U.K. Foreign Minister James Cleverly’s anticipated foreign policy speech last week outlined what he described as the “three pillars” of his China policy: protecting national security, deepening relationships with Indo-Pacific allies, and direct engagement with Beijing. While the speech appears to have hit the right notes — Cleverly said that promoting human rights was essential to national security — it was otherwise short on details.
Cleverly said he would “do more to safeguard academic freedom and research.” Yet in recent days a U.K.-based think tank found that the Home Office has “systematically enable[ed]” the Chinese government to vet those who go to the U.K. to teach Chinese language and culture in its Confucius Institutes, raising concerns about academic freedom.
On Hong Kong, for which the U.K. has special obligations, Cleverly said the U.K. responded to the Chinese government’s dismantling Hong Kong’s freedoms by giving “nearly 3 million of Hong Kong’s people a path to British citizenship.” Hong Kong people have certainly appreciated this opportunity for an exit from Beijing’s repression, but Cleverly has given no indication concerning London’s next steps. If the repression in Hong Kong has been growing, how should the U.K. be responding?
The U.K. government has in fact been all but missing in action when it comes to one of Hong Kong’s most prominent political prisoners, the British citizen and media tycoon Jimmy Lai. For publishing a popular newspaper with a pro-democracy outlook, Lai, 75, is awaiting trial for bogus crimes under the draconian National Security Law, which could put him behind bars for the rest of his life. Cleverly has not met with Lai’s son, despite repeated requests. And while the Home Office has expressed “concerns” about Lai’s arrest, it has not called for his release.
More generally, it is unclear whether the U.K. government is willing to translate its words about human rights into action and hold Chinese officials responsible for serious human rights violations.
Cleverly mentioned the plight of the Uyghurs, the Muslim minority in China whose members have been subjected to draconian surveillance, detention, and forced labor. He noted that the United Nations has determined that Beijing’s abuses against them “may constitute crimes against humanity,” but gave no details on how the U.K. plans to press the Chinese government for accountability. In 2021, the U.K. sanctioned four senior Xinjiang officials. While that was a good first step, it fell far short of the gravity of the abuses.
In February, U.K. officials appeared to have agreed to meet a top official involved in crimes against humanity against the Uyghurs. That visit was canceled after rights groups protested. But now, news has emerged that the U.K. is about to welcome a top Beijing official implicated in erasing Hong Kong people’s freedoms to King Charles’ coronation.
Instead of laying out the welcome mat, the U.K. government should hold Chinese officials to account through sanctions. The U.K. should pursue criminal cases against people responsible for these rights violations under the concept of “universal jurisdiction,” which allows prosecution of grave crimes committed abroad. The U.S. is the only government that has imposed sanctions on senior Hong Kong officials for imposing the National Security Law. The U.K. should be doing the same.
The U.K. should join efforts to press the U.N. Human Rights Council to formally discuss China’s sweeping rights violations. In an unprecedented — and razor-thin — vote in October, the council got very close to securing a discussion of the human rights crisis in Xinjiang.
On trade, Cleverly wants “a positive trade and investment relationship [with China], whilst avoiding dependencies in critical supply chains.” Is shielding its critical supply chains enough? The U.K. has seen how the Chinese government has increasingly used “economic coercion” to censor and strong-arm governments from Norway to Lithuania into taking China’s position on human rights and Taiwan.
What the U.K. needs is a more ambitious plan to reduce overall economic dependency on China so it does not become beholden to a powerful and unaccountable government; the German government is reportedly doing so in its draft China strategy.
The U.K. should also adopt trade restrictions to end the use of forced labor in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China, like its allies the U.S. and the EU. It should not, however, introduce anti-boycott laws that could undermine efforts to hold the Chinese and other governments accountable for their rights violations.
Finally, it is critical for the U.K. to meet its own obligations for its human rights foreign policy to be effective. On April 26 the House of Commons passed a bill that would allow the U.K. to ignore a decision issued by the European Court of Human Rights and place the U.K. in violation of international law.
Eyes will be on Cleverly as he puts his China policy into practice. One thing is clear: How the U.K. addresses these human rights issues will have a lasting impact at home and abroad for years to come.