Beijing to Britain - 2021 UK/China key events

A look ahead at what's to come in the world of China and Westminster, and some in-house predictions


Welcome to ‘Beijing to Britain’ - happy New Year.

Although Parliament was recalled prematurely on Wednesday to vote on new Covid-19 measures among other issues, this week’s briefing is different from usual and will instead focus on what we may expect from a UK/China perspective this year. It concludes with some in-house predictions, on which we welcome your views and additions.

In today’s Beijing to Britain:

  • Which Bills are worth watching in Parliament

  • Two Select Committees with China-orientated inquiries

  • Whitehall deliberations with respect to China and Hong Kong

  • Predictions for what 2021 holds for China in the UK


Two key Bills may shine a light on Government thinking towards China

A pair of Bills are currently going back and forth between the Houses of Commons and Lords. The first is the National Security and Investment Bill (NSIB), and the second is the Trade Bill.

Because the NSIB has potentially far-reaching implications with respect to China and other states, it has attracted a fair amount of publicity. This Bill has given many MPs the chance to criticise the Government’s handling of recent events in China and Hong Kong, and also to set out their stall on what a new strategic relationship could look and should look like. Unsurprisingly, Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC)-aligned MPs have been particularly vocal in this area.

The Trade Bill has also drawn media focus after members of the House of Lords voted in support of two amendments:

  1. Government will need to withdraw a trade agreement if an impact assessment showed serious human rights abuses

  2. The High Court will be given the right to make a preliminary judgment on genocide, which would consequently require an agreement to be revoked if genocide is found

The Government line (covered in a previous briefing, 13 December 2020) remains that both amendments should be voted down. However, rumours circulate of ministers rebelling: Patrick Wintour of The Guardian reports Liz Truss supports the second amendment for example - and external pressures are ramping up on backbench MPs. This progress of this Bill is therefore worth watching, because it has the potential to force a Government concession if these types of pressures continue to build.

Both Bills are in their Report stage - the former in the House of Commons with no date set yet, and the latter having just had its third stage in the House of Lords.

Select Committees

Select Committees are cross-party groups of MPs or Lords, sometimes both together, that scrutinise the Government in a particular area, or draw up recommendations that the Government could choose to enact

As the new year dawns, two Select Committees are running inquiries that could produce tangible action on China. They are:

  1. The Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC)

  2. The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee (BEISC)

Committees can play a significant role in allowing MPs to gain a deeper understanding of key issues, and therefore can be very influential on Government. Conceptionally, the Government is committed to reply to every Select Committee report within 60 days - in reality, they can often take longer.

Foreign Affairs Committee

Chaired by co-founder of the China Research Group (CRG) Tom Tugendhat, this Committee is running an inquiry, Xinjiang detention camps, that could have significant implications for the UK-China relationship.

Of note; this is a very influential committee where eight of the 11 members have expressed concerns/negative views on China in 2020. Furthermore, two FAC members are with IPAC, and two others part of the CRG (briefing here).

The Xinjiang detention camps inquiry has a remit to:

“Examine the ways in which the UK Government can prevent UK companies from benefitting from forced labour in Xinjiang, support members of the Uyghur diaspora community, and strengthen the UK Government’s, and particularly the FCDO’s, atrocity prevention mechanisms.”

This inquiry is still receiving and hearing evidence. So far, FAC MPs have heard from a wide range of experts, including Dolkun Isa (President at World Uyghur Congress) and Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin (UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism). It’s also had correspondence with various brands including UNIQLO, Burberry and Primark.

In November, the FAC wrote directly to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab urging the Government to take 'formal steps towards determining whether the Chinese Government's policies in Xinjiang constitute genocide'. It’s worth having a look at Raab’s replies - see letters one and two.

There are two other FAC inquiries we would keep a close eye on:

  1. The FCDO’s role in blocking foreign asset stripping in the UK’: “This inquiry will examine how the FCDO assesses whether a potentially hostile party is seeking to secure significant influence or control over a UK company and in what circumstances the FCDO should intervene. The Committee will also focus on what safeguards are required in the forthcoming National Security and Investment Bill to ensure that the FCDO has a full role in the decision-making process in relation to interventions.

    • This inquiry is running alongside the introduction of the National Security and Investment Bill, which has already drawn the attention of many China-sceptic MPs (see Briefing from 22nd November 2020).

    • Stage: still accepting evidence until 1 February 2021

  2. The UK’s role in strengthening multilateral organisations’: The ways in which states engage with multilateral organisations is changing. Increasingly, smaller groups of like-minded states are taking collective action to shape the agenda and influence policy. There has been a rise in influence of states who are members of multilateral organisations, but do not necessarily share all their values; this can lead to the exploitation of vulnerabilities for their own internal or foreign policy objectives. This inquiry will focus on the role of the FCO in exerting the UKs influence within these organisations and examine how it might drive reform in order to reduce their vulnerability to abuse and misuse.”

    • There has been vocal and increasing criticism of China’s influence and behaviour in international bodies such as the UN, and the WHO. The FAC has already held a session looking at the FCDO’s role in the latter. Clearly the outcomes of this inquiry are going to be of great interest, and we will be watching closely. This inquiry is still hearing evidence.

Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee

One inquiry underway at the BEISC is worth watching very closely. Launched in September 2020 and led by Conservative MP and IPAC member Nusrat Ghani, the ‘Forced labour in UK value chains inquiry has a remit to:

“Explore the extent to which business in the UK are exploiting the forced labour of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region of China. The Committee will investigate the risks that UK based businesses face when engaging supply chains that originate in China and what more the Government can do to ensure that business and consumers in the UK do not perpetuate the forced labour of Uyghurs.”

This issue has drawn significant news coverage over the course of the inquiry’s existence - most recently with a BBC investigation into the cotton trade in Xinjiang, for which Ghani provided comment. The Committee is still hearing evidence.

An important and underreported angle on this is the potential impact on some Chinese tech companies who have already been asked to give evidence before the inquiry. We would draw your attention to two instances:

  1. TikTok. This huge social media company has appeared before the Committee twice. Most recently represented by Liz Kanter, the director of government relations and public policy in the UK, TikTok was pushed repeatedly by Ghani to confirm or deny topics such as censorship and operations in Xinjiang during a Committee hearing in November. It seems unlikely that it’s out of the woods yet. Transcript here.

  2. Hikvision. As highlighted in the last Briefing of the year, this tech provider company has wide reaching contracts across multiple British councils, universities and the NHS. It is also 42% owned by the Chinese Government and is used to supply surveillance equipment to the authorities in Xianjing. BEISC has written a letter demanding answers to several questions, to which the firm has replied.


The arrival of the new Ambassador will bring a fresh set of opportunities and challenges

At some point in the next couple of months, Ambassador Liu Xiaoming will be replaced by Zheng Zeguang. You can read our brief on the new Ambassador here, and we would suggest reading the outgoing Ambassador’s reflection, ‘Better to be friends than rivals’, on UK/China relations in China Daily here.


The machinery of Government is reportedly ramping up on China issues

Integrated Review

The long-awaited Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (hereafter the IR) was meant to be published last Autumn. In November 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced it would be appearing at some point early this year.

In the Government’s own words, the IR will:

  • Define the Government’s ambition for the UK’s role in the world and the long-term strategic aims for our national security and foreign policy

  • Set out the way in which the UK will be a problem-solving and burden-sharing nation

  • Set a strong direction for recovery from COVID-19, at home and overseas, so that together we can “build back better”.

The wide remit of the IR should cover a potential strategy for dealing with China (Scotland published one in 2018.)

However, delayed by Covid-19 and the ensuing financial damage, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) has raised concerns over funding and the Government’s commitment to getting the IR launched following the most recent Spending Review. Separately, The Times has reported that Johnson is seeking to replace General Sir Nick Carter, chief of the defence staff (CDS) in the immediate future too.

Professor Malcolm Chalmers, Deputy Director-General of RUSI, has written:

“Nor can we assume that there will be a Comprehensive Spending Review, along with a resuscitated Integrated Review, in 2021. After the 2008 financial crisis, two years elapsed before the austerity-driven 2010 Spending Review and accompanying Strategic Defence and Security Review were completed. It could take just as long before the Treasury is able to fully assess the damage done to the country’s finances by the coronavirus crisis. The MoD, along with most other spending departments (apart from health and schools), could be in for a long wait.”

Hong Kong arrivals

In principle, the Government has committed to taking in at least 5.4 million Hong Kong residents. While it’s not yet clear at this stage just how many Hong Kongers will realistically make the journey (figures ranging from 400,000 to 750,000+ have been discussed), recent arrests under the National Security Law may be the final push for many. Since the programme opened (and prior to the most recent arrests), the UK had been granting five BNO passports a minute.

Whitehall has begun the process of putting this new immigration system into place before it officially opens on 31 January.

The Government’s step-by-step guide can be viewed here.

And now for some predictions…

Where’s the fun in not getting things terribly wrong?

China becomes a significant political issue for MPs with a view to the next election

  • To herald in the New Year, former UKIP, Brexit Party and now Reform Party leader Nigel Farage uploaded a 4-minute video on Twitter titled ‘Stopping China is the next big battle to fight.’ Within the following 48 hours, it had racked up over a million views and thousands of shares.

  • Our prediction is this - Farage will make China a mainstream topic to the point that it will be discussed with fair regularity on shows such as BBC Question time, and individual MPs will be forced into having a view. This will be driven to a new extreme should the already controversial WHO team investigating the origin of the Covid-19 outbreak find anything of note.

  • Personal views on Farage are irrelevant on this issue - he has shown an almost prophetic understanding of the issues voters will care about in the past. Conservative (and some Labour MPs in Leave-voting seats) should be concerned that Farage is now drawing political attention to China, with recent tweets attacking the European Union for their trade deal with the country.

Wider public awareness of the controversy surrounding Xinjiang will force big business to commit to having no part of their supply chain in the region

  • On Thursday evening, the Chinese Embassy in America tweeted an article in China Daily, ‘Eradication of extremism has given Xinjiang women more autonomy, says report’, along with the caption ‘Study shows that in the process of eradicating extremism, the minds of Uygur women in Xinjiang were emancipated and gender equality and reproductive health were promoted, making them no longer baby-making machines. They are more confident and independent.’ The tweet was met with disgust, and, unusually, was shared tens of thousands of times with commentators further adding their allegations around genocide in the region.

    This is important to note for two reasons:

    1. It shows that there is an appetite from the wider (online) public to engage and learn about the allegations of Uyghur genocide in Xinjiang, outside of the usual echo-chamber of China watchers on the platform

    2. It should give hope to policymakers that the public is willing to learn and be led on how to deal with the Xinjiang region - cynically, it should also show politicians that there is significant mileage on this issue to appeal to voters

  • We expect to see more brands in the UK making a ‘Xinjiang commitment’ to not sourcing cotton or other materials from the region a staple part of their modus operandi.

Closer scrutiny of foreign takeovers, and those lobbying on behalf of Chinese firms

  • Flagged by a China watcher on Twitter, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is launching an investigation into NVIDIA’s takeover of Arm. This will play out in real-time many of the conversations that could be taking place should the new NSIB materialise this year. The Guardian has a good write up.

  • Likewise, companies like Flint Global led by ex-diplomat Simon Fraser may see themselves having to become more transparent on who they’re advising (such as Huawei). Something similar to this was suggested by Charles Parton in his evidence before the Public Bill Committee last year (see our Briefing.)

  • We expect to see far more companies examined with this level of scrutiny as the NSIB carries through Parliament.

Universities and schools come under closer scrutiny for China links

  • We’ve highlighted reporting showing the close relationship many British universities have with Chinese companies and institutions in the past. The Telegraph has reported well on this, and we recommend following the researcher Sam Dunning on this too.

  • We expect to see closer Governmental scrutiny on this issue, potentially with pressure coming from groups like the CRG or through a Select Committee.

Could we see China attempt to charge a British MP under the National Security Law?

  • As pointed out by an analyst, the wide-sweeping authority of the National Security Lawopen the possibility of prosecuting any entity or individual judged in breach, regardless of his nationality or place of residence.”

  • On Friday morning, Danish media reported that two of the country’s MPs involved in Ted Hui’s escape from Hong Kong have allegedly had international arrest warrants issued for them by the Hong Kong Government.

  • Will we see it applied to British MPs? Not likely, but worth keeping in mind.

Launch of the D10

  • Long discussed, much anticipated. The D10 is set to be formed of the current G-7 members, plus South Korea, India, and Australia. Until his trip was cancelled last week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was supposed to have been visiting India this month, and one imagines discussing some of the finer points around this proposal.

  • Our view is that this will come into existence at some point over the summer before COP26 is held in Glasgow.

Calls for a boycott of Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics pick up momentum in Westminster

  • Beijing’s hosting of the Winter Olympics, due to be held next year, seems a likely target for China-sceptic MPs to focus in on as the year progresses. IPAC heavyweight Iain Duncan Smith has naturally called for this already, and encouraged Australian politicians to do the same.

  • While it would be extremely unlikely that the top tier of Government would think about not attending the Games, it seems probable that it will become a sticking point, and one painted by some members of Westminster as pandering to the Chinese regime.

What are your views, predictions and thoughts on China and the UK over the next 12 months? Let us know -