Call us on +44 (0)20 7465 4300
22 January 2021

China Secures Trade Deal Despite Human Rights Violations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang

Despite China’s continual human rights violations, which accelerated throughout last year, on 30 December 2020 The EU and China concluded their negotiations for a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI). The EU Commission claims to have accounted for concerns relating to Hong Kong, the Covid 19 Pandemic and other human rights matters. They reported important progress on a number of key issues, whilst underlining the EU’s continued expectations and concerns in other areas. However, this comes at the end of a year characterised by Beijing’s declining human rights record.


Hong Kong:

On 11 and 12 July 2020, Hong Kong held pro-democracy primaries to select candidates for the subsequently postponed 2020 Legislative Council election. Threatened by the staggering 600,000 residents who turned up for the polls, China immediately declared these primaries illegal and an affront to the national security laws imposed by Beijing on 30 June. The extensive legislation prohibited even the most minor acts of defiance.

In his article published here last August, Partner Matt Ingham discussed the arrest of Mr Jimmy Lai whose publication was a constant voice of support for the pro-democracy demonstrators. However, China appears to have been biding its time to wield the full punitive effect of its national security laws, potentially in anticipation of the EU trade deal. Only after the negotiations with Brussels concluded did China commence its mass round up of 55 key participants in the “illegal” primaries. This vast operation, which took place on 6 January 2021, brought the region to a halt and saw the arrest of the first foreign national under the new security rules, American lawyer and activist John Clancey.

In addition to this, on 30 December 2020 ten pro-democracy activists arrested for fleeing to Taiwan during demonstrations last summer were sentenced to three years in jail. But the wrath of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, goes beyond persecuting her principal detractors. Following the trial, Lawyers Ren Quanniu and Lu Siwei, who represented the activists, have now been threatened with the revocation of their licences to practice law. This attack on legal professionals, which began on 24 December 2019 with the arrests of five Chinese human rights lawyers, marks a contrived attempt to prevent protesters and dissenters from accessing justice in Hong Kong or on mainland China.


The CAI was also agreed amidst growing evidence of gross human rights violations in the Xinjiang region, against 2 million predominantly Uighur Muslim minority groups.  China has denied the extra-judicial detention and forced labour of these groups, despite the leaking of official government documents containing proof of these operations. The UK Government has repeatedly called on China to end these practices and uphold its national laws and international obligations. Whilst supporters of the CAI maintain it gives the EU leverage over China, others remain sceptical towards the quality of China’s assurances and the EU Commission’s level of scrutiny. Only at the start of December 2020 did the European Parliament pass a resolution condemning China’s system of forced labour, which targets and exploits minority Muslim groups.

UK’s response:

In her article, published in August last year, Partner Kathryn Bradbury set out the new visa category made available to British National (Overseas) citizens, which is being rolled out from 31 January this year. The Home Office expects huge numbers of applications, with estimates of between 154,000 – 330,000 eligible applicants moving to the UK from Hong Kong in the first year.

Residents of mainland China will not be able to benefit from the scheme, but on 12 January 2021 the UK Government announced a number of measures to ensure that British organisations, whether public or private sector, are not complicit in, nor profiting from, the human rights violations in Xinjiang. As part of the announcement, Priti Patel said that “Britain will always stand up for those suffering dreadful human rights abuses and…. the measures will help protect the minority populations in Xinjiang”.

However, as the situation currently stands, Uighurs and other Muslims fleeing Xinjiang and seeking protection in the UK are still required to prove they are at risk of serious harm in their native country. This is notwithstanding a cross-party letter addressed to the Home Secretary last August, signed by 44 MPs and peers, which called for the government to “specifically commit to automatically granting refugee status to all Uighur people fleeing religious persecution from the Chinese state.

Our Citizenship & Immigration Team has assisted with many highly confidential, complex asylum claims made by lawyers, journalists and publishers fleeing persecution. We will be able to provide a high quality and discrete service on these matters and are able to assist with both Hong Kong British National (Overseas) Visas as well as traditional asylum applications.


Article by Georgina Rea, Paralegal and David Whitworth, Trainee, in the Citizenship & Immigration Department at Payne Hicks Beach. For further information please speak to your usual contact in the Citizenship & Immigration Department or telephone on 020 7465 4300

About the Author
David Whitworth
View Profile