UK-China tensions escalate after Covid and human rights comments


Tensions with China escalated again today as Tories warned the ‘Golden Age’ in relations is over – and Beijing accused the UK of ‘spreading lies’ about human rights abuses.

A war of words is raging after Boris Johnson lashed out at ‘demented’ Chinese medicine for helping trigger the coronavirus pandemic, and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab threatened fines for firms that profit from slave labour.

A damning report backed by a slew of senior Conservatives today highlights a slew of issues including ‘violations of freedom of expression, freedom of religion or belief, arbitrary disappearances and detention, and force television confessions’.     

Ex-Cabinet minister Lord Hague said the UK must have its ‘eyes fully open’ in its ties with China, while Foreign Affairs Committee chair Tom Tugendhat said: ‘It is clear the Golden Era is over and the UK, and our allies, need to rethink our relations with China’s dictatorship.’

Tory MPs have been pushing ministers to take a more robust approach to the Asian superpower, including relying less heavily on Huawei for the UK’s 5G network.  

But Beijing delivered a stinging rebuke to the government over the measures announced by Mr Raab yesterday, saying it will ‘take all necessary measures to defend national interests and dignity and firmly safeguard its sovereign, security and development interests’.

Beijing has accused the UK of ‘spreading lies’ about human rights abuses. Pictured, President Xi Jinping this week

Foreign Affairs Committee chair Tom Tugendhat said: 'It is clear the Golden Era is over.'

Boris Johnson in a Protect The Pangolin t-shirt in 2018, while jogging with then Australian counterpart foreign minister Julie Bishop

Foreign Affairs Committee chair Tom Tugendhat (left) said: ‘It is clear the Golden Era is over.’ Boris Johnson (pictured right in 2018) risked the wrath of China this week by lashing out at ‘demented’ medicine that grinds up pangolin 

What has Covid got to do with pangolins?

Pangolins – which have been illegally traded for centuries and used in traditional Chinese medicine – have been implicated in the emergence of coronavirus in China last winter.

Scientists are almost certain the virus first emerged in bats. But, because bats are not usually able to infect humans directly, they believe the virus was passed to an intermediate species before jumping to people. 

Pangolins appear to be immune to Covid-19, which makes them a prime carrier of the virus and would have allowed them to act as an unharmed vector carrying the virus from bats deep in the wild, where they live, to public markets where the scaly creatures are illicitly traded. 

All eight species of pangolin are supposed to be protected from trafficking by international law. Yet they are one of the most bought and sold mammals in Asia and Africa, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Based on reported seizures between 2011 and 2013, more than 230,000 pangolins are killed every year. But experts believe the official seizures represent as little as 10 per cent of the actual number being traded on the black market. 

In Asian countries, particularly China and Vietnam, pangolin meat is a delicacy and their scales are used as ingredients for traditional medicine, to treat ailments such as skin diseases, menstrual disorders and arthritis.

Chinese law states that selling pangolins is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The prevailing theory is that Covid-19 emerged in Wuhan’s infamous wet market, where hundreds of different species of animals were kept in cramped cages dangerously close to one another, sometime last winter.

Scientists have described such markets as the perfect breeding ground for new, pandemic-causing viruses.

Pangolins were not listed on an inventory of items sold at the Huanan Seafood Market, however the illegality of trading pangolins could explain their exclusion from the list.  

The black market trade in the creature has also been previously implicated in oubreaks of bird flu. 

World Health Organization experts will visit the city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first detected in late 2019, on Thursday at the start of their investigation into the origins of the pandemic, Chinese authorities have said.

China has denied that the market – or pangolins – are involved in the spread of the virus, and its authoritarian regime has blamed other countries such as India for the outbreak. 

Another theory is that the virus was engineered at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a high-security biochemical lab in the city. 

One of America’s most senior government officials last week claimed this was the most ‘credible’ origin theory.

Matthew Pottinger, president Donald Trump’s Deputy National Security Adviser, told politicians from around the world that even China’s leaders now openly admit their previous claims that the virus originated in a Wuhan market are false.

Mr Pottinger said that the latest intelligence points to the virus leaking from the top-secret Wuhan Institute of Virology, 11 miles from the market, saying: ‘There is a growing body of evidence that the lab is likely the most credible source of the virus.’

In a zoom call with UK MPs he claimed the pathogen may have escaped through a ‘leak or an accident’, adding: ‘Even establishment figures in Beijing have openly dismissed the wet market story.’ 

Like the wet markets, China has denied the lab having anything to do with the outbreak. 

The visit to Wuhan by the WHO team is already mired in controversy after it published terms of reference revealing it will not investigate the Wuhan institute – the only laboratory in China with the highest international bio-security grading – as a possible source of Covid-19.

Scientists have previously said that Covid-19 unique spike protein and its ability to latch onto human cells so efficiently mean generic engineering shouldn’t be ruled out.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said: ‘Individual countries including the UK have funded, concocted and deliberately spread lies and rumours to smear and discredit China on the pretext of so-called human rights issues.

‘It fully exposes their hypocrisy and sinister intentions to curb the development and progress of Xinjiang and interfere in China’s internal affairs.’

In an environmental speech to world leaders earlier this week, Mr Johnson tore into people who ‘grind up the scales of a pangolin’ in a bid to become more ‘potent’ – a thinly veiled attack on Chinese remedies. 

He said: ‘Obviously it’s right to focus on climate change, obviously it’s right to cut CO2 emissions, but we won’t achieve a real balance with our planet unless we protect nature as well. 

‘One final thought, don’t forget that the coronavirus pandemic was the product of an imbalance in man’s relationship with the natural world.

‘Like the original plague which struck the Greeks I seem to remember in book one of the Iliad, it is a zoonotic disease. 

‘It originates from bats or pangolins, from the demented belief that if you grind up the scales of a pangolin you will somehow become more potent or whatever it is people believe, it originates from this collision between mankind and the natural world and we’ve got to stop it.’ 

But China hit back at the PM after his comments, with a spokesman saying: ‘We’ve said many times that origin tracing is a scientific matter.

‘There is no room, no place, for people making speculations, hyping up – otherwise it will only disrupt international co-operation.’ 

Conservative insiders detected the influence of the PM’s fiancée Carrie Symonds in his incendiary remarks. 

Ms Symonds has been vocal in her opposition to wet markets, where the animals are sold, gaining praise from Peta as it announced her as one of its most influential activists of 2020

Former Tory aides told MailOnline she was ‘definitely’ behind Mr Johnson’s conservation push and are growing concerned that her enthusiasm for such issues are eating up too much of the Government’s bandwidth at the expense of other policy areas.

One Tory insider said: ‘When the f*** was he talking about the environment before he got with her? I’ve never seen Boris talk about the environment. 

‘It’s also a tangential issue. It is completely lacking any political antennae. it is not mission critical. This government should be about the public’s agenda, not Carrie’s agenda.’ 

The Tory said there was a ‘time and a place’ to talk about conservation issues, and this was ‘not it’.   

Mr Johnson made the remarks in a virtual speech to the One Planet Summit, hosted by France’s President Macron, citing the illegal trade in the scaly anteater-like creatures.

They are widely used in Chinese medicine and their trafficking has been blamed for transmitting the virus from bats found in the wild to humans.

The first documented cases of the Covid-19 were in the Chinese city of Wuhan, with a wet market trading in exotic animals being seen as the probable source. 

Mr Raab announced yesterday that British firms will face heavy fines if they are lined to Chinese human rights abuse and companies will have to meet requirements showing their supply chains are free from forced labour in the Xinjiang province.

The Beijing government has been accused of widespread abuse in the area, home to the Muslim Uighurs, including allegations of forced sterilisation, slave labour and mass internment.

Members of the Uighur minority group have reportedly been made to pick cotton in Xinjiang province, leading to concerns British consumers could inadvertently be buying tainted goods. 

Mr Raab said companies will be given robust guidance on how to carry out due diligence checks to make sure they are not sourcing products tainted by the human rights violations in the province. 

He told MPs the picture of human rights abuses in Xinjiang was ‘harrowing’ and the UK had a ‘moral duty to respond’. 

Pangolins inhabit tropical forests in India, China, south-east Asia and parts of Africa.

Out of the eight existing sub-species, three are critically endangered, and all of them are protected by international treaty.

The general hunting and trading of pangolins have been banned in China since the late 1980s, but the exotic mammals are still trafficked by the thousands for their perceived nutritional value.

Their scales are deemed as a previous ingredient by believers of traditional Chinese medicine and its than 123 tons were sold in 2019 on the black market.

People also eat their meat for the supposed health benefits and the animals’ blood is seen as a healing tonic. 

China has previously denied pangolin are a vector for moving the virus from bats to humans.

Last year researchers in the Communist state found that the animals are indeed natural hosts for various coronaviruses, but do not appear to be the direct source of Covid-19.

Pictured: A map showing the nine countries China has blamed for the outbreak of Covid-19

Pictured: A map showing the nine countries China has blamed for the outbreak of Covid-19

In November a different team from the Chinese Academy of Sciences claimed the virus likely originated in India in summer 2019 – jumping from animals to humans via contaminated water – before travelling unnoticed to Wuhan, where it was first detected. 

Mr Johnson has previously called for greater protection for pangolins.

In 2018 he wrote a newspaper article calling for greater efforts to track down on hunting and smuggling the mammal.

He wrote: ‘As we get older we human beings are capable of all manner of self-deception. We go under the knife in the hope of looking younger. We take pills and potions of dubious efficacity.

‘But in the annals of human folly there is surely nothing more delusional than the belief still prevalent in large parts of Asia that a man can somehow rectify his waning virility by grinding and eating the scales of a pangolin.

‘And yet that is what they do. The tragedy is that all eight species of pangolin are now endangered, two of them critically so.

‘We are losing them to poachers at a rate of 100,000 a year. They are smuggled, butchered and cooked – all for the sake of their mythical medicinal qualities.’ 

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk