UK government hardens diplomatic stand-off with China

Hong Kong extradition treaty suspended as Tory backbenchers urge further measures

Britain has suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong with immediate effect and banned the export of riot-control equipment to the territory in protest against a new security law. But Conservative backbenchers have called on the government to further escalate its diplomatic stand-off with Beijing by imposing sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for human rights abuses including the treatment of Uighur Muslims.

Foreign secretary Dominic Raab told the House of Commons that the security law, which allows pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong to be sent to mainland China for trial, changed key assumptions underpinning the extradition treaty.

“I am particularly concerned about articles 55-59 of the law, which gives mainland Chinese authorities the ability to assume jurisdiction over certain cases and try those cases in mainland Chinese courts,” he said.

"There remains considerable uncertainty about the way in which the new national security law will be enforced. I will just say this: the United Kingdom is watching, and the whole world is watching."


Earlier this month, the government announced that up to 2.9 million Hong Kong citizens eligible for a British national (overseas) passport would be allowed to move to Britain and offered a path to citizenship. Last week Britain banned the Chinese telecoms firm Huawei from being a long-term supplier of equipment for the country's 5G network, although it will be seven years before the company's products are entirely removed from the system.

Strategic overhaul

Conservative backbenchers in the anti-Beijing China Research Group demanded that the government should go further by introducing Magnitsky-style sanctions targeting officials implicated in the country's treatment of its Uighur minority. Former defence minister Tobias Ellwood said it was time for a strategic overhaul of Britain's policy towards China.

“For decades we have turned a blind eye to China’s democratic deficit and human rights violations in the hope that it would mature into a global, responsible citizen. That clearly hasn’t happened,” he said.

“Is this now the turning point that we drop the pretence the China shares our values, given its actions?”

Labour's shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, said the latest measures should mark the beginning of a new era in Britain's relations with China after David Cameron and George Osborne's policy of warm engagement in return for inward investment from Beijing.

“This must mark the start of a more strategic approach to China based on an ethical approach to foreign policy and an end to the naivety of the ‘golden era’ years,” she said.

“Our quarrel is not with the people of China, but the erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong, the actions of the Chinese government in the South China Sea and the appalling treatment of the Uighur people is reason now to act. We will not be able to say in future years that we did not know.”

Johnson’s take

Earlier, prime minister Boris Johnson said Britain's concerns about the new security law required a tough response but he insisted that the country's approach to China must remain "calibrated".

“There is a balance here,” he said during a visit to Kent.

“I’m not going to be pushed into a position of becoming a knee-jerk Sinophobe on every issue, somebody who is automatically anti-China. But we do have serious concerns. We have concerns about the treatment of the Uighur minority obviously, about the human rights abuses.”

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times