The government should freeze the assets of Chinese officials over the persecution of the Uighur people, Labour has said.
The shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, argued that new Magnitsky-style legislation should be introduced by the government and used against any officials involved in human rights abuses.
“There’s one thing that the government could do in relation to helping the Uighur people at the moment and that is to freeze the assets of any of the Chinese officials involved in those human rights abuses over in China,” she told Sky News.
“We’ve got new legislation now; we’ve been pushing the government to do that for two years. The UK should not be a haven for people who abuse human rights overseas.”
But her government counterpart, Dominic Raab, said sanctions could not just be applied “willy-nilly” and that an evidence base had to be built up to identify those responsible.
On 6 July, the government announced its first wave of asset freezes under the new legislation, targeting 25 Russian nationals, 20 Saudi nationals, two Burmese military generals and two organisations with links to North Korean forced labour camps.
However, Chinese officials were notable by their absence from the list, despite growing concerns about repression by authorities in Xinjiang. Downing Street also has concerns about China’s involvement in UK infrastructure, such as its nascent 5G telecommunications network.
Human rights groups say recent Chinese policy in the long-running conflict with the Muslim minority in Xinjiang has involved mass surveillance and the incarceration without trial of over one million people in “re-education camps”.
There are reports that the camps are being used for forced labour. China says its policies are in response to political extremism and the threat of terrorism.
Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesperson, Alistair Carmichael, said: “The images we have seen in recent days are harrowing and inhuman. The government has a duty to take a lead and do all we can to save the Uighur people.
“We must be clear what is happening here. The Chinese government is engineering a genocide. The foreign secretary must come before MPs before the recess and set out what urgent actions the government will take, both on an international level and unilaterally.”
Speaking on the same programme as Ms Nandy, Mr Raab said of the UK’s relationship with China: “I think we need to be very careful in our dealings. On the one hand we want a positive relationship with China – there are all sorts of areas and scope for cooperation, not least on investment and trade and things like that, but also on climate change.
“Equally, with various efforts – cyberattacks, the resilience of our vital interests like 5G – and when it comes to standing up for our values as we’ve done very clearly on Hong Kong ... we will always make clear our position on those key interests and values to China. That’s the calibrated approach we’ll take.”
Mr Raab said “there won’t be business as usual” and the UK would be “clear-eyed” in its dealings.
He told the BBC that it was clear there were ”gross, egregious human rights abuses” being perpetrated against the Uighur people.
“We are working with our international partners on this. It is deeply, deeply troubling,” he said.
“The reports of the human aspect of it – from forced sterilisation to the education camps – are reminiscent of something we have not seen for a long, long time.
“This is from a leading member of the international community that wants to be taken seriously and in fact who we want a positive relationship with. But we cannot see behaviour like that and not call it out.”
On the issue of sanctions, he said: “It’s not quite right as Lisa Nandy suggested that you can just willy-nilly decide to sanction X or Y. You have to, as we have done with Magnitsky, with the Rohingya, with North Korea, build up an evidence base and that takes a long time to do because you have to identify accurately and responsibly those involved.”
Mr Raab said he would be making a Commons statement on Monday in relation to what further measures the UK would take following China’s imposition of a new national security law in Hong Kong.
China’s ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, said any measures to sanction officials would be met with a response.
“We never believe in unilateral sanctions. We believe the UN is the authority, has the authority to impose sanctions. If the UK government goes that far to impose sanctions on any individuals in China, China will certainly make a resolute response to it,” he told the BBC.
“You’ve seen what happened between China and the US – they sanction Chinese officials, we sanction their senators. I do not want to see this tit-for-tat in UK relations. I think the UK should have its own independent foreign policy rather than the dance to the tune of Americans like what happened to Huawei.”
On the issue of Uighur persecution, the ambassador told the broadcaster: “The so-called western intelligence agencies keep making up this false accusation against China, that 1 million Uighurs have been persecuted. You know how many population Xinjiang has? Forty years ago it was four or five million. Now its 11 million people – and people say we impose ethnic cleansing, but the population had doubled in 40 years.
Responding to questions about forced sterilisation, he said: “I can easily refute this accusation. There’s some small group of anti-China elements working against the interests of China, but the majority of people in Xinjiang are happy with what is going on. In the past three years, there’s been not a single terrorist attack in Xinjiang.
“People can enjoy a harmonious life. Uighur people enjoy peaceful, harmonious coexistence with other ethnic groups of people. The Uighur people is just one small portion of the Chinese population even among the Muslims – but the majority of them are living happily and peacefully with other ethnic [groups]. The success of China is we have a very successful ethnic policy; we treat every ethnic group as an equal.”
Speaking on other issues, Ms Nandy said her party had “got it wrong” in its earlier response to concerns about the Russian government.
“By prevaricating about issues like [the poisoning in] Salisbury, we let the Tories off the hook. I strongly believe that that has to change and that we have to have a much more strategic approach to Russia,” she said.
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