Wakefield's partnership with Chinese city under review amid concerns over country's treatment of Uyghur Muslims

Wakefield's partnership with its twin Chinese city may be scrapped, just over a year after it was forged, amid concerns over human rights.

Former council leader Peter Box and Nanning City mayor Zhou Hongbo signed a friendship agreement between the two cities last year.
Former council leader Peter Box and Nanning City mayor Zhou Hongbo signed a friendship agreement between the two cities last year.

Politicians from Nanning City visited Wakefield in May 2019 to cement a so-called "friendship agreement" between the two places.

The then council leader Peter Box said the relationship would open up "opportunities" for domestic businesses and young people in the Wakefield district.

It followed a sister city agreement being reached with the city of Xiangyang in 2016.

Mr Box said the partnership would create opportunities for businesses and young people.

But current council leader Denise Jeffery, who took over from Coun Box at the end of last year, has started a review of those arrangements as criticism of China's treatment of Uyghur Muslims mounts. A public consultation has been set up to gauge local feeling on the matter.

In a release issued last Thursday, Coun Jeffery said she was particularly interested in the views of Wakefield's Asian community.

She said: "We know that human rights concerns are global issues in many countries – this doesn’t excuse them in any way – abuse of people’s rights is never acceptable.

"It does, however, reflect the huge challenges that we and other cities in the UK and elsewhere face when looking to forge new relationships with other countries.

Based in southern China, Nanning has a population of around seven million people.

"We are committed to embracing different cultures, to encouraging visitors to enjoy our heritage, and to support opportunities for business to grow and flourish - and that is part of what makes Wakefield a vibrant city.

"We have to carefully consider the balance between what is right for the district and how we respond to human rights issues in other countries. For this reason I’m asking residents to share their views on the reported concerns about China.

"We want to take account of residents’ views and will then determine what this might mean for our relationship with our sister cities and China."

According to Amnesty International, around one million Uyghur Muslims are being held and tortured in detention camps in the north-west of China.

Councillor Sam Harvey defended the partnership and said she believed the district had benefited from it.

The charity says there is evidence some detainees are starved and subject to beatings.

Their plight was publicly raised by Arsenal footballer Mesut Ozil earlier this year.

China, however, denies this is the case, and says the camps are re-education centres attended voluntarily.

Wakefield's sole Lib Dem councillor, Tom Gordon, had called for the partnership to be abandoned last month.

China's treatment of Uyghur Muslims has drawn protests across Europe.

He said then: "I want our city to be outward looking and international, but I do not want that to come at the cost of having to ignore abuses of people’s fundamental human rights.

"The Chinese government is attempting to eradicate an entire culture, language, and way of life. This amounts to nothing short of a genocide of the Uyghur people."

However, Conservative councillor Samantha Harvey, who is originally from China and helped establish the Nanning City agreement, said she believed the partnership should stay in place.

She pointed to Nanning's donation of PPE to Wakefield at the height of coronavirus in the spring as evidence that the district has benefited from the arrangement.

She said: "We are concerned over certain issues in China with regard to human rights, but I think this needs to be pursued at a national level.

"Boris Johnson himself has said he wants to see civic ties with China continued.

"After the pandemic is over it's important for economic growth that we maintain a good relationship with countries like China, India and Japan.

"We need to have an outward-looking view of the world after Brexit, not just a Little Britain-style mentality.

"The concerns around human rights are not unfounded, but I think they need to be looked at from a different angle."

It's understood that local politicians in Nanning and Xiangyang have been informed of the consultation and are being kept up-to-date.

The public is invited to take part in the consultation by emailing [email protected]

Local Democracy Reporting Service