China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom has been banned from the British parliament because Beijing imposed sanctions on legislators after they spoke out against alleged human rights abuses directed at the minority Uighurs in the far western region of Xinjiang.
Lindsay Hoyle, the speaker of the House of Commons, and John McFall, the speaker of the House of Lords, said it would not be “appropriate” for Zheng Zeguang to speak at an event in parliament while members were subject to Chinese sanctions. The ban was put in place on Tuesday.
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“I regularly hold meetings with ambassadors from across the world to establish enduring ties between countries and parliamentarians,” Hoyle said.
“But 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.”
The ban, described by the London-based Times newspaper as an “unprecedented intervention”, prompted a furious response from China.
“The despicable and cowardly action of certain individuals of the UK Parliament to obstruct normal exchanges and cooperation between China and the UK for personal political gains is against the wishes and harmful to the interests of the peoples of both countries,” a statement from the embassy said.
China imposed sanctions on nine British politicians, lawyers and an academic in March for spreading what it said were “lies and disinformation” over the treatment of the mostly Muslim Uighurs.
China imposed the sanctions after Britain, the United States, European Union and Canada took “coordinated action” against Chinese officials accused of engineering the crackdown on the Uighurs. The British parliamentarians who were singled out by China took the lead in a campaign to limit British investment in China by tabling a “Genocide Amendment” to trade legislation that was under consideration.
Among those sanctioned were former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith, Tom Tugendhat, the chairman of parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, and Helena Kennedy, a human rights lawyer who sits in the upper house.
War of words
Zheng had been due to address the All-Party Parliamentary China Group, which is made up of members from both houses of parliament, on Wednesday. The group is seen as being more sympathetic to Beijing.
The sanctioned members had written to the speakers raising their concerns about the event.
“This meeting should never have been proposed in the first place: the mother of parliaments that protects free speech and the liberties of free peoples,” Smith wrote on Twitter as he thanked the speakers for their “swift action”.
Hoyle said the ambassador would be banned while the sanctions remained in place. The Times said it was the first time an ambassador had been barred from parliament.
Tim Loughton, a politician with the ruling Conservative party, also who was also subjected to the sanctions, welcomed the decision.
He said China could not think “they can shut down free speech by parliamentarians in a democracy”.
In its statement, the Chinese embassy said the sanctions were “beyond reproach” and “justified responses” to the British action against Xinjiang-linked officials.
London and Beijing have been trading angry words over a range of issues, including events in Hong Kong and China’s trade policy.
Activists and United Nations experts say at least one million Muslims have been detained in camps in Xinjiang.
China has denied accusations of abuse and says the camps are vocational skills training centres and necessary to fight extremism.