Britain defends possible talks with governor of China’s Xinjiang

China's Xinjiang region's Vice-Governor Erkin Tuniyaz attends the Human Rights Council meeting at the United Nations in Geneva

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain on Thursday defended the possibility that officials will hold talks with Erkin Tuniyaz, the governor of the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, amid outrage from lawmakers who have highlighted alleged rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims there.

Junior foreign office minister Leo Docherty said that Tuniyaz might visit Britain next week, though he had not been invited to London by the government and would not be “dignified” with a ministerial meeting.

“China’s actions in Xinjiang are of course abhorrent and we will not legitimise them in any way,” Docherty told lawmakers.

“However, robust engagement to challenge human rights violations and stand up for the rights of the oppressed is at the core of the UK’s diplomatic work around the world… hence officials would be prepared to offer him a meeting.”

Rights groups accuse Beijing of abuses against Uyghurs, a mainly Muslim ethnic minority that numbers around 10 million in Xinjiang, including the mass use of forced labour in internment camps. The United States and some other foreign lawmakers and parliaments have accused China of genocide.

China has vigorously denied the allegations.

Docherty said a meeting with Tuniyaz would be to tell him that Britain would raise the treatment of Uyghur Muslims and “not relent from exposing the horrors to which they are being subjected”.

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Britain’s parliament has declared that the treatment of the Uyghurs amounts to genocide, but the government has said it will not make such a determination.

While the United States has sanctioned Tuniyaz, Britain has not, and Docherty said that as he was expected to travel on a diplomatic passport, no visa was required.

British lawmakers from different parties criticised the government’s stance and questioned why Tuniyaz had not been sanctioned, with Conservative Iain Duncan Smith saying it was a “weak response”.

“Whether or not the Foreign Office is tough, this is a propaganda coup for the Chinese government,” Duncan Smith, who has been sanctioned by China for speaking out on the situation in Xinjiang, told lawmakers.

“The place to deal with these individuals is in a tribunal or a court of law, not in the quiet office of a foreign office official.”

(Reporting by Alistair Smout; Editing by Nick Macfie)