Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

James Cleverly urged to be ‘crystal clear’ with China on ‘the rule of law and human rights’

Foreign secretary James Cleverly is meeting senior members of the Chinese government in Beijing amid questions in the UK and from within the Conservative party over the government’s approach to the country.

Mr Cleverly is holding talks with senior Chinese officials, including minister of foreign affairs Wang Yi and vice president Han Zheng, on issues ranging from climate change to international security. 

It is the first visit to China by a UK foreign secretary in more than five years.

Alicia Kearns, Conservative MP and chair of the foreign affairs select committee, has repeatedly called on the government to take a tough stance on China.

She told Sky News this morning that it is “really important the Chinese Communist Party is crystal clear that we will not stand for transnational repression, nor this drift towards authoritarianism”.

She added: “It’s more important that James Cleverly is in the room vociferously disagreeing with them so that they know our position rather than it being them relying on seeing his tweets or media interviews to understand his position.”

She said Prime Minister Rishi Sunak should “absolutely” meet Xi Jinping if the opportunity arises because that is “how you prevent and deconflict potential issues”.

“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.

“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.”

Ms Kearns’ committee has issued an 87-page report in response to the “Tilt to the Indo-Pacific” announced in the integrated review of 2021, in which the government identified Russia as an “active threat” and China as a “systemic challenge”.

The committee’s report said there was “confusion across Whitehall” about the new policy focus, arising from a “failure to explain” it.

After meeting Mr Zheng early on Wednesday morning, Mr Cleverly told reporters his visit was about “making sure we are able to speak regularly about bilateral issues – both the areas where we disagree but also areas where we need to cooperate [such as] the fight against climate change”, as well as making sure China understood the UK’s core positions.

“[China] is an important country, it is a large country, an influential country, and a complicated country, and therefore our relationship with China will necessarily be just as complicated and sophisticated,” added the foreign secretary.

“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 is 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.

“So, of course, we will pursue a pragmatic working relationship, but that does of course mean raising the issues where we disagree when we have the opportunity to do so.”