The House of Lords is due to debate the following question for short debate on 6 July 2023:

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town (Labour) to ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of Sino-British relations following the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre on 4 June, and the recent suppression of peaceful demonstrations in Hong Kong.

1. Summary of tensions between the UK and China

In recent decades, relations between the UK and China have encountered several challenges. Current sources of tension include, but are not limited to, the following issues:

2. Recent UK government position on China

The UK government’s evolving position on China has been informed both by concerns over national security and human rights and the importance of trade relations for mutual economic benefit.

2.1 Integrated review refresh 2023

In March 2023, the government published a refresh of the 2021 integrated review entitled ‘Integrated review refresh 2023: Responding to a more contested and volatile world’. In the refresh, the government said that China posed an “epoch-defining and systemic challenge” to the UK. The refresh noted the government was updating the UK’s China policy in response to two overarching factors that had continued to evolve since the 2021 review:

  • China’s “size and significance on almost every global issue”, was expected to continue to increase in the years ahead “in ways that will be felt in the UK and around the world”. For example, the government noted that China’s permanent membership of the UNSecurity Council, its share of the global economy (accounting for a fifth), and its role as a “major investor” in developing countries all contributed to its significance. Similarly, the government said that China’s position as both the largest investor in sustainable energy and the leading emitter of carbon made its choices “critical” in collectively addressing climate change. The government also highlighted China’s decisions in areas such as global health and pandemic preparedness, emphasising their potential to have a “profound impact” on people’s lives domestically.
  • There were growing concerns about the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) actions and intentions, including strengthening ties with Russia; disregard for human rights and international commitments; militarisation of disputed islands in the South China Sea; refusal to renounce the use of force in relation to Taiwan; using economic power for coercion such as in Lithuania; and engaging in espionage and interference in the UK.

Despite these factors, the government said that its preference for the UK’s relationship with China was for “better cooperation and understanding, and predictability and stability for global public good”. However, the government noted that achieving this preferred relationship would be “made harder if trends towards greater authoritarianism and assertiveness overseas continue”.

The government emphasised that its policy towards China would be “anchored in our core national interests and our higher interest in an open and stable international order”, which would be based on the principles of the UN charter and international law. It also noted that where China’s actions aligned with these interests, the UK would “engage constructively” with the Chinese government, business and people. However, the government warned that if the actions and stated intentions of the CCP threatened the UK’s interests, then it would “take swift and robust action to protect them”. The government contended that this stance was consistent with the approaches adopted by the UK’s closest allies and partners, including European nations, Australia, Canada, Japan and the US.

The government outlined that it would pursue its policy towards China through three interrelated strands:

  • Protect. The UK would strengthen its national security protections in areas where the actions of the CCP posed a threat to the country’s people, prosperity and security. This included safeguarding the economy, democratic freedoms, critical infrastructure, supply chains, and the UK’s ability to generate strategic advantages in science and technology. The government said that the UK would prioritise cybersecurity and defensive capabilities while also strengthening protections for academic freedom and university research.
  • Align. The UK would deepen cooperation and alignment with key allies and partners to shape the broader strategic environment. Recognising the UK’s “limited” influence individually, the government said the UK aimed to work collectively with its allies and partners to encourage China to contribute transparently and proportionately to financial stability and economic development. The government also pledged to work towards strengthening collective security, balancing and competing when necessary, and to “push back” against behaviours that undermined international law, violated human rights, or sought to coerce or create dependencies. Regarding Taiwan, the government said that it maintained its position that the issue should be resolved peacefully through dialogue.
  • Engage. The UK would engage directly with China through bilateral channels and international forums, seeking to “preserve and create space for open, constructive, predictable, and stable relations that reflect China’s global significance”. The government also stated that it believed in the potential benefits of a positive trade and investment relationship with China while at the same time safeguarding critical supply chains and national security. It committed to working with industry to ensure safe, reciprocal and mutually beneficial engagements.

Alongside the refresh, the government announced that it was doubling funding for its ‘China capabilities programme’ for 2024/25 to “further boost skills and knowledge for government staff on China”. This would include training on economic and military policy, in addition to Mandarin language skills.

2.2 Speech on China by the foreign secretary in April 2023

On 25 April 2023, the foreign secretary, James Cleverly, made a speech setting out the government’s position on China. Mr Cleverly emphasised the need for the UK’s policy to balance two factors: engaging with China “where necessary” and to be “unflinchingly realistic about its authoritarianism”. He also said that the government expected China to observe the laws and obligations that it had “freely entered in to”, including commitments made in the 1984 joint declaration on Hong Kong and as a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements. Mr Cleverly warned that if China breached these obligations, the UK had the right to express its concerns and act. As an example, he highlighted the UK’s response to “when China dismantled the freedoms of Hong Kong”, which led to the launch of the British national (overseas) visa scheme (further information on the scheme can be found in section 3 of this article).

Furthermore, the foreign secretary emphasised the government’s policy of ‘protect, align and engage’, detailing some of the actions it was taking. This included strengthening national security protections, deepening cooperation with Indo-Pacific partners and promoting transparency in China’s military expansion, including the intent behind it. The foreign secretary also expressed the UK’s support for a peaceful settlement in Taiwan. Mr Cleverly said that a war over Taiwan would not only result in human tragedy but also potentially “destroy” global trade worth $2.6tn.

2.3 Human rights

The UK government has previously expressed concern at the human rights situation in China. In its most recent human rights and democracy report covering 2021, published in December 2022, the government classified China as a “priority” country. Detailing its assessment of the human rights situation in China, the government said:

The human rights situation in China continued to deteriorate in 2021. The evidence of widespread, systematic human rights violations and abuses in Xinjiang grew. Extensive restrictions continued to be imposed on media freedom, freedom of religion or belief and rule of law. Restrictions on LGBT+ and gender rights also persisted, as did those impeding civil society from operating freely.

On the treatment of Uyghur Muslims and other minorities, the government reported that Chinese authorities had continued to pursue policies that violated human rights. These policies included the extrajudicial detention of Uyghur Muslims and other minority groups in political re-education camps and an expanding prison network. The report also acknowledged the emergence of “further credible and compelling evidence” that highlighted invasive surveillance, forced labour, forced birth control and systematic restrictions on Uyghur culture and Islam. The government stated that such evidence was corroborated by British diplomats on visits to Xinjiang.

The report also raised concerns about:

  • the implementation of advanced technologies for surveillance and “repression”, particularly in Xinjiang, such as “predictive policing” algorithms and tracking software that target specific ethnic groups
  • the “highly constrained” media environment with increased restrictions on private news-media operations, extensive online censorship, and harassment and intimidation of foreign journalists and their Chinese-national staff
  • the rule of law, including the growing use of “residential surveillance in a designated location” (whereby people are held without charges or trial), high numbers of detentions, and executions
  • harassment, detention and revocation of professional licenses for lawyers working on sensitive issues such as human rights
  • continued restrictions on freedom of religion or belief, “Sinicization” policies (where beliefs and religion are aligned to China), mistreatment of Tibetans and limited access to Tibet for foreign nationals
  • increased pressure on LGBT+ organisations, censorship of LGBT+ content, and cases of censorship and detention related to women’s rights and the #MeToo movement

The government also noted that civil liberties had “been curtailed” in Hong Kong, particularly freedom of speech (more information on China’s actions in Hong Kong can be found in section 3 of this article).

On 20 June 2023, the UK’s human rights ambassador, Rita French, delivered a statement at an interactive dialogue on the annual report of the UN high commissioner for human rights. In her statement, Ms French reiterated the government’s call for China to uphold its international obligations and ensure the protection of universal human rights for all people. She also called on China to end “ongoing serious and systematic human rights violations” in Xinjiang and Tibet. In addition, Ms French expressed concern over the “continued erosion” of autonomy, freedoms and rights in Hong Kong.

2.4 Trade

Data published by the Department for Business and Trade in June 2023 revealed that China was the UK’s fourth largest trading partner in the four quarters to the end of Q4 2022, accounting for 6.5 percent of total UK trade. In the same period, total trade of goods and services (exports plus imports) between the UK and China was £111bn, which represented an increase of £17.2bn (18.3 percent) from the four quarters to the end of Q4 2021. Of this £111bn:

  • total UK exports to China amounted to £37.6bn in the four quarters to the end of Q4 2022 (an increase of £10.3bn or 37.7 percent compared with the four quarters to the end of Q4 2021)
  • total UK imports from China amounted to £73.4bn in the four quarters to the end of Q4 2022 (an increase of £6.9bn or 10.4 percent compared with the four quarters to the end of Q4 2021)

3. Hong Kong

The UK’s relationship with China regarding Hong Kong is complex and evolving, with concerns focused on human rights and the preservation of autonomy for the special administrative region.

The UK and China were both parties to the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed in 1984. Under this agreement, Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997. The declaration guaranteed a “high degree of autonomy”, basic freedoms and the preservation of the Hong Kong special administrative region’s capitalist system for 50 years. This arrangement, known as “one country, two systems”, aimed to protect the rights and liberties of Hong Kong residents.

However, in recent years the UK government has raised concerns about the “erosion” of these freedoms. In 2020, the Chinese government introduced the national security law in Hong Kong which granted broad powers to authorities to suppress dissent and undermine the autonomy of the region. This included what the UK government has described as the deliberate targeting of prominent pro-democracy figures, journalists and politicians.

The UK government has argued that the national security law is a breach of the 1984 declaration. In response to the introduction of the law, on 31 January 2021 Boris Johnson’s government launched the British national (overseas) visa scheme to offer a pathway to British citizenship for eligible Hong Kong residents. Between the scheme’s introduction and the end of March 2023 (the latest data available), approximately 113,500 people have arrived in the UK from Hong Kong under the visa scheme.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office publishes six-monthly reports on Hong Kong. In its latest report, covering 1 July to 31 December 2022, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said that the government considered China to be “in a state of non-compliance with the Sino-British Joint Declaration”. The report also summarised the government’s assessment of the region:

Hong Kong’s freedoms have been curtailed, critical voices silenced and the space for free press and assembly reduced. The national security law and the ongoing use of the outdated offence of sedition continues to damage Hong Kong’s way of life.

In recent decades, Hong Kong had been the only place in China where people could publicly commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre. However, since 2020, the Hong Kong government has banned memorials of the massacre, citing security concerns. On the anniversary of the massacre on 4 June 2023, several pro-democracy activists were detained by the police in Hong Kong. Responding to the arrests, the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Volker Turk said on Twitter that he was “alarmed” by reports of the detentions and called on the police to release “anyone detained for exercising freedom of expression and peaceful assembly”. Mr Turk also called on the authorities to “fully abide” by the obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

On 28 June 2023, a debate on the third anniversary of the national security law took place in the House of Commons. Opening the debate, Sir Iain Duncan Smith (Conservative MP for Chingford and Woodford Green), who has previously been sanctioned by China, called on the government to support Jimmy Lai, a British citizen and pro-democracy campaigner who was arrested in Hong Kong and charged with foreign collusion under the national security law. Sir Iain also questioned why the UK government had not sanctioned anybody from the Hong Kong administration following the imposition of the law. During the debate, several MPs raised concerns about the impact of the law on the freedom of the press in Hong Kong.

Responding on behalf of the government, Leo Docherty, parliamentary under secretary of state for foreign, commonwealth and development affairs, said:

Three years on, we have seen how that opaque and sweeping law has undermined the rights and freedoms enshrined in the joint declaration and Hong Kong’s basic law. Hong Kong’s governance, rights and social system are now much closer to mainland norms, and the autonomy promised under “one country, two systems” has been eroded. Hong Kong is less politically autonomous than at any time since the handover. Hong Kong authorities, under the direction of Beijing, have targeted critical voices across Hong Kong society.

Discussing calls for the government to support Jimmy Lai, Mr Docherty said that Mr Lai was a British dual national who had “never rescinded his Chinese nationality” and this had a “bearing on this case”. Despite this, Mr Docherty said the government “care[d] very deeply” about Mr Lai’s case and had raised his detention with Chinese and Hong Kong authorities “at every opportunity, making clear our objections to these politically driven prosecutions”. Addressing actions taken towards the Hong Kong administration in response to the imposition of the national security law, Mr Docherty said that the government had suspended the UK-Hong Kong extradition treaty “indefinitely” and had extended to Hong Kong the arms embargo applied to mainland China in response to the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. He also said that his colleague the minister of state for the Indo-Pacific, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, would write to several members on the issues raised during the debate.

4. Recent parliamentary scrutiny of the government’s position on China

4.1 House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee inquiry into the UK-China security and trade relationship 2021

In February 2021, the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee launched an inquiry into the UK’s security and trade relationship with China.

The committee published its report, entitled ‘The UK and China’s security and trade relationship: A strategic void’, in September 2021. The committee highlighted the “complex” nature of the relationship, encompassing periods of cooperation and confrontation in the past decade. It also identified various challenges posed by China, including tensions over Hong Kong, cybersecurity issues and human rights. The committee recommended that the government develop a “clear China strategy”, which focused on the conflict over Taiwan, strengthening the international rules-based system, and enhancing resilience in infrastructure and supply chains.

The then government responded to the committee’s report in November 2021. It argued that the integrated review, published in March 2021, had detailed the “core elements” of the UK’s strategy towards China. It also emphasised its commitment to defending the UK’s “values and interests” and provided examples of actions taken in response to China’s actions in Hong Kong and human rights violations in Xinjiang. In addition, the government acknowledged the need to cooperate with China on shared interests and global challenges. However, the government added that it was “important [to] avoid strategic dependency” on China.

In January 2022, the then chair of the committee, Baroness Anelay of St Johns (Conservative), wrote to the government to follow up on matters raised in its response to the committee. Baroness Anelay expressed her “disappointment” that the government had not confirmed whether it would publish a strategy on China. She also criticised the government’s position on China, describing it as “ambiguous”. In particular, she said that it was “not clear” how the UK intended to “balance human rights concerns and allegations of genocide with an economic relationship”. The then minister for Asia at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Amanda Milling, responded for the government on 9 February 2022. Ms Milling reiterated the government’s commitment to upholding values, protecting national security and maintaining a positive economic relationship with China, without committing to a specific strategy.

The report was debated in the House of Lords on 20 October 2022.

4.2 House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry into the integrated review 2022

In November 2022, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee conducted an inquiry into the 2021 integrated review ahead of the publication of the refresh. The following month, the committee published its findings in a report entitled ‘Refreshing our approach? Updating the integrated review’.

The committee noted that the government had designated China as a “systematic competitor” in the 2021 integrated review. However, the committee argued that the government needed to be “firmer and more explicit in articulating the UK’s security interests when it comes to China”. The committee said it would support the government if it changed the language used to describe China in the refresh from “systematic competitor” to “threat”, particularly if this was accompanied by “carefully calibrated and proportionate policy change […] rather than empty rhetoric”. While the committee said the integrated review also acknowledged that the UK would need to compete with China in some areas and cooperate in others, the committee recommended the government should “address the long-term viability of this approach” when updating the review.

In May 2023, the government published its response to the committee. The government noted that since the publication of the committee’s report it had published the integrated review refresh. Addressing the committee’s conclusion that it should consider redesignating China as a threat, the government said that it had partially agreed with the recommendation. The government also noted its “increasing concern” about the CCP’s actions at home and abroad. However, it recognised China’s size and importance on almost every global issue and the UK’s national interest in “advancing British interests directly with China”. The government therefore argued that it was “impossible, impractical, and unwise to sum up China in one word”. Responding to the committee’s recommendation that it should address the long-term viability of its approach to China, the government said it agreed and had set out its policy on China in the integrated review refresh.

4.3 Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament inquiry into China 2023

In May 2023, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament sent its report on China to the prime minister, Rishi Sunak. In accordance with section 3 of the Justice and Security Act 2013, the prime minister was required to consider whether there was any information in the report which, if published, would be “prejudicial to the continued discharge of the functions of the security and intelligence agencies”. By convention, the committee had asked the prime minister to respond to the committee within 10 working days.

On 21 June 2023, the committee announced that Rishi Sunak had responded and that the report would be laid before Parliament ahead of the summer recess. It also said that it had sought an explanation from Mr Sunak as to why his response to the committee had been delayed.

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Cover image by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.