Georgia L. Gilholy is a reporter for politics.co.uk but writes in a personal capacity.
Recent days have seen a slew of reports that Boris Johnson is eager to pursue closer economic ties with Beijing. Politico has even alleged that he has already authorised the resumption of the UK-China Joint Economic and Trade Committee.
Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak is said to have green-lighted the first China Economic and Financial Dialogue summit since 2019. If true, such moves represent a significant attempt to thaw relations at the highest echelons of UK-China relations, bringing us one step closer to the possibility of a trade deal.
Whatever Downing Street’s fantasies, a deal with Beijing would be a disastrous betrayal not just of the Government’s human rights commitments, but its vow to rebalance economic life following Brexit and Covid. The Foreign Secretary’s talk of an alliance of “freedom-loving democracies” to fence in China cannot remain words only. Cabinet ministers and all parliamentarians must do everything in their power to stop a deal from happening on their watch.
Since 2017, over a million Uyghurs and members of other Turkic Muslim minorities have disappeared into a vast network of ‘re-education’ camps in Northwest China, where detainees are subjected to forced labour and all manner of physical and psychological abuse.
Other political and religious minorities suffer similar plights across the regime. Chinese authorities were, too, responsible for mismanagement that led to the global spread of Covid-19, prompting and inspiring unprecedented lockdowns. While fully disentangling from China is unlikely, there is an urgent need to consider the moral and economic risk of any escalation in intimacy.
Last March, the Chinese government sanctioned five Conservative MPs and two peers who campaigned for the ‘genocide amendment’ to the Trade Bill. This clause would have permitted the UK High Court to make a preliminary ruling on whether genocide was occurring in a given place – the implication being that such a probe could consider China. For the UK to henceforth seek tighter bonds with such a nefarious actor will surely signal a failure to take its own parliamentarians seriously.
Pushing for a deal with Beijing would also represent a shameful backpedal from suggestions made during last year’s debate ron the amendment. In January 2021, the then trade minister, Greg Hands, told the Commons that passing such a motion would represent an “unprecedented erosion of the royal prerogative”, and stressed that the Government had no plans to sign a free trade deal with China.
Moreover, for a nation seeking to present a united front against tyranny as Putin’s tanks amass on Ukraine’s frontier, rumours of closer relations with Beijing are about as subtle as a distress flare. The Government cannot simultaneously lambast Russian expansionism while tiptoeing toward further reliance on its biggest backer and, arguably, the more significant threat to the global order.
These manoeuvres also further reveal the government’s lack of comprehensive strategy regarding China’s growing sphere of influence. At a time when the UK is currently reeling from the impact of major cyber attacks by suspected Chinese agents, and as the Government plans to back an EU trade case against China at the WTO, it seems bizarre to chase friendship rather than the utmost caution.
One British official has said that the Government wants a “… positive and constructive relationship with China but we will not sacrifice our values in doing so”. Yet should the “values” mentioned refer to inherent human dignity and liberties, anyone familiar with China’s tactics knows this is an impossible approach.
How can the UK expect to seek friendly trade links with Beijing and hold it to account on its abuses, when this has been its precise strategy for decades to no avail? How will the Government deliver on its pledge to tackle forced labour in supply chains when China’s economy is in part dependent on this crime?
While British voters overwhelmingly support placing human rights concerns at the forefront of our trade relationships, their priority at the ballot box will likely be what such deals mean for domestic policy. China is already the UK’s third-largest source of imports, because of its ability to source low-cost labour. Signs of pursuing closer ties with Beijing thus reveals the government’s unwillingness to confront reliance on cheap overseas supply chains. If free trade with the EU is tied up with too many ethical and financial compromises, what makes the government think a deal with China will prove more palatable?
Indeed, if manufacturing is to feature centrally in the Tories’ pledge to distribute opportunity across Britain, the incentive to create good jobs must be there. This will simply not materialise if we continue our addiction to the vulnerable and exploitative supply chains in China and beyond.
As the Chinese Communist Party continues to accelerate its program of global aggression and elimination of ethnic and religious freedoms, the UK must stand on the right side of history, rather than attempting to make a quick buck.