Bishop of St Albans leads debate on human rights abuses in China

The Bishop of St Albans tabled a question for short debate in Grand Committee on 17th November 2022, concerning reports of human rights abuses in China:

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of allegations of human rights abuses in China.

My Lords, I approach this debate with a great deal of reticence and, indeed, almost reluctance. I have long admired China and the Chinese people, although one should of course acknowledge that the population of China is made up of 56 different ethnic groups. I have long admired their ancient civilisation. Not only is China a country of great natural beauty; it is the nation that invented the compass, gunpowder, paper, moveable-type printing, kites, fireworks, silk, tea and porcelain, to name a few. I will perhaps omit noodles from my list of admirable inventions. My Chinese friends are among some of the most educated, industrious and cultured people I know. China is the fourth-largest country by land mass and has the largest population of any country in the world. Over many decades, we have developed extensive trade links with China, and it is in its interests and ours for us to share in commerce and seek to find common cause for the good of the world.

Yet I feel I cannot remain silent in the face of such a wide range of human rights abuses. Lying behind our profound differences is a vast cultural gulf that was laid bare most recently for me when I read President Xi’s speech at the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party last month. He said:

“We will … continue to take the correct and distinctively Chinese approach to handling ethnic affairs … We will remain committed to the principle that religions in China must be Chinese in orientation and provide active guidance to religions so that they can adapt to socialist society.”

He also said:

“We have effectively contained ethnic separatists, religious extremists, and violent terrorists”.

To those here who are familiar with China’s history of human rights abuses, these are worrying words.

We have seen the tragedies of the

“distinctively Chinese approach to handling ethnic affairs”

in Xinjiang province and, before that, in the sinicisation of Tibet. We have also seen the consequences of the Chinese Government’s direct influence on religion—I will focus most of my comments on this; I will say a few other things towards the end, but I know that others will range more widely—whether that be through the treatment of Uighur Muslims by forced imprisonment and, reportedly, sterilisation, of Falun Gong, or of Chinese Christians. Similarly, characterising religious adherents as “religious extremists” has become a common part of the Chinese Government’s authoritarian approach. The Chinese state has persecuted many Christian leaders, particularly those who exemplify the values underpinning the Christian faith, such as the affirmation of the dignity of human life, opposition to tyranny and a willingness to stand up for the persecuted.

We have seen China’s approach exemplified with the treatment of Joseph Zen, the 90 year-old cardinal who was arrested in May this year for acting as a trustee to a humanitarian relief fund which helped some pro-democracy protestors. He is currently on trial. Many commentators have described it as a show trial, where he will almost certainly be convicted. What discussions have His Majesty’s Government had with China regarding the release of Cardinal Zen?

The events in Hong Kong over recent years have led to large numbers of citizens leaving to come to the UK. Incidentally, I pay tribute to His Majesty’s Government for the way that that has been and is being handled. I am hugely grateful for that. I have met a good number of Hong Kongers who are now living in my diocese. Quite a number of them have joined our churches and many are already making a wonderful contribution to our national life.

Over the summer, a very old friend who had been working in Hong Kong for a number of years contacted me because he felt it so oppressive and restrictive, and he really had to get out of the country very quickly. He stayed with me for about four months while he was getting his affairs sorted out. He told me that Hong Kong had become so oppressive because of the high levels of surveillance. He told me how he could not even go to church without being filmed and recorded. It no longer felt safe.

This treatment is limited not just to Christians but to anyone who is not prepared to align their faith with the aims and objectives of the Communist Party of China. This has meant the detention of imams, the demolition of mosques and, in some cases, situations where people have been sent to psychiatric hospitals for challenging the Chinese Government’s decision to demolish their religious buildings. In Yunnan province in the south of China, the Chinese Government’s religious affairs bureau has banned children from attending churches with their parents, installed surveillance cameras outside churches to detect children during Sunday services, frozen churches’ bank accounts and removed crosses forcibly.

Article 300 of the Chinese criminal code prohibits the organisation of any religion deemed a “heterodox teaching”. This law has been used to restrict freedom of religion and belief across China. In 2015, this article was revised to include life imprisonment as one optional punishment for participating in any unsanctioned religious group. In the past few years, we have seen Chinese Christians and Falun Gong practitioners arrested, detained and persecuted for practicing their faith, sometimes when they were practising it only in their own homes.

Again, I reiterate that the words of President Xi Jinping last month are an explicit endorsement of measures against individuals and faith groups. Will the Minister tell us His Majesty’s Government’s assessment of these laws and what steps we can take to support people of faith who are being persecuted by the Chinese state?

Although I have chosen to address most of my comments to the subject of religious persecution in China, this is certainly only the tip of the iceberg, and I know other noble Lords will range more widely over other human rights abuses. We all know that China continues to use the death penalty, in some cases for non-violent or political offences, and fails to produce any official statistics about numbers. According to some groups, China has executed around 8,000 people a year since 2007, which, it is estimated, accounts for around 90% of the global total of executions.

Additionally, China has a well-catalogued history of using political psychiatric abuse against dissidents, sending critics of the regime to psychiatric hospitals under the pretence that they are mentally ill. In these institutions, individuals are subject to beatings, forced medication, electroconvulsive therapy and repeated incarceration.

I am not going to say too much more because others will be able to set out the problems. I end by asking the Minister to tell us his assessment of these allegations against the Chinese state and what representations His Majesty’s Government have made to the Chinese Government.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB): My Lords, the whole House is indebted to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for the—as always—exemplary way in which he spoke to the Committee and introduced today’s debate, and for focusing our attention again on the CCP’s human rights violations. I declare my non-financial interests in the register.

The International Relations and Defence Committee’s report on China, trade and security describes the UK’s China policy as lacking strategic coherence—confusion that was reinforced this week at the G20 summit. During the leadership election, Rishi Sunak said that “for too long” western leaders had

“rolled out the red carpet and turned a blind eye to China’s nefarious activity and ambitions.”

Liz Truss upgraded the UK’s recognition of China from “systemic competitor” to “threat”—as have our allies in the United States—and described China’s actions in Xinjiang as “genocide”.

However, on Tuesday, Mr Sunak was no longer citing the director-general of MI5, who said that that China represents

“the biggest long-term threat to Britain and the world’s economic and national security”,

preferring instead to describe the CCP regime as a “challenge.”

North Korea, Iran and Russia are all described by the FCDO as a threat. Why is China not to be described in the same way?

Lord Rogan (UUP): My Lords, I too congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans on securing this important and, indeed, most timely debate. I declare an interest as co-chair of the British-Taiwanese All-Party Parliamentary Group.

China has been back in the global spotlight this week, with the attendance of President Xi at the G20 summit in Indonesia. It had been hoped, at least by Downing Street, that this gathering would include a meeting between President Xi and our own Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak—the first encounter between a UK Prime Minister and a Chinese Head of State since 2018. Indeed, No. 10 briefed journalists that Mr Sunak would

“encourage China to use its place on the global stage responsibly to resolve geopolitical tensions, ensure regional stability and play its part in tackling the devastating global impact of the war in Ukraine.”

In the end, that meeting did not take place because of the terrible missile incident in Poland. That was unfortunate—as was the missile incident—because I would have welcomed Mr Sunak’s feedback after meeting his Chinese counterpart.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con): My Lords, I thank every noble Lord who has taken part in this debate, in particular the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for tabling this very important debate. We have heard deep, expert insights on human rights in China.

As the UK Human Rights Minister, I welcome this amplification and continued spotlight on this issue. On a personal note, it certainly strengthens my hand in discussions I have with colleagues across government. It is important that we continue to raise these issues because, to put it simply, it matters. We have had two debates on this issue today, and it is right that we continue to focus and hold the Government to account on what more they can do in this respect.

The right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, drew important focus to the people-to-people links between China and the United Kingdom. That is perhaps unique to the United Kingdom and, arguably, the United States—two countries that quite often, when we talk about international affairs, have reflective domestic insights as well. The Chinese culture, communities and, most importantly, people, as British citizens here, are vital to the vibrancy, diversity and strength of the United Kingdom.


I turn to the situation in China. China’s ongoing human rights violations include in Xinjiang—and let us not forget Tibet, which has not come up specifically—as well as the erosion of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong, as we have heard.

I will take Xinjiang first. Frankly, the evidence of the scale and severity of human rights violations being perpetrated against the Uighur Muslims paints—I state this quite deliberately—a harrowing picture in every sense. As noble Lords will know—I have certainly discussed this with the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Alton—I held bilateral meetings with the then high commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, to ensure that her visit happened. We were long-standing advocates of that. Yes, it was a managed visit, but the report she produced was very telling in its detail. We welcomed the fact that the report happened. Noble Lords including the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Purvis, pointed out the issue of the vote that happened, which was just on the procedural motion. In the end the tallied figures, after there was a small discrepancy, showed that the difference was just one vote, 20 to 19. Nevertheless, that shows the strength of Chinese influence, ironically, on members of the Human Rights Council.

This is not part of my formal script but I will say it because it needs to be on the record: it is an extreme disappointment that we do not see the Islamic world—the Muslim countries themselves—standing up against the biggest internment of the Muslim community anywhere in the world. When issues of Islamophobia are raised with me, because we do have challenges of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in the United Kingdom, that immediately throws a spotlight back on the discrimination and total internment of Uighurs on which there is, frankly, a deafening silence. I assure noble Lords that the issue is very close to my heart and I continue to raise it bilaterally with a number of countries.

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