The father of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he hoped that his country would overturn a ban on China’s top envoy to London visiting the parliament in Westminster, imposed last year in response to Beijing’s sanctions against UK lawmakers.
Stanley Johnson made the remarks during an interview with the Post on Tuesday, when he discussed a filming trip to China that would include his Hong Kong-based son, Max. The two aim to see the western region of Xinjiang, with the support of Beijing.
Johnson praised ambassador Zheng Zeguang for his “enthusiasm” for the project, and said he believed that the project might help improve Sino-British relations.
“If there is a ban, as you say there is, I would imagine parliament is breaking up for the summer pretty soon. But I would very much hope that by the time parliament returns, these bans will no longer be in place,” said Johnson.
The ban was introduced last September by speakers of the Houses of Commons and Lords, hours before Zheng was due to attend a reception.
“I do not feel it’s appropriate for the ambassador for China to meet on the Commons estate and in our place of work when his country has imposed sanctions against some of our members,” Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, said at the time.
Johnson’s remarks were immediately criticised by politicians from across the spectrum.
Shadow Asia Secretary Catherine West told the Post that Johnson’s words were “particularly questionable when British MPs have been sanctioned by the Chinese government for speaking up for human rights, and the speaker has rightly made it clear that the Chinese Ambassador is not welcome in parliament”.
Johnson plans to spend “six weeks in the field” in August with his son Max and a camera crew. He expects Chinese state broadcaster CCTV to join for part of the journey.
The pair hope to trace Marco Polo’s route over the Chinese Silk Road, picking up a trail Johnson senior did not complete 60 years ago when he travelled by motorbike from Oxford to Venice, then as far as Afghanistan. He ran out of time before entering China.
While Johnson said the logistics were still being finalised, the historic route traverses the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, where China has been accused of conducting a systemic persecution campaign against Uygurs and other ethnic Muslims.
The British parliament has designated the alleged abuses as “genocide”, although its government has not followed suit.
Prime Minister Johnson has described the situation in Xinjiang as “gross human rights violations being perpetrated against Uygur Muslims”.
China denies all the accusations, saying allegations of abuses in Xinjiang are “in total disregard of facts with fabrication and confounding black and white”.
Johnson said the trip was “not a political exercise” and that “we are pleased to be working with China”.
“Anyone who doesn’t want to improve British-Chinese relationships strikes me as being rather narrow-minded,” said Johnson, a former Conservative member of the European Parliament.
The trip will be funded by English Path, Johnson said, a language school business incorporated in Britain last year as Language Path Education Limited, according to Companies’ House records.
It will transpire just months after the UN human rights chief travelled to Xinjiang and reported she was unable to move freely through the region or meet with detainees.
“I mentioned the idea to the Chinese ambassador, who is a very agreeable, capable and intelligent man,” said Johnson of the planning stages of the trip.
“The Chinese government have been tremendously helpful and I think that they will absolutely be helping in kind with support on the ground.”
Asked whether he would raise human rights concerns with Chinese officials, he replied: “We will be travelling with eyes open and our ears open. And you can be absolutely sure that ... the TV team who are with us are absolutely professional, they will film what we see. I think that’s all we can say.”
Johnson’s relationship to the Chinese ambassador, which he has documented in a number of Instagram photos taken at Zheng’s official residence, has caused a stir in the British press at a time when some lawmakers are pushing for his son, the prime minister, to take a tougher line against Beijing.
The prime minister’s office said it “would not comment because Stanley Johnson does not hold a government position”.
The latest comments have set off fresh fury among British lawmakers across the political spectrum, including those who were sanctioned by Beijing last year in response to London’s sanctions on Chinese officials tied to Xinjiang abuses.
A statement signed by sanctioned Conservative lawmakers Iain Duncan Smith, Nusrat Ghani and Tim Loughton, as well as Labour peer Lord David Alton, said Johnson was “advancing the interests of a brutal Chinese regime that is committing genocide on the Uygurs”.
“It is sad that he so blatantly uses his family ties for such selfish and self-serving reasons,” they added. “As any decent person might remark, a period of silence from him would be most welcome.”
Alistair Carmichael, a Liberal Democrat lawmaker who chairs an all-parliamentary party group on Hong Kong, described the trip as “a massive propaganda boost for [the Chinese government] and an embarrassment for his own son’s UK government”.
Asked about the criticism, Johnson said: “I am not going to comment on this. I don’t live in this world of people saying this and people saying that.”
Johnson’s ties with Beijing could make life uncomfortable for the prime minister, who recently criticised an opposition lawmaker, Barry Gardiner, for taking money from Chinese agent Christine Lee.
“Before the right honourable and learned gentleman starts chucking it around, I just remind him that the largest single corporate donation to the Labour Party came from a member of the Chinese Communist Party,” Johnson said to Labour leader Keir Starmer in parliament in February.
The Guardian reported in 2020 that Stanley Johnson was used as “an unlikely diplomatic backchannel to No 10, expressing Chinese concern that the prime minister had not offered China a personal message of support about the coronavirus outbreak”.