China’s ambassador to the UK has been summoned to the Foreign Office amid a diplomatic row over the arrest and alleged beating of a BBC journalist covering Covid protests in Shanghai.
The department has called Zheng Zeguang to “demand a full and thorough explanation” of cameraman Edward Lawrence’s detention, a Foreign Office minister told the Commons on Tuesday.
David Rutley said UK officials will make clear the “unacceptable and unwarranted” nature of the journalist’s treatment, after the BBC said he was “beaten and kicked” by police in the Chinese city.
China-sceptic Tory MPs meanwhile urged the Government to “get serious” about Beijing and criticised Rishi Sunak’s plans to take a “robustly pragmatic” approach to country.
Answering an urgent question in the Commons, Mr Rutley said: “As the Foreign Secretary made clear yesterday the arrest of a BBC journalist while covering the recent protests in Shanghai is a deeply disturbing and wholly unacceptable situation. Journalists must be able to do their job without fear of arrest or intimidation.
“The BBC has stated that the journalist was beaten and kicked by police during his arrest and was held for several hours before being released.
“In response, we are calling in the Chinese ambassador to make clear the unacceptable and unwarranted nature of these actions, the importance of freedom of speech, and to demand a full and thorough explanation.”
He added: “We recognise that the Covid-related restrictions in China are challenging for the Chinese people, and we urge the Chinese authorities to respect the rights of those who decide to express their views about the situation.”
China’s top UK diplomat is expected to meet senior officials at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) in Whitehall later on Tuesday afternoon, as Foreign Secretary James Cleverly is in Romania for a Nato meeting.
Conservative former Cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg questioned the impact of the summoning, saying: “Should we not be looking to expel diplomats, to take tougher action in international forums where Chinese interests are at stake, to do things that the Chinese would not want us to do … so that we show that we are not a pushover, we are not going to support the communist running dogs?”
Another Conservative former minister criticised the Government’s failure to expel the Manchester consulate general after a Hong Kong pro-democracy protester was allegedly attacked in the grounds of the Chinese consulate there.
“When are we going to get serious about China?” Tim Loughton asked.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory former leader and longstanding China critic, raised doubts that the Prime Minister’s vision of “robust pragmatism” towards Beijing would “worry the Chinese any one bit”.
In his first major foreign policy speech, Mr Sunak on Monday said the “golden era” of UK-Chinese relations is over, but cautioned it was wrong to “rely on simplistic Cold War rhetoric”.
He told the Lord Mayor’s Banquet that the UK “cannot simply ignore China’s significance in world affairs – to global economic stability or issues like climate change”.
Sir Iain also denounced Mr Sunak’s apparent softening of rhetoric to declare Beijing a “systemic challenge” rather than a “systemic threat”.
Mr Rutley replied: “What the Prime Minister was setting out yesterday is a coordinated and coherent approach where we will be doing more to adapt to China’s growing impact.”
The minister also noted that the Government is refreshing the integrated review of defence and foreign policy, adding: “That will help us create the framework in which further action can be taken as appropriate”.
No 10 earlier condemned Mr Lawrence’s detention as “shocking and unacceptable” and said journalists “must be able to do their jobs without fear of intimidation”.
The BBC said Chinese officials claimed the journalist was arrested “for his own good” in case he caught Covid from the crowd, adding: “We do not consider this a credible explanation.”
Beijing contested the broadcaster’s statement, with Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian reportedly saying Mr Lawrence failed to identify himself as a journalist and “didn’t voluntarily present” his press credentials.
Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan described Beijing’s account as “highly sceptical”.
She told LBC radio: “I’ve seen the footage and it’s absolutely shocking.
“We believe in press freedom and the ability for the media to be able to report all over the globe and communicate what is actually happening on the ground and that, I believe, is what this individual was trying to do. They were just trying to do their job.
“It’s quite shocking that they were treated in such an appalling fashion.
“I await the full details of that from the Chinese government.
“I know that they have given a version of the truth which I’m sure we would all agree is very highly sceptical.”
Some footage on social media showed Mr Lawrence being dragged to the ground in handcuffs, while he was heard saying in another video: “Call the consulate now.”
The FCDO is in contact with Mr Lawrence and local authorities about the incident.