UK politics & policy updates
Sign up to myFT Daily Digest to be the first to know about UK politics & policy news.
The UK parliament’s two Speakers have banned the Chinese ambassador from attending a reception in the Houses of Parliament in a move that risks further damaging ties between London and Beijing.
Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker of the Commons, and Lord John McFall, the Lord Speaker in the upper house, both said they were preventing Zheng Zeguang from entering parliament amid wider outrage over human rights abuses in China.
The announcement comes as Sino-UK relations remain frosty over British concerns that range from the persecution of Uyghur Muslims and surveillance to Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong.
Zheng had been due to give an address to the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for China at 7pm on Wednesday at the Terrace Pavilion, a glamorous venue looking out on to the river Thames.
That prompted outrage from some of the 10 British individuals, including five MPs, who in March were hit with sanctions from China over what the communist government described as “lies and disinformation” on human rights abuses in Xinjiang province.
The MPs include former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith and Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Commons foreign affairs select committee. They had called for sanctions against Beijing over the alleged mass rounding-up of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. The Chinese government says their camps are re-education centres targeted at terrorists.
The sanctions mean the group of 10 are banned from visiting China and any assets they might have in the country are frozen.
In his statement, Hoyle said: “I do not feel it is appropriate for the ambassador for China to meet on the Commons estate and in our place of work when his country has imposed sanctions against some of our members.”
A separate statement from McFall said: “The Speakers of both houses are in agreement that this particular APPG China meeting should take place elsewhere considering the current sanctions against members, including two members of the Lords.”
Duncan Smith described the move as a “really big international statement” and thanked Hoyle for “slamming the door in the face” of the Chinese government.
“I congratulate the Speaker for standing up for freedom and for freedom of expression,” he said. “There was no way a representative of the Chinese government should have been allowed on the estate when it would be endorsing the sanctioning of MPs and peers.”
Friction between the two countries increased last year when Boris Johnson’s government banned Huawei, a Chinese state-owned company, from playing a main role in the rollout of Britain’s new 5G telecoms system. The British government is also exploring ways to remove CGN, a Chinese company, from the UK’s new nuclear power projects.
British ministers have issued contradictory messages on China in recent months, given strong trade links between the two countries. Britain is also keen to secure Beijing’s support for carbon-reduction targets at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in November.
Foreign secretary Dominic Raab said in February that the situation in Xinjiang was “beyond the pale”, accusing Beijing of “extreme” abuses on an industrial scale.
By contrast Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, said in July that Britain needed a “mature and balanced relationship” with China: “Too often, the debate on China lacks nuance.”
One member of the APPG said it was important to find a halfway house between detente with Beijing and the complete breaking of ties, warning that it would be a mistake to provoke a new “cold war” with China.
But another member said: “I think probably the leadership of the group should have thought more carefully before issuing this invitation.”
Richard Graham, the Tory MP who chairs the APPG, said the invitation had not been inappropriate. “In my view, whatever the circumstances and situation, it is always better to engage than to not engage.”
The Chinese embassy said: “The despicable and cowardly action of certain individuals of the UK parliament to obstruct normal exchanges and co-operation between China and the UK for personal political gains is against the wishes and harmful to the interests of the peoples of both countries.
“We appreciate the positive role of the All-Party Parliamentary China Group and China-Britain Business Council in promoting dialogue and co-operation between China and the UK. We will stay in close communication with friends from all walks of life including the UK parliament and work together to promote exchanges and collaboration in all areas in order to better benefit the two peoples.”