Mark speaks out against the human rights situation in China

February 1, 2007 12:00 AM
By Mark Hunter in Westminster Hall

May I say what a pleasure it is to contribute to this important debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton? I begin by congratulating the chairman and members of the Foreign Affairs Committee on the prodigious job that they have done in producing the report, and I thank the Government for their response to it. The Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), gave a very thoughtful speech in opening the debate.

The debate is particularly timely, not only because of the publication of the Foreign Affairs Committee report on east Asia, which we are here to discuss, but because of the upcoming Beijing Olympic games in 2008, to which several hon. Members have referred. The games will focus international attention on China and is symbolic of China's emergence from its long period of relative isolation. I think that we all welcome the fact the China is engaging more with the international community.

We are especially pleased that China is involving itself more in the World Trade Organisation: its acceptance of a rules-based system for trade is an important step forward. It is playing an increasingly active and important role in helping to encourage stability in North Korea. We know and are pleased that those roles, as well as its position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and its rapprochement with Japan, will continue to develop further in the years to come. However, with the influence and benefits that comes from China's further involvement in international affairs, comes the responsibility to ensure that its behaviour in the international arena and in the area of human rights is appropriate, and is set within both the letter and spirit of international law.

One such issue that needs to be addressed is China's involvement with the foreign regimes on which it is becoming more and more dependent for resources. Paragraph 92 of the report states that in 2005 China accounted for 31 per cent. of world oil demand, and such dependence on natural resources has led to questionable relationships with, and in some cases the support of, abusive regimes. Dr Philip Andrews-Speed of Dundee University described China's""willingness… to do business with 'states of concern'"."

In that list he included Iran, Myanmar and Venezuela. One of China's most concerning relationships is with Sudan, from which it receives 5 per cent. of its oil imports and in whose oil industry it has invested $3 billion.

China still displays isolationist tendencies in its attitude to human rights abuses in other countries. While we are pleased that the EU-China summit went ahead and that the Chinese agreed to develop a structured dialogue on Africa, we are worried that, as Professor Wall of the centre for Chinese studies stated in paragraph 97 of the report, the Chinese""have continued to block discussions of the problems in Sudan on the grounds that they have business interests in Sudan and… 'Business is business'.""

That special relationship with Africa was consolidated in November at a China-Africa summit where new deals worth $1.9 billion were signed and China announced that it expected trade with Africa to increase to $100 billion by 2020. That was further supported by an announcement on Monday that the Chinese Government would provide the continent with $3 billion in preferential credit in the next three years, regardless of the human rights and good governance records of some of the Governments involved. I agree with the Select Committee's recommendation on that matter. China's close relationship with such regimes supports behaviour that damages efforts to uphold international standards in human rights and good governance.

Given China's investment in Sudan, it is uniquely positioned to take the lead in persuading President al-Bashir to co-operate in implementing the UN's Security Council resolution 1706: a mandate for a UN peacekeeping mission in the Sudan. Similarly, China's relationship with Zimbabwe is closer than that of the west, and it could play a greater role in encouraging President Mugabe to abide by international law. China's investment in the region means that it is in its best interests to have a stable and well governed Africa. I would be interested to know-perhaps the Minister will address this in his remarks-whether discussions on Sudan and Zimbabwe were part of the September meetings between the Prime Minister and Premier Wen, and the Foreign Secretary and the Chinese Foreign Minister, which were mentioned in the Government's reply. If so, were there any reportable outcomes of those discussions and has China indicated that it will encourage the Sudanese Government to co-operate with the UN on resolution 1706?

Another issue that I hope the Government will confirm was discussed is mentioned in paragraph 97 of the Committee's report. It states, very worryingly, that Beijing has, according to some sources, placed non-uniformed forces in Sudan to protect its interests there. Will the Minister say what, if anything, the Government are doing to substantiate and check out the rumours of Chinese troops in the Sudan, and what they are doing to negotiate their withdrawal?

We are extremely concerned about the current situation in Tibet. The European Parliament's July report stated there were""continuing serious human rights abuses … including torture, arbitrary arrest … repression of religious freedom"."

Deep concern was expressed about""the so-called 'patriotic education' campaign in Tibet's monasteries and nunneries"."

After the Committee's report was published, an incident occurred in Tibet that brings home the gravity of the situation there, and the need for pressing action. On 30 September, unarmed Tibetan refugees attempting to leave China were fired on with live ammunition: 7 were killed and 32 were detained. Their whereabouts are still unknown. Will the Minister state whether the Government will press for an investigation into this action, whether it was broached with Chinese officials in September and what the results of any such discussion were?

While we welcome China's actions to strengthen the rule of law, there are still significant obstacles. Courts in China are still dependent on local government and are therefore subject to political pressures, and according to Human Rights Watch there have been a spate of recent arrests of prominent lawyers such as Gao Zhisheng, a outspoken critic of the Government's violations and abuses of power. A letter by Human Rights Watch to the Prime Minister of Finland and EU members in September stated that there has been a "sharp deterioration" in the human rights situation in China. Since the transfer of power to President Hu Jintao, many political freedoms in China have been curtailed in a bid to silence critics, both Chinese and foreign, and get controversial arrests out of the way before the Olympic games brings international attention to Beijing.

The Chinese Government have established strict content controls on journalists, website editors and bloggers, and there is still no guarantee that the Chinese and international public will get unrestricted and impartial coverage of the games. We join the Committee in urging the Government do more to encourage China to ratify the international covenant on civil and political rights. I should be grateful if the Minister commented on what progress is being made on that matter and on the protection of civil and political rights and, in particular, say what the outcome of the talks last September were.

In December 2005, the UN special rapporteur Manfred Nowak detailed allegations of consistent and systematic patterns of""torture related to ethnic minorities … political dissidents, human rights defenders, practitioners of Falun Gong, and members of house-church groups.""

We are pleased to see that the Chinese are admitting that there is a problem, but we have not seen any improvement on the issue. In fact, the pressure group Human Rights in China reports that the authorities have increased the use of re-education through labour-a programme allowing individuals to be forced into labour camps without judicial process-from 10,000 individuals in 1957, to 310,000 in 1999. The camps contain political dissidents, Falun Gong practitioners, religious dissidents and other critics of the regime.

I raised the issue of human rights in connection with the practitioners of Falun Gong at business questions in July last year. I received an assurance from the Leader of the House that the Government would continue to raise the issue. Will the Minister clarify what the Government are doing to combat the increasing level of human rights violations in China? Will he say whether he feels the Government are making any headway in encouraging the introduction of legislation both to prohibit the use of evidence from torture in court and to prohibit the re-education through labour programme?

The latest round of the UK-China human rights dialogue in July 2006 showed that there had been almost no movement by the Chinese Government on human rights. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office's human rights annual report of 2006 admitted that""in most areas progress is either slow or non-existent.""

China would not commit to a timetable for the reform of administrative detention measures, and no progress was made on prisoners' fundamental rights, respect for freedom of religion and belief, human rights in Tibet, China's population policy-including its one-child policy-and the blocking of World Service broadcasts and the BBC website. As the current round of diplomacy and negotiations seem to have been of only limited success, will the Minister state what further actions the Government are preparing to take, and whether they are willing to be more vocal and use public statements in condemning Chinese human rights violations?

Finally, we had hoped that with the upcoming Olympic games pressure could be put on the Chinese Government to redress some of their human rights violations and that they could be encouraged to persuade their international partners to improve their human rights records. The UK, as an advocate of international human rights, should not flinch from taking a stronger stance on the issue. We should not place our trade interests above the moral obligation to guarantee human rights both in China and elsewhere. Can the Minister please assure us that that will continue to be the case as far as the Government are concerned?

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