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

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 2:28 pm on 16th March 2023.

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Photo of Tommy Sheppard Tommy Sheppard Scottish National Party, Edinburgh East 2:28 pm, 16th March 2023

I thank Jim Shannon for securing this debate. We do not take enough time to consider relations with China in the round. When we talk about it, it tends to be very specific, so I welcome this opportunity. There has been little said today that I would disagree with, if anything, so there is a broad consensus in the Chamber.

We have all watched, with concern and alarm, developments in China over the past decade: the strengthening of the state’s grip over civil society, the well-documented civil and human rights abuses, and the growth of mass surveillance of the population to an extent we have never seen before. Those are causes for great concern. There is something almost unique about China. Throughout history, the UK has had to work with other countries and Governments with whom it has profound philosophical and political disagreements, but never has a country penetrated our economy and society to such an extent as China has over the last generation.

It strikes me that the interface between us and China does not happen out there, in a place beyond these shores; it happens in the towns and cities within these islands. There is considerable Chinese investment and ownership in our economy. There is a degree of intervention in academia and our universities that is without precedent. In my city of Edinburgh, there are thousands of Chinese students, and the same is true in most of our universities. Our universities have grown wealthy by charging these students from middle-class Chinese families considerable fees to come here; it has been a very big growth industry for them. When it comes to communications, among other things, the Chinese influence is quite certain, but we seem to have little capacity to understand, analyse and be aware of this interface. I hope that the Government will look at how that could be improved, and how we could develop that capacity.

We have heard the Government’s strategy described as “robust pragmatism”. If I knew what that was, I might agree, but until we get more definition, it is difficult to do so. As Mr Carmichael said, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster implied today in the main Chamber that “robust pragmatism” means being aware of China’s economic influence and our economic relations when we formulate our attitudes towards it, and when we take action. That much is self-evident, I suppose. Let us hope that “robust pragmatism” does not mean setting aside our concerns or our criticisms about human and civil rights abuses because of that economic relationship; it cannot mean that. We need a strategy from the Government that shows how we can press our case on international human rights while navigating the economic relationship, and how, on occasion, we can use that economic relationship as leverage to achieve other social and political goals.

To conclude, I have three questions to put to the Minister, which I hope he will answer in his summing up. First, we have had a lot of discussion about Hong Kong. An international agreement has clearly been broken. Is it not bizarre that there are national sanctions on individuals in Myanmar, Russia and Belarus, but not Hong Kong? The breaking of that agreement, the way in which it was traduced and the movement in a different direction has not happened by accident; there are people making it happen. Those people ought to be identified and sanctioned by this country, as they have been by other countries. When will we see Magnitsky-style sanctions against people in Hong Kong, to hold them responsible for what they have done?

Secondly, the SNP has long pressed for the establishment of a commissioner to look at foreign investment in this country, with a view to examining illicit foreign investment. We see such investment particularly from Russia, but there is a case for looking at Chinese investment as well. It would be a step forward to have a commissioner who was charged with examining incoming finance and determining whether any of it was illicit.

Finally, my hon. Friend Brendan O'Hara brought forward a ten-minute rule Bill last year that sought to outlaw imports from Xinjiang unless it could be proven that the products were made without the benefit of forced labour. We ought to be able to do that. Given what we know about the human rights situation in that region of China, there should be an onus on those involved to give that proof.