Britain has accused China of committing human rights abuses "on an industrial scale" against Uighur Muslims, as the Foreign Office announced measures to stop UK firms using products sourced from Uighur labour camps.
The Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, said Beijing was guilty of "truly harrowing" repression of the Uighur minority, with mosques destroyed, women forcibly sterilised and widespread use of forced labour to make Chinese export goods.
In a move likely to plunge relations with Beijing to a new low, he revealed new export controls designed to stop British firms – knowingly or otherwise – using products sourced from Uighur slave labour camps. The Uighur homeland of Xinjiang province is a major global cotton supplier.
Firms will be given extra government guidance on how to do due diligence on their supply chains. Those who fail to take their "obligations seriously" could face heavy fines under the Modern Slavery Act.
Raab told Parliament that Britain had a "moral duty" to speak out about the abuses in Xinjiang, where up to a million people are believed to have passed through re-education camps. Beijing says the camps are to teach locals about the dangers of Islamic extremism, and that any labour is done voluntarily as part of job creation schemes.
"Internment camps, arbitrary detention, political re-education, forced labour, torture and forced sterilisation – all on an industrial scale," Raab said. "It is truly horrific. Barbarism we had hoped lost to another era, being practised today in one of the leading members of the international community."
He added that while China had refused to allow diplomats and human rights groups proper access to Xinjiang, many of the criticisms were supported by official records from China itself. Abortion and sterilisation programmes, he said, were "coercive social measures dressed up as poverty alleviation programmes".
Raab spoke ahead of the publication of a report by the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, which calls for a major review of Britain's relations with China because of its human rights record under President Xi Jinping.
On the issue of Uighur slave labour, the report cites a study by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think tank. It claims that up to 80,000 Uighurs have been sent to work in 27 different Chinese factories, some with inward-facing barbed-wire fences. Based on Chinese government documents and local media reports, the Australian study said the factories were suspected to be involved in the supply chains of at least 83 well-known brands.
Many firms named in the report pledged to investigate further, while others denied any relationships with the suppliers. Last November, leading fashion brands were also quizzed by a UK parliamentary committee to ensure that high-street clothes were not using Uighur forced labour.
Several, including H&M and fashion label Stella McCartney, said it was difficult to fully trace the ultimate origins of certain cotton suppliers.
- Telegraph Media Group