Table of contents
- 1. Summary of tensions between the UK and China skip to link
- 2. Recent UK government position on China skip to link
- 2.1 Integrated review refresh 2023 skip to link
- 2.2 Speech on China by the foreign secretary in April 2023 skip to link
- 2.3 Visit to China by the foreign secretary in August 2023 skip to link
- 2.4 Invitation to China to attend the UK’s artificial intelligence summit in November 2023 skip to link
- 2.5 Human rights skip to link
- 2.6 Trade skip to link
- 3. Hong Kong skip to link
- 4. Recent parliamentary scrutiny of the government’s position on China skip to link
- 4.1 House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee inquiry into the UK-China security and trade relationship 2021 skip to link
- 4.2 House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry into the Indo-Pacific region 2021 skip to link
- 4.3 House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry into the integrated review 2022 skip to link
- 4.4 Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament inquiry into China 2023 skip to link
- 4.5 House of Lords debate on UK-China relations in July 2023 skip to link
- 5. Recent commentary on the government’s position skip to link
- 6. Read more skip to link
On 19 October 2023, the House of Lords is due to debate the following motion:
Earl Howe (Conservative) to move that this House takes note of His Majesty’s Government’s position on the long-term strategic challenges posed by China.
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:
- Geopolitical differences. The UK has disagreed with China on various geopolitical issues, such as China’s use of force around Taiwan and its militarisation of disputed islands in the South China Sea.
- Hong Kong. China’s imposition of the national security law (NSL) in Hong Kong in June 2020 has raised concerns in the UK. Successive governments have argued that the law undermined the “one country, two systems” principle agreed ahead of the handover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. In response to the NSL the UK government launched its British national (overseas) visa scheme for eligible Hong Kong residents in January 2021 (further information on Hong Kong can be found in section 3 of this article).
- Human rights concerns. Successive UK governments have been critical of China’s human rights record, particularly regarding the alleged treatment of Uyghur Muslims and other minorities in the western province of Xinjiang and in Tibet.
- Cybersecurity. The UK has also expressed concerns about cybersecurity risks and potential threats posed by Chinese companies, including the role of Huawei in the development of 5G infrastructure in the UK. In July 2020, the UK government announced that, following advice from the National Cyber Security Centre, the UK would be phasing out all Huawei equipment from its 5G network by the end of 2027.
- Sanctions. In 2021, China imposed sanctions on nine UK citizens. These included five Conservative MPs (Sir Iain Duncan Smith, Nusrat Ghani, Tim Loughton, Neil O’Brien and Tom Tugendhat) and two members of the House of Lords (Lord Alton of Liverpool and Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws).
- Allegations of spying. In March 2023, two men were arrested in the UK under the Official Secrets Act 1989 for allegedly spying for China. One of the men arrested was a parliamentary researcher. In September 2023, the researcher released a statement through his lawyers stating that he was “completely innocent”.
2. Recent UK government position on China
The UK government’s evolving position on China has been informed by concerns of national security and human rights, as well as recognising 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 UN security 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 to 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 Visit to China by the foreign secretary in August 2023
On 30 August 2023, James Cleverly met with the Chinese vice president, Han Zheng, in Beijing, China.
However, the meeting was criticised by some politicians. Former leader of the Conservative Party and one of the MPs sanctioned by the CCP Sir Iain Duncan Smith stated that the meeting “smells terribly of appeasement”. The shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, accused successive Conservative governments of “division, inconsistency and complacency towards China”.
Following the meeting, Mr Cleverly rejected criticism of the government’s position on China. In an interview with the Financial Times (£), he stated that “to consciously withdraw and not utilise our standing in the world, the authority and voice that we have, that would be seen as a sign of weakness, not a sign of strength”.
2.4 Invitation to China to attend the UK’s artificial intelligence summit in November 2023
In September 2023, the government invited China to its global artificial intelligence (AI) safety summit, which is set to take place in Bletchley Park on 1 and 2 November 2023. The summit intends to bring together governments, technology organisations, academia and civil society. In a press release discussing the summit, the government shared five objectives that it sought to progress. They are:
- a shared understanding of the risks posed by frontier AI and the need for action
- a forward process for international collaboration on frontier AI safety, including how best to support national and international frameworks
- appropriate measures that individual organisations should take to increase frontier AI safety
- areas for potential collaboration on AI safety research, including evaluating model capabilities and the development of new standards to support governance
- an emphasis on ensuring the safe development of AI would enable AI to be used for good globally
In a statement explaining why the government had invited China to the summit, James Cleverly said that the government “cannot keep the UK public safe from the risks of artificial intelligence if we exclude one of the leading nations in tech”.
However, the government’s invitation has been met with some concern. For instance, the Japanese government reportedly did not support the government’s invitation to China, arguing that it was too early to include China in such discussions before the G7 group of countries reached a consensus on generative AI.
2.5 Human rights
The UK government has expressed concern at the human rights situation in China. In its most recent human rights and democracy report covering 2022, published in July 2023, the government classified China as a “priority” country. Detailing its assessment of the human rights situation in China, the government said:
There continued to be widespread restrictions and violations on human rights and fundamental freedoms across China in 2022. This included severe constraints on media freedom, freedom of religion or belief, and the rule of law, continued repression of culture and language in Tibet, and systematic human rights violations in Xinjiang. Dynamic zero Covid-19 controls provided the authorities with extra tools for expanded suppression of dissent. Restrictions on LGBT+ and gender rights persisted, as did restrictions impeding civil society from operating freely. In Hong Kong, rights and freedoms continued to be undermined.
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 use of forced labour and ongoing mass detention. It also noted that evidence had “continued to demonstrate” that Uyghur Muslims were increasingly moved from political re-education camps to mass detention in formal prisons, with “continued high levels of detention and prosecution”. The document also highlighted the findings of the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet into the human rights situation in Xinjiang, which was published in August 2022. The UN report noted that such restrictions of human rights “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity”.
The government’s report also raised concerns about:
- the “suppression of Tibetan language and culture”, including through the mass collection of DNA and other biometric data in Tibetan regions, mistreatment of Tibetans and limited access to Tibet for foreign nationals
- “tight restrictions” on freedom of religion or belief, through policies designed to “sinicise” religions (where beliefs and religion are aligned to China)
- China’s authorities “suppress[ing] peaceful protests” against Covid-19 restrictions, with individuals targeted, detained and arrested and “mass-censorship” of protest-related activity online
- “widespread censorship” to restrict freedom of expression and access to information, with journalists reporting harassment online and offline, with the government noting that China continued to have the world’s highest number of detained journalists
- the rule of law remaining a “significant concern”, with China continuing its widespread use of “residential surveillance in a designated location” (whereby people are held without charges or trial), high numbers of detentions, torture and deaths in detention
- increased pressure on LGBT+ organisations, censorship of LGBT+ content and police harassment of leaders in the LGBT+ and women’s rights communities, which had led to many organisations to “cease activity”
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 UK government’s call for China to uphold its international obligations and ensure the protection of universal human rights for all people. She called on China to end “ongoing serious and systematic human rights violations” in Xinjiang and Tibet. Ms French also expressed concern over the “continued erosion” of autonomy, freedoms and rights in Hong Kong.
Data published by the Department for Business and Trade in September 2023 revealed that China was the UK’s fourth largest trading partner in the four quarters to the end of Q1 2023, accounting for 6.1 percent of total UK trade. In the same period, total trade of goods and services (exports plus imports) between the UK and China was £107.5bn, which represented an increase of £10.9bn (11.3 percent) from the four quarters to the end of Q1 2022. Of this £107.5bn:
- total UK exports to China amounted to £38bn in the four quarters to the end of Q1 2023 (an increase of £10.3bn or 37.7 percent compared with the four quarters to the end of Q1 2022)
- total UK imports from China amounted to £69.5bn in the four quarters to the end of Q1 2023 (an increase of £562mn or 0.8 percent compared with the four quarters to the end of Q1 2022)
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 NSL 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 (FCDO) publishes six-monthly reports on Hong Kong. In its latest report, covering 1 January to 30 June 2023, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said that “the disappointing reality is that China remains in an ongoing state of non-compliance” with the Sino-British Joint Declaration. The report also summarised the government’s assessment of the region:
Hong Kong’s economic, monetary and financial systems remain distinct and robust. However, China has chosen to curtail and control many of the rights and freedoms enshrined in the joint declaration and Hong Kong’s basic law under the guise of national security.
The authorities have extended the application of the national security law (NSL) beyond genuine national security concerns. For example, the authorities continue to try to use legal routes to suppress the song ‘Glory to Hong Kong’. Arrests under the NSL and sedition laws continue at pace. The trial of the ‘NSL 47’, the largest national security case to date, is nearing a conclusion. Everyone tried so far under the NSL has been found guilty.
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 NSL took place in the House of Commons. Opening the debate, Sir Iain Duncan Smith (Conservative MP for Chingford and Woodford Green), who has 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 NSL. 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 NSL, 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
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 FCDO, 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.
4.2 House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry into the Indo-Pacific region 2021
In July 2021, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee launched an inquiry examining the realignment of Britain’s foreign policy towards the Indo-Pacific region, as proposed in the integrated review.
The committee published its report ‘Tilting horizons: The integrated review and the Indo-Pacific’ in August 2023. It criticised the government for failing to “outline clear foreign policy, let alone a cross-government stance towards China”. The committee argued that this made it “difficult” for the government’s strategy on China to “be complied with” by state and non-state actors, such as civil servants, businesses and academics. It called on the government to publish an unclassified version of its China strategy to “ensure cross-government coherence”. It also advised publishing industry-specific guidance, particularly for sectors vital to national security or data-intensive industries.
Furthermore, the committee expressed concern over the absence of a “zero tolerance” policy towards “transnational repression” and urged the government to be prepared to expel foreign diplomats who engaged in intimidation or physical attacks on British citizens or refugees seeking sanctuary in the UK.
The government is yet to respond to the committee’s report.
4.3 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.
4.4 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”.
In July 2023, the committee published its report on China. The committee stated that the UK was of “significant interest” to China when it came to espionage and interference, due to its close relationship with the US, membership of international bodies and the “perception of the UK as an opinion-former—which plays into China’s strategy to reshape international systems in its favour”. The committee argued that this would appear to place the UK “just below China’s top priority targets”, as it sought to build support for its core interests, which were to “mute international criticism” and to “gain economically”.
The committee also expressed concerns at China’s “whole-of-state” approach, which means Chinese state-owned and non-state-owned companies, in addition to academic and cultural establishments and ordinary Chinese citizens, were liable to be (either willingly or unwillingly) co-opted into espionage and interference operations overseas. In addition, the committee warned that the UK was “severely handicapped” by the “short-termist approach currently being taken”.
The committee recommended the government “adopt a longer-term planning cycle” for the future security of the UK, which it stated may require opposition support. In terms of funding, it also called on the government to explore a multi-year spending review for the UK’s security agencies, to allow them to develop long-term strategic programmes on China and “respond to the enduring threat”.
In September 2023, the government responded to the committee’s report. The government noted that it recognised the need for further investment in capabilities to address the “systemic challenge” that China posed and that the 2023 integrated review refresh had taken the “first step towards this”. The government also said that it would continue to build expertise to better address the long-term challenge posed by China.
Addressing the committee’s recommendation for there to be a multi-year spending review for the UK’s security agencies, the government said that it was committed to multi-year spending settlements; however, spending reviews “usually result” in multi-year financial settlements. The government stated that the 2021 spending review had given the security agencies “certainty” over the funding available to them until 2024. The government also noted that China-related capabilities would “continue to be a priority area of investment”. It said the government was “planning for the long-term with a clear strategy”, which it stated would take place over several spending periods and parliaments.
4.5 House of Lords debate on UK-China relations in July 2023
The House of Lords debated the UK’s relationship with China on 6 July 2023. Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town (Labour), who tabled the debate, called on the government to hold the CCP accountable for its actions in China, Hong Kong and the UK. She also noted that, despite acknowledging China’s non-compliance with the 1984 joint declaration on Hong Kong, the government had taken no action to address this.
Lord Alton of Liverpool (Crossbench), the vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary groups on Hong Kong and Uyghurs and one of the members sanctioned by the CCP, criticised the CCP’s actions in the UK and abroad. He questioned the government on whether it was “licit to do business as usual with a country credibly accused by the House of Commons and [US] President Biden, among others, of committing genocide against Uyghurs in Xinjiang”.
Responding, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, a minister of state at the FCDO, affirmed the UK’s commitment to Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms as agreed in the 1984 agreement. He acknowledged that the government was “very clear-eyed” in its policy towards China, describing the country as an “important partner” on climate change and in the “economic interdependency of the world”. However, he stated that where there were violations of human rights committed by China, the government would “stand by those people and always call out such violations”.
5. Recent commentary on the government’s position
Some commentators have welcomed the government’s approach to the long-term challenges posed by China, arguing that it is necessary to protect the UK’s national security and human rights interests, while also recognising the importance of trade relations for mutual economic benefit.
For example, in April 2023, the director of Chatham House, Bronwen Maddox, praised a speech made by James Cleverly on the government’s position on China. She stated that it had the “value of making open what has so far been only half-said” which was “that the UK wants to deal with China but intends to also protect itself and to speak up for its principles”. She further said that “given the circumstances”, it was the “best judgment that could have been made”.
Similarly, Scott Singer, a co-founder of the Oxford China Policy Lab, also welcomed the current approach, arguing that UK-China dialogue was still “critical” for future crisis prevention. Speaking to the Guardian in August 2023, Mr Singer said that “certain types of cooperation can enhance human and global security and thus makes Britain safer”.
Stephen Morgan, professor of Chinese economic history at the University of Nottingham, also welcomed the government’s approach to China. In an article for the Conversation in September 2023, Mr Morgan admitted that although there were “very real risks” to UK security from China, “continued engagement” was “needed” to ensure that the UK was able to “tap into the technological advances it has made in green technologies and other sectors vital to an advanced economy”. Concluding, he stated that China “needs to be kept inside the tent”, and, if left outside, it risked becoming more difficult to observe or share economic developments beneficial to western countries.
However, some commentators have said that the UK’s approach to China remained problematic. For instance, following the publication of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report into China, Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London Kerry Brown said that the UK and its institutions remained “ill-prepared” to address China’s evolving approach to international relations:
The worrying fact is not that China is engaged in acts that promote and further its interests; what is far worse is that conceptually the UK is so ill prepared, that in 2023 a report like this stands as the result of the best efforts of a body meant to more effectively define and further its security interests.
Additionally, speaking to Radio 4’s Today programme in September 2023, the former head of MI6, Sir Alex Younger, stated that while the UK needed to “find ways of engaging” China, for example, on climate change, the country should be designated as a “state of concern” under the National Security Act 2023. This would bring in additional reporting requirements for organisations linked to China. Sir Alex stated that the UK had to be “absolutely prepared to confront it [China] when we believe that our security interests are threatened”. He argued that it is “exactly how they will behave towards us”.
6. Read more
- House of Lords Library, ‘UK-China relations’, 3 July 2023
- Oral question on ‘China: High-level talks’, HL Hansard, 22 June 2023, cols 329–31
- House of Commons Library, ‘UK relations with China during the presidency of Xi Jinping’, 14 March 2023
- House of Lords Library, ‘China: Allegations of human rights abuses’, 14 November 2022
- House of Lords Library, ‘UK-China relations: International Relations and Defence Committee report’, 10 October 2022
- House of Commons Library, ‘Anniversaries of the handover of Hong Kong and the implementation of the national security law’, 27 June 2022
An update was made to section 5 of this briefing on 26 October 2023.