Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab last week introduced import controls on firms that may have sourced goods from the region in northwest China using forced labour from the mainly Muslim Uighur community.
Speaking on the BBC, he decried reports of “slave labour effectively, forced sterilisation, appalling human rights abuses”.
“Whether or not it amounts to genocide has to be determined by a court. The bar has been set incredibly high,” Raab said.
“And frankly we shouldn’t be engaged in free-trade negotiations with countries abusing human rights well below the limit of genocide,” he added, implicitly attacking the European Union for securing an investment pact with China last month.
Raab’s government opposes efforts underway in parliament to give UK courts the power to declare a genocide in Xinjiang, which would bar the government from proceeding with any free-trade agreement with China.
But Raab told Sky News that he supported “the spirit” of the proposal, and demanded that China show more transparency over Xinjiang, where experts say at least one million Uighurs have been detained in recent years in political “re-education camps”.
“What China says is this is all lies cooked up by the West, and Britain a leading member amongst them,” the foreign secretary said.
“What we say is if you dispute the allegations and the claims and the reports, there’s a simple way to clear this up: allow the UN Human Rights Commissioner to visit and access and see these sites.”
China warned Britain to stop meddling in its internal affairs after the imposition of the import controls, which were followed by similar measures from Canada.
Western countries have also been at loggerheads with Beijing over Hong Kong, a former British colony.
But Prime Minister Boris Johnson told lawmakers last week that despite the need for vigilance, particularly about threats to national infrastructure and data from cyberspace, bilateral ties could be maintained.
“Speaking frankly and calling out human rights abuses should not stop us from having a productive relationship, where that is possible,” he said.