[Christina Rees in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:30 am on 15 May 2024.

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[Relevant documents: Eighth Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee of Session 2022-23, Tilting horizons: the Integrated Review and the Indo-Pacific, HC 684; and the Government response, Session 2023-24, HC 630.]

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight 2:30, 15 May 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered Government policy on China.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I am here to look at Government policy on China, but also to argue for a more coherent version of that policy, notwithstanding the very considerable progress that, to be fair to them, the Government have been making.

I will start by outlining a few ideas. For me, the 21st century will mark a struggle between two visions for humanity: between open and closed societies; between states that are the servants of their people and states that are the masters of their people; and whether the great scientific discoveries of this century—artificial intelligence, big data—will be used to help humanity or to enslave it.

Opposing the policies of the Chinese Communist party and the direction that it has sadly embarked on for the past 10 to 15 years does not mean being anti-Chinese. Many Chinese oppose the Chinese Communist party, as indeed do many tens of thousands of brave Hong Kong activists in our own country.

I am delighted that the Deputy Foreign Secretary is present to respond to this debate on behalf of Government. I fully accept that the relationship we have with China is significantly more complex than the relationship we had with the USSR; we have a much deeper trading relationship with communist China, and we need to work together on climate and the environment, although that should not be used as an excuse for the status quo. China presents the need for a more complex set of alliances and more complex containment, but there is a greater urgency because, in many ways, China is more powerful than the Soviet Union was. We need to change the dynamic. It is quite clear that shutting off the global economy, which the west still heavily influences, but no longer controls, is not an option.

For me, the direction of travel is clear. Just this week, what have we had? Chinese vessels encroach daily on Taiwanese territorial waters, with conventional military tensions increasing. In the UK, the head of GCHQ warns that China represents a growing and genuine threat, not only to the UK but to the internet as a whole. Three men, including a Border Force officer, are arrested on spying charges. The US announces that it will raise the tariff on Chinese electric vehicles to 100%, citing “unfair practices”.

We are in the middle of what the Government have called an “epoch-defining challenge”; some Members on the Government Benches, and perhaps indeed those on other Benches, see it as a more significantly adversarial relationship. I accept that there are elements of both, and that just focusing on the words to define this issue—be they “adversarial”, “enemy” or “challenge”—is not necessarily the most helpful thing. What is important is that our policies become less piecemeal.

As I say, I do not want to underestimate the journey that the Government have been on. Much has changed since the failed golden era. It is clear that the hope held by the UK, the US and other partners—that normalising trade relations with China would lead to greater security on all sides—has not materialised. Indeed, quite the opposite is true: what China and arguably Russia have done is trash the system from the inside. However, with respect, I think that our policies are still a little too piecemeal. Although we have had sensible decisions on Huawei, spurred by myself, my right hon. Friend Sir Iain Duncan Smith and others, and the passing of the National Security Act 2023 and a significant number of measures, I still think we need to go further.

I am looking at trying to develop a coherent set of ideas, not only in this speech but with the think-tank Civitas, with whom I hope to publish stuff next month. I pay tribute to and thank people such as Charlie Parton, the former diplomat who has done a lot of great work advising Members of Parliament on both sides of the House on China strategy, highlighting what the Chinese Communist party has been saying to itself about the west; Ben Rogers and others at Hong Kong Watch; and Luke de Pulford at the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China for the work that they have all done.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

I thank the hon. Member for securing this debate. Given the arrests this week and the issues that he has outlined, does he agree that the issue here is the pace at which we are assessing the situation, and the need for a cross-Government audit of the Chinese Communist party’s attempts to influence UK politicians and Government, and also individuals, which we saw this week with the arrests of individuals attempting to intimidate and harass Hong Kong democracy activists in the UK?

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight

I agree very much with the points that the hon. Gentleman makes. We need to increase our pace, which is one of things that I would like to argue today. What the Chinese Communist party wants is no secret. It does not want to live in harmony with the west; it wants to dominate it. Western nations are viewed in CCP literature as hostile foreign forces intent on damaging Beijing. In Document No. 9, for example, the CCP describes democracy as one of nine false ideological trends. The full list includes: promoting western constitutional democracy; promoting universal values, which would be an attempt to weaken the theoretical foundations of the party’s leadership; promoting civil society, to dismantle the ruling party’s social foundations; promoting neoliberalism, which would challenge China’s basic economic system; promoting the western ideal of free journalism, which would challenge the communist party’s grip on power; promoting historical nihilism, or rather a different interpretation of the communist party’s history; and questioning the socialist nature of socialism with Chinese characteristics. All those things are seen as false historical trends, and there are many other documents, which I will not go into.

The challenges—I use the Government word, “challenges”—from this potentially adversarial state are arising on many fronts. On cyber, just this week GCHQ has said that there is an increased threat; indeed, I was one of the unfortunate servicemen and women whose details were found potentially not to be as secure as we would have liked. I think it was last week when we were told that our details had been stolen or were potentially vulnerable to theft. Trade dumping is an absolutely critical element of this. China’s developing country status at the World Trade Organisation means that the rules on dumping do not apply to it. As we are slow off the mark here, and because the Americans have put a 100% tariff on electric vehicles, on which the European Union may follow suit, I worry that we will become a dumping ground for Chinese goods. That is not an accident. The destruction of our own industries is not happening because the Chinese are necessarily good at them—although some are and, in a free state, arguably more would be. It is a deliberate state policy of intellectual property theft that is happening now, but which was also happening 10 to 20 years ago.

Then there is the long-term planning to buy up resources, the super-cheap communist state loans, the over-production as a matter of policy, and the dumping of goods on international markets to bankrupt western firms. Huawei was an instructional lesson on that. It originally partnered with Nortel, a Canadian company that suddenly found its intellectual property in Beijing. Nortel then collapsed and its place was taken by Huawei, whose state agenda was to undercut western firms and dominate the 5G market. That creation of dependence is one of the things that is most dangerous—I will explain why in a couple of minutes.

There is also the transitional repression—the spying on and intimidation of not only China’s own people abroad, but Hong Kong activists, which is a growing problem that we seem reluctant to tackle robustly. Then there is the question of covid and its origins. If covid had come out of a laboratory in France or the United Kingdom, or the United States especially, we would never have heard the end of it from political parties in this country or the media; and yet I am staggered by the lack of interest shown in the likelihood that covid came out of the Wuhan virus laboratory. I am also staggered at the lack of interest in whether it had been genetically altered before it was, presumably, accidentally leaked. As Lord Ridley said:

The UK security and scientific establishment refused to look at the evidence for a lab leak.”

That is an extraordinary claim from somebody who is a considerable expert on that. If nothing else, it is astonishing that we seem to be so uninterested in biosecurity standards in other countries, given the potential hazard not only to ourselves but to humanity.

The united front, the malign influence of which we have potentially seen in Parliament, is a long-term, whole-of-state strategy used by the Chinese Communist Party to further its interests within and outside China through multiple organs of the Chinese state and a range of activities—overt and covert; legal and illegal. It encompasses not only espionage but forms of malign influence that are sometimes overt, but sometimes covert. We know from our Intelligence and Security Committee that the united front has “achieved low-level penetration” across “most sectors of UK business and civil society”. What does the Deputy Foreign Secretary have to say about that? Is he concerned about that penetration across most sectors of UK business and civil society by the united front?

I will spend a couple of minutes on the domination of DNA research and on cellular modules, which are so little known, but potentially so important. China believes that its own biomedical data is a

“foundational strategic state resource.”

Yet, at the same time, it is hoovering up DNA data and genomic data from around the world. Western security officials, including those identified in the ISC report, see DNA biotech as another major concern. The Pentagon in the United States listed the BGI group, otherwise known as the Beijing Genomics Institute, as a Chinese military company, and the US Government have twice blacklisted the group’s subsidiaries for their role in the collection and analysis of DNA that has enabled China’s repression of its own ethnic minorities.

That is a really creepy and unpleasant policy that the CCP and the BGI group have been accused of: collecting DNA research for the repression of their own minorities. Needless to say, not only have we not done the same thing as the US, but BGI Tech Solutions was awarded a £10.8 million contract in this country for genomic testing of covid samples. Not only that, but in 2021, Reuters revealed that the company was selling prenatal tests to millions of women globally in order to collect their DNA data, using biotech methods developed with the Chinese military.

A top counter-intelligence official from the US Government has said that BGI is

“no different than Huawei…It’s this legitimate business that’s also masking intelligence gathering for nefarious purposes.”

I wonder if we are again sleepwalking dangerously and somewhat naively into another ethical crisis—the kind that we had with Huawei, and which we could now be seeing with BGI.

I have not had time to show the Minister my speech, because I only finished it about half an hour before the debate, so I will happily write to him on these questions, and perhaps he could give me a written answer. What are the Government planning to do on genomic research and protecting the United Kingdom, which does not only mean our DNA data—unless he thinks we can share it with the rest of the world; maybe we should or could be—and what do we think BGI and China are trying to do with our DNA?

I will talk a little bit about cellular modules because, again, it is an obscure, but important, topic. The internet of things refers to internet devices that talk to each other, from alarm systems, video recorders and fridges, to aeroplanes, boats and, maybe one day, nuclear weapon system launching programmes—and even the lights in our living room. Those gadgets rely on modules—groups of chips—that connect the equipment to the internet and talk to each other. China supplies the west with more than 60% of those modules. But because they are updated remotely by the manufacturer, it is practically impossible to ensure that they are not spying on us and sending back data flows to their source. If that sounds a bit paranoid, let us remember that TikTok is currently under investigation by the FBI after its parent company used the app to monitor journalists in the United States. Let us also remember that a Government car was allegedly compounded—I cannot remember if that was last year or a few months ago—because a cellular module in it might have been pinging back eavesdropped conversations. China aims to dominate the market, as it has with Huawei and BGI, for cellular modules. Do the Government have an opinion on whether that is a threat to our economy, to our people and to our national security?

I am not even going to bother touching on the military threat, because it is complex and detailed, though my fear is not only the slow domination. Sun Tzu, a great man and a philosopher of conflict, said:

“The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.”

That seems to be President Xi’s aim. Arguably, it should also be our aim. That idea should inspire us that we need to defend ourselves now, and that we need to take the short-to-medium and the long-term decisions to defend ourselves, not to aggressively wave fingers at people, but to be able to defend ourselves. The reason I say that is that the most dangerous outcome is that we become so dependent on China in the next five years, for everything from vehicles to fridges to cellular modules to our DNA, that when Taiwan is attacked, if we took out sanctions on China we would effectively collapse the global economy. It would cause chaos and collapse in Europe and our own country that would make the energy crisis for the Ukraine war look like a picnic, with rioting on the streets and destabilised western societies—or we can stand by and say, “Fair enough.”

The other, potentially even greater, threat is that we break the alliance between the United States and ourselves and the United States and Europe, which is undoubtedly China’s strategic aim. That will be a catastrophe for western civilisation. We need to deepen our alliances with the US and Oz and many other states in that part of the world, including South Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Indonesia.

Finally, I have two more points. On TikTok, for young people in China the algorithm is different from that in the UK. In China, it is used to promote science, education and history, including the history of China. In our countries, it makes citizens watch

“stupid dance videos with the main goal of making us imbeciles”.

That quotation is from the former chief software officer of the US Air Force and Space Force. In China, TikTok is about entertaining education; here it is just about entertainment. It is not only cyber-addiction, but real addiction, that is an issue. Do the Government have a position on the large-scale illicit supply of fentanyl by China to the United States, which I understand is now also becoming a problem in this country? I will wind up in two to three minutes; I said I would stick to 20 minutes, which I am trying to do.

What are we going to do about this issue? The real aim of the immediate policy is to insulate ourselves. In no particular order, here are some ideas. Let us add science to human rights. We can DNA test where cotton comes from. Should we not be mandating that, in supply chains that go anywhere near China, we DNA test cotton so that we can see whether it comes from Xinjiang and is made by slave labour, so that we can outlaw it? That is an important thing to do for fair trade, and to help jobs not only in this country, but in Bangladesh, India and places where they do not use slave labour. It is also important for human rights: taking a consistent approach to the human rights agenda and giving it the respect it needs.

We need to diversify as a matter of urgency. As a national priority, we need to diversify our supply chains, so that if there is war in the Pacific or around Taiwan, we are not going to destroy our standard of living, economy or people’s jobs in order to put sanctions on China, or to support the United States or Taiwan.

We need longer-term planning over rare earth minerals—something I have not even brought up due to time considerations. We are beginning to act but we are two or three decades behind China.

We should tell Confucius Institute centres to stop spying on their citizens, or shut them down and kick out the people in them. The same should apply to Hong Kong economic offices, which are now also being used to intimidate Chinese people in this country.

As for the military, we need a permanent western presence in disputed waters and more money spent.

On WTO and dumping, we need to work together; we need to treat China as a developed economy, even if in WTO terms it is not.

I also suggest that we need to have faith in ourselves. There is no inevitability about China’s future victory. It is a very powerful country, but like Russia, it lacks few actual friends. Its one formal alliance is with the basket case of North Korea, although the basket case of Russia is also a pretty close ally. We have many friends and allies, as do the United States and France, and we need to be working with those allies and with our partners in the Pacific for a new, subtle but thoughtful, determined and robust containment programme. That means spending on hard power, but it also means a much more assertive defence of our interests, as well as understanding how decades of subversive conflict across culture, business, sport and science can damage our national interest and threaten our people. Whether it is the use of artificial intelligence, big data, DNA sequencing, advanced propaganda techniques or cellular modules, we need to do more to understand the modern world that we inhabit.

We are in a battle for the future of humanity, between democracies and authoritarian states. At the moment, that conflict is being lost by us. It is also being conducted in myriad subtle ways. We need to grasp the extent of it and do more to react robustly to defend ourselves.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Independent, Neath

May I remind Members that they should bob if they wish to be called in the debate? I would be grateful if Members do not refer to cases where charges have been brought, because they are sub judice.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Employment Rights and Protections) 2:51, 15 May 2024

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Ms Rees. I congratulate Bob Seely on securing the debate and on his excellent, wide-ranging opening remarks. He set out the challenges we face as a country, and presented a pretty dystopian vision of the future, if we allow it to happen. I hope that we are able to collectively rise to the challenges he laid out.

The hon. Member raised a number of matters that I will touch on. I start with the refreshed integrated review, published by the Government last year, which stated:

“China…poses an epoch-defining and systemic challenge with implications for almost every area of government policy and the everyday lives of British people.”

I consider that a welcome revision to our approach. It is a pretty serious, broad statement of where we are and what we need to do. We need to recognise China’s size and influence, alongside the risks that it brings. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight made the point very eloquently that our reliance is one of those risks, alongside China’s greater aggression, its human rights record and the strengthening of its partnership with Russia; they are all potential existential threats.

In many respects, the news emerging this week on both sides of the Atlantic is a stark reminder that these challenges are here and now, and that care needs to be taken. I will take one very clear example from my own constituency, which feeds into the wider picture that has been painted today. There is a Stellantis plant in my constituency. It announced yesterday that it will be selling Chinese-made electric vehicles in Europe from the autumn, and in the UK from next year. We have a very proud history of manufacturing in this country, and indeed in Ellesmere Port, at what is commonly known as the Vauxhall motor plant, which is now owned by Stellantis. A lot of work was put in to secure the investment needed to move to electric vehicle production, which is very important for the plant, for the constituency and for the whole UK automotive sector.

I had hoped that we could lead the way in the sale of new electric vehicles, as the plan was always to expand from where we are now—from the production of vans into the domestic car market—so it is a concern that the owners are already turning to cheaper Chinese electric vehicles. It is too soon to understand the impact of that on domestic production, but surely it is not going to help. That is not to say that I want to insulate the UK from competition, but there has to be fair competition, and there has to be one eye on the future.

There is no doubt that the move to an all-electric vehicle country is going to be expensive and we should be looking at how we keep costs down, but if major manufacturers are already concluding that the best way for them to meet that challenge is to turn to Chinese imports, we are never going to have the domestic manufacturing capacity to meet domestic demand, never mind being able to continue to be the proud exporter to the rest of the world that we have always been.

As we have heard, yesterday President Biden announced he was introducing a 100% tariff on electric vehicles made in China, as well as tariffs on lithium batteries, critical minerals and semiconductors. That is a move designed to prevent cheap, subsidised Chinese goods from entering the US market. The decision was taken after a four-year review, and there are similar moves across the EU to assess the impact of Chinese imports. Since October, the EU has been investigating whether local subsidies have been helping Chinese car manufacturers undercut European-made vehicles. The investigation is due to report shortly.

I am not aware of a similar review being undertaken here. It was reported in February that the Government were contemplating commissioning the Trade Remedies Authority to undertake an investigation into subsidies, but three months on we have silence. Is the Minister able to confirm whether the Government are still looking into that and whether they will look at what the EU says if conclusive evidence of subsidies is found? We risk putting ourselves in a very exposed position. Our manufacturing capacity would be reduced, probably permanently, and we would be kidding ourselves about the race to net zero if we were reliant on Chinese imports.

Cars are just one example of our potential exposure; steel, energy, fibre optics, semiconductors, rare elements or any number of parts of our infrastructure are part of this discussion. We cannot allow ourselves to be at the mercy of one country, especially not one like China, which has what I would consider to be a ruthless focus on economic dominance. As we have heard from the hon. Member for Isle of Wight, that could lead us into a very dark place indeed.

Clearly, we benefit from Chinese investment in this country. Life sciences is a sector that it is investing in heavily. After what the hon. Member has said, that needs to be looked at very carefully as well. The fact is that I could go down any street in this country and see things that have Chinese ownership: pubs, shops, restaurants, cinemas. That is probably fair enough in a global economy, but what about water companies, energy companies and nuclear power plants? I wonder how we have managed to get to the point at which our critical infrastructure is so open to influence by Chinese investors. How have we got to the point where China is a part owner in Thames Water and has significant debts to at least two Chinese state-owned banks? I think we can all see where that might lead us if international tensions rise.

Away from manufacturing, as the hon. Member mentioned, issues in cyber-security have been well documented. Indeed, there was a debate here yesterday on the dangers of social media. I absolutely agree with what the hon. Member said about the differences between TikTok and its Chinese equivalent, Douyin. From a child’s perspective, in China it certainly has a lot more educational content. In 2021 the Chinese Government enacted a law that called for the

“creation and broadcast of online content conducive to the healthy growth of minors”.

That can of course be seen as part of the wider attitude to free speech in China, but it is of interest that they obviously see that some of the content on these channels might have a detrimental effect on a child’s development, but they are more than happy for that stuff to be pumped on to our own children’s screens.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

When my hon. Friend says “they”, he is talking about the Chinese Government. Does he welcome the distinction that Bob Seely made at the start of the debate between the Government of China and the people? As someone who lived in China for two years, may I make a personal statement?

(The Member continued in Mandarin.)

For those who do not know any Mandarin—I appreciate that mine is rusty—that translates as: “I like the country and I like the people. It is the Government who have caused the concerns that are the focus of the debate today. It is the politicians and the political leadership of China that is the challenge.”

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Employment Rights and Protections)

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He makes a very important point—the bits of it that I actually understood. He must have seen my speech because I am about to make the very important distinction—

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Employment Rights and Protections)

Not in Mandarin, no—in English. There is a very important distinction that we would all make between the Chinese people and the CCP. There is no doubt that the CCP is the malign influence in all this.

On the question of social media, there is a concern that there may be an imbalance between what we see in this country and what is seen in China, and there may be deliberate reasons for that. We should certainly look at that and at the dangerous anti-western, conspiracy theory, democracy-undermining stuff that comes out from all around the world, and in particular from China.

I echo the comments made by the director general of MI5 in 2022. He said that it would be wrong for us to cut ourselves off from one fifth of the world’s population, and that we should continue to engage and work with China in a way that is consistent with our national security. But I do not think we have the balance right. As the hon. Member for Isle of Wight said, that balance will be consistently and constantly reviewed. We need greater international resilience to international incidents. The analogy with what happened in Russia is very important, because that is a real threat that we could face in the next few years, and we do not want to leave ourselves overexposed.

As has been said, many western countries have begun to understand the risks that we face, have taken action against firms such as Huawei, and have limited the use of such technologies in sensitive and critical infrastructure. In that context, questions must now be raised about our reliance on supply chains that are controlled by China and have such a huge impact on our infrastructure.

It is clear that China holds a dominant position over global supply chains that are critical to the net zero transition. It controls a significant proportion of the rare metals necessary for lithium-ion batteries, wind turbines and solar photovoltaic modules. On the lithium-ion battery chains, China is responsible for 80% of the supply of spherical graphite, refined manganese, anodes and electrolytes, so we clearly need a co-ordinated response to that.

It feels as though we are at a very important point in global politics. We must work across the globe to deal with the many challenges that the planet faces, while at the same time protecting our national security and long-term economic interests. Taking a cautious and proactive approach to risks is central to protecting our country and its citizens. I believe that the way we approach China will be a central feature of our lives for many years to come. On every occasion that we deal with it, the question of security, economic or otherwise, must be the very first thing we ask.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Independent, Neath

Order. If Members can speak for eight or nine minutes, we will get everyone in.

Photo of Mark Logan Mark Logan Conservative, Bolton North East 3:02, 15 May 2024

Unlike my hon. Friend Bob Seely, I have not prepared a very thorough speech, but I am glad that he has brought this important topic to Westminster Hall.

(The Member continued in Mandarin.)

Neil Coyle—I am not sure how to say that in Chinese—speaks fantastic Mandarin Chinese and is a living manifestation of what our aspirations should be for the country. More people should study Mandarin Chinese. That was in the integrated review, and we have talked about it for years on end, but we need more diplomats in the Foreign Office and people across the whole of Whitehall who can not only speak Mandarin Chinese, but engage with China. Many experts have in the past talked about the plus one: no matter what field someone is working in these days—they may be a biological scientist of some sort, an accountant or a Government official—that should be the substantive part that they own, and then the Chinese understanding is the icing on the cake.

I do not want to step on the toes of the Deputy Foreign Secretary, but I will give some of my own thoughts in response to the points that colleagues made. I was based in the People’s Republic of China for about 13 years —I worked in the Foreign Office and was based in Shanghai. I have studied China for about 20 years, and I know less about it today than I did 20 years ago, but I will try my best.

I worry sometimes about the overall tone or mood of a lot of these debates about China over the past four and half years—my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight will be very perceptive of this—because whether we are sat in the United Kingdom, the United States or elsewhere in the west, it feels completely driven by fear and by that sense of threat. That makes me a little worried, in that that strikes as us being reticent and not having confidence in what we have to offer ideologically or in our system. Implicitly, in the 1980s, we did not really care about China, because it was not competition for us, but today we care about it and talk about it every day, in every single debate, which unfortunately might give a signal to others in the world and, indeed, to China that it perhaps does have the upper hand in many different forms of engagement, whether that is business, commercial, political or diplomatic, among other things.

That soul searching part is incredibly important for us, because this should not just be about asking what our China policy or strategy is. Rather, this is about the UK: what is our identity? What is our place in the world? What are our priorities? And then, it is about having everything else flow from that, because at the end of the day, China is just one country out of 200. It is a very important country: it is a United Nations Security Council member and the second biggest economy in the world, it has a population of 1.4 billion and it had great GDP growth rates, in the double figures for many numbers of years. When the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark and I were there, it was experiencing 13% or 14% GDP growth rates every year, but that has ended. China is in a very different economic climate now, especially over the past couple of years.

The question I often ask myself is not what our China policy is, but what do the Chinese think of us? What is China’s UK strategy? What is China’s UK policy? I am never really sure of the answer. Again, I am conscious of different friends in our audience who have been long-time China watchers, but I have always felt, in the years of being based there—even working in diplomacy and coming into contact with party secretaries, mayors and those from the politburo from time to time—and to this day, that it has felt like an invisible hand. So I am always perplexed when people speak with great authority about the Communist party of China, because it is just so invisible. I often wonder where that intel and knowledge about the CPC come from.

There is another thing about some of the points that were raised, and this can be really difficult. Obviously, we do not want to play into China’s political rhetoric, but we often talk about the disaggregation between the people of China and the Communist party of China, and although I know that this stat has been overused over the past number of years, there is a certain amount of truth in it: in 2020, when the Ash Centre in Harvard researched levels of approval for the Communist party of China or the central Government in China, their approval ratings were sitting at about 95%. I know that everyone will come back to say, “That cannot be true,” but my feeling—my sense from being there for more than a decade—was that very rarely did people complain about the national leadership. Usually, complaints were about local government at the village level, or the municipal or provincial level, but rarely were there complaints against the national Government. It would be interesting to see an updated poll, because that research was from 2020, just before covid struck, and China has had a lot more difficulties politically and economically since, especially in the past couple of years. I would be very interested to see polling on that.

On Monday, when we were at Policy Exchange, the Prime Minister made an incredibly interesting speech. I was struck by these ideas of securitisation and of entering into a world over the next five to 10 years that is potentially more dangerous than the one that we have lived in in recent decades. Another slight concern from my end—not necessarily vis-à-vis the Prime Minister—was something I wrote about in the South China Morning Post about three years ago, and that is this idea of liberalisation, or ideas of liberalism, in the international system. We have often talked about how, with economic engagement, China would become more like the west, but it seems that we have given up on that for the most part in recent years. My contention, however—this is very provocative, but I ask it every single time in this kind of debate—is this: is it China becoming more like the west, or is the west starting to copy things from China’s handbook when it comes to banning things?

Those linked to the Policy Exchange think-tank are very clear and intent on banning TikTok in the United Kingdom, but my worry is that that is driven by fear, by this idea of threat. What is more important than politics and regulation, however, is being innovative. It is about saying to ourselves in the UK, “Can we come up with a company that can outstrip the American tech companies and do better than TikTok has done? Or will we become like the European Union and just think we can regulate our way into a successful future?” I do not think that is possible. The Chancellor recently stated that he is keen for us to have “a British Microsoft”, and I absolutely agree with that sentiment and that positivity.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight

I am sorry, but I take issue with the point about fear. I think it is about understanding and not about fear. On the TikTok issue alone, my hon. Friend is talking about a fear of TikTok. Does he think that, actually, it is about TikTok having one set of values for Chinese kids and another for everything else? In other words, it has nothing to do with fear but it has something to do with protecting children.

Photo of Mark Logan Mark Logan Conservative, Bolton North East

I am not here to defend TikTok. I do use TikTok, as do many of our colleagues, including some high-profile Ministers in the Cabinet. That is not what this is about. Some of this has to do with education as well, and I look to my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight. Again, I was based in China. I have a daughter in the education system and, going into primary school level in China, there is a lot in the education system that is focused on the harder aspects of education: learning the sciences, mathematics and physics. I think that that can be reflected in the social media that is used there, by the case of Douyin.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

I intervene not to discuss mutual family that we have still living in the People’s Republic of China, but on the hon. Gentleman’s point about polling, can he focus a little on what the punishment might be for someone suggesting that they are dissatisfied with where the Chinese Government are at? I also mention the corruption and local-level issues. But fundamentally, a much more important issue for us here, where we still have responsibility, is polling within Hong Kong specifically and the Government’s responsibility to Hong Kong nationals and those seeking British national overseas status. Might we see further measures to support those people in the face of article 23 extensions of the diminution of rights in Hong Kong?

Photo of Mark Logan Mark Logan Conservative, Bolton North East

The hon. Member raises a fantastic point explicitly on Hong Kong. What has happened in Hong Kong in recent years is unfortunate. I think it is a strategic mistake in terms of the governance of Hong Kong, so I hope the Deputy Foreign Secretary comes to that.

I will finish by saying that for us, it is about the whole idea of soul searching and asking what the UK’s role in the world is and how we can slightly push back against the tone. We do not want to push China into the arms of the axis of authoritarian regimes, as we talked about, because there are many things the Chinese people care about that show their values are very similar to ours. It is not just the paranoia of 200,000 Chinese students in the UK who are all doing these bad things; actually, it shows a society that is striving to do better, and those are values that we share and hold dearly in this country as well.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Independent, Neath

I really enjoyed the Mandarin, but we are supposed to use English in debates. If I lapse into Welsh, please forgive me now.

Photo of Stewart McDonald Stewart McDonald Scottish National Party, Glasgow South 3:13, 15 May 2024

I am grateful for that guidance, Ms Rees. You will find no attempt at Mandarin, Welsh or anything else in my remarks this afternoon. I congratulate Bob Seely on securing the debate. He is a good friend with whom I was privileged to serve on the Foreign Affairs Committee. The only thing wrong is that we do not have longer or, indeed, more hon. Members taking part. We would not know from the acres of empty green seats that surround us that this is the defining challenge of our time, which is too often thought of as a complicated and faraway foreign policy issue, when in actual fact the challenge of China is where domestic and foreign policy are so intertwined.

This is an issue of foreign policy and of domestic policy that manifests itself in many different policy areas and it is of concern to people up and down the UK, whether in Glasgow, Kilmarnock, Edinburgh, Cardiff, London, the Isle of Wight or wherever. It is indeed a domestic issue as much as a foreign policy issue. The nature of the challenge that China presents manifests itself right across a whole sphere of policy areas, many of which have been mentioned. It is an economic challenge, a security challenge and a technology challenge. It is a challenge to our democratic values, our open society and way of life, our energy security and our national resilience.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight described too much of the Government’s approach as “piecemeal”, and I believe we would be wrong to try to compartmentalise any response to that challenge into individual policy areas. The challenge that China presents us with is so complex that I do not believe it can ever really be won or lost; it needs to be constantly revisited.

Notwithstanding what was said by Mark Logan, could anyone imagine our having this debate 12 to 15 years ago, at the height of the so-called golden era of relations? I rather think not. China will constantly evolve and produce new challenges. There will also be new opportunities and a whole tonne—a whole series—of contradictions in between. The pace of change we have seen since the golden era speaks to that.

I want to do something that Members will expect me to do: the Scotland bit of the debate, or indeed the devolution bit. It is good to have a Welsh Member of Parliament in the Chair, Ms Rees, and you will, I am sure, well understand some of these remarks. Devolution is well understood in Beijing, probably better understood than it is by most Members of this House. My goodness, do they have a strategy to deal with the fact that huge swathes of financial and legislative power sit not here in London but in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. Do the UK Government or any of the devolved Governments have a strategy to deal with that? No, none of them do.

I want to focus on three Es: exports, education and energy. If we do the good bit first, as far as Scotland is concerned that is exports. Scotland’s exports to China stand at about £800 million, the exact same as our exports to Norway and Singapore. It is a relatively healthy position for Scotland to be in. That figure is from 2023, the year of the integrated review refresh in which China is written up as an “epoch-defining challenge” and the year of the major speech from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen calling on countries to de-risk their exports to China. I would argue that Scotland is already in that place and has a healthy level of exports.

When it comes to education and energy, there is a massive risk surface that no Government of any stripe should be content with. The risk of universities being dependent on Chinese funding is far higher in Scottish universities than in universities anywhere else in the UK. Bear in mind, education is entirely devolved. No Minister across the road can do a single thing about education policy in Scotland. The University of Glasgow gets 42% of its fee income from students from China. It would be a problem if 42% of the fee income came from students from France, but we are dealing with a very different issue with China. That is not to say that Chinese students are not welcome in the University of Glasgow or in universities anywhere else across the UK, because they absolutely are, but why have we allowed these fine institutions of higher education to create massive surfaces of risk that would not stand the test of any kind of geopolitical shock—a shock in the strait of Taiwan, for example?

In February of this year, the Scottish Government produced their international education strategy, which says that they wish to diversify the “international student population”. There is at least an understanding that there is an issue and a problem. What there is not, I am sorry to say, is a strategy to turn that around. There is no strategy of working with higher education institutes, industry and others to globalise the international student population that exists in Scotland.

If we look at research funding, £12 million has flown into UK universities from bodies with links to, for example, the repression of Uyghurs, espionage, cyber-hacking and much else. The Government know about that problem, but they dare not speak about it, never mind have a strategy to deal with it.

Then there is energy. I am sure that the Deputy Foreign Secretary will know about my recent problems, for example, with Minyang Smart Energy building the largest European turbine manufacturing project in Scotland. How on earth is it in the UK or Scotland’s interests to put such a critical part of our national energy infrastructure into the hands of an entity from a hostile foreign power just weeks after the Norwegian Government declined the same entity, and in the same month that the European Commission started its anti-trust investigation into unfair competition practices by Chinese turbine manufacturers?

To summarise, the point I make to the Deputy Foreign Secretary this afternoon is that devolution is a back door for hostile foreign states. That is well understood in the Chinese consulates in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. I am not looking for Ministers in London to override anybody in the other capitals of the UK. I want a joined-up strategy between devolved Government and state-level Government to help us de-risk key parts of our economy and infrastructure and ensure that we are not overly dependent on a foreign power that is hostile to our values and way of life, and certainly does not have our national interests in mind as far as energy security, education or much else are concerned. My appeal to the Deputy Foreign Secretary is to understand that and work with Ministers in Edinburgh and elsewhere to start to unpick those dependencies, diversify our institutions and ensure that the risk is being driven down.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Independent, Neath

I will call the Opposition spokespersons at 3.28 pm.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 3:22, 15 May 2024

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and I thank Bob Seely for securing it. Mark Logan referred to how it would be great if China became more westernised—I must say it, but my goodness. I will explain why it is not more westernised, and why China does not fit into that category and never will. Its human rights abuses and persecution of those with religious views are enormous, and in the short time that I have I will categorise them.

Countless human rights violations have been committed by China. Religious freedom for Tibetan Buddhists is a special concern of mine, and I continue to raise my voice on those issues. My efforts to call out China for its deplorable actions, which threaten the basic rights of those within its borders and across the world, have led the Chinese Communist party to sanction me as it has sanctioned others. As the hon. Member for Bolton North East said, China could become more westernised. Well, I will tell them what: start thinking like we do in the western world, where we understand human rights and the right to religious belief. We understand the right to be friends of others and not to suppress people. That is what British values are, and the Deputy Foreign Secretary will respond to that. No threats will deter me or others from speaking up about human rights in China and elsewhere.

The relationship between China and the UK is in a precarious state. Our Government seek to mend relations with China to increase trade and investment between the two countries. I know that the Deputy Foreign Secretary will summarise some of those things, but we need to collaborate on common goals, be it economic prosperity, global security or environmental protection. However, China must accept the issue of the right for us and other people to have human rights, and we must not allow our economic interests to overrule our moral obligation to protect the rule of law and human rights. It is widely recognised that China’s aggressive actions violate the human rights of Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Christians and Falun Gong and threaten the status of Hong Kong and Taiwan. A western country! My goodness. It has a long way to go to catch up.

I must note that those of us in the UK are not removed from the threat of Chinese influence. The Prime Minister remarked that China poses a

“particular threat to our open and democratic way of life”.

Let us start listening to the evidential base. China’s influence warrants our engagement with this growing power, but our security and that of our allies, along with the protection of human rights, must be cornerstones of our foreign policy on China.

Recent threats to Taiwan’s status from China have significantly escalated tensions in the Taiwan strait and the South China sea. Taiwan’s democracy and freedom are in danger, as well as the stability of the wider region. The UK and Taiwan share a thriving £8 billion trade and investment relationship. Taiwan’s economy is vital for the success of the technology supply chain that drives our global digital economy. Protecting Taiwan and our relationship with them is in the UK’s and the world’s economic interests. Hong Kong has experienced a severe escalation of restrictions on people’s freedoms imposed by China within the last decade. Earlier this year, a new security law took effect in Hong Kong—a law that severely restricts freedom of expression and other human rights of those in Hong Kong.

We know that freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief are inextricably intertwined. While religious communities supposedly have the right to conduct religious activities in Hong Kong, we know that it will not be too long before freedom of religion or belief will fall alongside the rest of human rights in Hong Kong, as China has shown that it is not interested in being a western power or even in being influenced by western moral standards. Benedict Rogers, the CEO of Hong Kong Watch, is in the Gallery today, and his work in promoting freedom in the country is quite commendable. He remarked that

“repression in Hong Kong would be dangerous to us all”

—and so it would.

China’s activities extend far beyond the borders of south-east Asia; China has recently increased its influence in Africa and other parts of the world. I want to be very clear on this point: China suppresses human rights to such an extent that, should its influence continue to expand, the freedom and security of billions of people across the world would be in peril, and their human rights and right to religious belief would be severely affected. Why is that? China has an insatiable appetite for anything else that anybody has. When it is going across Africa, it is marking down where it can get minerals, have influence and take and use whatever that country has.

Appeasing or ignoring actions by authoritarian states for the sake of trade and investment will only lead to the escalation of these actions. It is indisputable that China regularly violates article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, which it has signed. We must stand firm in our values and our morals that guide our actions in creating a world where international law is upheld and human rights are protected. The hostility and aggression of Chinese actions call for us to stand together with greater courage, strength and determination to protect human rights and religious freedom.

I ask the Minister and the Government. along with the SNP spokesperson, Brendan O’Hara, and the shadow Minister, Catherine West, to pay particular heed to China’s violations of human rights and religious persecution not only within its borders, but across the world as they consider their foreign policy on China.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs) 3:28, 15 May 2024

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Rees, for this important and extremely timely debate on the UK Government’s approach to China.

As everyone has, I thank Bob Seely for securing the debate, and thank all those who have taken part in a wide-ranging, well-informed and bilingual debate. It has highlighted many of the concerns we must consider, including China’s belt and road initiative; the well-documented mistreatment of religious and ethnic minorities; the use of the national security laws in Hong Kong; the future of Taiwan; Chinese multilateralism, particularly given the emergence of BRICs; the inherent dangers in the development of the internet of things; and the challenges that we face with the CCP activities in monitoring both their own people and pro-democracy Hong Kong activists here in the UK. There are many and varied concerns, and I hope the Minister can address as many of them as possible, but it is not possible to address the problems and challenges posed by China in one Westminster Hall debate.

We all recognise that in a relatively short time China has become one of the most politically and economically powerful countries in the world. There is now barely a country that is not either in hock to China financially or desperately trying to defend its economic interests from China. When the UK Government consider the future of their economic and political relationship with China, it is essential that securing trade and business links with Beijing does not come at the cost of our obligation to defend international human rights. Furthermore, we must not compromise national security in pursuit of the yen.

The political and economic reach of China is astonishing. Beijing’s phenomenally successful global infrastructure project, the belt and road initiative, has seen China invest in almost 150 countries. Those countries account for around two thirds of the world’s population and 40% of global GDP. Massive investment in links by road, rail, sea and digital infrastructure have transformed the relationship that those participating nations have with Beijing, making them increasingly dependent on the Chinese economy and, as a result, building in both economic and political influence for China.

Indebtedness, mainly among developing nations in the global south that have accepted such investment through the belt and road initiative, now stands at an eye-watering $1 trillion. Lord Alton of Liverpool said:

“This has made them extraordinarily subservient and often into vassal states that do the bidding of the Chinese Communist Party”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 26 March 2024;
Vol. 837, c. 675.]

That is particularly problematic not just because of the massive level of indebtedness these countries are accruing, but because they are becoming indebted to a country that has shown itself so often not to care for the rules-based order on which we all depend or for the fundamental human rights of their religious or cultural minorities.

But let us be very careful before we condemn others for turning a blind eye to Chinese human rights abuses in pursuit of investment. The UK’s hands are far from spotless on this matter. Time and again we pay lip service to criticising Chinese human rights abuses without doing anything that may incur any economic cost for ourselves.

Nury Turkel, the Uyghur-American lawyer and the commissioner on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, has directly challenged countries such as the UK, asking, “How do you propose to get China to change without going after the most important thing to the Chinese Government, which is their economic interest?” Whether the Minister likes it or not, it is an inescapable fact that, as long as we pay little more than lip service to condemning China’s human rights abuses and continue to trade in goods that we know are, at the very least, highly suspected of being made by Uyghur slave labour, we really do not have a moral high ground from which to lecture others.

For example, last month the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Alicia Kearns, secured an Adjournment debate on solar supply chains, in which she made it clear that, by lagging behind the US and the European Union in ensuring that Chinese solar panels that come to the UK are not produced by Uyghur slave labour, the UK was in real danger of becoming a dumping ground for what she described as “dirty solar”.

This is not a new issue for the Government. Just over two years ago I introduced a Bill that would have prohibited any goods made by forced labour in the Xinjiang region. It would have required all companies that import products from Xinjiang to the UK to provide proof that they were not manufactured by forced or enslaved labour. The Bill would have brought the UK into line with the United States, which passed a similar law in 2021. So there have been opportunities to act, but thus far the UK Government have chosen not to. That is why, Minister, there is a growing perception that this Government are just paying lip service on Chinese human rights abuses without doing anything practical or tangible.

I recall a similar debate in 2020. The UK Government Minister’s reply then was that the Government would

“continue to urge the Chinese authorities to change their approach in Xinjiang and respect international human rights,” but four years on there is no evidence whatever that that approach has worked, and it is clear that China has not paid the slightest heed to what the UK Government or anyone else have to say about its human rights record.

It is not just the Uyghurs whose human rights have been trampled over. Last week, at a surgery on the Isle of Bute, I met my constituent Mary Clark, who is a Falun Gong practitioner. She reminded me that it is five years since the China tribunal led by Sir Geoffrey Nice found that the Falun Gong practitioners in China were being subjected to the most awful crimes, including the unspeakably horrific practice of organ harvesting. That is truly a crime against humanity. Despite the overwhelming evidence and unambiguous verdict of the tribunal, the response that was demanded of Governments and other international actors simply did not follow.

Not even after the 2021 report from the UN on freedom of religion or belief, which provided clear evidence of such abhorrent practices, did the international community take any action against China. Thankfully, we are reminded at every opportunity by Jim Shannon that freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental human right, and as part of the international community we have a responsibility to protect it.

In short, we talk a good game but we never deliver. Decades of harsh condemnation, despite urging and impassioned persuasion, have failed to shift China one iota. It seems that not even the tearing up of a legally binding international agreement and a slew of broken promises made to the people of Hong Kong can stir the UK into much more than finger wagging, tut-tutting and headshaking.

The speed at which Beijing has stripped away the basic freedoms of expression and peaceful protest, and has extinguished Hong Kong’s independent free press—turning it from being one of the most open cities in Asia to one of the most repressive—should alarm every one of us. The use of the draconian national security law to crack down on pro-democracy campaigners, including Jimmy Lai, who is still on trial, is an absolute disgrace and a shame on this country. If that does not motivate the UK to take a more robust attitude to Beijing, we have to conclude that perhaps nothing will.

We are not naive enough to believe that the UK could stand up to the economic might of China by itself. But sadly, all too often, when presented with the opportunity to act in concert with friends and allies, the UK Government have chosen not to.

Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 3:37, 15 May 2024

It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate under your chairmanship, Ms Rees.

I was going to begin by saying that I thought I was one of the few Members of this House who had lived in China and spoke Mandarin, but I see that others have turned out in great numbers, including Mark Logan and my hon. Friend Neil Coyle. Many of us taught English to begin with, as I did in Nanjing in the 1990s. All of us agree that the Chinese people gave us enormous amounts of hospitality, and a warm and friendly experience, and showed so much pride in a 5,000-year-old civilisation, a passion to modernise China, and a desire to provide for more Chinese people to no longer live in poverty.

As the years have gone by, the tone coming from the Chinese Government has changed. Undoubtedly, 30 years of economic progress has catapulted China to become the world’s second largest economy by some measure, with a newly enriched middle class enjoying lives a world away from most Chinese people in the 1980s. However, the more authoritarian and even belligerent look and feel to foreign relations has increasingly caused us to be concerned about the risk to a rules-based international order.

In Hong Kong, the rule of law, under which its economy and society flourished for generations, has been worn down, and journalists such as Jimmy Lai—who has already been mentioned—continue to be detained on politically motivated charges. Hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers have fled for a better life overseas, with less repression and more freedoms. I pay tribute to the cross-party group Hong Kong Watch—of which I am a founder; I declare an interest—and to the well-known campaigner Ben Rogers, who is a great stalwart for that campaign. I know that he enjoys the respect of all Members of the House.

In Xinjiang, which has been mentioned in the debate, the Uyghur minority are subjected to brutal repression and horrific human rights abuses, including wholesale attempts to eliminate their culture and religion. Jim Shannon is quite right to emphasise the importance of freedom of religion or belief in anything that we talk about in relation to foreign policy.

In the South China sea—I know that Bob Seely has a background in defence—Chinese vessels and aircraft repeatedly test the boundaries of international law, destabilising regional security and threatening some of the world’s most important shipping lanes. Of course, the increasing military activity in the Taiwan strait, particularly in the last three years, is troubling many of us.

No foreign policy question is more fundamental than how the west manages its relationship with China in the years ahead, and it is obvious, as the hon. Member for Isle of Wight said at the start of the debate, that that starts with our multilateral approach and friends in the US and, of course, in Australia and down in that part of the world. It goes to the question of identity and closed and open societies. For the UK, as a UN Security Council permanent member and a G20 partner, that is particularly the case, and it is a question that we must address head-on, with seriousness, consistency and rigour. But it is a question that is rightly linked to our wider approach to the Indo-Pacific. We cannot have a sustained and serious approach to China without having a wider-ranging British approach to the Indo-Pacific. Without a doubt, the AUKUS relationship with the US and Australia is at the cornerstone of that regional approach.

Labour is of course committed to further strengthening our co-operation with the US and Australia in the Indo-Pacific through AUKUS and particularly through delivery of the second pillar of the agreement. We are equally committed to deepening our increasingly close relationships with ASEAN—the Association of Southeast Asian Nations—through our trade arrangements there, and with Japan and South Korea. We welcome the moves that have been made in that regard over the past few years, but that work must be encased within a wider and more sustained strategy towards the region as a whole, including China.

Sadly, for most of the past 14 years the UK Government’s approach has basically been the opposite to what we need, which is stability and predictability. We have lurched 180 degrees from embracing a “golden era” of bilateral relations and having a pint down the pub with Xi Jinping under the then Prime Minister, who is now Foreign Secretary; indeed, some of the questions as to his financial arrangements prior to his becoming Foreign Secretary also bring questions to this debate. This is simply not good enough. China thinks in generational terms, and we require a foreign policy that is capable of considering the bilateral relationship over a far longer timeframe and that aims above all for consistency.

Earlier this year, I travelled to Beijing as part of a cross-party delegation and met senior members of the Chinese leadership, having been approached to do by the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy. I made it clear that Labour would pursue a more sustainable and coherent relationship. Such a relationship must begin with addressing our concerns about national security and standing up for our principles on human rights, but it must also set out avenues for co-operation, both bilaterally and within the multilateral system, and allow our country’s businesses to have the certainty and stability to make the long-term investment decisions that they deserve. The shadow Foreign Secretary has been clear that that relationship will be centred on a framework to “challenge, compete and co-operate” with China, which we will develop through a comprehensive and long-overdue audit of the bilateral relationship—an element mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark.

However, even in advance of the audit, some of the changes that we need to see are obvious, and I hope that the Minister will have some answers for us today. He will be aware that the issue of the threat posed to Hongkongers has been raised many times in the House. Indeed, just this week Amnesty International has brought out a report called “On my campus, I am afraid”. I wonder what recommendations on a cross-Government approach to that issue the Minister will take back to the Government.

In addition to that, we have an excellent question from Stewart Malcolm McDonald about whether there has been a back door that gives access to various projects that could have national security implications, through devolved nations. Furthermore, what is the industrial strategy on which the Government are deciding on important projects such as the new electric vehicles being sold at Ellesmere Port, about which my hon. Friend Justin Madders spoke so eloquently? He knows his patch so well and stands up for not just his workforce but the businesses there, as well as for the importance of a vibrant operation in the north-west, with own vehicles, which of course involves international collaboration but it is not dominated by another party. Will the Minister speak to that important question of an industrial strategy?

There are so many challenges here, but it is in our national interest to have a cohesive and comprehensive approach to our relationship with China, addressing the most complex of countries and relationships in their entirety. The issues at stake go to the heart of our security and prosperity, and we cannot just muddle along as we have been. Labour will have a new approach. We will do our audit. We will be clear-eyed, consistent, and guided, above all, by the national interest.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Independent, Neath

Will the Minister leave a couple of minutes at the end of his speech so that Bob Seely can wind up?

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development and Africa) 3:45, 15 May 2024

It is a pleasure to appear under your skilled chairship this afternoon, Ms Rees. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend Bob Seely for securing this debate, and I pay tribute to his advocacy for the people of Hong Kong through the all-party group. He is an expert in the area that we are addressing this afternoon, and I particularly wanted to listen to him and respond to this debate on behalf of the Government. He speaks with both knowledge and understanding, and the House always listens to what he says with very great attention and respect. This afternoon, we have seen why, from his thoughtful and interesting contribution.

My hon. Friend asked a number of questions but started by making it clear that the relationship with China is far more complex than the relationship with Russia. In anything one does with international development, one sees how very true that is. He also spoke about dumping, as indeed did Justin Madders. I want to make a couple of comments about that. Having left the European Union, the UK has numerous trade remedy measures in place to protect against practices that have an adverse effect on the UK’s prosperity and security. We will always respond vigorously to unfair trading practices wherever they occur by working with the Trade Remedies Authority to protect the UK’s interests. We would encourage UK industry to apply to the independent Trade Remedies Authority if it has concerns, and we always stand ready to look at any recommendations that the TRA provides. More broadly, Britain has three active trade remedy investigations into Chinese products at the moment, and an additional 12 reviews of existing measures on Chinese exports.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight asked me about genomic research, and if he will allow me, I would like to think about that and write to him in response to his question. He also raised the issue of fentanyl. We recognise the importance of the fentanyl issue to the United States, and we welcome the US-China dialogue on that. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston warned of the need for vigilance, and he made a number of extremely important comments in that respect. He also, in response to an intervention by Neil Coyle, underlined the difference between the CCP and the Chinese people. He also made some very important points about supply chains.

My hon. Friend Mark Logan spoke with profound and detailed knowledge. I was not sure whether he is a gamekeeper turned poacher, or a poacher turned gamekeeper, but his comments were both informed and extremely interesting. Stewart Malcolm McDonald spoke about exports, education and energy, and he expressed a number of interesting thoughts on devolution and dependency on which I will reflect, if I may. Jim Shannon spoke up, as he always does, for the importance of human rights, and he urged that we should not allow economic interests to override our moral obligations. He spoke about freedom of religious belief. I will come on to that, but we are very grateful for what he said. Brendan O’Hara discussed a number of different aspects of the wide issues we are discussing. As I hope to show, his suggestion that we are merely paying lip service to these vital issues is simply not correct.

I turn finally to the remarks made by Catherine West, whose expertise in this area, as another China expert, I discovered to my humility. I thank her for her remarks on Ben Rogers, with which I think the House will widely agree. The hon. Lady chides us for the changes in our stance over the last 14 years in government, but I put it to her that as the circumstances and facts on the grounds have changed, so too have our policies and our approach.

China is a major global actor with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. It has an impact on almost every global issue of importance to the UK, and therefore no significant global problem can be solved without China. We must engage with Beijing on issues affecting us all. The Government recognise the epoch-defining challenge presented by China under the CCP, and our response and approach are based on three key pillars. This House will be familiar with these pillars, but I hope Members will allow me very briefly to set them out to frame my response on the issues that have been raised.

The first is about protecting our national security through key measures. I refer specifically to the National Security and Investment Act 2021 and enhanced export controls. Secondly, we have deepened co-operation with our allies and partners, including where China undermines regional peace and stability in the South China sea, and sanctioning Chinese companies providing dual-use goods to Russia. We join our allies and partners to call out China’s human rights violations. Thirdly, we engage with China where it is in our interest to do so: on global challenges such as climate and artificial intelligence, through, for instance, the AI safety summit.

If Members will allow me, I will reflect on some of the specific issues that have been raised in a little more detail, beginning with national security, which is our top priority in engagement with China. I am sure they will understand that I cannot comment on cases that are before the courts. However, we make our concerns clear. Yesterday, the Foreign Secretary summoned the Chinese ambassador to the Foreign Office, and we were unequivocal in setting out that the recent pattern of behaviour directed by China against Britain, including cyber-attacks, reports of espionage links and the issue of bounties, is simply unacceptable.

Turning to cyber-security, the House will be aware that we have attributed cyber-attacks to Chinese actors and imposed sanctions against those who are responsible. The Foreign Secretary has raised this directly with the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, and the Government have ordered the removal of Huawei from the 5G networks. Our wider work to bolster our national security includes establishing the defending democracy taskforce in 2022 and passing the National Security Act in 2023.

On human rights, it is, of course, a matter of great concern that the Chinese people are facing growing restrictions on fundamental freedoms and that the Chinese authorities continue to commit widespread human rights violations. Those include severe constraints on media freedom and freedom of religion or belief, repression of culture and language in Tibet and systematic violations in Xinjiang. The UK continues to lead international efforts to address China’s human rights record.

Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I know the Minister is trying to fit a lot in. Just before discussing human rights, he talked about the difficult decisions regarding industry that affect our national security. Could he respond to something mentioned in the debate, which was the financial involvement in Thames Water and nuclear power plants? If not, would he write to the Members present to go into more detail, if that is more appropriate?

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development and Africa)

I thank the hon. Lady for giving me the option; I will either come on to those issues, or I will write.

By imposing the national security law in 2020, China has stifled opposition in Hong Kong and criminalised dissent. Mr Jimmy Lai and others are being deliberately targeted to silence criticism under the guise of national security. The new Safeguarding National Security Ordinance will further damage the rights and freedoms enjoyed in the city. We took swift and decisive action, including suspending our extradition treaty indefinitely and extending the arms embargo applied to mainland China since 1989 to include Hong Kong. We also introduced a British National (Overseas) immigration path, granting over 191,000 visas to date.

During her recent visit to mainland China and Hong Kong, the Minister for the Indo-Pacific, my right hon. Friend Anne-Marie Trevelyan, met Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Deng Li in Beijing and Secretary for Financial Services and the Treasury Christopher Hui in Hong Kong. She made clear the Government’s deep concerns about the situation in Hong Kong.

I would say more about Xinjiang if I had more time, but the point was made by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute. We consistently raise human rights concerns with the Chinese authorities at the highest level.

I will turn briefly to the engagement aspect of our approach, since no global issue can be solved without China. As I have mentioned, the Minister for the Indo-Pacific visited China and Hong Kong last month. She encouraged China to use its influence to avert further escalation in the middle east and urged Russia to end its illegal invasion of Ukraine. The Ministers discussed areas of mutual co-operation, including AI safety and trade. My right hon. Friend underscored our concerns about China’s human rights record and interference in our democratic institutions. She also urged China to lift sanctions on UK parliamentarians and British nationals—something about which the House has been rightly outraged.

In February, my noble Friend the Foreign Secretary met his Chinese counterpart at the Munich security conference. He urged China to use its influence on Iran to pressure the Houthis over their actions in the Red sea. He further stressed that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine threatens the rules-based international system, which is designed to keep us all safe.

The Foreign Secretary set out the UK’s position on human rights and particularly mentioned Xinjiang and Hong Kong. He also raised the case of British parliamentarians sanctioned by China and reiterated his call for the release of the British national, Jimmy Lai.

I am glad of the opportunity to outline our position today. I thank my hon. Friends for their thoughtful contributions and all those who have contributed to the debate in what has been an engaging, wide-ranging and thoughtful discussion. It is clear that the challenges posed by China are complex and evolving. We will continue to respond with an approach that protects our national security, aligns with our allies and partners and engages with China where it is in the UK’s interests to do so.

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green, who speaks for the Opposition, asked me specifically about Thames Water and other Chinese investment. As time is short, I will, if I may, write to her in detail on that as soon as I can.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight 3:48, 15 May 2024

I thank everyone for attending and I thank you, Ms Rees, for chairing the debate. As the Deputy Foreign Secretary is writing to us on Thames Water, I would be grateful if he mentioned and looked into the Isle of Wight ferries. We were discussing how much China’s investment is, and bizarrely, one of the offshore companies was paying out to the Chinese central bank, so unfortunately it became a partial owner.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered Government policy on China.