Britain confronted China over its conduct towards Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang on Friday in a bilateral ministerial meeting, signalling London’s more forthright approach to raising concerns with Beijing.
James Cleverly, UK foreign secretary, spoke for 30 minutes via interpreters with Chinese vice-president Han Zheng, who had flown into London to attend King Charles III’s coronation on Saturday.
The meeting came 10 days after Cleverly delivered a speech at the Mansion House outlining in depth Britain’s position on China.
The address, widely considered a riposte to China hawks on the Conservative backbenches, set out the argument for engagement with China, both on areas of dissent as well as agreement.
After the bilateral meeting, Cleverly made clear he had put the fresh approach into action, disclosing he and Han discussed “areas of deep disagreement and vital co-operation”.
He wrote on Twitter: “Today with VP Han Zheng, I made plain the UK’s views on Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan. We also discussed working together on climate change, economic ties and people-to-people links.”
According to officials, Cleverly also raised Beijing’s decision in 2021 to sanction five UK MPs who had been critical of the Chinese Communist party’s attitude towards human rights. Awkwardly for Anglo-Chinese relations, the group included Tom Tugendhat, who though a backbench MP at the time has since been promoted to UK security minister.
The eve-of-coronation bilateral meeting took place amid anger in more hawkish Tory circles about Chinese president Xi Jinping’s decision to send Han, the politician accused of overseeing the violation of the UK-China joint declaration on Hong Kong, to the royal ceremony.
Lord Chris Patten, the last UK governor of Hong Kong before the territory was handed back to China, said the choice of attendee showed China does not give “two hoots” about Britain.
The tone of the meeting between Cleverly and Han, which took place at 1 Carlton Gardens in London where foreign ministers are often entertained, was viewed as professional and polite by the UK side.
According to those close to the talks, Han informally suggested Cleverly should visit China. No formal invitation has been issued to the foreign secretary, despite the government making clear its willingness to conduct face-to-face talks on the Chinese mainland following the Covid pandemic.
The foreign secretary’s remarks about the meeting were scrutinised by China-watchers in Britain. Sophia Gaston, head of foreign policy at the right-leaning think-tank Policy Exchange, said prime minister Rishi Sunak was pursuing relations with China — and foreign policy more generally — through a “prism of ‘pragmatic engagement’, and with an eye to the exchequer”.
She added: “It’s fair to say that the shift towards dialogue with China . . . will only be legitimised through a much more judicious approach to national security.”
Friday marked a day of diplomacy as Sunak held one-on-one meetings with several global leaders in London for the coronation, including Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese, New Zealand prime minister Chris Hipkins and Emir Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani of Qatar.
King Charles meanwhile attended a Commonwealth heads of government meeting, then later hosted a reception for foreign royals, leaders and dignitaries at Buckingham Palace.
The Chinese embassy in London was contacted for comment.