James Cleverly said he expects to meet China’s vice-president when he visits the UK for the King’s coronation.
Han Zheng, who has been blamed for overseeing a crackdown on freedom in Hong Kong, was recently appointed as president Xi Jinping’s deputy and is set to represent China at the event.
The Foreign Secretary indicated he will raise issues including Hong Kong and human rights abuses in Xinjiang province and stressed that “engagement does not mean agreement” with China.
He said it would be “counterproductive” for the UK to “gag” itself by refusing to talk to Beijing’s representatives.
When officials from the UK and China engage, Mr Cleverly said he “always” takes the opportunity to ensure “the Chinese government understand our views on a range of issues, including those issues where we feel strongly their behaviour is inappropriate, like, for example, their failure to abide by the commitments in Hong Kong or by the treatment of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang and others”.
The coronation is expected to see large numbers of world leaders and other senior figures gather in London, providing an opportunity for diplomatic networking by Mr Cleverly, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and officials.
But senior Tories including former leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith have strongly criticised the invitation for Mr Han.
Sir Iain said it was “outrageous” to invite “the man responsible for trashing the international treaty” on Hong Kong.
“Because the simple fact is countries all around the world have got to have conversations with other countries. Sometimes those conversations are very collaborative, with our close friends and allies, sometimes they are much more about what we disagree on.
“With the relationship with China, it is incredibly important that we continue to have conversations.
“To basically gag ourselves, to limit our own ability to exert influence, would be counterproductive.”
Mr Han led Hong Kong affairs for Beijing between 2018 and March this year, during which time it imposed the national security law after mass protests in the city, stifling opposition and criminalising dissent.
The move strained relations with the UK and led to the creation of a visa scheme allowing Hong Kongers to come to Britain.
Beijing was represented by Mr Han’s predecessor, Wang Qishan, at the Queen’s funeral.
Hong Kong was handed over from the UK to China in 1997 with a promise by Beijing to keep western-style liberties under a “one country, two systems” framework.
Downing Street acknowledged there were “strong feelings” from MPs about the Beijing government but the Prime Minister’s official spokesman told reporters in Westminster: “As the Foreign Secretary has said, we need to be clear-eyed about how we approach China, it would be wrong to exclude them completely given their significance to the global economy and on things like tackling climate change.”
Preparations are being stepped up across Whitehall for the coronation and the diplomatic opportunities it presents.
The Prime Minister’s spokesman said: “The public would expect, whilst a significant number of world leaders are in the UK, it is right to ensure that we are meeting with them to further the UK’s interests.”
At Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting, Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden said the coronation would be a “wonderful occasion for the nation, which would balance pageantry, history and the role of the King at the centre of the United Kingdom”, according to a Downing Street summary.