HC Deb 30 March 1994 vol 240 cc917-9
7. Mr. Waterson

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what assessment he has made of the record of the People's Republic of China on human rights; and if he will make a statement.

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

There are a number of areas where China's human rights record does not meet internationally accepted standards. These include harassment of religious believers, detentions without trial, use of torture on detainees, lack of access to legal representation and continued use of labour camps.

Mr. Waterson

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that it is in our interest, as well as that of the People's Republic of China, to keep up the pressure on China to continue to make advances in the areas that he mentioned, such as the rule of law as we know it, religious tolerance and all the matters that we regard as everyday human rights here and in other countries in the west?

Mr. Goodlad

My hon. Friend is right, and we take every suitable opportunity to do so. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State raised human rights at both his meetings last year with the Chinese Foreign Minister and handed over a list of prisoners. The matter was also raised by the European Union troika. We co-sponsored the resolution at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, but the Chinese again got a "no action" motion passed. My noble Friend Lord Howe led a human rights delegation to China in December 1992 and we are pressing the Chinese to follow up the issues raised by Lord Howe and to send a return delegation to study our legal systems. We have invited various people here—the deputy procurator-general, prison governors and young lawyers—and we are providing training to young Chinese judges and lawyers under Overseas Development Administration auspices.

Dr. Godman

Has the Minister read Amnesty International's report on the 14 Tibetan Buddhist nuns who have had their prison sentences doubled or even trebled for daring to sing pro-independence songs in their prison cells? If the Minister has not done so already, will he raise that disgraceful affair with the Chinese authorities? Some of the nuns are still teenagers and will serve many years in prison unless the repressive regime is told that it cannot get away with such disgraceful behaviour.

Mr. Goodlad

The hon. Gentleman raises a very serious matter and I am conscious of the report to which he refers. We have raised a number of human rights issues in Tibet with the Chinese and we will continue to do so in the future.

Mr. Allason

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one way of instilling confidence in the People's Republic of China's administration of Hong Kong after 1997 would be for the Beijing authorities to exercise some restraint in their treatment of dissidents now?

Mr. Goodlad

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The 1984 joint declaration on the future of Hong Kong lays down a series of guarantees for human rights in Hong Kong after 1997. In addition, the Hong Kong Government 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. However, to do what my hon. Friend suggests, which is what we and others continually urge the Chinese to do, would certainly reinforce that.

Rev. Martin Smyth

We will continue to urge the Minister to keep pressure on the Chinese Government. Does he accept that the improper claims on Tibet and the treatment of the Tibetan people deserve condemnation from all communities throughout the world? Will he continue to deal not only with individual rights, but with that territorial claim over Tibet?

Mr. Goodlad

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support, and I can give him the undertaking he seeks.

Mr. Rogers

The Minister is absolutely right to condemn the Chinese for the conditions that prevail in their gulags, but, rather than just criticise them, why does he not take some positive action? There are 1 million political prisoners in China, many of whom are involved in producing goods and materials, which are imported into this country—especially, for example, coal, cast iron, paper, tea products and so on.

If the Minister is really concerned about the human rights situation and the condition of people in Chinese prisons, the Government ought to block the import of those goods under the Foreign Prison-made Goods Act 1897, in the same way as the Americans have blocked Chinese goods that are made in prisons from entering their country.

Mr. Goodlad

The import of goods from prisons in China is, indeed, illegal, as the hon. Gentleman says, and we continue to deplore with the Opposition the use of forced prison labour. There are severe practical difficulties in identifying products manufactured by forced labour, given the complex channels of production and distribution. The United States customs authorities may detain goods on suspicion and have had some access to prison camps, but they have had exactly the same problem as us in identifying specific consignments.

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is advocating general trade sanctions, since that would be damaging to the people of China rather than its Government.

Mr. David Atkinson

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the new wave of repression against Christians in China, together with the continued suppression and occupation of Tibet, isolates China as the last of the evil empires in the world? Will he ask the new United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to investigate the situation in China as a matter of urgency?

Mr. Goodlad

My hon. Friend is right to say that two new regulations have recently appeared in China to ban foreigners from setting up religious organisations, schools or offices, and from proselytising, giving money and supplying religious materials. The European Union has successfully pressed for a call to respect freedom of religion in the current year's draft UNHCR resolution, and we will continue to include freedom of religion among the human rights topics that we pursue with the Chinese.