Why has China sanctioned five British MPs?

Five Tory MPs are among nine UK citizens now banned from entering China or Hong Kong

Adam Forrest
Friday 26 March 2021 11:19
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Today's daily politics briefing

China has slapped sanctions on five Conservative MPs, claiming they had “maliciously spread lies” about Beijing’s treatment of the Uighur Muslim minority group.

Tory MPs Sir Iain Duncan Smith, Tom Tugendhat, Neil O’Brien, Tim Loughton, and Nusrat Ghani will be now be banned from entering China, Hong Kong and Macao, and Chinese citizens and institutions will be prohibited from doing business with them.

They are among nine British citizens – also including two peers, a top lawyer and leading academic – have been hit with the sanctions as part of a retaliatory move, after the UK imposed sanctions on Chinese officials deemed responsible for alleged human rights abuses earlier this week.

Why have the MPs and other figures been single out?

The five Tory MPs – along with Lord David Alton, Baroness Helena Kennedy, Geoffrey Nice QC and academic Joanne Nicola Smith Finley – have been leading critics of China’s treatment of its Uighur population in Xinjiang province.

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Beijing has been accused by Amnesty International and other groups of detaining more than one million members of the Uighur and other Muslim minority groups and subjecting them to forced labour.

The country’s foreign ministry has denied the claims, and said the sanctioned MPs had “maliciously spread lies and disinformation” about China’s policies in Xinjiang.

The move also represents retaliation against the UK government, after foreign secretary Dominic Raab announced a package of travel bans and asset freezes against four senior officials and the state-run Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps Public Security Bureau earlier this week.

One of the MPs targeted by Beijing for sanctions is particularly close to the prime minister. Mr O’Brien is in charge of the Conservative Party’s policy board, so enjoys a role in shaping policy at No 10.

The sanctions also apply to four UK institutions which have been outspoken about the treatment of the Uighur minority: the China Research Group, the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, the Uyghur Tribunal and Essex Court Chambers.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith has been hit by sanctions

How have the MPs responded?

Former Tory party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said he considered the sanctions a “badge of honour”. He added: “It is our duty to call out the Chinese government’s human rights abuses in Hong Kong and their genocide of the Uighur people.

“Those of us who live free lives under the rule of law must speak for those who have no voice. If that brings the anger of China down upon me the I shall wear that as a badge of honour.”

Conservative MP Nusrat Ghani told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme it was a “wake-up call for all democratic countries and lawmakers”.

She added: “To sanction MPs who are just doing their jobs here in the UK is extraordinary. I know I won’t be intimidated, this has now made me feel even more determined to speak about the Uighur.”

Tom Tugendhat, leader of China Research Group – which has also been sanctioned by Beijing – told BBC News: “I view this as a direct assault on British democracy and an attempt to silence the people that the British public have chosen to speak for them.”

He added: “If that isn’t an assault on British sovereignty, I don’t know what is.”

How has the UK government responded to the sanctions?

Boris Johnson’s government said the move showed how China tried to sanction its most vocal critics, and called on Beijing to allow international access to Xinjiang to verify the truth about human rights abuses in the province.

“It speaks volumes that, while the UK joins the international community in sanctioning those responsible for human rights abuses, the Chinese government sanctions its critics,” said foreign secretary Dominic Raab.

“If Beijing want to credibly rebut claims of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, it should allow the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights full access to verify the truth.”

Mr Johnson said he stood “firmly” with his for fellow Tory MPs on Friday morning. “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 Uyghur Muslims,” he tweeted.

Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy has offered support, saying China would “not succeed” in silencing British criticism of the treatment of the Uighur people.

In a statement, the senior Labour MP said: “These sanctions area blatant attempt to silence British parliamentarians who are shining a spotlight on the appalling persecution of the Uighur people. They will not succeed.”

The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), across-party group of international politicians, said it would make “urgent representations” to the government ministers and parliamentary authorities.

The IPAC said it wanted to see that MPs and peers are “protected from danger or harm as a result of the [Chinese] Communist Party’s bullying”.

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