Global Affairs

UK-China Relationship Prospects Appear Uncertain

Last week, five parliamentarians, including ex-Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, and four others had sanctions imposed upon them by the Chinese government. As a result, these individuals cannot enter China, Hong Kong or Macau, their property and assets in China are frozen, and Chinese individuals and institutions are not allowed to do business with them. This came about due to the UK’s Magnitsky style sanctions on four Chinese officials, alongside earlier condemnation from the European Union, the US and Canada on the current evidence of treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the region of Xinjiang. The Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, stated that in order for Beijing to disprove the claims, they should allow the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights access to the Uyghur camps in Xinjiang.

A statement from the Chinese foreign ministry claimed that the sanctions imposed on the Chinese officials and the UK’s statements on Xinjiang were “based on nothing but lies and disinformation”, adding that this “severely undermines China-UK relations”. Other institutions have faced similar treatment from China, in particular brands such as H&M and Nike, due to statements from the companies, condemning forced labour in their Xinijang supply chain. Items from these companies were pulled from sale in China and Chinese celebrity brand ambassadors terminated contracts.

Those sanctioned in Britain responded in a positive manner, with Duncan Smith stating that he worse his sanction as “a badge of honour”. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has showed support for those sanctioned, and shared a tweet saying that he stands “firmly with them and the other British citizens sanctioned by China”. He expressed solidarity with calls for justice in Xinjiang, by referring to “the gross human rights violations being perpetrated against Uyghur Muslims” in the same tweet. Many have questioned Mr. Johnson’s stance on this however, having declared himself “fervently Sinophile” in early February, and willing to improve ties between China and the UK, particularly after tensions surrounding the Hong Kong national security law. The Prime Minister was even looking to reactivate two trade forums relevant to trade deal discussions, that had been suspended due to the civil rights issues in Hong Kong, showing a possible interest in signing new investment deals with China. His contrasting reaction to the recent sanctions and outcry over the Xinjiang “re-education camps” throws the future of trade deals between the two countries into uncertainty.

The potential of investment deals between the UK and China has also faced scrutiny earlier this year. Though Dominic Raab’s claims that the UK should make trade deals with countries despite European standards on human rights have been described by the Foreign Office as misinterpreted claims, the comment has caused many to stir. Labour made a point of the “shameful truth” behind this government’s trade policy, while Amnesty International UK also criticised the comment. Mr. Raab has faced further criticism last week from various members of Parliament, including Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, due to his reluctance to describe what was happening in Xinjiang as “genocide”, displaying a somewhat indirect attitude to the situation.

Earlier this month, MPs voted down a Trade Bill amendment which would have prevented the government from making trade deals with countries known to be involved with genocide. An alternative has been proposed, which would create a select committee put together by Parliament to look to the Government for “credible reports of genocide” in countries with which the UK proposes a “bilateral free trade agreement”. Trade Minister Greg Hands stated that the Trade Bill amendment would have blurred “the distinction between legislative and judicial” and gone against current Government policy for courts to determine genocide. While the prospect of investment and market deals between the UK and China does not seem entirely off the table, the relationship between the two countries is looking more turbulent, as a result of recent trading of sanctions by the respective governments. There were reports last Friday of increased cyber-security threats to the MPs sanctioned by China, increasing the tensions with the UK. As such, the future relationship of the countries appears to rely on how they will choose to proceed, considering current tensions and potential threats, alongside the ongoing possibility of trade deals.

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