Essex unable to utilise China link over Hong Kong concerns

Essex County Council has said it is not in a position to use its cultural and business links with China to warn of concerns over new security laws in Hong Kong.

The issue was raised with the leader of ECC at almost the same time that the UK government ordered telecoms company Huawei to be stripped of its involvement in the UK’s 5G network.

However, David Finch has said ECC could not involve itself in foreign policy and would take its steer from the Foreign and Commonweath Office that still encourages collaboration for mutual education and business improvement.

Both Cllr Graham Butland and Cllr Andy Wood raised the concerns with the council under the backdrop of the new Hong Kong security laws given ECC’s 31-year partnership with the Jiangsu province in China, which has so far brought an economic boost to the East of England economy of about £3.5million annually.

The partnership between Essex and Jiangsu, led by Essex International, the council’s international trade and development team, originally concentrated on cultural and education links but has a strong focus on business and economic benefits.

However, the close partnership prompted questions at today’s full council meeting over the appropriateness of the links from Cllr Wood and Cllr Butland.

Cllr Butland said: “Can I ask if he would undertake a review of the appropriateness of the council partnership with Jiangsu province in China?

“And will he also ensure that serious concerns held by the people of Essex regarding the erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong are conveyed to the political leadership in the province?

“Partnership has to be a partnership where we are critical as well as congratulatory.”

Cllr Finch, in a letter to Cllr Butland, said: “I am writing in response to your questions in Council regarding Essex County Council’s links to Jiangsu in China.

“While, as I said in my response to Cllr Wood, this is an issue of national foreign policy, it is something we regularly review in consultation with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It is for the Government, not ourselves, to express concern or impose any changes.

“Regarding our relationship with Jiangsu: the steer we have received from our contacts in the FCO is that they would still encourage collaboration for mutual education and business improvement. Until the advice to us changes we will continue to operate on that basis. Should the opportunity arise to diplomatically bring this point up we will do so.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter