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UK foreign secretary says raised human rights on China visit

James Cleverly (L) is the first UK foreign minister to visit China for five years
James Cleverly (L) is the first UK foreign minister to visit China for five years - Copyright POOL/AFP FLORENCE LO
James Cleverly (L) is the first UK foreign minister to visit China for five years - Copyright POOL/AFP FLORENCE LO

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said he had raised human rights concerns at “every single one” of his meetings with top Chinese officials, as he made a state visit to Beijing on Wednesday.

Cleverly, the first UK foreign minister to visit China for five years, held talks with Chinese Vice-President Han Zheng and is due to meet top diplomat Wang Yi.

The foreign office previously said his talking points would include China’s crackdown on freedoms in the former British colony of Hong Kong as well as Beijing’s alleged rights abuses in the Xinjiang and Tibet regions.

“I’ve had a number of conversations with senior representatives of the Chinese government and I have raised human rights in every single one of those meetings,” Cleverly said Wednesday.

“This is an issue that is discussed extensively not just bilaterally, but at the United Nations,” he said.

“I think the Chinese government understand the UK is consistent in our approach… and I will keep raising these issues with (them).”

Beijing’s foreign ministry brushed off questions about the role of human rights in the discussions.

“Hong Kong and Xinjiang are purely China’s internal affairs and brook no interference from other countries,” ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a regular press briefing.

China last month accused the United Kingdom of giving protection to fugitives after Cleverly blasted the Hong Kong government for offering bounties for information leading to the capture of prominent democracy activists based overseas.

And on Sunday, the state-backed Global Times newspaper set off a domestic online firestorm when it demanded the British Museum “return Chinese cultural relics for free”.

Britain ruled Hong Kong for over 150 years before it was handed over to China in 1997 under an agreement to preserve its unique civic freedoms.

Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on the city in 2020 after huge, sometimes violent protests.

China’s ruling Communist Party is also accused of a litany of rights abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet, including mass incarceration and forced labour.

– ‘Fundamental disagreements’ –

Cleverly has called for a pragmatic and united Western approach to China’s rise, acknowledging the need to partner with Beijing on global issues.

But a critical report by British MPs on Wednesday said London’s line on China lacked clarity and needed a “coordinated, whole-of-government approach”.

The 87-page report by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee also labelled China “a threat to the UK and its interests” and urged London to boost “deterrence diplomacy” to counter threats from Beijing.

Hawkish elements in the United Kingdom’s ruling Conservative party have urged Cleverly to act tougher on China.

Cleverly said Wednesday that “attempts to distil the UK’s relationship with China down to a single word or a soundbite are fundamentally flawed”.

China’s size, influence and complexity mean Britain’s relationship with Beijing will be “complicated and sophisticated”, he said. 

“We are clear-eyed about the areas where we have fundamental disagreements with China, and I raise those issues when we meet,” Cleverly added.

“We will pursue a pragmatic working relationship, but that does of course mean raising the issues where we disagree.”

AFP
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With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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