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45 years of UK-China relations: dialogue on the rule of law must be strengthened alongside the UK’s increasing trade interests

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On the day the UK triggered its Brexit process for leaving the European Union, the Law Society attended a reception at Lancaster House to celebrate 45 years of UK-China relations. Over 300 guests attended this event including the Chinese Ambassador to the UK, Mr Liu Xiaoming, and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister for Asia, Mr Alok Sharma MP. Christina Blacklaws, the Law Society’s Deputy Vice-President, spoke briefly to Mr Sharma about the Law Society’s work and raised the importance of the legal profession in this new UK-China context.

On the day the UK triggered its Brexit process for leaving the European Union, the Law Society attended a reception at Lancaster House to celebrate 45 years of UK-China relations. Over 300 guests attended this event including the Chinese Ambassador to the UK, Mr Liu Xiaoming, and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister for Asia, Mr Alok Sharma MP. Christina Blacklaws, the Law Society’s Deputy Vice-President, spoke briefly to Mr Sharma about the Law Society’s work and raised the importance of the legal profession in this new UK-China context.“The past 45 years have seen UK-China bilateral relations advancing by leaps and bounds”, said Mr Liu Xiaoming. He went on to say: “These historic, leapfrogging advances have ensured a stable and healthy China-UK relationship over decades. Most importantly our shared commitment to building the “Golden Era” charts the way forward for the long-term growth of China-UK relations”. In addition, Mr Alok Sharma MP reiterated the message of a global partnership between China and UK by saying: “Throughout the last 45 years, the UK-China relationship has been steadily strengthening. Today we see co-operation at an all-time high and a global partnership that is delivering real benefits for both nations”.

A substantial UK-China partnership has become ever more imperative with Britain’s exit from the European Union given that China is a significant market with a growing middle class population that is expected to reach 600 million in the next few years. The result of this UK-China co-operation is a series of mechanisms, which includes: the annual Prime Minister’s Meeting, the Economic and Financial Dialogue, the Strategic Dialogue, High Level Security Dialogue, and the High Level People to People Dialogue – all aimed at strengthening exchanges and further collaboration. The UK will also be investing up to £40m in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank based in Beijing to help developing countries prepare infrastructure programmes.

However, by contrast, China remains emphatic on the need to respect state sovereignty, a stance that has shielded many states from criticism for violations of international law and human rights. Unsurprisingly, this highlights serious complexities when raising matters relating to the rule of law and human rights abuses taking place in China itself. During the 2015 crackdown, and as part of a trend since 2011, many Chinese lawyers and human rights defenders have been arbitrarily arrested, detained, interrogated, and in some cases disappeared. Dissenters are often charged with “endangering state security” and the blocking of certain websites that are critical of the government restricts freedom of information.

Furthermore, the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE) have also reported on China’s proposals entitled “Administrative Measures for Law Firms”, which were expected to enter into force in November 2016. Under these new measures, and more specifically Article 50, law firms will face punishment for the conduct of their lawyers, such as “the manufacture of public opinion, pressure to attack or disparage judicial authorities or the judicial system through joint petition signature campaigns, online gatherings, support statements, discussions around specific cases and other tactics”. Lawyers who break these rules may be dismissed by their law firms or could have their license revoked. In 2012, the Chinese Ministry of Justice demanded that all licensed lawyers take a loyalty oath to the Communist Party and law firms are also required to support the leadership of the Communist Party. On 26 September 2016, a group of Chinese lawyers launched a petition calling for the repeal of these measures.

Without independence, legal professionals are vulnerable to disciplinary proceedings, arbitrary disbarment, physical violence, persecution, intimidation, harassment, threats and even murder. It is a well-known fact that lawyers around the world have been targeted simply for working in the public interest, or for undertaking cases or causes that certain parties, including governments, find objectionable. To ensure that the rule of law is upheld, a strong and vibrant legal profession is vital.

where there is no independent legal profession there can be no independent judiciary, no rule of law, no justice, no democracy and no freedom. (Hon Michael Kirby)

There have been a number of positive developments that shouldn’t be ignored: in 2011, China passed a law removing the death penalty for 13 non-violent economic crimes; in 2012, China amended its criminal procedure law, including provisions on access to legal aid, the recording of interrogations, and introducing mandatory appellate hearings; in 2015, the total number of crimes for which the death penalty may be imposed was reduced from 55 to 46; and in 2017, the UK National Security Adviser Sir Mark Lyall Grant and Secretary-General of the Central Commission for Politics and Law Wang Yongqing have agreed various measures aimed at strengthening UK and China security co-operation. These include an agreement to combat modern slavery and to share best practices for supporting victims. But this limited progress has been very slow.

Despite the serious challenges facing the rule of law and human rights, the Law Society has made a long-term commitment in its engagement with China in the belief that it will provide avenues to influence policy changes in these areas. The Society is committed to emphasising the integral role legal services play in all aspects of society by strengthening the partnership with legal practitioners, law societies and other stakeholders in China. It also continues promoting the work of UK solicitors as well as supporting international projects, which are seeking to uphold the rule of law including: training, policy development, engaging with officials and raising awareness on these matters.

In 2015, the Law Society began its collaboration with the Great Britain China Centre (GBCC) to deliver a number of activities to promote the rule of law and the use of the expertise of English and Welsh solicitors. In 2016, as part of our Lawyers at Risk programme, we sent 4 intervention letters on behalf of Chinese lawyers and human rights defenders who were facing intimidation and harassment for their participation in social protests, or in the exercise of their duties as lawyers. As we move forward through 2017, the Law Society is continuing to seek ways to strengthen its position in China by delivering a range of commercial as well as rule of law-related activities.

Given China’s and the UK’s strong interest in increasing their business opportunities and with growing political instability around the world, it is vital that greater trade relations also translate into greater co-operation on the rule of law - this growing global partnership should be able to deliver on matters beyond just economic growth.

 

For further information:

1. Alok Sharma celebrates 45 years of UK-China ambassadorial relations (30 March 2017) Foreign Commonwealth Office https://www.gov.uk/government/news/alok-sharma-celebrates-45-years-of-uk-china-ambassadorial-relations

2. Remarks by H.E. Ambassador Liu Xiaoming at the Reception Marking the 45th Anniversary of China-UK Ambassadorial Diplomatic Relation (29 March 2017) Embassy of china in the UK http://www.chinese-embassy.org.uk/eng/ambassador/t1449900.htm

3. UK-China relations still ‘golden’, says PM, as investment talks open (10 November 2016) The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/nov/10/uk-china-relations-golden-pm-investment-talks-theresa-may-north-england

4. Kellogg, T. E. “Xi’s Davos Speech: Is China the New Champion for the Liberal International Order?” (24 January 2017) The Diplomat http://thediplomat.com/2017/01/xis-davos-speech-is-china-the-new-champion-for-the-liberal-international-order/

5. CCBE report Situation of lawyers in China (31 October 2016) http://www.ccbe.eu/fileadmin/speciality_distribution/public/documents/HUMAN_RIGHTS_LETTERS/_REPORTS_-_RAPPORTS/2016/EN_HRL_20161031_CCBE_Report_situation_lawyers_China.pdf

6. Speak Not of Lawyers Speaking Out (12 October 2016) http://cmp.hku.hk/2016/10/12/speak-not-of-lawyers-speaking-out/

7. Administrative Measures for Law Firms (2008) http://hk.lexiscn.com/law/content.php?content_type=T&origin_id=235433&provider_id=1&isEnglish=Y

8. Second high-level UK-China security dialogue (17 February 2017) https://www.gov.uk/government/news/second-high-level-uk-china-security-dialogue-february-2017

9. “The Independence of the Legal Profession and threats to the bastion of a free and democratic society” (September 2016) International Bar Association (IBA) file:///I:/mydocs/Downloads/Presidential-task-force-on-the-independence-of-the-legal-profession-2016.pdf

10. Youxi, C. “A Tale of Two Cities – The Legal Profession in China” (March 2013) International Bar Association (IBA) file:///I:/mydocs/Downloads/China%20Thematic%20Paper%202013.pdf

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