HC Deb 23 October 1992 vol 212 cc749-56

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Arbuthnot.]

2.30 pm
Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)

I am grateful for this opportunity to draw to the attention of the House the continued denial of human rights in China. It is a timely debate because of Lord Howe's forthcoming visit to China to investigate and discuss the issue on behalf of my right hon Friend the Prime Minister, following my right hon. Friend's own visit to Beijing last year. The debate today will provide the House with probably its only opportunity to record its current anxieties, make proposals and obtain a response from my hon. Friend the Minister.

Now that Hong Kong has fewer than five years before its return to China, it is appropriate that we should become less tolerant of China's performance on human rights, in the interest of preserving those rights for Hong Kong. British policy on China in recent years has been one of hypocrisy and double standards. Our response to what took place in Tiananmen square was nothing to what our response has been or would have been to other communist countries and totalitarian states perpetrating less transparent atrocities on their own people.

For example, our refusal to recognise Taiwan is a betrayal of those Chinese who fought and fled communism and are now moving into a competitive, multi-party democracy. Our response to the continued occupation of Tibet and the clear persecution of its people should have been no different from our response to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Instead, we continue to be almost indifferent to the plight of Tibet. The Chinese Government recognise that policy of appeasement not as one of strength or principle but as one of weakness, and it can only send the worst possible signals about what our response would be if China ignored the Basic Law after 1997.

The atrocities of Tiananmen square a little more than three years ago should have been the last straw for the free world. For more than 40 years we have turned a blind eye to what a few evil men have imposed on I billion people in a country which was a civilisation when Europeans lived in caves. All the evidence has been forthcoming of a totalitarian state as bad as that of Hitler or Stalin, of the genocide of millions, the forced abortion of millions, the incarceration of millions and the slavery of millions. There is state control of the media, labour, property and religion. There are prisoners of conscience, labour camps and torture chambers.

Whatever inhumanities mankind has perpetrated elsewhere in the world appear to have been applied in China with perhaps greater excess than ever before. Yet it has been expedient for us to ignore it, excuse it or accommodate it, in the hope that humanitarian reforms would follow the evident economic reforms. Why is that? Is it because China is the world's largest nation, with one fifth of the world's population, because it is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, because of the indefinite status of Hong Kong? Whatever the reasons, the Chinese authorities knew that they could commit the massacre of Tiananmen square with impunity, and because the world did nothing of note in response to Tiananmen square China continues to persecute, incarcerate and murder its citizens.

I hope that our noble Friend will take with him all the knowledge and information available on those atrocities to impress on the Chinese leadership that such behaviour, which was never acceptable, totally contradicts the spirit of the new world order as well as the universal nature of the UN declaration to which China is a party. I shall refer to some of the abuses, before concluding with measures that I believe that our noble Friend should seek during his visit.

As we know from the reports of Asia Watch and Amnesty International, the effects of Tiananmen square are lasting and continue to this day. Between 10,000 and 30,000 people have been arrested, many have been tried and executed in secret, and others have been tried and convicted without proper trial or defence. Amnesty reported that 960 death sentences were imposed and 750 executions were carried out in 1990, and that more than 1,000 Chinese were executed in 1991, with unofficial sources suggesting that up to 20,000 executions may have taken place last year, according to a ministerial reply to me on 12 March. While it is true that some prominent leaders have received more lenient sentences to placate international opinion, in the provinces, away from the mainstream, many people have been gaoled for up to 20 years for making speeches in support of democracy and reform.

The Chinese communist party has reinforced its authority by bugging, video taping and tailing its citizens in Beijing and elsewhere in a way which is scarcely credible today. The practice that prisoners awaiting execution are paraded at public rallies is particularly inhuman and uncivilised. It is reminiscent of mediaeval times and is surely contrary to the UN convention against torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment, which China ratified in 1988.

From the testimonies of Harry Wu, who spent 19 years in the Chinese gulags—the laogai—before being allowed to come to the west, and from other reports, we know that political and religious prisoners produce goods which China exports to the west. One of the reasons for the success of joint ventures with China is the fact that labour is so cheap. The laogai goods are made by labourers who are punished and tortured if they do not meet targets. They include tea, canned and leather goods, shoes, towels and stockings, as well as machine parts and radiators. Although illegal, they are being sold in this country. They are difficult to identify, but I understand that a Europewide campaign has just been launched to expose those major chain stores which sell them.

From the recent complaint of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions to the International Labour Organisation, we know of more repression of trade unions and the detention of hundreds of members. The report criticises a new code of working practices which bars workers from forming or joining free trade organisations, and refers to Han Dongfan who led China's first independent trade union movement in June 1989. He was freed from imprisonment last year on health grounds, but has only recently recovered from being beaten by officials as he left a tribunal in Beijing early this year.

Thanks to what was told to last year's conference of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, we understand better how Chinese women, pregnant without permission, will be harassed and threatened either to abort or risk the destruction of their homes.

From the reports from Christian Solidarity International, CSI, and the International Society for Human Rights, ISHR, we have learnt of new repression against Christians in China following a central committee directive on religious activity issued in February last year and known as document six. It was aimed at independent churches that had not registered with the state-controlled "Three Self Patriotic Movement".

Such developments were in response to the growth in religious belief, particularly among young people who had been alienated by the events at Tiananmen square, and the consequent decline in the membership of the Communist party. Such movement has been reinforced by the failure of the attempted coup in Moscow last year. It has led to strict controls on the importation of religious books and tapes, restrictions on the building of new churches, limits on theological training and baptisms, and the intimidation and surveillance of known Christians.

The movement has included the arrest of Pastor Moses Xie, one of China's best known house church leaders and Christian evangelists, and the repeated interrogation of others such as Pastor Samuel Lamb for refusing to register his church—his real name is Lin Xiangao and he has spent a total of 21 years in prison for his Christian activities.

Several elderly Roman Catholic bishops who refused to abandon their allegiance to the Pope have been imprisoned. From a ministerial reply to my question about some of those men, I was glad to learn that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had made representations to Premier Li Peng in January, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) when he visited China last year.

Of particular concern must be recent reports of the deaths in mysterious and violent circumstances in police custody of Bishops Fan Xueyan, Shi Churye and Li Zhenrony. Those men were aged 86, 71 and 72. What sort of people are the Chinese leaders who can allow such atrocities against those elderly men? What do they fear from them or from up to 50 million Christians in a country of more than 1 billion people? Perhaps the Chinese leaders know that religion, far from being the opiate of the masses, is the real threat to communism—the spiritual alternative which triumphed in eastern Europe and brought down the Soviet empire.

When the history of communism in red China is written by some Chinese Solzhenitsyn, as it will be one day, it will record more victims and atrocities than anything now coming to light in the Soviet Union, Poland or Cambodia. When it does, the people of the world will ask, as they did of the holocaust, You must have known—why, then, did you do nothing? The forthcoming visit of Lord Howe to China provides us with a new opportunity to impress on the Chinese leadership that we cannot tolerate such atrocities and human rights abuses any longer. I hope that Lord Howe will go armed with a copy of the Hansard report of today's debate, supported with detailed references of all the abuses since Tiananmen square, and an up-to-date list of prisoners of conscience.

I commend Lord Howe to take a copy of the recent Asia Watch report, "Anthems of Defeat—the Crackdown in Hunan Province 1989–1992", which is probably the most comprehensive account of systematic human rights violations to have emerged from China in the past 15 years. I hope that Lord Howe will press China to accede to the two human rights covenants of the United Nations: the international covenant on civic and political rights, and the international covenant on economic social and cultural rights. I hope that he will press China to accept international Red Cross inspections of Chinese prisons and to investigate the widespread reports of torture.

I hope that Lord Howe will deplore the fact that China is the largest supplier of arms and military equipment to remaining totalitarian regimes, including those which have been the worst perpetrators of human rights abuses, such as Myrimar and the Khmer Rouge. I hope that he will challenge the Chinese leadership to accept a visit by the Pope—it would be one of the most encouraging gestures that it could make to allay the fears of Hong Kong for its future after 1997. Not long ago, China pathetically even refused to allow a plane carrying the Pope to fly over Chinese territory.

Last week, the 14th congress of the Communist Party of China committed itself to a freer, more market-oriented economy, which we welcome, but it also confirmed the party's near-totalitarian monopoly of political power at the expense of fundamental freedoms—for which there can be no justification. Today, China remains the last of the evil empires. I hope that my noble Friend Lord Howe will succeed in conveying to the Chinese leadership our abhorrence of its human rights record, and the whole House will wish him well in that task.

2.45 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Alastair Goodlad)

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) is well known and respected for his fervent advocacy of human rights world wide. We are indebted to him for bringing these important matters to the attention of the House. I begin by assuring him that human rights constitute a central element in our dialogue with the Chinese authorities, and are a regular feature of our ministerial contacts with them.

As my hon. Friend will recognise, our interests in and dealings with China go wider than this single issue—important and disturbing though it is. China is an important country with a long history and a proud and industrious people. We have a common interest, in an increasingly uncertain world, in discussions with the Chinese over a full range of international issues. In recent years, China has been pressing ahead rapidly with a welcome process of economic reform, which has resulted in an impressive improvement in living standards.

We are encouraged by the outcome of the recent party congress in Peking, with its emphasis on developing the market economy and bringing through more youthful leaders. Our other shared interest, which is much in people's minds this week, and to which my hon. Friend referred, is Hong Kong. Over Hong Kong, we have a particular and onerous responsibility which this Government are determined to discharge fully and honourably.

No one would be foolish enough to claim that it is for us to try to run China's internal affairs, but, as a democratic country, it is entirely right for Britain to urge China to observe internationally recognised standards of human rights—and we do so.

We have often emphasised to the Chinese authorities the universality of international standards of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Those are not just western or Christian standards, but apply to all countries and regions. The concept is enshrined in articles 55 and 56 of the United Nations charter. Article 55 states: the United Nations shall promote universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion. Article 56 states: all Members pledge themselves to take joint and separate action in co-operation with the Organisation for the achievement of the purposes set forth in Article 55. The specific rights and freedoms codified in the universal declaration of human rights and two international covenants transcend national, religious, cultural and ideological frontiers. Those specific rights and freedoms are all equally applicable to all persons in all circumstances. We believe that the inability of a country to ensure the exercising of any of those rights—for example, the right to an adequate standard of living—cannot be used as an excuse to ignore obligations in respect of another right, such as the right to freedom from arbitrary detention.

Human rights are no longer exempt from external pressure on grounds of "state sovereignty". The United Nations Security Council endorses that by recognising that gross violations may endanger international peace and security. And, of course, United Nation's peacekeeping efforts now incorporate human rights verification.

China has a long history of subordinating the rights of the individual to the will of the state. Tiananmen square was a tragic illustration of that, and one which the Government and people of Britain, and the west generally, have not forgotten. I am afraid that my hon. Friend did less than justice to the Government's position. In the immediate aftermath of Tiananmen, we and our western partners introduced a number of measures—for example, in relation to aid and to high-level contacts—to bring home the strength of western feelings about those events. As time passed and some degree of relaxation developed—for example, the lifting of martial law and the release of numbers of detainees—we and our partners decided at the Foreign Affairs Council on 20 October 1991 that most of those measures should be rescinded. The European Community and its member states nevertheless take every opportunity to remind the Chinese of their obligations towards their own people, and about the widely felt anxieties elsewhere about their behaviour.

I am well aware of the depth of parliamentary and public concern in this country about human rights in China—including Tibet—which I share. I consistently receive a large volume of letters from Members of Parliament and from the public on the subject. The Government have been extremely active with the Chinese authorities on this issue, as has been recognised by many of the non-governmental organisations most interested in the subject.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister raised our concerns with Premier Li Peng during his visit to Peking in September last year, in New York in January and in Rio in June. The Foreign Secretary and I raised human rights with the Vice-Foreign Minister during his visit to Britain in July. I took the opportunity then to hand over a list of names of individuals who are of particular concern, as well as copies of Amnesty International's report—published in May this year—on the situation in Tibet, and its list of appeal cases. More recently, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised human rights with the Chinese Foreign Minister during their meetings—both bilateral and in the troika—in the margins of the United Nations General Assembly last month. The Chinese can be in no doubt about the strength of feeling in this country.

As my hon. Friend rightly said, Tibet is an area of particular concern. Human rights issues there are undoubtedly entangled with aspirations for independence; but the fact is that Tibet has never been internationally recognised as an independent country. It is not the same as Afghanistan. Nevertheless, we regularly speak to the Chinese about the need for better protection of human rights in Tibet, and about the need for a more decent autonomy for Tibet. We have consistently encouraged the Chinese to enter into a dialogue with Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama. We believe that this is the most promising solution to the problem of Tibet. The Chinese can be in no doubt about the strength of feeling in the House—and more widely—about their behaviour in Tibet.

Some people, like my hon. Friend, fear that what the Chinese are doing today in Tibet they will do in Hong Kong after 1997. I do not believe that. All the Government's endeavours are directed to building an edifice that will survive the transition. The joint declaration, an international treaty registered at the United Nations, lays down a series of guarantees for human rights in Hong Kong after 1997. For example, it provides that rights and freedoms, including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association … of religious belief … will be protected by law. In addition, the Hong Kong Government have enacted a Bill of Rights, which enshrines in Hong Kong law the international covenant on civil and political rights, which the joint declaration and the future Basic Law guarantee will remain in force. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that it is right to build—as we have been—as lasting an edifice as possible for the guaranteeing of human rights in Hong Kong.

I should say a word about Taiwan, as it was raised by my hon. Friend. We do not recognise the authorities in Taiwan as the Government of China, which is their claim. Nor do any major countries. We cannot recognise two Governments for China. I do not fully understand my hon. Friend's point. Commercial, educational and cultural exchanges with Taiwan and this country are thriving, and I welcome that.

Chinese behaviour will not change overnight; Chinese history, culture and social arrangements differ from ours. There are, however, a number of positive signs. The Chinese are more ready to discuss the issues. They have published several White Papers in an effort to achieve greater understanding of their position on human rights, including those in Tibet. They argue that the provision of food, clothing, housing and a secure and stable environment are the most important rights. And on the positive side, there is no doubt that China, with its massive population of 1.1 billion, is currently making great strides in developing its economy and reforming its industrial base. It has gone a long way towards eliminating poverty and deprivation, and we welcome that. Maintaining both economic progress and stability is important; so is international opinion. Although the Chinese authorities do not accept all our ideas on human rights—which are based on the standards elaborated in the universal declaration of human rights—there is evidence that persistent pressure can lead to a point at which a poor human rights record becomes a matter that will be addressed.

My hon. Friend has mentioned a number of unpleasant abuses of human rights. The Government have raised on many occasions their particular concerns—the continued persecution of religious believers, the continued detention of individuals for the free expression of their political beliefs and the situation in Tibet.

We and our European Community partners have raised our concerns over the persecution of religious believers on a number of occasions. The matter of the persecution of Catholic bishops was specifically raised by Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials earlier this month with the Chinese embassy here. I was also dismayed and concerned to learn of the incident in Henan province on 8 September and the reported imprisonment of 120 religious believers. We have raised the cases of a number of individuals who have been persecuted for their religious beliefs, including Pastor Moses Xie and Pastor Samuel Lamb. Some of these individuals were on the list handed to Premier Li Peng by the Prime Minister in New York in January. Others were included on a list of 40 cases of concern handed over by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food during his visit to China last year, and freedom of religious worship will be one of the areas of concern for the forthcoming mission led by Lord Howe.

We share with hon. Members a number of other concerns expressed by my hon. Friend: for example, the widespread use of the death penalty, the trade in human organs taken from executed Chinese prisoners and torture. We, our Community partners, and other like-minded Governments, will continue to press the Chinese to conform to their international and legal obligations.

At his meeting with Premier Li Peng in New York in January my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister proposed that a delegation should visit China to examine human rights and related issues. My hon. Friend has referred to that delegation. As the House will know, it is to be led by my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Howe. The Chinese have agreed that the visit will take place from 1 to 8 December. Its aim is to exchange views on human rights issues and to learn more about China's provisions and practices in this area. The precise terms of reference and itinerary are under discussion, and the arrangements are well in hand. The official host will be the Chinese People's Institute for Foreign Affairs.

Lord Howe will be accompanied by my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) and by the hon. Members for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston) and for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) together with the Rt. Rev. the Bishop of Tonbridge, Professor Anthony Dicks of the School of Oriental and African Studies, and Mr. Nigel Rodley of the university of Essex. The delegation is not on this occasion expecting to visit Tibet, but it certainly proposes to raise human rights questions relating to Tibet in the course of its programme in China. Lord Howe and his colleagues are in close touch with a number of experts and non-governmental organisations here in Britain. They will be briefed in advance by relevant NGOs, including Amnesty International, on all issues of concern, including persecution of religious believers, the situation in Tibet, torture, forced abortion, the death penalty, trade in human organs from executed prisoners, prison-made goods, and others.

I do not believe that we should avoid contact with China, even if we disagree with important elements in Chinese policies. We welcome China's opening to the world. The benefits are for all to see. We believe strongly in the advantages of such contacts. China's current economic development is astonishing. It benefits China, Hong Kong and all of us. As standards of economic prosperity rise, it is our hope and that of our Community partners that standards of democratic accountability will also rise. We are doing our bit to help this by, for example, training Chinese lawyers, accountants, administrators—some of the essential human resources which make good government possible.

So with China our policy is clear. We extend the hand of friendship and support. We encourage trade to the benefit of our people, as well as theirs. We encourage, through persuasion, training and example, a gradual spread of the tenets of Government accountability, and we take every opportunity to remind the Chinese that the world expects higher standards from them, in particular on human rights, as they emerge on to the world stage.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Three o'clock.