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UK secretly softens policy on Chinese firms accused of human rights abuse

By Richard Holmes

March 21, 2024

Credits @FFHR.CZ

The UK Government has secretly softened its policy against Chinese businesses implicated in human rights abuses, i can reveal.

An internal Whitehall assessment advised ministers that the Government would be pausing any consideration of sanctions against Chinese firms “indefinitely”, according to internal Cabinet documents seen by.

The revised approach to widespread humanitarian issues in China will raise further questions about the UK’s China policy. By removing the threat of sanctions, it reduces further safeguards against maltreatment of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region and the curtailing of democratic freedoms in Hong Kong.

The assessment, revealed today for the first time, was carried out by the Foreign Office (FCDO) and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and shared amongst ministers in November last year when David Cameron took up his role in the Foreign Office.

Conservative backbencher and leading China hawk, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, raised the assessment in the House of Commons on Wednesday, saying it was a “terrible decision”.

The rationale behind the decision is hidden behind high-level security clearances, according to the documents.

A Whitehall security source told i civil servants were “dumbfounded” by the assessment and couldn’t understand why such a blanket approach to the country would be taken.

The UK has publicly criticised Beijing on its human rights record, leading a joint statement at the UN in October last year which called-out China for its human rights violations. But only four Chinese government officials and a Xinjiang security body have faced sanctions under the UK’s flagship Global Human Rights sanction regime since its inception in 2020, with none being handed down for the past three years.

Mr Hunt recently held talks with Donald Tang, executive chairman of the Chinese fast-fashion giant, and the Chancellor is thought to be keen on Shein floating in the UK despite the company Shein to labour abuses at its suppliers’ factories in 2022.

A UK intelligence source said the approach was indicative of the UK’s problem when it comes to sanctions against China because it “relies heavily on Chinese infrastructure”. The source said the Government risked “cutting off its nose to spite its face” and warned that any action by the UK  would cause a reaction by Beijing.

“For every reaction taken against the Chinese there will be a strike back against the UK,” they told. “It’s a game of not inflicting too much damage on the UK while doing enough to tackle human rights issues.”

Sir Iain has filed a Freedom of Information request to the FCDO demanding the department releases any internal documents relating to the decision, i has learned.

The ex-Tory leader, who is among a group of British politicians sanctioned by Beijing, urged the Government to explain themselves, calling it a “terrible decision to make” during a  debate in the House of Commons.

He raised the assessment in the House as MPs condemned Hong Kong legislators for passing a national security law that grants them more power to quash dissent. The laws stipulate life sentences for offences like external interference and insurrection, fuelling fears of authoritarianism in the region.

Foreign Office minister Andrew Mitchell said it was “outrageous” Sir Iain and others had been sanctioned but declined to comment on the UK’s approach.

He said: “We do not discuss across the floor of the House our approach to sanctions, but he may rest assured that we are  keeping all such matters under regular review.”

The FCDO assessment was passed down to ministers as Cameron took up his role as the UK’s Foreign Secretary last November, and risks adding fuel to concerns over the former Prime Minister’s stance on China.

Cameron’s time as prime minister is often referred to as the “golden era” of UK-China relations, where there was a deepening of economic ties between the two countries. Since leaving Downing Street, the Foreign Secretary continued to engage with Chinese interests, leading a $1bn UK-China investment fund and supporting Chinese investment in a port project in Sri Lanka.

The FCDO was contacted for comment.

The UK and China’s recent record on human rights Wednesday’s revelations reveal another layer in the UK’s complex policy towards China, and the limitations of the UK’s action against firms benefitting from a host of alleged human rights abuses in the country. In the face of growing concerns over China’s human rights record, the UK has been inactive when compared to allies such as the US and Canada. The United Nations has accused China of arbitrary detentions of the Uyghur ethnic minority inside the country, along with serious human rights violations in the Xinjiang province. A UN report also said the Chinese government has severed families and used intimidation and threats against Uyghurs who are not residents of Xinjiang province, stating that its restrictions may constitute international crimes, “in particular crimes against humanity”. NGOs have accused the UK Government of failing to tackle human rights issues with proper action, with one filing a legal petition to the government in a bid for further sanctions earlier this month. The NGO, which is seeking to remain anonymous out of concerns regarding possible Chinese government repercussions, requested that the UK Government consider formal sanctions against seven Chinese companies which are alleged to have employed Uyghur  labour at several seafood-processing plants.



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