Human Rights: Xinjiang

Yesterday afternoon, Mark responded on behalf of the Government to a Westminster Hall debate called by Alistair Carmichael MP regarding the situation in Xinjiang, China. Mark's response to the debate is pasted below and you can find the debate in its entirety by clicking here.

Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)

I beg to move,

That this House has considered human rights in Xinjiang.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I am delighted to have the opportunity to discuss this issue. I am also pleased to see a good number of other MPs in the Chamber, given the importance of business elsewhere in the Palace. I am grateful for their support. I place on the record my appreciation of the work in this area of various non-governmental organisations, including Amnesty International, Christian Solidarity Worldwide—CSW—Human Rights Watch and the World Uyghur Congress.

I also add the BBC to that list. It was a remarkable 10-minute report by John Sweeney on “Newsnight” in August 2018 that first brought this issue to my attention; I am ashamed to say that I knew nothing about it until that point. In that 10 minutes he described very graphically the scale of what is happening in Xinjiang province and well illustrated the human cost. Even if the BBC does nothing else worth watching over the next 12 months—I do not completely discount that possibility—that 10 minutes alone justifies the licence fee.

The concerns that I and, I hope, others will raise are all supported by evidence, although there are other concerns that are not so well evidenced. However, even on those concerns for which evidence exists it is impossible to be entirely accurate, as we shall see when looking at the numbers affected. That is principally a consequence of the secrecy and surveillance of the government of the Xinjiang province, which is said to extend not only within the province but outside it as well. Uyghur Muslims living in this country feel very much under the same pressure as those who live in Xinjiang. Parenthetically, I hear anecdotal reports that the Chinese secret service has been recruiting Chinese students at British universities to spy on other Chinese students, thus continuing and worsening the climate of secrecy and fear.

However, thanks to the evidence of “Newsnight” and the efforts of Amnesty, CSW and Human Rights Watch, we have an emerging picture on an epic scale. What is being done in Xinjiang is also happening in Tibet, where mass detention camps have been a feature of the landscape since 2014. The so-called re-education camps, officially known as centres for transformation through education, are principally, but not exclusively, targeted at the Muslim community.

CSW lists reasons for detention in the camps including, among other things: someone having WhatsApp on their phone; having relatives who live abroad; accessing religious materials online; having visited certain “sensitive” countries; participation in communal religious activities; and behaviour indicating “wrong thinking” or “religious extremism”. Indeed, sometimes no reason is given at all.

Amnesty gives some useful context, stating:

“China’s Constitution, laws and ethnic policies all stress ethnic unity and prohibit discrimination against ethnic groups…But China’s expressed determination to eradicate the ‘forces of terrorism, separatism and extremism’ leads officials to pursue discriminatory ​policies that target members of ethnic groups merely for exercising their rights to freedom of religion and belief, thought, peaceful assembly, association, movement, opinion, expression and access to information.”

Quite incredibly, the Chinese Government continue to deny the existence of these camps. However, eyewitness accounts, documentation relating to the construction and procurement of the camps, and satellite imagery all contradict that denial. The number of detainees is said to be between several hundred thousand and just over 1 million, with CSW saying that it may be as high as 3 million. We can be certain that that number is rising.

What goes on within these detention facilities has been described as Orwellian, which I think, because of what we know, does some injustice to George Orwell. If George Orwell was commissioned to write in the style of Franz Kafka, that might come close. Inmates are required to chant Communist party slogans, recite party thought and take part in self-incrimination sessions.


The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

I commend the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for securing this important debate. Mischievously, perhaps, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) put it to us that Orkney and Shetland may be the happiest constituency in the country; on a day like today that may have something to do with its proximity to Norway, but I will not make too much of that point. There used to be a quiz question asked about the right hon. Gentleman and me because my constituency is the nearest to Westminster, while his is the furthest away.

As a last bit of levity in this important, serious and high-profile debate, may I say that it is great to hear from the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse)? She knows that I have a German mother; we used to tease my mother about her malapropisms. If the hon. Lady’s only problem is that she has difficulty in saying the word “reciprocity”, I am sure that very few of us could answer that we know much about Gegenseitigkeit. I thank the hon. Lady and all hon. Members present for the high quality of their contributions today; this is a serious debate and I do not wish to use any more levity.

If I may, I will update the House on the current situation in Xinjiang and the action that the Government propose. I do not have anything like the depth of knowledge of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), but I have visited the region, not as a Minister, but on my very visit to China some 16 years ago. I was struck even then by the atmosphere of tension. There was clearly a very large Muslim population in many of the towns and cities of the autonomous region close to the Mongolian border, but there was also a sense—this was only a couple of years after 9/11—that human rights issues were beginning to crowd in. We have seen that happen with much more serious effect in recent years.

The ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang have faced a variety of restrictions on their freedom of religion and belief, freedom of speech and freedom of association over several years—indeed, for decades past. Xinjiang’s energy reserves and geopolitical significance are likely to be key factors in the Chinese Government’s close involvement in the region: Xinjiang is home to China’s largest gas fields, half of its coal deposits and an estimated 20% of its oil reserves.

The Strike Hard campaign was initiated following an outbreak of violence, including bombings and knife attacks, in 2009. As many hon. Members have said, it has developed into the intensive crackdown that we are seeing today. The situation has deteriorated rapidly over the past two or three years, particularly—as the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) rightly pointed out—since the appointment of a new regional party secretary, Chen Quanguo. He had previously held the same position in Tibet, where he obviously earned his spurs as far as the Chinese authorities were concerned.

Mr Chen has introduced many of the techniques that he used in Tibet to monitor residents in Xinjiang. In fact, he has developed them further and fused them with a system of “political re-education camps”. However, we should also be clear that although Mr Chen has been a leading architect of the crackdown on the Uyghurs ​and other ethnic minorities, culpability for the worsening situation does not lie with him alone. His actions have been supported at the highest levels by the Chinese leadership.

Many hon. Members have already said that there are credible and important reports by non-governmental organisations describing the restrictive and oppressive measures being employed by the Chinese authorities, and quoted those reports. Our own diplomats visited Xinjiang as recently as December last year and their report painted a similarly bleak picture of the oppression being suffered by over a million Uyghurs and other minorities.

Let me speak for a moment about the specific measures that the authorities are using in Xinjiang. Among other things, traditional and unexceptional expressions of religious observance are now banned, from giving children religious names to having an “abnormal” beard or wearing a veil; I think the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) went into some detail about some of the oppressive practices that are being imposed on the local community.

As part of an apparent attempt to redefine Islam and to sinicise the Uyghur culture, extensive cultural restrictions have also been introduced, including the restriction on the use of the traditional Uyghur language. Contravention of the rules is likely to lead to detention and other punishments.

Uyghurs and members of other minorities with overseas connections, whether they have family members living abroad or a history of travel themselves, are deemed to be particularly suspicious and are highly likely to be detained. Families are monitored closely, including by Han Chinese officials, who they are obliged to host in their homes for several days at a time. Outside the home, Uyghurs and other minorities are reportedly watched closely through extensive use of sophisticated technologies, as has been pointed out already, which is supported by a heavy police presence. However, as has also been mentioned during the debate, what most concerns many of us is that over 1 million Uyghur Muslims—more than 10% of the Uyghur population—and other ethnic minorities have at one time or another been held in extra-judicial camps, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) pointed out.

It is not known just how long each individual is detained, what chance they have of being released or what the mechanism for release might be, or whether they can appeal their detention. However, what is clear is that these detentions have split up families, left many children effectively orphaned, as the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) pointed out, and created an overbearing culture of fear.

Much of this activity was considered by the UN committee on the elimination of racial discrimination in its report last August. It issued very detailed recommendations, including that China should

“Halt the practice of detaining individuals who have not been lawfully charged, tried and convicted for a criminal offence in any extra-legal detention facilities”.

In addition to the extra-judicial camps, and according to Chinese Government data, criminal arrests in Xinjiang accounted for an alarming 21% of the total number of arrests in China in 2017, when the population in Xinjiang makes up only 1.5% of China’s total population.​

As a number of Members have pointed out, China’s response to the increasing expressions of international concern was initially simply to deny the existence of these camps. Later, it sought to brand them as education and training facilities, and it justified them on the basis of counter-terrorism. As I think all of us know, there have been incidents in the past, but this is a wholly unprecedented and unwarranted over-reaction to that matter.

China claims that the camps are a necessary part of the policy to prevent extremism and that other countries have no right to interfere in its internal affairs. The Chinese authorities naturally have the right to address genuine security concerns in Xinjiang. However, all the evidence to hand suggests that their action is disproportionate and indiscriminate, and it is a response that, as a number of Members have pointed out, will be counterproductive in the long term, because it will exacerbate a whole range of ethnic tensions.

In this way, I believe that China is causing untold suffering to millions of its own citizens. It is also contravening its own constitutional provisions on freedom of religion and indeed its obligations under the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UK is, of course, deeply concerned about the situation in Xinjiang. We believe strongly that everyone everywhere should enjoy equal rights and protections under the law. That is why we are promoting and defending human rights, including the right to freedom of religion or belief, as a fundamental part of our own foreign policy.

It was right that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green pointed out that in areas such as climate change, anti-money laundering and increasingly in combating modern-day slavery, we are making some progress alongside the Chinese authorities. Despite that co-operation, and notwithstanding our deep and strong relationship with China, we must and will have no hesitation about raising these issues of concern. Realistically, doing that at the UN Security Council will not have a great impact. Therefore, doing it in Geneva and through the European Union, as the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland rightly pointed out, is the more productive way forward.

The situation in Xinjiang is one of the most serious areas of human rights concerns in relation to our relationship with China.

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con)

Will the Minister give way?

Mark Field

Forgive me; I will not give way because I am running out of time and I want to touch on all the issues.

Our lobbying of China takes place both bilaterally and in multilateral forums. I myself raised the issue of Xinjiang during my visit to five cities in China last July, as did my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary during his visit to Beijing later that month.

In the UK’s “item 4” statement at the UN Human Rights Council in September, we raised several of our concerns about Xinjiang. And during China’s universal periodic review at the UN on 6 November, we pressed China on when it would implement the recommendations of the UN committee on the elimination of racial discrimination. In our formal statement during the review itself, we urged China to

“Immediately implement the Committee’s recommendations on Xinjiang and allow the UN to monitor their implementation.”​

Additionally, we have applied such pressure both in private and in public, working strategically with likeminded international partners, in particular, of course, with EU member states and others, to raise awareness of our concerns.

I will touch on one or two of the specific concerns that were expressed in the debate. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland asked about the moratorium on returns of failed asylum seekers. As has been pointed out, that is a Home Office competency and responsibility. However, I understand that the Home Office has recently updated its guidance notes for asylum caseworkers, which I think reflects the latest situation in Xinjiang, and those guidance notes will be kept under constant review.

The hon. Member for Bolton South East called for an independent inquiry. The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has said that her office is seeking access to Xinjiang as a matter of urgency, to verify what she regards as very worrying reports about the “re-education camps”. We support her call for access and we continue to urge the Chinese Government to grant unrestricted access to the UN, so that it can take care of this matter.

The hon. Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee) talked about Hikvision CCTV, which is a very specific case. We are obviously aware of the reports of Hikvision’s specific role in providing facial recognition cameras for use in Xinjiang. I will be happy to write to the hon. Lady with more details about that, and indeed I will be happy to write to other Members to deal with the one or two other matters that came up during the debate that I am not able to discuss now.

To conclude, the Government watch with very deep concern the Chinese authorities’ crackdown on Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang, and in particular the huge numbers of people in detention, apparently without recourse to due process of law. In the interests of the people of Xinjiang and for the long-term stability of that region, and indeed in the interests of China’s own international reputation, it is vital that China implements the recommendations of the UN committee for the elimination of racial discrimination and honours its own human rights commitments. We shall continue to urge the Chinese Government to change their course and to meet those commitments.