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

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 2:24 pm on 16th March 2023.

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Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 2:24 pm, 16th March 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I declare an interest as a founding member of Hong Kong Watch. I am unsure how many Members of this House have lived in China, but I am in a somewhat unique position, having spent an academic year in Nanjing in the 1990s. At the time, China was emerging on the world stage and growing economically, and there was an anticipation and excitement that the relatively new economic opening that had been embraced at home and abroad might be followed by political reforms, even if dreams of a democratic China were far-fetched. In the years since, particularly since the introduction of the core leadership concept of President Xi Jinping, we have seen the emergence of a China with a sense of closing and an increasing domestic authoritarianism. That contrasts with what was experienced by foreign teachers in the mid-90s in Nanjing.

China prides itself on its economic growth, which has undeniably lifted millions out of grinding poverty since 1990. It has a rich and proud history, and is keen to be taken seriously on the global stage. Sadly, the trend is increasingly towards authoritarianism at home, and a more assertive and at times aggressive approach to defence and foreign diplomacy. In recent years, China has unlawfully occupied islands and islets in the South China sea, which has caused tension with neighbours in the region. There have been increasing numbers of menacing military manoeuvres in the Taiwan strait and hand-to-hand combat with neighbours in India, as Sir Iain Duncan Smith mentioned.

At the same time, through its development policies, China is courting influence in the global south through the belt and road initiative. That has changed the balance of voting power in international for a, and challenged the notions of international law that have governed diplomacy since the end of the second world war. We have also seen a brutal and unprecedented crackdown on domestic dissent; the well documented appalling treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang has been described by many, and by a vote of this House, as a genocide. The freedoms and liberties promised to Hongkongers in the legally binding Sino-British joint declaration have long since been undermined.

As Tim Loughton said, freedom of religion or belief has been compromised in Tibet, and there have been attacks on Buddhist temples and faith leaders. Unfortunately, the regularity of reporting by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on the hotspots of Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet has decreased. I hope that the Minister will recommit his Department to more regular reporting, so that parliamentarians can be kept up to date on the human rights picture.

Naturally, the approach under Xi Jinping has heralded a step change in our approach to China; the heady, and arguably naive, days of the so-called golden era have been replaced by a growing understanding that a more coherent, robust and level-headed approach to UK-China relations is needed. Unfortunately, the Government have been dragging their heels when it comes to changing the way that we approach China to take into account the change in China under Xi Jinping. Ministers were slow to withdraw British judges from the Hong Kong court of final appeal, despite Labour’s and other parliamentarians’ consistent demands for action. There is a litany of examples in which their action has simply not matched the severity of the situation, including in the case of the appalling and brutal attack of protesters outside the Chinese consulate in Manchester, the reports of Chinese police stations in the UK, and the malign use of technology such Hikvision and TikTok. It took three urgent questions to drag Ministers to the House to take action on the first of those. On TikTok, only today have the Government confirmed that they will take action. We are lagging behind our allies—we are behind the curve again.

There are other cyber threats that need to be taken seriously. I am on record as having tabled many questions on the Beijing Genomics Institute. The Government lack a comprehensive strategy on cyber threats to the UK from malign actors. The Minister will point to this week’s publication of the refreshed integrated review; I accept that the review goes far further than the 2021 iteration in acknowledging that China poses an “epoch-defining challenge” for the UK. I particularly welcome the Government’s commitment to doubling the funding available for increasing Whitehall’s China capabilities and Mandarin training. Both are vital steps that we in the Labour party have called for.

I also note Monday’s AUKUS announcement and the significant commitment to regional security through that partnership, which has the Labour party’s full support, but we must still do more to live up to the challenge that the integrated review lays out in detail, so that our actions and posture match the at times bellicose approach taken by Xi Jinping in Beijing. That is particularly the case with Hong Kong, where young democracy activists and British citizens—including Jimmy Lai, whose crime was to defend freedom of expression—are on trial, and where the national security law continues to undermine the freedoms promised to the people of Hong Kong. Will the Minister say whether the UK will come into line with the US on sanctions to the leadership of the Hong Kong Government? It is good that Margaret Ferrier voiced those concerns.

Regretfully, the integrated review refresh makes little mention of Hong Kong and the challenges faced by the city and its people, or of how the British Government will support those facing arbitrary trial and detention simply for standing up for their legally promised rights. Members have made a powerful case about how China has changed under Xi Jinping’s creeping authoritarianism, and about China’s strengthening military and ever-increasing defence budget—a 7% increase was announced just this week.

I will press the Minister on several points related to how the UK should respond to Xi Jinping’s China and follow up from the integrated review. First, what steps will the Government take to support British nationals detained in Hong Kong, as China continues to apply its draconian national security legislation and erode the essential freedoms enshrined in the joint declaration of 1984, which came into effect in July 1997? For example, how good is the day-to-day consular access to Jimmy Lai?

Secondly, what support will the Government as a whole provide to newly arrived Hong Kong nationals in the UK? Mr Carmichael mentioned his work in his constituency and around the UK in that regard, and other Members mentioned work in their constituency. I attended a useful group in Haringey borough that was organised for newly arrived Hongkongers, but are they safe from surveillance by individuals from the Chinese Communist party who are based in the UK? Will the Minister join the Home Office in looking at that on behalf of parliamentarians who are concerned about the safety of those newly arrived communities?

Thirdly, will the FCDO support human rights defenders in Xinjiang and Tibet? Will developments be monitored, so that they can inform the FCDO’s reporting cycle? It is vital that parliamentarians have relevant, up-to-date information about the human rights infringements of such an important trading partner.

Finally, what steps are the Government taking to increase UK support and influence in countries of the global south, particularly in the wider Indo-Pacific region? That is essential if we are to support our allies and partners while China continues to increase its global influence.