Relations with China: Xi Jinping Presidency — [Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 1:30 pm on 16th March 2023.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 1:30 pm, 16th March 2023

It is certainly not balanced. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He has highlighted this point in the Chamber on numerous occasions. He consistently and regularly points directly out to the Government that this matter must be addressed. If we are going to do things right, and it is our job in this House to do so, that has to be addressed. If the United States can sanction more people than we could even consider—I understand the number is maybe two in our country—we have to and we must do more. I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on all he does; we recognise his contribution.

The national security law is an arbitrary piece of legislation, the details of which were kept secret until after it was passed. It criminalises any act of disobedience or dissent, and any challenge to the Government can be swept up in the catch-all categories of secession, subversion, terrorism and, crucially, collusion with foreign or external forces. Rather than being used to protect people, the national security law is being used to silence—the very opposite. Newspaper and internet news outlets have been shut, journalists arrested and protesters detained—all accused of one or more of the four national security law charges.

The most infamous case of the law being used to crush media freedom in Hong Kong as that of Apple Daily, the most popular newspaper in Hong Kong, which is pro-democracy and openly called out Chinese Communist party activities. It was founded by a British citizen, Jimmy Lai, whose spent his 800th day in a Hong Kong prison last Friday 10 March. His national security law trial is repeatedly delayed, as the Hong Kong authorities scramble to find a new set of legal machinations just to keep him in prison. He is a British citizen. We should be doing more for him. I do not see that, and it disappoints me.

China has broken its promises to Britain and to the people of Hong Kong that the city would enjoy its way of life under the one country, two systems formula, which promised a high degree of autonomy for 50 years following the 1997 handover. Hong Kong is now a puppet state of China. The recent multimillion dollar campaign, “Hello Hong Kong”, called on the world to come to the reopened city. It fell flat, given that 47 democracy campaigners were put on trial the very next day. Welcome to Hong Kong—“If you come to Hong Kong, here is what happens to you.”

Across the world, China seems to be at the centre of multiple political and economic scandals, whether that is spy balloons over America or interference in Canada’s election. There seems to be an increasing sense that China has never been bolder in asserting itself around the world. The belt and road initiative, adopted by the Chinese Government in 2013, to invest in more than 150 countries and international organisations, is considered a centrepiece of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s foreign policy.

We can see China’s tentacles across Africa and in countries around the world. The policy has been used to extend Chinese economic and political influence around the world. It has been used to secure votes at multinational organisations such as the United Nations, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and in many regional groupings across the world. It forces countries into debt economics. Even EU states now have ports, docks and infrastructure projects funded by the belt and road initiative, at a time when the EU should be shoring up its own defence, cyber and technological strategies. The initiative is causing splits inside the EU and creating division among Governments. That is great news for China and for other authoritarian states.

Here in the UK, we have seen the rise of China’s economic and political engagement. In 2022, more students came to the UK from China than anywhere else. Nearly one in four international students is from China—approximately 152,000 students. Of the 2,600 international students studying at Queen’s University in Belfast, we have a vibrant Chinese community of more than 1,200 students.

Along with that, we have seen the explosion of Confucius Institutes across the UK. The United Kingdom is host to 30 Confucius Institutes, more than any other country. Their ostensible purpose is to teach Mandarin and to promote Chinese culture, but in reality they are part of the above-ground arm of the Chinese Communist party’s United Front Work Department.

According to a 2022 report by the Henry Jackson Society and the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation, those 30 institutes have been funded to the tune of as much as £46 million, mostly from the Chinese Government. Unlike the British Council, Confucius Institutes are formally part of the propaganda system of the Chinese Communist party, dependent on Chinese Government funding and, in general, subject to People’s Republic of China speech restrictions. Although Confucius Institutes are described as language and culture centres, the report confirms that only four of the 30 institutes stick solely to language and culture. Quite clearly, they do their own thing and ignore much of what is going on.

Operating from prestigious universities such as the University of Edinburgh and the London School of Economics, Confucius Institutes have been informing Government policy and politicians, offering consultancy services to business, promoting trade and co-operating with UK organisations that work with the United Front Work Department, the interference activities of which were recently highlighted by MI5 and reported prominently in the papers and media. That is not innocent language and cultural exchange.

In spite of the political attention paid to Confucius Institutes, and the press and academic attention during the last six years, the pattern has gone unnoticed, and its ramifications have been ignored—an issue that the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green brings to this House on many occasions. To combat those negative practices, the Government should consider the introduction of legislation to remove Confucius Institutes completely from UK universities. Will the Minister confirm whether the British Government will do just that? Further, it has been suggested that the Government should provide funding for UK universities to allocate to China studies and bolster knowledge regarding China’s presence in the UK. I believe that that merits consideration. It is not the direct responsibility of the Minister, but it is certainly one for Education Ministers.

Time is passing, but I should mention the fact that many believe that there is a notable level of political interference—from funding from Chinese nationals to Members of Parliament, to the beating of Bob Chan in Manchester last October. I am sure we all vividly remember this man, who was beaten by the Chinese consul general and other diplomats in full view of the public and cameras. The consul general then went on TV to admit to and justify his actions; he did not even feel ashamed or regretful. The appropriate action should have been taken, yet it appears that it was left to fade into the background. Eventually, two months later, China recalled the diplomats, and it appears that no steps whatever were taken by the British to send the message that that behaviour is not tolerated. Again, that is disappointing and regrettable. I always say things respectfully to the Ministers, but I want my Government and my Ministers to be strong when it comes to standing up for human rights and against things that are wrong across the world.

As a nation, we should be seeking constructive relationships with countries around the world. I understand that not all will be savoury, but we should be making human rights and good conduct cornerstones of our foreign relations—even, or especially, as the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said, when it comes to trade and development. That is what sets our country apart from authoritarian ones such as China. There is no reason for the UK not to have a constructive relationship with China, but we should not be afraid on any occasion to say no and to show strength, and we need to do that more regularly and more courageously.