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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:30 pm on 7th May 2019.

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Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union) 5:30 pm, 7th May 2019

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.