Foreign Office accused of handing China 'propaganda coup' over visit by Uyghur region governor

Erkin Tuniyaz, left, will be arriving in the UK next week - MARINA DEPETRIS/Reuters
Erkin Tuniyaz, left, will be arriving in the UK next week - MARINA DEPETRIS/Reuters

Conservative MPs have accused the Foreign Office of handing a “propaganda coup” to China by offering to meet a senior official accused of human rights violations.

Erkin Tuniyaz, the governor of the Xinjiang region, plans to visit the UK next week and he has been offered a meeting with a Foreign Office official.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, accused the government of being “very weak” and demanded they rescind the invitation.

Former Tory leader, Sir Iain Duncan Smith,
Former Tory leader, Sir Iain Duncan Smith,

Alicia Kearns, the chairwoman of the Commons foreign affairs committee, said the “only meetings with him should be in a courtroom” and called on ministers to impose sanctions on Mr Tuniyaz, as the US had done.

The Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, suggested that Mr Tuniyaz would not be allowed to come to the Houses of Parliament.

Two years ago the Commons voted to declare the treatment of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang as genocide, but the Foreign Office has always resisted this description, saying only an appropriate court could determine whether it amounted to genocide.

Campaigners say Mr Tuniyaz is well known for his defence of the use of detention facilities that some have likened to concentration camps.

Foreign Office minister Leo Docherty was dragged in front of MPs after Sir Iain asked an urgent question about the visit.

He said the government had not invited him to visit the UK, and will challenge him on human rights violations against the Uyghurs if he does travel.

“We understand from the Chinese embassy that the governor of Xinjiang may visit the UK next week,” he said.

"To be very clear he has not been invited by the UK Government or by the FCDO and we have no confirmation that he will in fact travel.

"Our expectation is that he will be travelling on a diplomatic passport, and has not yet been granted, therefore, a visa. If he does visit I can assure this House that under no circumstances will he be dignified with a ministerial meeting."

Mr Docherty added officials "would be prepared to offer him a meeting", but only "to make absolutely clear the UK's abhorrence at the treatment of the Uyghur people".

'Weak response hides something'

But Sir Iain said the Government should deal with Xinjiang's governor in a court of law rather than an official's "quiet office".

“This weak response from the Foreign Office hides something,” he said. “It isn't that they invited him here, it is that they have made it clear that when he comes here he of course will be welcome to come and see them.

"Whether or not the Foreign Office is tough, this is a propaganda coup for the Chinese Government. The governor has defended the use of mass detention centres and doubled down and expanded their use. During his tenure over one million Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities were detained in Xinjiang.

"I remind the minister, a man that actually declares that nothing is going on is hardly likely to be bothered by a Foreign Office official telling him 'now now, you've got to stop this'."

Sir Iain claimed the UK had only sanctioned "three rather junior people" involved in Xinjiang compared to the "punitive sanctions" and other actions carried out by the US.

After calling on ministers to "rescind this invitation", he added: "The place to deal with these individuals is in a tribunal or a court of law, not in the quiet office of a Foreign Office official."

'Ill-judged and inappropriate'

Labour shadow foreign office minister Catherine West said a meeting with the governor of Xinjiang would be "ill-judged and inappropriate".

Ms Kearns said: "I'm afraid minister this just simply is not good enough. In Xinjiang women are being forcibly sterilised, children are in concentration camps, there are forced labour camps and systemic rape, yet... the minister has just confirmed from the despatch box that ministers approved of this visit to one of the masterminds of this genocide.

"There is no legitimate reason to allow this man, Erkin Tuniyaz, into our country, (the) only meetings with him should be in a courtroom. So will the Government now sanction him?"