China: UK policy — [Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:56 pm on 7th May 2019.

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Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Shadow Minister (Justice) 4:56 pm, 7th May 2019

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.