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Will Human Rights in China Become a Casualty of Brexit?

The British government is gearing itself up to free the country from the “shackles” of European law and pave the way for business UK-style; but human rights and “foreign threats” are getting in the way.

By Ruth Ingram

March 1, 2023

Protesters from Big Brother Watch, Stop Uyghur Genocide, and Free Tibet gathered with spoof “spy” balloons in front of the U.K. Parliament to protest the use of Chinese company Hikvision surveillance cameras in public buildings around the country. (Photo courtesy of Big Brother Watch).

Whilst claiming to have the UK’s best interests at heart as they contemplate spending £400 billion of taxpayers money on post-Brexit public procurement, government ministers are coming under attack for “being asleep at the wheel” over Chinese surveillance cameras peppering the halls of power and every street corner of the land.

Not only are the security concerns clear, claim campaigners, but continuing to use Hikvision technology, first experimented on illegally detained Uyghurs in the vast network of internment camps peppering Xinjiang province, would be a human rights catastrophe.

Government rejection of a House of Lords amendment to the new Procurement Bill to set a timetable for dismantling Hikvision and Dahua cameras directly implicated in human rights abuses in China has angered MPs and human rights groups. David Alton, writing in the U.K. government’s in-house publication, “The House,” listed a catalogue of Chinese intrusions into U.K. infrastructure that must be addressed urgently. And the Procurement Bill was the perfect place to start.

“Whether those dangers are posed by Chinese-produced technology used for surveillance or espionage; tracking devices in ministers’ cars; CCP security cameras in government buildings; the widespread use by British police forces of Chinese-made drones; or partnerships between British universities with Chinese institutions; whether it is the danger of infiltration within the Palace of Westminster itself—highlighted by M15’s revelations last year about Christine Lee—or the risks of TikTok, we have been asleep at the wheel,” he said, scathing of ministers’ carelessness over China.

Free trade and globalization have been stymied by the meteoric rise of protectionist Beijing and the specter of the industrial super power features large over questions of procurement and business interests. The “golden era” in UK-Chinese relations is well and truly over.

MPs continue to clash with ministers over whether China is a “threat” or simply a “challenge,” many preferring to remain wary and keep the giant at arm’s length. But Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s previous saber-rattling has abated somewhat following his election as head of the U.K. government, and he has downgraded his rhetoric from “hostile state” to “systematic challenge.” Ministers are divided over sacrificing a good trade relationship with Beijing for the sake of a few “inconvenient” human rights concerns.

Liberal MP Alastair Campbell supporting the protest in Parliament Square as the post-Brexit Procurement Bill was being discussed in special committees behind them in the Houses of Parliament. Protesters called for a complete ban on surveillance cameras made by Chinese state-owned companies.

Former Chancellor Lord Philip Hammond speaking at a Chinese Spring Festival dinner organized jointly by Britain’s 48 Group Club, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in the UK, and the China-British Business Council, stressed the need to press ahead with free trade regardless of differences. “Let us focus not on what divides us but on what unites us, on making the case for free and fair trade, on encouraging mutual openness to investment,” he said, as reported by Chinese government mouthpiece, the China Daily.

Sherard Cowper-Coles, chairman of the China-Britain Business Council, representing 500 firms big and small, with dealings with the superpower, has frequently dodged human rights concerns in favor of trade, and even as far back as February 2021 was presenting his members with the choice to be “poor and pure” or strike deals with human rights violators.

At this New Year’s jolly he was again heard advocating the need for “a grownup approach to engaging with our two countries.”

The process of thrashing out the detail of the new Procurement Bill that would underpin British business interests going forward, started last Spring in the House of Lords.

Should public funds be tainted with the scourge of forced labor, organ harvesting, and surveillance systems tested for their efficiency on Uyghurs detained illegally in the vast network of so-called “Vocational Training Camps” in Xinjiang? This was the question on the lips of several peers concerned with the moral integrity of the Bill.

Making its way now through to the final stages of the Commons Committee to work on the fine print before emerging again in the House of Commons, it is clear that the rift is growing between Ministers and MPs.

When quizzed by the Human Rights Committee over the dangers of Hikvision, Dahua and similar Chinese surveillance equipment throughout the UK, Biometrics & Surveillance Camera Commissioner, Prof. Fraser Samson said companies like Hikvision, involved in states committing genocide or modern slavery, impact U.K. human rights compliance.

Interviewed by the Daily Mail, Professor Sampson warned of security risks linked to CCP control of all Chinese companies overseas. He could not understand why police forces in the U.K. continued to deploy the equipment while still aware of its dangers. “There has been a lot in the news in recent days about how concerned we should be about Chinese spy balloons 60,000ft up in the sky. I do not understand why we are not at least as concerned about the Chinese cameras 6ft above our head in the streets and elsewhere,” he said.

Professor Sampson testifying before the Human Rights Committee.

Professor Sampson warned the British government that continued use of this equipment, and removal of the Lords’ amendment to ban it, would breach international human rights treaty obligations.

“As the CCP continues to threaten our security, we need to up our game,” said David Alton. “It disturbs me that when, on national security grounds, our most important Five Eyes allies ban the Chinese regime’s involvement in telecommunications, surveillance cameras and nuclear power stations, the UK mostly follows the money, diminishing its resilience and increasing its dependency on China.”

He urged the government to consider reinstating the Lords’ amendment #65 on the removal of Hikvision cameras in the U.K.

All eyes will be on the next stage in the Bill and the inevitable spirited ping pong in the Spring over the details with the Lords.


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