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Britain's top diplomat raises human rights concerns with China but stresses "pragmatic" relationship

BEIJING (AP) — British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said he raised concerns over China’s human rights record during a visit to Beijing on Wednesday while also stressing the importance of maintaining a “pragmatic” working relationship and reopening channels of communication.

The trip, the first by a U.K. foreign secretary to China in more than five years, is an attempt to thaw relations that have grown increasingly frosty in recent years over issues including Beijing’s crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong, a former British colony; abuses against Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region; China’s support for Russia; and Britain’s close security ties with the United States.

The visit divided opinion in Britain's governing Conservative Party. Some lawmakers who have long called for a tougher stance on China criticized the visit as a form of appeasement.

Cleverly and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak defended the trip as a “sensible” approach.

"It’s perfectly possible to engage with China at the same time as being very robust in standing up for our interests and our values,” Sunak told reporters in London.

Cleverly met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Vice President Han Zheng during his one-day visit. The diplomats underscored the importance of dialogue between their countries, and Wang said cooperation between China and Britain had “global impact.”

“Dialogue and cooperation are the keywords and main tone of China’s policy towards the U.K.,” he said. “Of course, we have also noticed that from time to time there have been some noises in the Sino-British relationship, and some people have even questioned your visit to Beijing.”

Cleverly's office said he held “detailed discussions” about the erosion of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong after Beijing introduced a draconian National Security Law there. He also raised the case of Jimmy Lai, the jailed Hong Kong media mogul and pro-democracy activist who faces life in prison if convicted under the security law.

Cleverly also “made clear the U.K.'s strength of feeling” about the mass detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and raised the issue of stability in the Taiwan Strait.

The diplomat said it was paramount to maintain communication with Beijing to avoid misunderstandings.

“It is important that countries like ours meet and speak face to face on regular occasions to enhance understanding, to avoid misunderstanding and to address the challenges and differences of opinion that all countries have in bilateral relations,” Cleverly said after meeting with Han.

“I am clear-eyed … that we are not going to change China overnight," he added. “But it is important that we maintain regular dialogue."

Like his predecessor Boris Johnson, Sunak is aiming to pursue a non-confrontational approach to relations with Beijing. While Sunak has described China as a growing “systemic challenge” to Britain’s values and interests, he has repeatedly stressed the need to maintain a relationship with the Asian superpower.

Cleverly’s visit came as British lawmakers on Parliament’s foreign affairs committee published a report that called the activities of the Chinese Communist Party “a threat to the U.K. and its interests.”

The lawmakers criticized British authorities for a lack of coherence in their approach to Beijing and called on the government to publish an unclassified version of its China strategy.

They also urged the U.K. government to take a harder stance against Chinese attempts to target dissidents abroad -- including those who have sought refuge in Britain -- and called for officials to intensify efforts to discourage the use of some Chinese technologies such as in Chinese-made surveillance cameras.

Lawmaker Alicia Kearns, who chairs the committee, said keeping up a dialogue with Beijing was preferable to disengagement.

“It is more important that we are in the room with them in stark disagreement, rather than cutting off relations,” she told the BBC.

The visit could pave the way for a meeting between Sunak and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Group of 20 summit in New Delhi next week. Sunak declined to answer when asked Wednesday whether such a meeting was possible, only saying that it was “sensible to engage” with countries to find common ground.

Asked about Cleverly’s agenda at a daily briefing Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said that, as two of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and major economies, China and Britain should “shoulder the common responsibility of promoting world peace, stability and development.”

He added, however, that “issues related to Hong Kong and Xinjiang are purely China’s internal affairs, and no country should interfere.”

The visit was not expected to yield any major tangible results due in part to the countries’ conflicting objectives, said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London.

“The fact that they are talking is a positive,” Tsang said. “We need to engage in conversation with China, we need to have effective communication channels with China — even if we don’t agree on anything — because China does matter.”

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Associated Press writers Simina Mistreanu in Taipei, Taiwan, and Sylvia Hui and Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.