ensure that it is not used simply to make China’s neighbours more excessively reliant on China, to the extent that they almost become satellites or colonies. I am aware that this Parliament has not always had a proud story to tell in the history of colonialism, but it would not be in China’s long-term interests for its neighbours to become so reliant that they almost cease to exist in their own right.
Just over a month ago, the Foreign Affairs Committee published a thorough and worrying report that set out a number of concerns that need to be addressed when setting out our future relationship with China: the retrenchment of power in the hands of a small number of Communist party leaders, the persecution of religious minorities, the oppression of political opponents, the undermining of the international rules-based order, and the potential threat to the UK’s interests and security. Those concerns are important and must be kept in mind by those negotiating on our behalf.
The Government were very quick to surround themselves with red lines before beginning the Brexit negotiations. The Foreign Affairs Committee has, in effect, asked for some red lines to be set in our relationship with China. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to those. Above all, we cannot allow the Government’s desperation to land a trade deal with a major economic power to blind us to the substantial risks—both to us and to our way of life—if the wrong deal is agreed in haste and repented at leisure.
It is nice to see you in the Chair, Sir Edward. I congratulate Leo Docherty on securing this timely and important debate—he has given us an extremely useful opportunity.
The hon. Member for Aldershot spoke about the re-emergence of China after the century of humiliation, to which Sir Oliver Letwin also referred. I do not quite accept that narrative. Of course, relatively speaking, China was very big in the 15th and 16th centuries, in terms of its economy, population and technological advancement, but its level of international engagement is completely different today.
I commend to hon. Members a book called “Vermeer’s Hat”. It sounds as if it is about Holland, but it is really about the relationship between Europe and China in the period before the century of humiliation. At that time, China was extremely closed; things went out via the silk route, but not much went in. That is different from the current situation.
The most revealing moment in the debate was when John Howell whether he found it strange that, when he was appointed as a trade envoy, the Government’s advice was to have his own personal policy on China. That is an astounding revelation, which really says it all. I might as well sit down now—but I will not. We want to know from the Government what their policy is, because it is has been swinging around wildly.
Does the hon. Lady recognise that the problem is not only this Government at this moment but the west over the past 30 years? Successive UK Governments and Governments around the world have simply not treated this issue with anything like the seriousness it deserves, as a result of which we see what we see in Washington.
The swings and turns have been peculiarly rapid. Under George Osborne, we were pressed strongly to engage economically with the Chinese; under the recently sacked Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, we were to have naval ships going into the South China sea. One does not normally expect to see such twists and turns in a mature European democracy.
The Foreign Affairs Committee report is excellent. It stated:
“China is seeking a role in the world commensurate with its growing economic power, and…This makes China a viable partner for the UK on some issues, but an active challenger on others.
The current framework of UK policy towards China reflects an unwillingness to face this reality. The UK’s approach risks prioritising economic considerations over other interests, values and national security...there does not appear to be a clear sense either across Government or within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of what the overarching theme of a new policy towards China should be”.
The Committee also calls on the Government to publish a new strategy—that is a fair call.
I was not suggesting that the hon. Gentleman was not serious. In fact, he seemed to have a more serious approach to China than perhaps some members of the Government do. That is worrying.
The leak of discussions in the National Security Council was obviously wrong, but it was illuminating. We were shown that an unresolved dilemma and differences of view remain at the very top of Government. On the one hand, the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary, the then Defence Secretary and the International Trade Secretary argued against giving Huawei infrastructure contracts because of the security risks. On the other hand, the Prime Minister argued that such contracts should go ahead. We are left uncertain what the decision was, and why—
The Minister will get his chance to speak in a minute.
Why are the other members of Five Eyes now saying that, if we give such a contract, they will be reluctant to share security information with us? That is extremely concerning. Over the weekend, we learned that the Cabinet Secretary is leading his own mission to Beijing, with 15 permanent secretaries. That is a huge mission to take to Beijing. I hope the Minister will tell us whether he is in agreement with the Cabinet Secretary that we need long-term engagement, or whether he thinks, like the former Defence Secretary, that we need to be much more cautious. What precisely is the Government’s position?
The right hon. Member for West Dorset took a surprisingly relativist view. I thought that we were all western liberal democrats and that, as a western liberal democrat, it was completely respectable to stand up for those values, promote them and try to get other people in other countries to share and adopt them. I would point out two things to him. First, the Chinese have signed up to quite a lot of the big United Nations international treaties that were written in that framework. They did not have to sign them; they chose to sign them. Therefore, when discussing human rights in China, Myanmar or anywhere else, it is reasonable to hold other members of the Security Council to those standards.
Secondly, of course, it is true that we cannot force China to change and that we might be alarmed by what is going on in Washington. However, the best way to resolve such potential conflicts between large countries is to uphold the international rules-based order. That is the way to resolve such difficulties. Another question for the Minister, therefore, is about where the Government stand on the trade dispute between China and the USA, because that is a sort of proxy for future disputes and conflicts.
I also ask the Minister, as the Foreign Affairs Committee did, exactly what the Government’s position is on the South China sea problem, and how they see us moving forward. It is right to uphold the international law of the sea, and we should be doing that, but I want to know what the Government see as their legal base and what their intention is.
The belt and road initiative has an upside, as my hon. Friend Faisal Rashid said, but it has problems as well. Where do the Government stand? Are they with Christine Lagarde? Does the Minister agree that China has problems with environmental standards and with how it puts a lot of debt on to other countries in pursuit of the initiative? If he is worried, what are the Government going to do about it?
Fiona Bruce and my hon. Friend Yasmin Qureshi were absolutely right to raise human rights issues. To put another question to the Government, what will they do about the undermining of the civil rights of people in Hong Kong, where the Government have a legal position?
I am afraid that my conclusion is that we need a policy—China is a big, important country—so let us hear from the Minister what it is.
I thank my jousting partner, Helen Goodman, for her robust views. In a relatively short time, I will try to say a little in response.
I thank my hon. Friend Leo Docherty for securing this debate, giving me the opportunity to set out the Government’s position on what is undeniably the single most important geopolitical bilateral relationship that the UK has, and will have, in the decades to come. The “golden era”, which was announced in 2015 by the then Chancellor, reflected the importance of that closer bilateral relationship.
Our relationship with China is broad and deep, involving constructive, positive and frank dialogue on major global issues and distinct challenges as well as opportunities, but it has the potential to bring enduring benefit to both countries. We are clear and direct when we disagree with China. Our approach is clear-eyed and evidence-based. For example, only at the end of last year we called out China as responsible for a particularly damaging cyber-intrusion.
The relationship is and must continue to be firmly rooted in our values and interests, but I absolutely accept the warnings of my right hon. Friend Sir Oliver Letwin. To my mind, he was a little too relativist—that was the criticism—but his warning is important, both in the broad sweep of history and in the risk that in some of what we say we can be accused of being hypocritical, given our track record. I will come on to the rules-based international order in a moment or two, but he is right that that order was not set in aspic in 1945. We cannot simply hold firm, saying, “That’s it, that’s the rules-based order and we can say no more.” I am afraid that we cannot talk just about universal human rights without recognising the change in the world, the rise of China and India, and therefore the need to adapt and evolve the rules-based system with those two countries firmly in mind. Indeed, we need to engage firmly with them if it is to be a system that we can all rely on for all our citizens.
The relationship between our two countries is of global significance. We both are permanent members of the UN Security Council and the G7 economies, frenetically active on a range of global issues. We have together forged constructive collaboration on shared challenges. At the Security Council we address together issues such as international security and North Korea. On global challenges such as healthcare advances, climate change, money laundering, people trafficking and tackling the illegal wildlife trade, we have and will continue to have a lot in common.
I will try to cover all the issues that arose in the debate. On trade, in a post-Brexit world, trading relationships with non-European countries will become ever more important. It is anticipated that in the very near future China will become the world’s largest economy. It is therefore welcome that the UK’s trade and investment with China are at record levels, currently worth more than £68 billion a year. We are seeking an ambitious future trading arrangement and will want greater access to China’s market, to expand and develop our economic links, not least in the service sector, as China continues to reform and open up. During the Prime Minister’s most recent visit to China, our Governments launched a joint trade and investment review, which is designed to identify a range of opportunities for us to promote growth in goods, services and investment, which in my view is critical in a post-Brexit world.
I was not sure it would come up, but my hon. Friend Julia Lopez and Margaret Greenwood raised our relationship with national security and Huawei. China has become an increasingly important source of investment for the UK, and we are one of its most important investment destinations. Ours is an open economy—I take on board the concerns raised by Faisal Rashid—and we welcome inward investment, but like any country we must ensure it meets our national security needs. That is true when we look at investment in key national infrastructure—raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot—whether from China or elsewhere. As we look at our 5G telecoms infrastructure, I assure the House that we will have robust procedures in place to manage risk and we are committed to the highest possible security standards. The Government will take decisions on the 5G supply chain based on evidence and a hard-headed assessment of the risks.
I was on the Intelligence and Security Committee in the 2010 Parliament when the issue of Huawei was first raised. It was raised at a conference in Ottawa, where we saw our counterparts from the US and Australia, as Five Eyes nations, take differing views both from each other and from us on some of these issues. Through the National Cyber Security Centre, the UK Government have undertaken a thorough review of the 5G supply chain to ensure that the roll-out of 5G is secure and resilient.
As many Members may know, Huawei has had a long-standing joint venture with BT going back almost a decade and a half. Arguably, those who oppose Huawei having any more involvement will have to recognise that that has already been worked through. The extensive review that we now have will go far beyond individual vendors or countries.[This section has been corrected on
To answer the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland, I am very pleased that Mark Sedwill is out in China, with 15 other permanent secretaries, allegedly. That seems a sensible statement about the breadth and importance of our relationship across Government Departments. Some of the press reportage has suggested a dispute between Departments. We recognise the importance of the China relationship, and of course there will be some disagreements on issues between Departments—
I will not, if the hon. Lady will excuse me, because I want to move on to human rights issues.
The hon. Member for Warrington South and my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster raised the issue of belt and road. Foreign investment will be essential to the success of the belt and road initiative. We have made it clear that we regard ourselves as a natural and willing partner for global infrastructure projects, but we are also clear that all projects must develop in line with recognised standards on transparency, environmental impact including carbon emissions, social standards and—importantly—debt sustainability. Therefore, there needs to be a sense of transparency on international standards. That was the message that the Chancellor and the Minister for Trade and Export Promotion took to Beijing last month at the belt and road conference.
We have touched on the rules-based system already; it has been the cornerstone of international co-operation and global standards for decades—indeed, since 1945. We recognise that that system is under huge strain. China has been supportive of some of its features, particularly with regard to trade, but less so of others, where it regards itself as not having had an input in the western rules created in the aftermath of 1945. We have been disappointed by its failure to oppose Russia’s annexation of Crimea or to support measures to strengthen the international ban on chemical weapons. We believe that with economic power comes political responsibility, and we want China to give strong and consistent backing for a rules-based international system. We must also accept that the system must adapt and evolve to take account of the fast-changing world.
I crossed out my section on the South China sea, but then the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland brought it up. Let me say this: our position remains unchanged. We do not take sides on issues of sovereignty, but our commitment is to international law, to upholding existing arbitration rulings and to freedom of navigation and overflight. In many ways, the disputes arise because of China’s concern that there could be a question mark over freedom of navigation, given how important the South China sea and the Malacca straits are to its exports.
I apologise to my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce and to Yasmin Qureshi that I can touch on the next issue for only a couple of minutes, because it deserves a lot more time. Our constructive relationship with China at a diplomatic level is underpinned by the growing links between our peoples. Many visitors and students come here. We hope those personal links will allow more mutual understanding and bode better for future co-operation and awareness of our values—and Chinese values for those who go there.
Promoting and defending those values is vital, which is why we take a proactive approach to influencing improvements in human rights and rule of law in China. Our concerns are set out year by year in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s annual report on human rights and democracy, including many concerns about use of the death penalty, restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly, freedom of religion or belief, and civil and political freedoms. We continue to raise those at the highest level.
The Prime Minister raised human rights with both President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang during her visit to China in January 2018. The Foreign Secretary raised concerns about the situation in Xinjiang with State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in July 2018, as I did with my opposite number earlier that month. We will continue to lobby on that and the Tibet issue. I have not had enough time to go into as much detail as I should have liked. I hope the hon. Members will excuse me, and I will write to them to set out blow by blow what we are doing and will continue to do in that regard.
It is very sad that we have not had a little more time. This has been a fantastically important debate, and I hope it is the first of many that look at the importance of the geopolitical rise of China and all our concerns with what is happening with the trade war, as my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset pointed out. I thank everyone for their contributions.
The rise of China is shaking the world. It is our duty to work with the Chinese towards a shared future of peace, prosperity and reciprocal respect. I am very grateful to the Minister and all colleagues for attending this debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered UK policy towards China.