Hugo Swire – 2016 Speech on Advancing the Rule of Law in China


Below is the text of the speech made by Hugo Swire, the Minister of State at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, at the Great Britain China Centre on 16 March 2016.


Thank you Martin for that kind introduction, and to the Great Britain China Centre (GBCC) for convening this seminar on ‘Advancing the rule of law in China’, in such auspicious surroundings. Thank you all for coming this afternoon. It’s wonderful to have so much expertise in one room.

Importance of the rule of law

All of us here know how important the rule of law is. It is the cornerstone of an open and fair society; it promotes prosperity and stability; it provides the transparency and legal clarity needed to promote trade and investment; and it ends impunity and improves access to justice for all citizens.

Rule of law enables states to function on behalf of their citizens. Without it, elites can misappropriate a nation’s wealth, abuse power and control access to entitlement. States without the rule of law are often the poorest and most fragile.

Rule of law in China

Whilst we of course recognise that China has made unprecedented improvements in social and economic rights and personal freedoms in the last 30 years, there is no doubt that its application of the rule of law and the Rules Based International System, at home and further afield, continues to present challenges. Recent events in Hong Kong and the South China Sea have raised questions about China’s commitment to the rule of law. The Foreign Secretary raised both these issues with counterparts during his visit to China in January.

Hong Kong

Turning first to Hong Kong. The peaceful return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty under One Country Two Systems was one of the great successes of United Kingdom-China diplomacy. Rule of law is a key part of that system and has been fundamental to Hong Kong’s continued economic success. It is one of the main reasons why British and international businesses have chosen to locate their Asian headquarters in Hong Kong. As long as the rule of law remains in place it makes good business sense.

That is why the upholding of that rule of law remains so fundamental to Hong Kong’s future growth and prosperity. That is also why we are so concerned about the disappearance of British citizen Lee Po and other employees of the Mighty Current publishing house – as the Foreign Secretary set out in our most recent 6 monthly report to Parliament.

Our current information indicates that Lee Po was involuntarily removed to the mainland. This constitutes a serious breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong and undermines the principle of One Country Two Systems. We call again for the immediate return of Lee Po to Hong Kong.

South China Sea

The United Kingdom is also concerned about tensions in the South China Sea and the effect that these could have on regional peace and security, global prosperity – given the $5 trillion worth of trade that passes through it each year, around one-third of global seaborne trade by value – and the principle of freedom of navigation. We are concerned about moves towards militarisation of the South China Sea – most recently the siting of missiles on Woody Island, part of the Paracels – and other unilateral actions, such as large scale land reclamation, that change the facts on the ground.

We do not take sides on sovereignty in the South China Sea. But we do have an interest in the way in which territorial claims are pursued. We want to see claims settled peacefully in line with international law.

So we are watching closely the case launched by the Philippines against China under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The United Kingdom fully supports countries’ rights to use these peaceful dispute settlement proceedings, and will respect the outcome of the ruling, as should the rest of the international community. And how China responds will also be seen as a signal of its commitment to the Rules-Based International System.

Domestic issues

We also continue to have significant concerns about a range of civil and political rights issues in China. Access to justice is part of this and that is why it forms an important part of our dialogue and cooperation with China.

We raised our concerns yesterday at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. We regularly report on them as part of our annual Human Rights Report, and we are one of only a handful of countries that insist on an annual human rights dialogue with China, at which we raise both individual and thematic cases. We look forward to the next round of the dialogue, which is scheduled to be held here in the United Kingdom next month.

Why engage on the rule of law?

In this context, I believe there are clear reasons why it is in the United Kingdom’s interest to deepen our rule of law engagement with China. It is the right thing to do to support social and economic equity and growth. It is the right thing to do to support our values and human rights. It is the right thing to do to fight corruption.

It is also the right thing to do for United Kingdom trade. It supports our companies and our people who – like their Chinese counterparts – need certainty and transparency to grow their business, create jobs, boost innovation. This means the provision and implementation of rules for setting up or closing a business, protecting property rights or paying taxes.That is why the United Kingdom has been so successful in attracting investment, not least from China itself, which chooses to invest more in the United Kingdom than anywhere else in Europe.

We believe that developing the rule of law is in China’s interests too, and I am pleased that President Xi Jinping has prioritised it in the third and fourth Plenums. Because as the Chinese economy moves into its next phase of development, it needs to unleash entrepreneurship and innovation on a huge scale. As it does so, economic progress will increasingly depend on the development of the rule of law. This will provide the certainty and the security that investors and entrepreneurs demand.

Rule of law in China – United Kingdom cooperation

The United Kingdom is particularly well placed to engage due to our comparative advantages in this area – from our common law system and the excellent reputation of the judiciary, to our strong legal services sector. Following the strengthening of the United Kingdom-China relationship with the State Visit of President Xi last year, we are now better placed than ever. A good example of this strengthened relationship is the agreement we reached during the State Visit not to support state-sponsored cyber enabled commercial espionage.

We are already making the most of this closer relationship. The United Kingdom is one of China’s primary partners for Intellectual Property cooperation. This has helped shape real change – on civil court procedures, patent protection and copyright enforcement. These changes have been welcomed by British companies, who lose hundreds of millions of pounds every year due to the lack of protection for Intellectual Property.

Plans for future cooperation

It makes sense that we try to take our cooperation further. The Foreign Secretary discussed it with his ministerial counterparts in Beijing earlier this year. Among the areas of collaboration identified were training of judges, judicial reform, and legal clarity for bilateral trade and commerce.

In the next few months, the GBCC will be taking forward an exciting new partnership with the China Law Society. This will build on the GBCC’s excellent work on judicial reform and transparency, and expand the scope of their work in China to support the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s wider programme.

In May, Supreme Court President Lord Neuberger will lead the United Kingdom delegation to China for the third United Kingdom-China judicial round-table.

In the same month, the Prime Minister will hold a high level Anti-Corruption Summit. We have been working closely with China on anti-corruption, in the framework of the G20, and look forward to seeing a high-level Chinese representative at the summit.

In June, we will welcome Supreme People’s Court President Zhou Qiang to the United Kingdom to study the development of the common law system.

And in July, Baroness Neville Rolfe, Minister responsible for Intellectual Property at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, will visit China to focus on Intellectual Property issues.

I am delighted that we have recently agreed a new programme of funding to support this new strand of cooperation between the United Kingdom and China. This work will build on our existing cooperation in a wide range of areas from judicial reform and transparency to regulatory reform, from dispute resolution and arbitration to intellectual property, from access to justice to anti-money laundering.

Wider context

Of course there are wider international considerations which make our cooperation with China on the rule of law even more pressing. As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, China is already a key player in the Rules Based International System. With rapid growth and increased exposure to global economic and political risk, we expect China to play an increasingly active role on the international stage. And we welcome the recent support the Chinese gave to the latest United Nations Security Council Resolution against the continuing ambition of North Korea to develop its nuclear programme.

Part of this will be in shaping multilateral institutions and international law to ensure they are fit for purpose for the 21st century, whether this be the way in which the international financial institutions are governed or the standards that are applied to cross-border procurement.

How we define that phrase – fit for purpose – will be a key task for the United Kingdom, China and others, working together to secure prosperity and security for all of our people. That is why we support efforts to reflect China’s growing economic and political power in multilateral institutions, as well as China’s initiative to establish the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). We have just provided one of the AIIB’s vice presidents, in the form of Sir Danny Alexander, former Chief Secretary to the Treasury.


So to conclude: we have our differences, but these should not in any way preclude us from working together, both to further the rule of law and to develop the international system of governance for the 21st century. There is much that we can learn from each other, much that we can share and much that we can do together to the benefit of both our peoples and the wider world. This is wholly in keeping with our global partnership.

We want China’s reforms to succeed. We do not believe they will unless China demonstrably applies the rule of law and adheres to the International Rules Based International System. We do believe that an enhanced, mutually beneficial partnership on the rule of law will help. In that spirit, we are determined to continue building a stronger and deeper United Kingdom-China relationship to enable that partnership to flourish, for the benefit of the people of both our countries into the 21st century. Thank you.