Boris Johnson has made an orchestrated gesture of defiance to Beijing, and of support for its critics, by on Saturday meeting a cross-party group of MPs and peers sanctioned by China for their stance on human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Barely a month ago, the prime minister declared himself “fervently Sinophile”, determined to pursue trade and investment deals with Beijing “whatever the occasional political difficulties”.
China is one of the few economies to have registered growth in the pandemic year, and the economic pressures of the post-Brexit period make the country’s markets, and its companies’ deep pockets, particularly attractive. Chinese participation is also vital for any global action on climate change the government is able to agree at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow this year.
But Johnson’s attempts to separate business and politics are looking increasingly untenable in the face of a China that is ever more assertive internationally, and ever less willing to brook criticism of its conduct.
Saturday’s meeting in No 10’s Rose Garden was arranged after Beijing announced sanctions against politicians and academics who have spoken out against alleged human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region of China. The group of nine and their family members will be prohibited from entering China and Hong Kong. Chinese citizens and institutions will also be banned from doing business with them.
Beijing presented its decision as a response to UK sanctions on Chinese officials, but those individuals were targeted for their alleged role in human rights abuses against Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. China has penalised the Britons simply for criticising its conduct, accusing them of “spreading lies and disinformation”.
The prime minister’s 30-minute audience with the cross-party group, which includes the Conservative MPs Iain Duncan Smith, Nus Ghani and Tim Loughton, the Labour peer Helena Kennedy, and crossbench peer David Alton, was aimed at signalling full UK government backing for their views.
One of those at the meeting said Johnson had referred to the parliamentarians as “warriors in the fight for free speech” who had his “full-throated support”, and expressed bafflement at Beijing’s “ridiculous” actions.
Johnson also drew attention to the meeting in a tweet, saying: “This morning I spoke with some of those who have been shining a light on the gross human rights violations being perpetrated against Uyghur Muslims. I stand firmly with them and the other British citizens sanctioned by China.”
Duncan Smith, a former Tory party leader, and the other parliamentarians present in the Rose Garden said the sanctions “will only serve to encourage us to redouble our efforts”.
Conservative MPs Tom Tugendhat and Neil O’Brien said in a statement: “This is the first time Beijing has targeted elected politicians in the UK with sanctions and shows they are increasingly pushing boundaries.
“As British legislators this will not actually affect us hugely, but the point of Beijing’s actions is to make others feel threatened, and to have a chilling effect on business people in particular.”
On Saturday, China also imposed sanctions against a Canadian MP and two American religious rights officials in a fresh round of retaliation.
The campaign to penalise those making accusations of abuses in Xinjiang extends beyond politics. Over the last week state media has stirred up a boycott of major western fashion brands that have pledged to avoid Xinjiang cotton over forced labour. Xinjiang produces more than a fifth of the world’s cotton and more than four-fifths of China’s, but there have been accusations of human rights abuses in production.
The Swedish clothing company H&M was all but scrubbed from the Chinese language internet overnight over a statement made last year, its stores removed from maps and ride-hailing apps and its app deleted from online stores as its products vanished from online marketplaces.
The tensions between criticism of human rights abuses in China, and the lure of its hundreds of millions of consumers, are only likely to grow before the Beijing Winter Olympics, planned for February 2022, which has become a focus for activists lobbying for stronger measures.
China rejects accusations of abuse and says internment camps and other security measures in Xinjiang are part of a campaign against extremism and terrorism. It pressures anyone wanting to do business inside its borders, or with its companies, to fall in line with government positions, arguing companies cannot criticise China while profiting from it.