Boris Johnson condemns China sanctions against outspoken MPs: ‘I stand firmly with them’

‘Freedom to speak out in opposition to abuse is fundamental’ prime minister says - as Beijing targets critics

Rob Merrick,Andrew Woodcock
Friday 26 March 2021 21:49 GMT
Sanctioned Tory MP calls China penalties ‘assault to democracy’

Boris Johnson has condemned China’s sanctions against outspoken MPs and other British citizens, saying: “I stand firmly with them.”

Beijing is punishing critics, including former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, in a tit-for-tat retaliation for UK sanctions over Beijing’s treatment of Uighur Muslims.

In response, the prime minister tweeted: “The MPs and other British citizens sanctioned by China today are performing a vital role shining a light on the gross human rights violations being perpetrated against Uighur Muslims.

“Freedom to speak out in opposition to abuse is fundamental and I stand firmly with them.”

Mr Duncan Smith, one of the leading China critics on the Tory benches, said he would wear the sanctions “as a badge of honour”.

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And another, Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, described Beijing’s move as “a direct assault on British democracy”.

Also on the list are fellow Tory MPs Neil O’Brien, Tim Loughton and Nusrat Ghani, Labour peer Helena Kennedy, Liberal Democrat peer David Alton, the China Research Group (CRG) of MPs, Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, Uighur Tribunal, and Essex Court Chambers.

In a statement on behalf of the CRG, Mr Tugendhat and Mr O’Brien said the “profoundly sinister” move could potentially affect 100 MPs involved with the group.

“It is tempting to laugh off this measure as a diplomatic tantrum,” they said. “But in reality it is profoundly sinister and just serves as a clear demonstration of many of the concerns we have been raising about the direction of China under Xi Jinping.

“It is telling that China now responds to even moderate criticism with sanctions, rather than attempting to defend its actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.”

While the MPs said they would not personally be “hugely” affected by the sanctions, they voiced concern that Beijing’s aim was to make others feel threatened and to have a “chilling effect” on businesses that might make decisions based on China’s human rights record.

They pointed to retailers like H&M and Nike that have faced a backlash in China after expressing concerns over allegations of the use of forced Uighur labour in cotton production.

Mr O’Brien published a series of tweets highlighting allegations of forced sterilisation and rape of Uighur women, mass internment of members of the Muslim minority, and the use of AI face-recognition technology for surveillance.

“The first ever sanctions against MPs by Beijing are a big deal and demonstrate exactly the concerns we have been raising,” said Mr O’Brien. “But ultimately, this isn’t about us; it’s about them trying to distract from human rights abuses reminiscent of South Africa under apartheid.”

Ms Ghani said: “I won’t be intimidated or silenced and neither must the government. I will use my freedom to raise the plight of the Uighurs and I will take this sanction as a badge of honour.”

And Lord Alton said: “The Chinese Communist Party assumes that trading with a state credibly accused of genocide will be more important to the UK than defending the values we cherish. They are fundamentally mistaken.

“The imposition of tit-for-tat sanctions is a crude attempt to silence criticism. But the CCP needs to learn that you can’t silence the whole world and that the first duty of a parliamentarian is to use their voice on behalf of those whose voices have been silenced.”

At a news conference at the Chinese embassy in London, a spokesperson condemned “fabricated reports” about the country’s treatment of people in the Xinjiang region.

The situation in Xinjiang – with reports of 1 million people detained without trial and widespread claims of torture and rape in the camps – “can’t be defined by a few satellite images”, he insisted.

Britain, the US, Canada and the European Union imposed sanctions on Chinese officials deemed responsible for human rights abuses in Xinjiang, in a coordinated action on Monday.

In retaliation, “the Chinese side decides to sanction nine individuals and four entities on the UK side that maliciously spread lies and disinformation,” a statement said.

“As of today, the individuals concerned and their immediate family members are prohibited from entering the mainland, Hong Kong and Macao of China; their property in China will be frozen, and Chinese citizens and institutions will be prohibited from doing business with them. China reserves the right to take further measures,” it said.

The Chinese embassy spokesperson claimed “lies of the century” were being spread about what was going on in Xinjiang and criticised the UK’s deployment of sanctions.

“Human rights in Xinjiang cannot be defined by a few satellite images, fake reports cobbled together by people thousands of miles away,” he said.

Mr Tugendhat said he had been “elected to speak for the people”, and added: “I view this as a direct assault on British democracy and an attempt to silence the people the British people have chosen to speak for them.”

The chair of the foreign affairs committee in the German parliament offered “full solidarity with Tom and all his colleagues”.

“Banning leading western parliamentarians from entering the country for asking critical questions won’t do mutual understanding any good,” Norbert Rottgen wrote on Twitter.

The shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, criticised the sanctions as “a blatant attempt to silence British parliamentarians who are shining a spotlight on the appalling persecution of the Uighur people”.

And Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for foreign affairs, voiced “full solidarity” with those named, saying: “Targeting backbench MPs instead of ministers makes clear this is about China’s disdain for democracy around the world.”

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