PM could face Commons defeat over trade with 'growing threat' China

Boris Johnson could face defeat in vote over trade deals with ‘growing threat’ China with more than 40 Tory backbenchers ready to rebel amid international fury at Beijing’s Uighur ‘genocide’

  • Tory civil war over Beijing’s abuses including against Uighurs and Hong Kongers
  • Hawks want tougher action against military and anti-democratic threat
  • But Integrated Review of foreign and defence policy called for deeper trade links

Boris Johnson faces a potential defeat at the hands of his own backbenchers in the Commons tonight over his softly-softly approach to China amid international fury at its treatment of the Uighur Muslims.

MPs will vote later on an amendment to legislation that would limit the Government’s ability to strike agreements with countries involved in the most serious human rights abuse.

More than 30 Tory backbenchers rebelled last month to defy the Prime Minister and seek to place limits on doing business with regimes accused of gross human rights violations.

And it is understood that rebels believe tonight’s vote could see enough break ranks to overturn the Government’s working majority of 87.

The issue of the UK’s relationship with Beijing is rapidly descending into a Tory civil between China hawks worried about the country’s growing military and anti-democratic threat and pro-trade MPs who want to do business with a global economic titan.

Hawks are furious that the Government is not following the example of the United States and formally describing the ethnic cleansing of Uighurs in Xinjiang as ‘genocide’. 

When the Government published its Integrated Review of foreign and defence policy on Tuesday, a series of senior Conservatives expressed concern that it did not take a tougher line on Beijing, instead calling for deeper trade links. 

Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said today that MPs can ‘send a signal’ to China and ‘give hope’ to victims of human rights abuses by supporting the Lords amendment tonight.  

The treatment of China’s Uighur Muslim minority has sparked protests around the world and MPs want the Government to take a more aggressive stance.

Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said today that MPs can ‘send a signal’ to China and ‘give hope’ to victims of human rights abuses by supporting the Lords amendment tonight.

Hawks are furious that the Government is not following the example of the United States and formally describing the ethnic cleansing of Uighurs in Xinjiang under China’s leader Xi Jinping (pictured) as ‘genocide’.

The flash points in the war of words between Britain and Beijing

Britain and Beijing have clashed repeatedly in recent years with tensions between the two sides steadily rising. 

The main issues of contention have been the treatment of the Uighur people, the coronavirus pandemic, Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s 5G network and Hong Kong. 

Human rights abuses against the Uighur

China has faced repeated accusations of human rights abuses against the Uighur people in Xinjiang province.  

Boris Johnson today said Britain has led the world in ‘expressing our deep concern’ at China’s treatment of the Uighur people as he insisted the UK will continue to defend its values on the world stage.   

The UK Government is under growing pressure from Tory MPs to take a tougher stance on the issue amid calls for sanctions to be imposed on any Chinese government officials involved in human rights abuses. 

There have also been calls for the UK to boycott the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, something Mr Johnson has signalled he is not in favour of. 

The Government has been highly critical of Beijing, with Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab stating last July that it is clear that ‘gross, egregious human rights abuses’ are being perpetrated against the Uighur people in northern China. 

Beijing has rejected the accusations of human rights abuses. 

Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the UK, last year hit back at the ‘false accusations’ after he was confronted with video footage of Uighur people being detained and forced onto a train in Xinjiang.

Free speech and Hong Kong

Beijing’s decision to impose a controversial national security law on Hong Kong last year prompted the UK to announce a path to citizenship for three million Hong Kongers with British National (Overseas) status.  

Critics argued the national security law would be used as a tool to crackdown on dissent after a wave of pro-democracy protests in the city. 

China accused the UK of treating it like a ‘hostile country’ in the wake of the citizenship decision and warned Britain will ‘pay the price’. 

Tensions further increased this month after China approved a controversial ‘patriotic’ plan to control elections in Hong Kong, prompting Mr Raab to accuse Beijing of further ‘hollowing out’ democracy.

Coronavirus cover-up

Downing Street prompted fury in Beijing in May last year after it said there are ‘questions that need to be answered’ about the origin of Covid-19. 

Number 10’s comments came after then-US president Donald Trump claimed to have seen evidence the disease came from a laboratory in the Chinese city of Wuhan. 

Mr Trump made the explosive claim but refused to reveal what the evidence was. 

Number 10 would not be drawn on the specifics of Mr Trump’s comments but again reiterated its desire for an international probe into the start of the outbreak.


The UK Government announced in January last year that Chinese communications giant Huawei would be granted a role in building Britain’s new 5G network. 

But ministers then performed a U-turn in July, with the firm banned from the network while all of its existing 5G technology will be stripped out by 2027 over national security concerns.

Links to UK universities 

Ex-minister Jo Johnson recently highlighted the issues of collaboration between UK universities and China, saying the risks were ‘poorly understood’.

A study led by the PM’s brother suggested there had been a significant increase in funding from the communist state, including in sensitive areas such as automation and telecommunications. 

It also raised questions over whether collaboration could threaten freedom of speech.

‘The UK urgently needs to put in place a framework for this key relationship so that it will be able to withstand rising geopolitical tensions. Failure to do so risks real damage to our knowledge economy,’ said Mr Johnson.

The former minister joined the voices of senior Tories who have called for relations with China to be cooled, despite the Prime Minister’s Integrated Review of security, defence, development and post-Brexit foreign policy published last week calling for a ‘positive trade and investment relationship’ with Beijing in the run-up to 2030.

‘The report refers to China as a competitor, when I believe it is, in reality, a growing threat, not just to the UK but to the free world itself,’ Sir Iain wrote in The Telegraph.

The former opposition leader said it would be timely for Britain to work with the new administration in Washington and other allies in dealing with Beijing.

‘A good place to start would be in passing the Lords amendment today, to send a signal not just to the Chinese government but to those who labour under this terrible oppression that the free world recognises their struggle,’ Sir Iain wrote.

‘Genocide is the crime of all crimes and the UK must offer a beacon of hope to those who suffer.’

The latest change tabled by the human rights campaigner Lord Alton of Liverpool would establish a parliamentary panel of judicial experts which could determine whether any proposed signatory to a trade agreement with the UK had committed genocide.

Ministers have opposed the move arguing it would ‘blur the distinction between courts and Parliament’ while the response to concerns over genocide in relation to trade policy was ultimately a ‘political question’.

However they face growing unrest on the Tory benches among MPs concerned about China’s treatment of its Uighur minority in Xinjiang province.

It comes a day after Labour appealed to Tory MPs to defy the whips and back the amendment and following a rebellion last month by 31 Conservative MPs.

The rebellion slashed the Government’s majority of 80 to just 15 amid accusations of ‘dirty tricks’ by ministers to scupper an earlier amendment by the upper chamber to give the courts a role in deciding whether trade deals can go ahead. 

Tory MP Nusrat Ghani, who has signalled she will rebel to back the Lords amendment to the Trade Bill, questioned the Government’s rationale in holding the door open to trade deals with countries accused of committing genocide.

The former minister told BBC Radio 4’s Today: ‘To assume that countries that are involved in genocide at any point are going to stop to ensure they get a preferential trade deal is a curious way to go about this.

‘The interesting thing about this is the Government’s own amendment, the (Sir Bob) Neill amendment, will allow many groups of people around the world to come and present their case, but somehow does not allow the Uighur to come forward and make their case.

‘So why would we have an amendment on the floor of the House that the Government is pushing that seems to exclude the Uighur?’ she asked.

Ms Ghani said MPs should be able to ‘assess the data’ to rule, as America and Canada have done, on whether China is committing genocide in Xinjiang, with claims of forced sterilisations and labour camps for Uighur Muslims.

In a letter to Tory MPs at the weekend, shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy and shadow international trade Emily Thornberry said the vote tonight was an opportunity for the House to send a ‘united message’ to the Government.

‘Recent comments by the Foreign Secretary and other ministers make clear the Government is prepared to sign trade deals with countries even when there are serious human rights concerns,’ they said.

‘The extensive rear-guard action to block a vote on the genocide amendment only reinforces our concern that the Government does not want to have its freedom of manoeuvre with China and other states limited in any way by the moral convictions shared across the House.

‘Next week, Parliament can send a united message that genocide can never be met with indifference, impunity or inaction, and must certainly never be rewarded with preferential terms of trade.’

Yesterday the Prime Minister’s father has waded into the row by urging him to ‘stand up’ to the hawks, accusing them of seeking a ‘new Cold War’ with Beijing.

Former MEP Stanley Johnson said it is ‘absolutely vital’ that Britain continues to ‘work very closely’ with the Chinese government ‘even more’ post-Brexit.

The 80-year-old rubbished Tory demands that the UK should be tougher despite a year of tensions with China. 

Speaking to Times Radio, he said he was suspicious of a ‘tendency’ among Conservatives to ‘cook up’ a conflict with Beijing, saying that it does not make ‘any sense’ to try to match Beijing ‘weapon for weapon’.

Instead, Mr Johnson Sr called China ‘the key to so many things’ – from climate change to the world economy and the pandemic – and hinted that Tory passions could be ‘redirected’ to Brussels instead.    

‘China is absolutely not a bette noir. It’s the key to so many things,’ the Prime Minister’s father said.

‘In political terms, it’s absolutely vital we work very closely with China. He (the Prime Minister) is right not to write off China at this point – on the contrary, I think he’s right to move to discussions with China, important discussions. 

‘It is inevitable, even more inevitable now that we have left the EU.’

Asked whether the UK should be tougher with Beijing, he went on: ‘Well, I don’t think we’re going to do that. I don’t think there’s any way in which we can match China weapon for weapon for weapon. 

‘I do not think that makes any sense at all, we’ve got to engage with China at an intellectual level. Look at the number of Chinese students at British universities today. Can you imagine the effect on British universities, even the financial effect on British universities, if we had a rupture now with the Chinese?   

‘I mean, a lot of them would just go out of business, that they are so dependent on Chinese students, Chinese research, and so on and so forth. So I feel quite strongly.

‘I would be worried by a tendency in the Tory party to suddenly, you know, cook up… maybe they’ll be distracted by Ursula von der Leyen. We’ll see, maybe their aggressive instincts can be redirected to Brussels at this point in time.’ 

Mr Johnson Sr met Chinese ambassador Liu Xiaoming and emailed his worries about coronavirus to British officials in February of last year. 

Accidentally copying in the BBC, the Prime Minister’s father used his personal email address to share an account of the discussion with the environment minister Lord Goldsmith and other government officials.

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