Alan Smith

In the House of Lords on 25th November 2021 Peers debated a Motion from Lord Alton of Liverpool, “That this House takes note of the reported remarks of the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs that a genocide is underway against the Uyghur population in Xinjiang, China.”

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I too pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for his tireless work in this area. I also share with him a sense of frustration—I feel as if I have stood up so many times as we have engaged with this issue, yet it seems that we are not able to confront it in a way that is really making a difference. Despite all our hopes of human progress, it is quite extraordinary that here we are, at the start of the 21st century, witnessing events such as we see and which are now well documented. There is no doubt that they are going on.

We are all too willing to use words such as “never again”. Year by year, we stand at the Cenotaph and pray for peace, but I note that, when Christ spoke, he said “Blessed are the peacemakers”. Peace is not simply the absence of strife; it is something that has to be fought for, time and again—it is something we have to make. Surely, of all things, as we want to be a global Britain and a force for good in the world, we must realise that this will be a costly battle. This will not come without any implications for us as a nation—perhaps that is the reason why so many people are reluctant to move on it.

Back in June, I wrote a piece called “‘Global Britain’ —A force for good or free trade power?” As I struggled with thinking through the issues, I came to the conclusion, reluctantly, that very often those two things are incompatible. We will not be able to have all the trade and free trade that we want if we are to be a global force for good. It is all too tempting to strike a Faustian bargain to maximise economic prosperity at the expense of foreign policy, or to accept that, in pursuit of the good, trade may be disrupted. That is especially true when it comes to China, given that our bilateral trade is more than £90 billion per annum. The question is not whether this is the price to pay for standing up for the Uighurs but whether the lives, welfare and future of the Uighurs as a people are the concession that we make to healthy economic ties with China.

A number of noble Lords have already raised the issue of our approach to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Many people are calling for, as a minimum, a diplomatic boycott. It is something that I support; my personal view is that I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Coe—with whom I have been in correspondence —that such a boycott would simply be a meaningless gesture and that non-engagement between government officials rarely bears fruit. Let us be in no doubt: it would mean a huge amount to those Uighurs who are living in fear and feel abandoned to their fate. Can the Minister tell us what consultations are taking place in government about our approach to the Winter Olympics and whether there is serious consideration at least of a diplomatic boycott?

I have no doubt that the Minister will assure us that Her Majesty’s Government are using all the diplomatic routes available. But diplomacy sometimes—in fact, frequently—needs to be matched with action. Diplomacy in this instance clearly has not been bearing the fruit that we need if we are going to see China confronted. A diplomatic boycott may be a gesture, but it would be a strong gesture—one that expresses our anger and frustration at the events and atrocities going on in front of us. It would be a signal that the current diplomatic approach is unsatisfactory in the results it is producing and that western Governments are capable of taking most robust action in defence of beleaguered minorities across the world, in whichever country they may be.

I personally believe that we need to find an international coalition to stand up to China on this. If we do not, there are many other areas in which it will expand. I am sure that the Government are in close contact with our American counterparts as we consider those options but, as part of those considerations, one question will be: what price might we have to pay for it? Perhaps a better question is: what moral authority will we lose, and what price will the Uighurs pay, if we do not do all in our power, whatever the cost, to confront these dreadful atrocities that are unfolding in front of our eyes?