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LONDON â€” Holocaust survivors and Conservative rebels want Boris Johnson to get tough with China over the Uighurs â€” and his government is spooked.
The U.K. Prime Minister faces a tight vote in the House of Commons Tuesday as MPs from his own side try to add an amendment to ensure major trade legislation more forcefully targets Beijing over its treatment of the largely Muslim population in the Xinjiang region.
As survivors of the Holocaust upped the pressure with videos accusing China of genocide, there were signs the British government was increasingly alarmed about the scale of the rebellion it could face on the trade bill.
The rebel amendment would allow the U.K. to revoke any trade deal if the British High Court rules the other country had committed genocide.
Ministers believe the bid won’t succeed, but just 37 Tory rebels could tip the vote against government, once likely abstentions are factored in. Number 10, Trade Secretary Liz Truss and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab have all made the rounds to urge MPs not to vote for the amendment, according to people familiar with the conversations.
Britainâ€™s Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), chaired by former Conservative leader and serial Brexit rebel Iain Duncan Smith, is leading the charge on the amendment, along with Conservative MPs Nus Ghani and Bob Seely.
â€œThe Uyghur people are begging their friends in Parliament to pass this amendment,â€ the IPAC said in a statement. â€œWithout it, the government wonâ€™t call it a Genocide and wonâ€™t act.â€
The vote comes amid mounting international scrutiny of the Uighurs’ plight. China has been accused of forced labor abuses in Xinjiang, a major hub for global supply chains and source of much of the world’s cotton.
MPs and human rights groups expressed disappointment last week that the British government stopped short of sanctions on Chinese officials linked to Uighur detention camps, even as it promised to step up enforcement of laws tackling slavery in supply chains.
One Holocaust survivor, Dorit Oliver Wolff, called on MPs to put party politics to one side and back the proposal. â€œYou have to recognize that this is a genocide,â€ she said in a video shared on social media by Yet Again, a youth-led effort to draw attention to modern atrocities. â€œPlease do not trade with those people who are committing genocide.â€
â€œIt doesnâ€™t matter which party you are representing,â€ Wolff added. Ruth Barnett, another survivor, made a similar video plea.
The amendment is also being supported by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which took the rare step of writing to Johnson last week to tell him it was “time to act.”
Lisa Nandy, Shadow Foreign Secretary for the opposition Labour Party, is among parliamentarians who want the government to take a tougher line. “In the face of unconscionable human rights abuses, crimes against humanity and genocide, the U.K. must be part of the solution and not part of the problem,” she told POLITICO.
Still, the government is holding firm. On Sunday, Foreign Secretary Raab told the BBC the amendment is flawed because â€œwe shouldnâ€™t really be delegating the political question of who you engage in free-trade negotiations with to the courts.â€
Minister for Trade Policy Greg Hands on Monday pointed out the U.K. doesnâ€™t have a trade deal with China, â€œnor is there a realistic prospect of one,” meaning the amendment would not have its intended effect.
On top of that, â€œthere would be huge diplomatic, political and commercial consequences,â€ if trade deals were automatically revoked on the basis of a High Court ruling.
The government is not, Hands argued, sitting still. Last weekÂ Raab announcedÂ British firms will face stricter fines if they donâ€™t report forced labor in their supply chains. He called it â€œa clear messageâ€ to China over â€œthe extra-judicial detention of over a million Uighurs and other minorities in political re-education camps.â€
Johnson’s press secretary, Allegra Stratton, on Monday said the government was “constantly reaching out to all parliamentarians and constantly trying to keep in touch with their views and their concerns.”
“But the trade bill forms an important element of our independent trade policy,” she added. “We are proud of how the United Kingdom champions human rights globally.”
Yet the Tory MPs planning to embarrass the government believe they could prevail. They argue ministers are not supporting the amendment because they want to â€œdrum up business in China.”
A person close to the rebels said the â€œopticsâ€ of a defeat, on â€œa backbench human rights amendment on genocide,” would be â€œterribleâ€ for Johnson’s administration.
Ghani, a former minister and Tory MP who has been examining businesses ties to Uighur abuses in China, said in a statement that the government must never allow â€œeconomic concerns to trump ethical ones by dealing with genocidal states.”
Britain, she said, now has its first chance to show what its post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ project means. â€œWhy would we want to use our new found freedom to trade with states that commit and profit from genocide?â€
â€œWe are feeling pugnacious,â€ said another person from the rebel camp. â€œThereâ€™s something about fighting for groups facing extermination that makes you feisty.â€
Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.
This article is part of POLITICOâ€™s premium policy service Pro Trade. From transatlantic trade wars to the U.K.â€™s future trading relationship with the EU and rest of the world, Pro Trade gives you the insight you need to plan your next move. Email [emailÂ protected] for a complimentary trial.