Conservative MPs and Labour are calling for the wholesale overhaul of relations with China after the government suspended extradition with Hong Kong and banned the export of riot control equipment following Beijing’s imposition of a sweeping national security law on the territory.
Announcing the measures to the Commons, Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, stressed the desire for continued cooperation with China, but said the actions were “a reasonable and proportionate response” to the law, which effectively criminalises most political dissent.
The move, a week after the British government stripped the Chinese telecoms firm Huawei of any future role in the UK’s 5G network, seems certain to further enrage Beijing.
Speaking before Raab’s announcement, China’s foreign ministry said it would be a mistake to suspend the extradition treaty and urged the UK “to take no more steps down the wrong path”.
While Raab’s decisions were welcomed by both Labour and Conservative MPs, the foreign secretary faced calls to take more robust action, particularly over the mass repression of the Uighur population in China’s Xinjiang province which rights groups warn amounts to cultural genocide.
A series of Tories who had long called for action over Huawei said the government must begin what Tobias Ellwood, a former Foreign Office and defence minister, called “a strategic overhaul of our foreign policy in relation to China”.
“For decades we’ve turned a blind eye to China’s democratic deficit and human rights violations, in the hope that it would mature into a global, responsible citizen,” he told Raab. “That clearly hasn’t happened. Is this now the turning point where we drop the pretence that China shares our values?”
In his statement, Raab said he was particularly worried about sections of the national security law that allowed mainland Chinese authorities to take control of cases and target actions outside of Hong Kong.
Saying this was a serious violation of the agreement that set out Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status after the handover to China in 1997, Raab said extradition would be stopped unless Beijing gave “clear and robust safeguards” about how the law would be used. The UK does not have an extradition agreement with mainland China.
The UK is also extending to Hong Kong an arms embargo that has covered mainland China since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, including a bar on equipment that could be used for crowd control, such as shackles and smoke grenades.
Raab said: “We want to work with China. There is enormous scope for positive, constructive, engagement. But, as we strive for that positive relationship, we are also clear-sighted about the challenges that lie ahead.”
Britain has already promised that up to 3 million Hong Kong residents will be offered the chance to settle in the UK and a path to permanent citizenship.Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, said she supported the measures, but called for action in areas such as Chinese investment in UK nuclear power stations, and a more generous approach in allowing entry to Hong Kong nationals, particularly younger people who were less likely to hold British National (Overseas) passports.
“This must mark the start of a more strategic approach to China based on an ethical approach to foreign policy, and an end to the naivety of the golden era years,” she said, referring to the close links forged under David Cameron. “And if it does, he can be assured he will have our full support on this side of the house.”
Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative MP who chairs the Commons foreign affairs committee and has been a leading advocate for tougher action against China, told Raab he welcomed the statement, but added: “Given his time before even entering here as a human rights lawyer, can I just ask why he hasn’t yet made an announcement on the abuse of the Uighur Muslim population in western China?”
Bob Seely, the Tory MP who was a leading critic of Huawei’s role in the UK, told Raab he welcomed the actions over Hong Kong, but said: “The signal truth is the China we hoped for is not the China we are getting.” He added that a “much more significant reset in our relations” was needed.
The government is expected to face continued pressure over the issue, particularly with decisions looming over Chinese involvement in nuclear reactors at Bradwell in Essex and Sizewell in Suffolk.
As well as Hong Kong, there has been an upsurge in condemnation of Chinese actions in Xinjiang, where there is evidence of the use of mass internment camps, and there are claims Uighur women are undergoing forced sterilisation to reduce their population.
Speaking during a visit to a school on Monday, Boris Johnson said such issues were deeply worrying but that he was “not going to be pushed into a position of becoming a knee-jerk sinophobe on every issue”.
The president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews has written to China’s ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, citing “similarities” between Chinese treatment of Uighurs and Nazi atrocities.
Marie van der Zyl wrote: “Nobody could ... fail to notice the similarities between what is alleged to be happening in China today and what happened in Nazi Germany 75 years ago. ... The world will neither forgive nor forget a genocide against the Uighur people.”
The UK government is considering whether to take action under so-called Magnitsky laws against individual Chinese officials over the situation in Xinjiang.