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UK ‘clear-eyed’ China will not change ‘overnight’, says Cleverly

Photo by Leon Neal/PA

By David Hughes, Dominic McGrath and Martina Bet, PA Political Staff

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly has said the UK is “clear-eyed” that China will not change “overnight”, as he finished meetings with senior officials in Beijing in a visit aimed at easing tensions with the Asian power.

The trip has faced criticism from some senior Conservatives, but Mr Cleverly insisted that a “pragmatic” relationship was necessary to tackle major global issues such as climate change.

He also insisted that the visit would allow “tough conversations” with the Chinese on issues including repression in Hong Kong, and human rights abuses in Xinjiang province.

“It’s an important country, it’s a large country and influential country, and a complicated country. And therefore our relationship with China will necessarily be just as complicated and sophisticated,” the Foreign Secretary told broadcasters.

“We are clear-eyed about the areas where we have fundamental disagreements with China. And I raise those issues when we meet.

“But I think it’s important we also recognise that we have to have a pragmatic, sensible working relationship with China, because of the issues that affect us all around the globe.”

In a face-to-face meeting with vice president Han Zheng, who played a leading role in the anti-democracy crackdown in Hong Kong, Mr Cleverly said regular meetings were important “to enhance understanding” and “to avoid misunderstanding”.

In the first visit by a UK foreign secretary to China for five years, Mr Cleverly told Mr Han they would “address the challenges and differences of opinion that all countries have in bilateral relations”.

He also met his counterpart Wang Yi during the trip.

But Mr Cleverly’s visit has been criticised by China hawks on the Tory benches, who want a tougher line against a state which has sanctioned several British MPs and peers for speaking out about human rights violations.

Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith compared the UK Government’s approach to the appeasement of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

The meeting comes amid speculation that Rishi Sunak could hold talks with Chinese president Xi Jinping at the G20 summit next week in the latest sign of thawing diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The Prime Minister refused to be drawn on whether he would meet his counterpart at the event, saying his schedule had not yet been finalised, but pointed to the Foreign Secretary’s visit as an “entirely sensible” approach.

“It’s perfectly possible to engage with China at the same time as being very robust in standing up for our interests and our values,” he said on Wednesday.

Mr Cleverly said that he had spoken to Chinese officials about human rights, amid concerns about the treatment of the Uighur Muslim minority in the Xinjiang province.

“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 and I will continue to do so,” he told broadcasters.

“This will continue to be an area of discussion that I bring up alongside other areas, and I’m not going to change my posture on that.

“And I think the Chinese government understand the UK is consistent in our approach. I am consistent in my approach and I will keep raising these issues with the Chinese government.”

He added: “The UK, I, am clear-eyed … that we are not going to change China overnight.

“We’re certainly not going to do it in any one individual meeting.

“But it is important that we maintain regular dialogue, regular lines of communication.”

Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Alicia Kearns said she had spoken to Mr Cleverly before his visit and urged him to pressure the Chinese on human rights concerns.

“I’m very hopeful that he will land those points about transnational repression. We all know we are seeing increased espionage on British shores and we are also seeing appalling human rights abuses against the Uighur, the Tibetans and many more,” the senior Tory said.

“It is absolutely important that Britain has a role in the Pacific where we make clear that we will stand up for the rule of law, for human rights and for self-determination.”

Her committee, the cross-party Foreign Affairs Committee, has called on the UK Government to publish an unclassified version of its China strategy to ensure cross-Whitehall coherence on the approach to Beijing, and for all relevant ministers to be briefed on the classified version of the document.

The MPs also called for the UK Government to intensify efforts to discourage the use of Chinese technologies such as surveillance cameras “which are capable of being used for remote data harvesting” by Beijing’s security services.

The report also said the UK Government had failed to take “adequate action” to protect against the risk of Beijing using “economic coercion” by targeting strategically critical industries which rely on Chinese technology or investment.

On the disputed island of Taiwan, the committee said the UK should put in place “an effective policy of deterrence diplomacy” towards Beijing to protect the Taiwanese right to self-determination.

The Foreign Office said that Mr Cleverly had raised a range of issues, including concerns about Hong Kong and Xinjiang, as well as sanctions against UK MPs, during his meetings.

The Foreign Secretary also made clear the “UK position on key geopolitical issues including the conflict in Ukraine, the situation in North Korea and nuclear non-proliferation.

“They agreed on the potential of AI to unlock huge opportunities but stressed the need for global co-ordination to mitigate risks and put protections in place,” the readout said.

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