James Cleverly in Beijing on Wednesday insisted on the need for face-to-face contact with Chinese leaders but faced a storm of criticism at home for alleged “1930s appeasement” of the communist regime.
Mr Cleverly, on the first visit to China by a Foreign Secretary since 2018, was set to raise respect for individual freedoms amid reports of Chinese students being monitoring and harassed at universities in London and other parts of the UK.
But he was also treading a fine line as Rishi Sunak bids for a possible bilateral meeting with President Xi Jinping, at the G20 summit in India on September 9-10, as Britain seeks to re-engage after suspending many contacts in protest at China’s crackdown in Hong Kong.
”Engaging with China doesn’t mean that we shy away from the tough conversations,” he tweeted over a picture of his meeting with Vice President Han Zheng - an architect of the repression of recent years in Britain’s former colony.
"It’s about voicing our concerns directly - face to face. That’s why I’m here."
Engaging with China doesn’t mean that we shy away from the tough conversations.
It’s about voicing our concerns directly - face to face.
That’s why I’m here. pic.twitter.com/Ik5D3Jl5bw
— James Cleverly🇬🇧 (@JamesCleverly) August 30, 2023
Mr Cleverly was also meeting China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi on issues expected to include Ukraine, Taiwan, trade, climate change, human rights and other areas where there is “strong disagreement”- including Hong Kong and China’s sanctioning of British MPs.
One of those sanctioned, former Conservative leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, said that the Foreign Secretary was engaged in “project kowtow” in a bid to drum up business with Chinese companies.
“It’s akin to 1930s appeasement,” he told the Standard. “This Chinese communist government is brutal, it’s been murdering its own citizens, it’s been putting them into slavery, and it’s been trashing the Sino-British joint agreement in Hong Kong.”
But Mr Cleverly hit back at former Prime Minister Liz Truss and other Tory hawks who want China to be labelled a threat, telling the Financial Times that he refused to reduce UK foreign policy to a “catchphrase”.
The Beijing talks came as a new report by MPs on the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee accused the Government of sowing “confusion” over its so-called tilt to the Indo-Pacific region, “stemming from a failure to explain the policy”.
The committee’s Conservative chair Alicia Kearns urged Rishi Sunak and Mr Cleverly to reveal an unclassified version of their China strategy, stressing that another report by the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) had “highlighted the incoherence in the Government’s approach to China”.
But she told Sky News that it was vital that Mr Cleverly was “in the room” with the Chinese, in part to confront “transnational repression” including “increased espionage on British shores”.
The ISC report last month sounded the alarm over China seeking to “monitor and control Chinese students’ behaviour – primarily via the network of Chinese Students and Scholars Associations”.
The associations are ostensibly aimed at looking after the interests of Chinese students in the UK. “However, CSSAs are – along with Confucius Institutes – assessed to be used by the Chinese state to monitor Chinese students overseas and to exert influence over their behaviour,” the ISC said.
Professor Steve Tsang, from SOAS University of London, told the parliamentarians that student bodies at UK universities were “infiltrated”.
He explained: “We know that … there are meetings that happen through the middle of the night and the following morning some Chinese students can get rung up by somebody at the cultural or education section of the embassy to ask them: Why did you say that? Why did you do that?”
Such interventions appeared to be “resulting in a culture of fear and suspicion among Chinese students in the UK”, according to the ISC.
The committee highlighted a series of other incidents in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Sheffield University, and Aston University in Birmingham, where Chinese or Hong Kong students had been subjected to threatening behaviour.
Amnesty International UK’s Chief Executive Sacha Deshmukh told the Standard: “James Cleverly must make it absolutely clear to the Chinese authorities at the highest level that the UK government will not tolerate any attempts to intimidate, silence or forcibly repatriate anyone from Hong Kong or mainland China living in the UK.
“The UK government must defend Hong Kong and mainland Chinese people living here from the long arm of Chinese state oppression and protect their rights to peaceful protest and freedom of expression and prevent any effort to intimidate and silence them,” he said.