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China Envoy Banned from Visiting Britain's House of Commons

By Jamie Dettmer September 16, 2021

The speaker of the British House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, has banned China's ambassador to Britain, Zeguang Zheng, from entering Parliament until Beijing lifts sanctions it imposed six months ago on five Conservative lawmakers and two peers.

The ban — the first ever imposed on a foreign envoy by a House of Commons Speaker — is the latest sign that British authorities are growing increasingly frustrated with what they see as Beijing's aggressive diplomacy. Hoyle consulted with Downing Street and Britain's Foreign Office before announcing the ban, according to local media reports.

His bar on Zheng came just hours before British Prime Minister Boris Johnson appointed former trade minister Liz Truss as Britain's new foreign secretary, part of a wider Cabinet reshuffle. Truss is seen as a China hawk and has lobbied for much tougher measures to be pursued against China's Communist government for rights violations.

In a statement midweek Hoyle said: "I do not feel it's 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."

Last week Hoyle met with British lawmakers targeted by the Chinese sanctions. They urged him to impose a ban on the envoy. The Chinese embassy in London described the prohibition on Zheng as "despicable and cowardly."

Zheng, who was appointed as envoy in June, was scheduled to speak to a British parliamentary group on China, but the invitation was withdrawn.

Souring relations

Relations between China and Britain have become fraught over Beijing's crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and repression of its Muslim minority in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang, where China's Communist government has interned more than a million Uyghurs in detention centers, according to rights groups.

The Chinese sanctions imposed in March on British lawmakers, one of whom is a former leader of the ruling of Britain's ruling Conservatives, were in retaliation for Britain sanctioning Chinese officials and a state-run entity for alleged human rights violations in Xinjiang.

The Chinese sanctions imposed in March on British lawmakers, one of whom is a former leader of Britain's ruling Conservatives, were in retaliation for Britain sanctioning Chinese officials and a state-run entity for alleged human rights violations in Xinjiang.

China has denied repeated claims that Uyghur Muslims are being held in detention centers. Beijing targeted 10 British organizations and individuals in its March sanctions. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the British officials were being punished for spreading "lies and disinformation" about Xinjiang.

China's Global Times newspaper, an English-language outlet of the Chinese Communist Party's flagship People's Daily newspaper, reacted with fury to the parliamentary ban on the Chinese envoy, saying in an angry editorial: "It is extremely rare, if not 'a global innovation,' for the UK to ban a foreign envoy from Parliament, a public venue for political discussions in the country. It shows brutality, impulsiveness, and the breaking of the rules."

The editorial added: "London acts as if only it can sanction others, but not the other way around. Given that it simply does not have the strength to deal with China this way, the UK now behaves like a hooligan after having become a loser." It suggested Beijing bar the British ambassador from entering the Great Hall of the People.

The group of British lawmakers sanctioned by China, which includes former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith and MPs Tim Loughton and Nusrat Ghani, welcomed Hoyle's decision, praising the Speaker for "standing up for freedom of speech in the mother of Parliaments by supporting those parliamentarians who have been sanctioned by China."

Liz Truss

The appointment of Liz Truss as foreign secretary is unlikely to please Beijing. She has been targeted for criticism by China's Foreign Ministry and Communist Party-run media in the past for lobbying for tough measures against Beijing as international trade secretary. The 46-year-old is only the second woman to hold the post of foreign secretary and is seen as a vigorous champion of free trade and markets and a strong supporter of the transatlantic alliance with Washington.

She faults China for not pursuing fair trade and for engaging in "economic coercion" and warned in a speech last week against Britain becoming "strategically dependent" on China, criticizing Beijing for "unfair" trading practices.

Last December Truss fought a behind-the-scenes battle with Britain's Foreign Office, her new ministry, over whether Parliament should legislate to allow British courts a role in determining whether the repression of Xinjiang amounts to genocide. The Foreign Office opposed giving British courts preliminary power to determine whether genocide is occurring in Xinjiang, or elsewhere, arguing the decision should rest with international courts.

Nigel Adams, a Foreign Office minister, told a parliamentary panel that there was "credible, troubling and growing evidence" of forced labour taking place on a significant scale in Xinjiang but he feared an "asset flight," if ministers rushed into enacting measures, warning China could start withdrawing investments from Britain.

Truss backed the legislative proposal.

Commenting on Truss's appointment, British newspaper The Times said she "is far more hawkish on China than the prime minister, aligning herself with the American shift towards confrontation with Beijing." Other British commentators said her pick to replace Dominic Rabb will help repair bridges with Washington following the U.S.-led NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was criticized by senior British Conservative lawmakers.

"New UK Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, is a proper China hawk," tweeted Sophia Gaston, director of the British Foreign Policy Group, a London-based think tank. Gaston said Truss would be able at the Foreign Office to hold "China to account on values" while "playing a larger role in coordinating diplomatic efforts with our [foreign] partners."

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