HC Deb 07 December 1999 vol 340 cc690-2
13. Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton)

If he will make a statement on the United Kingdom's current relations with China; and what assistance his Department is giving to promote trade with China. [99956]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. John Battle)

China is an important and growing presence in the world. It has the largest population and is the seventh largest economy in the world. The United Kingdom is the sixth largest investor in China and we share extensive international interests and responsibilities, especially as permanent members of the UN Security Council. It is right that we should seek to expand our dialogue and draw China more closely into the international political and trade mechanisms for solving problems and disputes.

Mr. O'Brien

Will my hon. Friend take it from me that the general view throughout the United Kingdom, in west Yorkshire in particular, is that stronger industrial trade links need to be developed with China, and that, through business, universities and local authorities, we could do more trade in printing, packaging, health products, engineering and other manufacturing, textiles and garments, and tourism? Will my hon. Friend take note of the views expressed by some of those who have visited China about the need to develop trade links? Such links could move the human rights programme even further forward to bring China nearer to the views of the western world. Will my hon. Friend work with the local authorities, business people and universities to improve trade links with China?

Mr. Battle

Yes, promoting trade with China is a priority and we have mutual interests in key areas of business which we can develop, including the sectors that my hon. Friend mentions, such as engineering, new technology, textiles and the utilities. We are also expanding our diplomatic presence, opening a new consulate general in Chongqing early next year in the south-west region of China. Some local authorities are already engaged there, where we will be the first serious European presence. Trade is an essential part of the process of engagement with China. Economic contact and exchange can play an important part in modernising China and bringing about an improvement in human rights.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

On page 27 of the Foreign Office's annual report on human rights, it clearly states that China's arrest and trial of pro-democracy campaigners at the end of 1998 was unacceptable. It continues: the Chinese authorities should not view the peaceful expression of political views as a threat to state security". Why, then, was the Chinese human rights campaigner, Wei Jing Shen, who did nothing other than unfurl a pro-democracy banner outside Buckingham palace, arrested? Why, when the Minister was questioned about it, did he state in a written reply: no one was arrested…charged or countercharged."?—[Official Report, 22 November 1999; Vol. 339, c. 378.] Why was that, and will the Minister not now reconsider his position?

Mr. Battle

I have answered those questions in detail. My written answer of 6 December states: Following a further review, I am now able to give figures for arrests for activities related to the State Visit…As I made clear in the Debate on the Address, no-one was charged. As the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) said…15 people were arrested in the Metropolitan Police Area…one person was arrested in the City of London. There were no arrests in Cambridge. I reconfirm that no one was charged in any of these police areas."—[Official Report, 6 December 1999; Vol. 340, c. 412W.] The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), met the person in question during the state visit. We continue to share serious concerns about human rights and are vigorously pursuing such cases with the Chinese authorities, and we shall continue to do so. The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) has spent the past 10 minutes passing notes back to the hon. Gentleman to prompt him to ask the question.

Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale)

The Minister may not be aware that granite imported from China is currently being used to refurbish the Royal Mile in Edinburgh—not that Scotland has run out of granite. How easy is it for local authorities responsible for purchasing such material to assure themselves that its cheap price is not the result of poor labour conditions in China?

Mr. Battle

There is a forum for raising precisely such questions, not least the International Labour Organisation. Some local authorities have relationships with China. Twin towns, cities and regions provide a context for such dialogue, but it is up to local authorities to negotiate their individual trade deals. I do not know anything about the particular one that the hon. Gentleman mentions. I am not sure why granite has to be taken to Scotland. However, the hon. Gentleman has made his point and we shall continue to ensure that the terms of trade are fair and just.

Mr. Nigel Beard (Bexleyheath and Crayford)

What interpretation does my hon. Friend put on the build-up of military forces on the Chinese mainland opposite Taiwan?

Mr. Battle

We are watching that situation with urgent concern because, in the past, there have been belligerent noises. We expressed our views in the proper way at the time, and we shall keep the situation under close observation.