Boris Johnson declares he is ‘fervently Sinophile’ as UK woos China | Boris Johnson


The UK is seeking to strengthen its economic and trade links with China after Boris Johnson stated he was “fervently Sinophile” and determined to improve ties “whatever the occasional political difficulties”.

The prime minister’s remarks at a Downing Street roundtable with Chinese businesses are likely to infuriate backbenchers in his Conservative party who want the government to take a tougher approach to Beijing’s human rights abuses.

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Johnson also signalled that he wanted a resumption of formal trade discussions between the two countries by reactivating two forums – the Economic and Financial Dialogue, an annual discussion between the two countries, and the China-UK Joint Trade and Economic Commission (Jetco). Both had been suspended in response to China’s repression of civil rights in the former UK colony of Hong Kong

The Downing Street roundtable took place on 12 February to mark lunar new year and was attended by some of the businesses most active in China such as the Swire Group and Tenacity, a Hong Kong-based real estate and investment group.

Johnson’s enthusiasm for rebuilding trading links with China comes as human rights campaigners demand a new approach and after the US criticised the EU for pressing ahead in December with an investment deal with China.

The UK suspended most formal economic dialogues with China last year in protest at Beijing’s imposition of new repressive laws in Hong Kong.

Downing Street would not comment in detail on Johnson’s reported remarks but said his views on China were well known. It added that no date had yet been set for a resumption of either Jetco or the Economic and Financial Dialogue.

The Lords and Commons will also be voting on the long running issue of whether UK courts should be given a role in advising parliament whether a genocide is under way in a country, such as the alleged genocide of Uighur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province.

A cross-party alliance of peers have inserted the measure giving UK courts a role into the trade bill twice, each time by a huge majority, but the amendment has then been rejected twice by MPs by narrow majorities. On Tuesday, peers have to decide whether to press the issue a third time.

In rejecting the genocide amendment, minsters have repeatedly told the Commons there is no imminent prospect of the UK signing any new trade or economic agreements with China, and if there were any evidence of serious human rights abuses ministers would themselves baulk at signing any such agreements, without the need for the high court to make preliminary determinations on the existence of genocide.

Johnson’s roundtable remarks suggest he is willing to sign new investment and market access deals with China.

Luke de Pulford, who is one of the organisers of the genocide amendment, said: “While the Uighurs are forcibly sterilised, their children brainwashed and tens of thousands enslaved, the UK is bending over backwards to secure more Chinese trade. How bad do things have to get before Boris Johnson realises that this kind of thing enables Xi Jinping’s brutal regime?”

Office for National Statistics figures show the UK imported more goods from China (£11bn) than from any other trading partner in the second quarter of 2020. This was the first quarter that China accounted for the largest proportion of UK imports of goods. The proportion of UK imports received from China increased from 8.6% in the first quarter of 2020 to 13.4% in the second quarter of 2020.

There is tension across the government as to where the balance should lie with policy towards China post-Brexit, between seeking to replace European markets and presenting itself as a force for good in the world that stands up for human rights. Some argue the UK can challenge Beijing without tipping into the kind of trade and diplomatic war that has erupted between China and Australia.