Tuesday 19 January 2021 6:52 am

Exclusive: City of London Corporation chief says 'not our place' to criticise China human rights abuses

The City of London Corporation’s policy chief has said it is not the powerful local authority’s role to hold China to account for human rights abuses.

Catherine McGuinness told City A.M. that she was “really not clear it’s our place” to publicly criticise the Chinese government for human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims and that “we do need to look at business connections” with the economic superpower.

Read more: Excl: Hong Kong activist Nathan Law slams firms ‘colluding’ with Beijing

McGuinness said if abuses came up in a meeting then “of course we’d express our views.”

The City of London Corporation – the Square Mile’s local authority based in the historic Guildhall building – has strong China links, including offices in Beijing and Shanghai.

McGuinness’ comments were criticised by asset manager and prominent political activist Bill Browder.

Browder – who helped write the US’ original Magnitsky economic sanctions that are levelled against human rights abusers – said McGuinness’ stance “sends the wrong message to the Chinese that they can divide and conquer by throwing a little money around”.

The Corporation voted last year to censure the Chinese government for imposing draconian security laws that clamped down on freedom of speech in Hong Kong and to also welcome the 2.9m Hong Kongers offered British visas by the UK government.

McGuinness – along with Lord Mayor William Russell – voted against the motion, saying she would not censure Beijing as “China is an important market for UK financial and related professional services”.

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McGuinness’ suggestion at the time that the City of London Corporation should stay out of international politics was criticised by councillor Graeme Harrower as “disingenuous” as the local authority “regularly hosts banquets and receptions for leaders of foreign governments in the Guildhall and Mansion House”.

When asked about her stance on China by City A.M. last week, McGuinness said: “I think it is for government to take the lead on some of these issues, but we absolutely do not condone any human rights abuses but at the same time we do need to look at business connections and…where…we should be working together to face global challenges. 

“We’ve been working with them on green environmental principles for infrastructure projects for some years now. I think it’s really important we do keep talking to them about how standards for that space should be developed and how we should work together on putting them into practice… there’s a lot of reasons for business connections and on the basis of working on international standards. 

“I’m really not clear that’ it’s our place to be actually to be taking a position on [Uyghur Muslims]. If it came up in a meeting or something then of course we’d express our views, but when we’re talking about principles for green investment or if we’re talking about asset management links or whatever, we tend to be talking about business issues frankly.”

Read more: The City View: Hong Kong activist Nathan Law

Foreign secretary Dominic Raab levelled new sanctions against China last week for its well documented human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims in the northern province of Xinjiang.

An estimated 1m Uyghur Muslims have been detained by the Chinese government and put into labour camps in Xinjiang. There has also been widespread reports of sterilisation of Uyghur women and the wholesale destruction of mosques.

Browder said McGuinness’ China stance was “not helpful” and that it was “veering from a tough national position towards China”.

“We’re blessed to have a democracy and freedom of speech and human rights here,” he said.

“For some to say we’re going to take [China’s] money and ignore their brutality is terrible.”

Matt Kilcoyne, deputy director of the free market think tank Adam Smith Institute, added: “Catherine McGuinness’ attempts to hide the plight of Uyghur Muslims behind green issues is a poor piece of obfuscation that highlights the paucity of her priorities.

“China’s Communist Party and its attempts at adding legitimacy to its rule deserves our contempt, but the Chinese people deserve our support in defence of their inalienable rights.”

It comes as Nathan Law, one of the leaders of the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests in the territory and now in exile in London, told City A.M.’s City View podcast yesterday that UK firms’ “compliance and collusion” with the Chinese Communist Party’s agenda threatened the West’s “democratic values”.

The pointed criticism comes after firms including HSBC and Standard Chartered, headquartered in London but who see significant revenues in Asia, backed the imposition of a draconian National Security Law in Hong Kong. 

Read more: UK sanctions China over ‘horrific’ treatment of Uyghur Muslims