23/09/2015 05:27 BST | Updated 22/09/2016 06:12 BST

George Osborne: I Haven't Forgotten Human Rights Concerns

Chancellor George Osborne has voiced Britain's concern over a jailed academic as he visited a remote Chinese province at the centre of allegations of human rights violations.

But the Chancellor rejected suggestions that his visit to Xinjiang province was an effective endorsement of China's treatment of its Uighur ethnic minority, insisting that it was right for him to engage with Beijing on deepening economic and financial ties.

He is hoping to help win British firms a slice of the economic benefits resulting from President Xi Jinping's ambitious plans to link China with Europe via a "new Silk Road" running through Xinjiang.

Mr Osborne's arrival in provincial capital Urumqi came as reports emerged of clashes between separatists and security forces which left a reported 40 dead or injured. Local reports said that the violence occurred after alleged separatists launched a knife attack at a colliery in Aksu, western Xinjiang, killing five police.

Speaking as he visited businesses in Urumqi, Mr Osborne said full details of the incident had not yet been received, but added: "Obviously if people have been injured or indeed killed, that's a tragedy and our sympathy is with the victims and their families.

"We never condone violence whatever the cause, we always seek a peaceful resolution of disputes and we hope that peaceful resolution can be arrived at."

As he became the first British government minister to visit Xinjiang, Mr Osborne has come under pressure from human rights groups to raise the case of Ilham Tohti, a Uighur intellectual given a life sentence last September for alleged separatism.

Amnesty International's UK director Kate Allen said a failure to raise his case with the Chinese authorities would "send the signal that the UK is willing to compromise its human rights values".

Ms Allen called on the Chancellor to press the Chinese government to end "the widespread discrimination Uighurs face, including in employment, education, housing and the severe restrictions on religious freedom".

Speaking to British reporters in Urumqi, Mr Osborne said he had not yet spoken to local authorities in Xinjiang. But he added: "Our concerns about the Tohti case are well known and we have made them very public.

"I have raised the human rights concerns that we have with the Chinese authorities as part of the broader conversation."

But he stressed that the main purpose of his visit was economic, with a new target to make China the second-largest destination for British exports by 2020. He insisted there was no contradiction between seeking closer economic ties with China and upholding Britain's democratic values.

"I think it would be very strange if Britain's only relationship with one-fifth of the world's population and the government that represents them would be solely about human rights," said the Chancellor.

"It doesn't mean we don't stand up for our values, but ultimately a big part of our values is economic freedom. Giving people more control over their own lives in terms of the economic affairs leads in turn to greater personal freedom."