Lord Alton of Liverpool
My Lords, I begin by thanking the Leader of the House, the noble Lord, Lord True, for delivering on the promise he gave the House that this debate on the Intelligence and Security Committee report would take place in your Lordships’ Chamber. I also thank the noble Earl for the way he opened the debate and the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, who will wind up for the Government at its conclusion. All the speeches made so far speak for themselves. They show the breadth and depth of the knowledge about these issues in your Lordships’ House.
I declare some non-financial interests: as co-chair of the All-Party Group on North Korea, as vice-chair of the all-party groups on the Uyghurs and on Hong Kong, and as a patron of Hong Kong Watch. I am not sure whether it qualifies as an interest but, as others have referred to, and for the purpose of transparency, I should say that I have been sanctioned by the People’s Republic of China and, for good measure, by Iran now as well.
The debate is taking place at a time of great darkness in the world and against the backdrop of Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine and the Hamas terror attacks in Israel. Putin and the Chinese Communist Party chairman Xi Jinping have told us that they have “no limits” in their partnership. Both Xi and Putin are aligned with Khamenei in Iran, whose theocratic regime has been bankrolling and arming Hamas and Hezbollah.
Not to be outdone, in recent weeks North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, has delivered millions of artillery shells and rockets to Russia for use in Ukraine. China and North Korea have a mutual aid and co-operation treaty, signed in 1961, which is currently the only defence treaty either country has with any nation. I have written to the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, about the decision taken only last week by the PRC to forcibly repatriate North Koreans, who have been sent back to Pyongyang, in contravention of the 1951 convention on the treatment of refugees. Can the Minister tell us whether that is an issue we will be raising in the United Nations Human Rights Council, to which the People’s Republic of China, ironically, was re-elected just a few days ago?
Beyond North Korea, this new and deadly axis wants to replace the rules-based order—which has been referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Howell, Lord Alderdice and Lord Collins, and my noble and gallant friend—and the global stability that has been delivered pretty much since World War II, with rule by force and by diktat. It would be a mistake to see this alliance of dictators, theocrats, authoritarians and jihadists as separate threats. Their ideological differences will be parked temporarily as they use one another to pursue their shared hatred of the free world and its democracies. Xi Jinping sees us as weak and has frequently attacked Western values and multi-party democracy. His declared ambition is for the CCP regime to become the dominant world power by 2049, when his Communist Party will be 100 years old.
Dictators protect one another and exploit geopolitical chaos. Xi thinks nothing of making alliances and deals with Iran or, for that matter, with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Simultaneously, he secures the compliance of dependent countries—a point referred to by earlier speakers—by indebting them through belt and road projects and then demanding the votes of those countries at the United Nations. That too has implications, of course, for global order and security. I would be particularly keen to hear what assessment the Minister is making of the CCP’s current activities across Africa, a point made regularly in the International Relations and Defence Select Committee—on which I was proud to serve with my noble and gallant friend—by the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, who is in his place.
It is against this disturbing international backdrop that the House is considering some of the key observations of the Intelligence and Security Committee. Let us remember what that report begins with:
“China’s national imperative continues to be the continuing dominance and governance of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). However, it is its ambition at a global level – to become a technological and economic superpower, on which other countries are reliant – that represents the greatest risk to the UK.”
It explores what it calls
“the multifaceted nature of the intelligence threat posed by China”
and warns us that China pursues a “whole-of-state” approach, meaning that
“Chinese state-owned and non-state-owned companies, as well as academic and cultural establishments and ordinary Chinese citizens, are liable to be (willingly or unwillingly) co-opted into espionage and interference operations overseas”.
Most alarmingly, though, for me, the committee concludes that China has been able to
“successfully penetrate every sector of the UK’s economy”;
“Chinese money was readily accepted by HMG with few questions asked”;
and that external experts concluded
“very strongly that HMG did not have any strategy on China, let alone an effective one”.
The lack of action to identify and protect UK assets from a known threat was, the report argues,
“a serious failure, and one that the UK may feel the consequences of for years to come”.
Furthermore, the committee found there is “no evidence” that government departments tasked with countering Chinese interference have the necessary resources, expertise or knowledge. The level of resource dedicated to tackling the threat “has been completely inadequate”, and
“The slow speed at which strategies, and policies, are developed and implemented also leaves a lot to be desired”.
The committee added:
“Without swift and decisive action”
a “nightmare scenario” could emerge whereby China represented not just a
“commercial challenge, but … an existential threat to liberal democratic systems”.
That is not hawks speaking, of the kind referred to in the preceding speech, but a serious committee of Parliament.
In their response published last month, His Majesty’s Government pointed out that the committee’s inquiry related to evidence primarily presented in 2020 and that the Government’s integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy in 2021 and its refresh in 2023, which was referred to by the noble Earl, strengthened the United Kingdom’s position on China, recognising what it calls the
“epoch-defining and systemic challenge”
posed by China, and making it clear that
“national security will always come first”.
That was echoed by the noble Earl.
I welcome that progress and look forward to hearing the Minister set out what that means in terms of practical action, which the noble Lord, Lord Collins, referred to. But even since 2021 there have continued to be inconsistencies, mixed messaging and inadequate government responses to the threats posed by the CCP regime.
What is not in contention—here, I again echo what the noble Earl said—is that it is perfectly possible to admire the people, culture and civilisation of China while opposing the brutal dictatorship that rules China, currently led by Xi Jinping. But that is not the position of the Government, who pursue a Pushmi-Pullyu approach worthy of Dr Doolittle and believe you can make more trade deals with a regime accused of genocide against Muslim Uighurs.
That approach was in evidence again this week in reports about the reconvening of JETCO. Would it not be better to reduce our dependency on a regime with which we have a trade deficit of around £40 billion—a point the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, often makes—increase own resilience, especially in manufacturing, and enhance trade with countries that broadly share our values and beliefs? Here I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, said about the importance of the Commonwealth. But instead, we ignore the threats and seek deals with a regime which despises and threatens the world.
This is a regime that is intensifying atrocities in Tibet and that dismantled Hong Kong’s promised freedoms and autonomy, in total breach of the international treaty, the Sino-British joint declaration. It is a regime that stands accused of severe persecution of Christians, Falun Gong practitioners and other minorities, of committing the crime against humanity of forced organ harvesting and of unleashing a crackdown on civil society, lawyers, bloggers, journalists and dissidents across China. It is a regime that has escalated threats to Taiwan. It is a regime that, at least twice in the past year, has been accused of infiltrating this very Parliament with influencers and alleged spies. It is a regime that the head of MI5 has on multiple occasions—as recently as this week describing the threats to British businesses, as my noble and gallant friend said—warned poses a significant threat. The writing has been on the Great Wall of China for years.
We recall that in 2020, the Government were poised to invite the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei into our 5G network. The noble Earl made a virtue of the decision not to proceed with that, but it was only as a result of amendments here and a serious rebellion in the House of Commons, combined with pressure from the United States, Australia and other allies who saw the dangers, that the Government changed their mind. That failure to act in concert with our allies cost this country significant sums of money and damaged its reputation.
The same thing happened with Hikvision’s surveillance cameras. Since January 2020 I have raised this issue on more than 25 occasions in your Lordships’ House, describing them as tools of genocide because of the way surveillance cameras have been used in Xinjiang to facilitate the atrocity crimes perpetrated against the Uighurs. As I said in a previous debate,
“A negligent procurement policy means that we will ultimately end up stripping them out, as we did with Huawei, at huge public cost”.—[Official Report, 25/5/22; col. 878.]
That is exactly what we have ended up doing.
Sometimes the Government have done the right thing but very late in the day. The decision to force a Chinese-owned tech firm to sell at least 86% of its stake in Britain’s largest microchip company, Newport Wafer Fab, because of fears about the national security risks involved was the right one, but why did we allow China to invest in such a critical sector in the first place? The mixed messaging continues. I applaud His Majesty’s Government for joining the US and Australia in forming AUKUS, our security alliance, but while this is the right response, there is plenty that is not.
During our International Relations and Defence Committee inquiry into China, the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, using a word that my noble and gallant friend used himself in his remarks today, described our approach to China as “cakeism”—wanting to be more secure while simultaneously wanting more trade deals. An example of that is the failure to sanction Hong Kong officials responsible for their involvement in some of the events described by the noble Lord, Lord Patten. In January, two submissions on sanctions were made to the FCDO by Stand with Hong Kong via the All-Party Group on Hong Kong and by Hong Kong Watch. In February, FCDO officials said the submissions would be reviewed and a decision made by April. There has still been no response. Perhaps the Minister, particularly in the light of the growing number of political prisoners—there are more than 1,000 in prison in Hong Kong—will speak to his right honourable friend Anne-Marie Trevelyan MP to establish when a response will be forthcoming.
I have some other questions for the Minister—I will try to be brief. Why was the governor of Xinjiang invited to meet Foreign Office officials earlier this year, and why did it have to take public pressure for the visit to be cancelled? Why have not one but two Hong Kong Ministers—the Secretary for Financial Services, Christopher Hui, and then the Financial Secretary, Paul Chan—been in London this year? When the CCP has completely dismantled Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy and undermined its rule of law, is that appropriate?
Why was the first ministerial visit in five years by a British Minister to Hong Kong made by the Trade Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, with no apparent agenda to discuss human rights, during the continued imprisonment of British citizen Jimmy Lai—whose son Sebastien has been here in Parliament again this week? When will the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary follow the example of the US Administration, the European Union Parliament and the United Nations special rapporteurs and call for the immediate release of Mr Lai? Why did the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, speak at the Chinese embassy’s celebration of the 74th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China earlier this month? What kind of message does that send to a regime that the Government themselves say poses an “epoch-defining and systemic challenge”?
The Prime Minister gave a personal pledge to shut down the CCP’s Confucius Institutes in our universities and schools. Why do we not work with the Government of Taiwan for language and culture studies rather than with the CCP? In January this year the Times, following research by Civitas, highlighted the fact that more than 40 of our universities have links with institutions that are tools of the Chinese state, including institutions complicit with, facilitating or directly involved with the Uighur genocide, nuclear development, military research, espionage and hacking. What are we thinking of? What steps are being taken to help British universities reduce dependency and diversify their funding sources?
What are the Government doing to address concerns highlighted by Charles Parton, a fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, and others that Chinese-made electric cars—or even simply Chinese-made cellular modules that are components in non-Chinese-made cars and other electronic equipment—could be used to spy on us? What assessment has been made of those security risks?
Why, following the physical assault by the Chinese consul-general in Manchester and several Chinese diplomats on Hong Kongers peacefully protesting outside the consulate, with the consul-general claiming it was his “duty”, did the Government not immediately expel those diplomats and declare them persona non grata?
It was instructive that Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, a former British diplomat who until recently was HSBC’s head of public affairs, described Britain as “weak” for siding with the United States against China. But we have been too weak in failing to stand up to the CCP. If UK businesses are in doubt about the nature of the regime with which they are dealing, they should meet Peter Humphrey, the British businessman and journalist who at a meeting here recently described his two and a half years in Chinese jails, some of the time with 12 men in a cell.
In response to this damning indictment from the Intelligence and Security Committee, we need to completely review our procurement policies, our university sector, our critical infrastructure and our diplomatic messaging. We need to ensure that we have the resources to counter the threat from the CCP, and that we are consistent and robust in defending our values of human rights, our national interests and our national security.