15 May 2024

Deputy Foreign Secretary Andrew Mitchell responds to a Westminster Hall debate on Government policy on China.

The Deputy Foreign Secretary (Mr Andrew Mitchell)

It is a pleasure to appear under your skilled chairship this afternoon, Ms Rees. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (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 the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (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 the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (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 the Member for Bolton North East (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. The hon. Member for Glasgow South (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. The hon. Member for Strangford (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. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (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 the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (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.

Catherine West 

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?

Mr Mitchell 

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 the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (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.