China speech

26/03/2004

Mr. Greg Pope (Hyndburn) (Lab): I am grateful to be able to make a brief contribution to what has so far been a wide-ranging and consensual debate. I want to speak on a narrow issue concerning human rights in China. In doing so, I pay tribute to the Minister, who is responsible for human rights more generally. I have served on the Foreign Affairs Committee and seen the Minister talking about human rights before the Committee, and it is refreshing to see a Minister so on top of his brief and taking the matter so seriously.

I associate myself with the comments of the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) about the Prime Minister finding time in his busy schedule to meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the end of May. That is incredibly important, and I hope that the Minister will convey the fact that hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber feel strongly about it.

The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood said that it is important to find a balance and that is right. I agree with much of what has been said, China is, of course, an important partner on the Security Council of the United Nations and is a growing economic partner. I associate myself with the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) about the positive contribution by the Chinese community in this country. In passing, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend: hon. Members on both sides of the House recognise his fantastic contribution to Britain's relations with China.

I am not sure whether we have the balance right on how we engage with the People's Republic of China on human rights. The country is a serial abuser of human rights; for example, it carries out more judicial executions than not only any other nation, but all other nations combined about 6,000 last year. The Government control access to all forms of media. Although we would all welcome the fact that internet access appears to be growing in China, there has been a worrying crackdown on so-called cyber-dissidents. There is widespread concern at the situation in the Xingjian region, where secessionists have been labelled as terrorists. That is part of a wider concern: countries such as the PRC Russia springs to mind are hiding under the cloak of joining the war on terror, using it as an excuse to oppress their own people who do not agree with the views of the Government.

It is reasonable to ask; are we doing enough in Britain to promote political and religious freedom in China? Looking at Tibet as an example, it seems to me that political activists are routinely harassed, arrested and imprisoned. I want to briefly raise the issue of one person it may seem unfair to raise one person in a country that is so populous, but it is important because it is a symbolic case.

It is the case of a man called Jampel Changchub, a monk who lived in the Drepung monastery near Lhasa. He was arrested 15 years ago and charged with participating in counter-revolutionary organisations, spreading counter-revolutionary propaganda and undermining national security. Along with other monks from that monastery, he was sentenced to 19 years' imprisonment in the notorious Drapchi prison in Lhasa. Some of the time that he has served there was in an isolation unit, where there was not really enough room to lie down and he was kept in total darkness. The fact is that he has committed no crime in the eyes of the international community. He attempted to exercise a basic, fundamental human right to freedom of speech and freedom of association, the kind of rights that we take for granted not only in this Chamber but in this country as an everyday matter of fact. I understand that the Minister will be constrained by the diplomatic niceties, but I hope that he will consider joining me in calling for Mr. Changchub's unconditional release. If I write to the Minister, perhaps he will consider raising the case in the next round of the human rights dialogue.

It is against such a backdrop of human rights abuses that the Government of France who else would think that it was a good idea proposed lifting the EU arms embargo in January. It is worth bearing it in mind that the arms embargo was put in place by the EU after the Tiananmen square massacre 15 years ago. The Minister was asked in a parliamentary question on 12 February whether he would oppose the lifting of the arms embargo. Given the catalogue of human rights abuses that we know about, I would not have thought that it was too hard to acquiesce to that request. Amnesty International says that China is engaged in a violent crackdown on cyber-dissidents and on the separatist movement in Xingjian. It is engaged in the systematic use of torture, including beatings, electric shock torture, sleep and food deprivation, and the fairly routine execution of political prisoners. It is also involved in the repression of political and religious freedoms in Tibet.
Despite that, the Minister's answer to the parliamentary question about the lifting of the arms embargo was:

"We welcome the review and are currently considering the UK's position." [Official Report, 12 February 2004; Vol. 417, c. 1653W.]
I started off by saying that I admire the Minister and that he is doing a good job, but I have to say that that response I shall make my wording diplomatic is disappointing, to say the least. I hope that the Minister will assure the Chamber today that the British Government's position is that they will oppose the lifting of the EU arms embargo.

I have raised my final question with the Minister before in a different setting. Is the human rights dialogue worth while? I know that the Minister could point out the countries with which we have no dialogue, and that would be fair. North Korea comes to mind; we are not making any impact there, and the situation is terrible and may be getting worse. The Minister could also say in his defence, as he has done before, that non-governmental organisations support the continuation of the dialogue. That is also a fair point, but it is also reasonable for me to point out that their support for it is not unconditional. Human Rights Watch has said that it is concerned and I share that concern that the dialogue has become a formality; it is not a genuine dialogue at all. Human Rights Watch wants benchmarking, monitoring of progress and, crucially, an exit strategy if the dialogue does not show tangible benefits.

The fact is that we have no benchmarking; we seem to have no monitoring; and we do not even appear to have an exit strategy. The Foreign Office human rights report, which I commend, and consider an extremely worthwhile document, contains a section on the People's Republic of China where it lists 11 UK Government objectives to encourage human rights improvements there. The truth is that for all our best efforts and warm words, we are not making a great deal of progress on any of them. I shall pick two examples. One of the objectives is a reduction in the use of the death penalty in judicial cases. I have already mentioned that the figure for last year was 6,000. Another British objective is obtaining a full response to cases of concern. The Government of the PRC did not even respond to 28 of the 44 cases of concern that were raised. It was not just that the response was inadequate there was no response. It may be time for a rethink.

My last plea to the Minister is that if we are to conduct reviews, we should not review the EU arms embargo. Let us keep that. What needs reviewing is whether our human rights dialogue with China is paying dividends. I suggest that it is not paying as many as we would have hoped, and that the Government should think again.