HC Deb 25 March 2004 vol 419 cc319-58WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Paul Clark.]

2.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Bill Rammell)

I am pleased that we are having a debate on the subject of our relations with China in Government time in this Chamber. I understand that this is the first time in two years that we have had such an opportunity. There is a series of reasons for that, and they will become clear during the debate, which is exceedingly timely.

I pay tribute to the all-party China group led by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman), who, I know, will take part in the debate, as will many other members of that group. It does exceedingly good work in building, at the parliamentary level, important links between the United Kingdom and China.

It goes without saying that China is an important world player and a fellow Security Council member. Bluntly, it is a country that we have to engage with. Whether the issue is climate change, economic prosperity and development or world security, if we are not engaging with China, we are seriously missing out. We have important interests to pursue, including promoting regional security, helping China to reform its economy and reduce poverty and fulfilling our obligations to the people of Hong Kong.

I am pleased to be able to say that the state of our relationship is good. Reflecting China's increasing economic weight and political influence, we are working to step up that engagement across the board. Building a strategic relationship with China is, I believe, key to our international interests. That is reflected in the four main themes of our Whitehall China strategy, which was agreed by Ministers and endorsed by the Prime Minister in June 2002. They are: first, encouraging greater Chinese engagement in international issues; secondly, supporting greater Chinese integration into the world economy—something that is both inevitable and important; thirdly, pushing forward the process of political and economic reform in China; and fourthly, promoting Britain as a partner for China.

This is a good opportunity to reflect on what has changed in China since we last had an opportunity to debate the subject. The new leadership that has been established there, led by President Hu Jintao, who visited the UK before his election, has made it clear that it will continue the policy priorities of economic growth, internal stability and steady opening up to the world. All of those are positive trends and developments.

We have seen the success of that, particularly with the Chinese Government's reaction to the severe acute respiratory syndrome crisis. After initial hesitancy, the Chinese Government rose to the challenge and co-operated with the World Health Organisation. I know that a number of Members agree with that view. Senior officials were sacked for non-co-operation and for covering up cases. The lessons that the Chinese learned during the SARS crisis have been put to good use during the more recent avian flu epidemic. China undoubtedly now has a more open approach to informing the public of public health crises and the measures that are being taken to address them. That is a particularly positive development.

The extent to which a one-party state can meet and embrace the challenges of a free-market economy is a recurring question that I have discussed with a number of Members in the Chamber, and with that in mind I followed the debate at China's recent National People's Congress with great interest. Three of the 13 changes to the constitution strike me as particularly significant. Those are, first, the enhanced recognition of the important role of the private sector, secondly, the strengthening and protection of private property rights and, thirdly—significantly—the amendment to safeguard and respect human rights. We will want to reflect on those changes during the debate.

To me, those seem to be positive examples of the effects of rapid and sustained economic change on both the state and the individual in China. Continuing development will undoubtedly raise many issues for China's leadership, with far-reaching implications for Chinese society and knock-on effects throughout the world. As one of China's friends, we will be looking with interest at whether China is able to manage its economic development evenly across the board. It is worth noting that one of the strong policy directions of the new leadership has been its determination to consider the consequences of economic development and, particularly, the way that an urban-rural split and an east-west split can be dealt with at the macro-economic policy level.

China is playing an increasingly active role in international affairs. Like us, it plays a leading role in the UN Security Council as one of the permanent five and it supports the international war against terrorism.

Mr. Michael Trend (Windsor) (Con)

The Minister is going to detail the four priorities that he identified earlier. In the last five minutes, he mentioned human rights briefly, but can he tell me whether the Foreign Office thinks that human rights should be one of the priorities. If it does not think that they are sufficiently important, why not?

Mr. Rammell

Human rights are an important element of our relationship and I will comment in detail on our view of human rights in China.

China is a key player on the international stage. In particular, the decision that it took at the Madrid conference to pledge $24.2 million bilateral aid for Iraq was an exceedingly positive step. In addition, the way in which China has taken the initiative in setting up and promoting the six-party talks about handling the difficult challenge of North Korea's nuclear ambitions, which in many senses may be seen as a new trend and development in the way in which China engages in international affairs, has been extremely positive.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op)

I am pleased to hear my hon. Friend mention North Korea. I accept that China has played an interesting role in trying to change the North Korean regime. At the same time, to link to the previous intervention on human rights, we measure not only what the Chinese say but what they do. It would help if they did not send back North Korean émigrés who have sought refuge in China because of the persecution in North Korea. Will my hon. Friend say what the Government are doing to take that up with the Chinese Government?

Mr. Rammell

There is a significant concern about the human rights situation in North Korea. As I am the Foreign Office Minister responsible for the human rights portfolio, some of the most appalling allegations about human rights come across my desk on a daily basis, and those in the recent BBC documentary on human rights in North Korea were among those that have shocked me the most in the 16 months that I have been a Foreign Office Minister dealing with that brief. There are, therefore, concerns about genuine refugees fleeing North Korea in fear of their lives. We have engaged with the Chinese Government. Indeed, I did so earlier this week, urging them to consider carefully the refugee claims coming from citizens crossing the North Korean border and, particularly, to involve the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in assessing those claims. We have made that case and we will continue to do so.

Relations with China are also developing at the level of the European Union, and in September 2003, both the European Union and China produced policy papers on strategies to enhance that relationship.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con)

What will the attitude of the European Union be to a resolution proposed by the United States of America on human rights in Tibet at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights? Many people are concerned that the EU has appeared to be at least ambivalent, if not disinterested, in human rights in Tibet.

Mr. Rammell

I shall comment later in greater detail about specific aspects of human rights policy, particularly, our stance on resolutions that are likely to be forthcoming from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. I assure the hon. Gentleman that if I do not specifically address his question at that stage, I will do so in the summing up.

As I am dealing with relations between the European Union and China, it is pertinent to take the opportunity to mention briefly the EU embargo on arms sales to China. The European Council agreed on 12 December to review the policy on the embargo, and the General Affairs and External Relations Council decided in January to remit the issue to a working group for detailed examination. Once that has happened, the matter will revert to the Council.

The subject is complex and needs careful consideration. We support the review and have encouraged our EU partners to conduct it rigorously and to take full account of the impact of lifting the embargo. We are still considering our position within that context, but I assure hon. Members that lifting the embargo would not remove our ability to control arms sales to China. Since the embargo was established, our own arms export criteria and code of conduct, and the EU code of conduct interpreted by the UK through the consolidated criteria, have been incorporated. Come what may, they will remain in place as a significant means of controlling exports to China.

I come now to the bilateral relationship, which has been stepped up vigorously in both directions by senior visits from many Ministers. Nine members of the present British Cabinet have visited China in the past year, and the Prime Minister visited last summer. We look forward to a visit by Premier Wen Jiabao later this year. There is a two-way exchange of ideas, discussion and information.

As an indication of the importance that the Prime Minister attaches to our links with China, after his visit last summer he charged the Deputy Prime Minister with leading a group to discuss with the Chinese authorities how to promote our relationship with China in new and dynamic ways. In preparation for the next meeting with the Chinese at prime ministerial level later this year, the task force is drawing up a list of innovative proposals for deepening the relationship. Initially, the task force is focusing on trade and investment, science and technology, education and the environment. It is an exceedingly important process.

We also have a significant trade relationship with China. UK trade with China has doubled in the past five years, growing faster than that of any of our G8 competitors. That shows that at government and business levels we are focusing on the opportunities that are available. The process is two-way, as approximately 150 companies from mainland China invest in the UK. China's accession to the World Trade Organisation in December 2001 has accelerated the opening up of its economy and improved the competitiveness of its industry. China is a priority market for UK Trade and Investment, and the UK is now the fourth largest EU exporter to China, behind only Germany, Italy and France. We want to build on that strong position. Many British companies are playing an active role in Beijing and in the development of China more generally.

It is worth commenting on the perceptions of the relationship between the two countries, particularly the perceptions that Chinese people have of this country. A recent Gallup poll highlighted the outdated perceptions of Britain among young educated Chinese people. We were concerned about those perceptions and rightly responded by mounting a major campaign to correct them and to project the UK as a partner of choice for China. As a result, the successful Think UK campaign took place throughout China from October 2002 through much of 2003 to promote the real face of Britain today. Its aim was to reach a young educated audience through the mass media and show them the creative and innovative sides of Britain and how they are relevant to China's aspirations and development needs. There has been enormous interest in the campaign, and on my visits I have been able to see some of the good initiatives that have resulted from it.

We also have significant relations with China through education. China is one of seven target countries identified in the Prime Minister's initiative to attract international students to this country. There has been a welcome and significant increase in the number of Chinese students studying in universities in the United Kingdom—currently about 35,000. It is a significant trend and development in virtually every university in the country.

Any debate about China would not be complete without reference to Hong Kong. It has a dynamic and positive part to play in our relationship with China. It is an integral part of the Pearl River Delta region, which is the fastest growing region of the fastest growing economy in the world. Many British companies continue to enter the Chinese market through Hong Kong. We should, and do, help them as much as we can with that process.

As we look forward politically and economically, we should not and we do not forget our responsibilities towards Hong Kong, emanating from the 1984 Sino-British joint declaration on Hong Kong. Given the importance of that, the Foreign Secretary reports to Parliament twice a year on the situation in Hong Kong. We are pleased that the handover went smoothly—to be blunt, better than many people had expected. It was a good example of Sino-British co-operation.

Some seven years on, our reports continue to assess that "one country, two systems" is generally working well in practice. We welcome the fact that the Chinese Government and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Regional Government have shown a commitment to making a success of "one country, two systems". The rule of law, an independent judiciary, a meritocratic civil service, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the free flow of people and information are all rightly still intact.

It is worth noting that on a few occasions we have had particular concerns about certain developments in Hong Kong that might impact upon the workings of the joint declaration. On such occasions we have raised those concerns with the Special Administrative Regional Government or Beijing, as appropriate.

If necessary, we make those concerns public, and that is right. For example, as the Minister responsible I made five public statements during 2002–03 about the national security legislation that was mandated by article 23 of the Basic Law. I remember discussing that in the Foreign Affairs Committee with some of the Members present in the Chamber, because we shared the concerns of many in Hong Kong that the proposed legislation might undermine the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong and lessen its autonomy from mainland China, as was properly provided for under the joint declaration and the Basic Law. We were very pleased that the Special Administrative Regional Government decided last year to withdraw the draft legislation and to consult the people of Hong Kong further. That has been welcomed within Hong Kong generally.

When examining Hong Kong, the current big political question is over constitutional reform. The Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution, to which we were not party, lays down the ultimate aims of selection of a Chief Executive and election of all members of the Legislative Council by universal suffrage. However, decisions must be made about the pace at which that happens. Inevitably, there are differences of opinion about it in Hong Kong, and recent press commentary has noted that. We are following the debate closely, and our views on the subject are clear and well known. We hope that there will be early progress towards the Basic Law's ultimate aim of the selection of a Chief Executive and all members of the Legislative Council by universal suffrage at a pace in line with the wishes of the people of Hong Kong. As the Prime Minister made clear when he visited there last July, it is vital that Hong Kong continues its advance towards universal suffrage but maintains the stability that is the bedrock of its success. Given our historical responsibilities, we will continue to follow events closely.

Several Members have raised the subject of human rights in China. Although bilateral relations are good and we are looking to develop them, we have areas of disagreement with China. It is a sign of a healthy and developing relationship that we can engage in a critical dialogue with China on such issues. Human rights and individual freedoms, particularly on the economic and social side, have undoubtedly increased greatly in the past 10 years, but we are still concerned about the human rights situation.

In 1997, we decided that a policy of critical engagement was the best way to help China to improve its human rights. Our main tool in that engagement has been the bi-annual UK-China human rights dialogue, at which we raise hosts of issues, including individual cases of concern. The fundamental aim of that process is both important and worthwhile: to bring about sustained and long-term improvements in Chinese human rights by engaging the Chinese authorities in direct discussions on issues of concern. Nevertheless, it is not always understood that that dialogue does not stop us from speaking out about abuses in China, or from pressing for improvements, which we do both publicly and privately.

We acknowledge China's progress in improving the economic lot of its people, and it would be churlish not to acknowledge the encouraging progress in areas such as legal reform, but there is no doubt that much more is needed. We want to see progress in the treatment of religious activists, Falun Gong adherents and political dissidents, and regarding the death penalty and North Korean border-crossers. We remain particularly concerned about Xinjiang and Tibet.

There have been calls for the UK to support a resolution on China at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva this year. We are likely to vote in favour of such a resolution, and will certainly vote against a no-action motion. When I spoke at the commission, last week, I clarified our position on the human rights situation in China.

One of the most encouraging developments since we began our human rights dialogue is the increased willingness of the Chinese to engage with international mechanisms, which will ultimately lead to sustained improvements in human rights. That brings to a head the debate about standing on the sidelines and criticising rather than engaging with a country. Examples of progress in China include the ratification of the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights, and the submission of the first report in May 2003; serious consultations with us and the EU about ratifying the international covenant on civil and political rights; and the creation of a Chinese working group to study ratification. We will certainly help in whatever way we can. Progress is also demonstrated by the good levels of co-operation between China and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. They are all positive developments, which at least demonstrate an increased willingness on the part of the Chinese to engage with those issues.

Some people claim that we have allowed trade considerations to subvert our human rights concerns, but I, as a Minister at the centre of this issue, do not agree. Of course, it is important that we pursue trade links with China, but that does not, should not and will not stop us from speaking out on human rights concerns.

Mr. Drew

The Minister has not mentioned the policy of coercive population control and the fact that China continues to have a one-child policy, which involves forced abortion and sterilisation. Whatever one's view on the size of China's population, one cannot say that that is the behaviour of a developed country. What engagement do the British Government have on that most basic of human rights? Do they involve themselves with the way in which population is controlled?

Mr. Rammell

Any policy of forced abortion is wrong. We have discussed that subject, and I hope to comment further on that issue when I sum up.

I come now to illegal immigration, a subject that is of keen interest to both our countries. There is undoubtedly a growing Chinese community in the United Kingdom. It plays an increasing and welcome part in the life of this country, but we cannot, and should not, shut our eyes to the problem of illegal immigration. Illegal immigration and the associated trafficking are a problem for the UK and China. If anyone needed convincing of that, last month's events at Morecambe bay underlined the importance of ongoing co-operation between our two countries on illegal immigration.

We note with regret that China is a major source of illegal immigration into the UK and is one of the top five countries that produce asylum seekers. We are working with the Chinese Ministry of Public Security to stop would-be over-stayers and asylum seekers travelling to the UK, and to return to China those who succeed in reaching the UK. Our key objective in dealing with unjustified asylum claims is to increase the number of asylum seekers returned to China. We have asked China to post a permanent official to its embassy in London to assist in identifying failed Chinese asylum seekers, and we want to continue to work and co-operate with the Chinese authorities in this regard.

I shall comment briefly on the situation in Taiwan. The UK's position on Taiwan's status has not changed. We have no diplomatic ties with Taiwan, but we enjoy good bilateral relations in several areas such as trade, culture and education. Approximately 13,000 Taiwanese students are enrolled on courses of various lengths in the UK— an increase from only 300 about 10 years ago. Taiwanese investment in the UK has slowed from its peak in the late 1990s, but the UK is still the leading location for Taiwanese investment in Europe, which we welcome. That is significant.

We have also welcomed the continued development of democracy in Taiwan. In March 2000, we witnessed the first democratic transfer of political power in Taiwan. The fact that that transfer was smooth and peaceful shows once again Taiwan's impressive achievements in establishing a fully functioning democracy in recent years. I am sure that all Members will join me in applauding and welcoming that.

It was also good to see that more than 80 per cent. of the electorate voted in last Saturday's elections in Taiwan. Perhaps we could aspire to that in this country if we all got our act together. On Saturday, the central election commission announced provisionally that Chen Shui-bian had won. I understand that it will make a formal announcement tomorrow. I also understand that Opposition candidates have asked for a recount and a judicial review. Whatever happens, I hope that all parties will urge calm, and that the issue can be dealt with through the appropriate legal mechanisms.

I want to make it clear that we believe that Taiwan's future is a matter for people on both sides of the Taiwan straits to settle peacefully among themselves. We would he extremely concerned by any recourse to military action, and we take every suitable opportunity to convey to the Chinese Government and through informal channels to the Taiwanese that we strongly oppose the use of force.

Mr. Trend

I have a factual question for the Minister. Has a date been set for the visit of the Chinese Premier to London? I do not know if he has already mentioned that, as I was dozing.

Mr. Rammell

Plans are under way. I will check whether that visit has been publicly confirmed. If it has, I will let the hon. Gentleman know when I sum up.

In conclusion, this is an important opportunity to discuss our relations with one of the most significant countries in the world. I hope that as many Members as possible can contribute to the debate, and that we can have a really good discussion.

2.59 pm
Mr. Richard Spring(Con) (West Suffolk)

I thank the Minister for securing the debate and for giving us such a comprehensive overview of our relationship with China. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman), who brings to the House a unique understanding of China. He has succeeded in building very strong links between parliamentarians in the United Kingdom and in China. I salute his efforts and all those who are associated with him.

I should like to apologise to the Minister, to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to other hon. Members for the fact that I may have to leave a little early for an unavoidable appointment outside the House, away from London.

It is good to speak on a subject that is highly important, about a country that assumes ever greater economic and geopolitical importance. This debate is also topical, given the recent Taiwanese elections and the apparent breakdown in the talks with North Korea, in which China has played such a constructive role. China enjoys a good relationship with the United Kingdom and that is to be welcomed. Indeed, the Conservative party, perhaps to the surprise of some, enjoys an enduringly strong relationship with China, which dates back to the premiership of Sir Edward Heath. With its economic and political clout, China has the opportunity to become a major global force, a power that we would ignore at our peril and with which we must remain constructively engaged. Chinese civilisation and culture have of course contributed immeasurably to the world, just as the enterprise, value and work ethic of Chinese communities have enriched national life in the United Kingdom and in other countries throughout the world, with remarkable success. China is enjoying exceptionally high levels of economic growth and is still only beginning to realise its vast economic potential—a potential that is increasingly felt in the global economy. Although China took steps yesterday to cool the pace of loan growth and tighten monetary policy by announcing a series of interest and bank rate reforms, the boom continues.

China's foreign and domestic policies revolve round the key objective of economic growth, focusing on market liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation. China's recent economic growth has been impressive and consistent. She has a huge and growing appetite for raw materials to fuel that economic growth. Coupled with a harnessing of her vast supplies of human resources, the utilisation of communications advances and the undoubted political will to make things work, that should lead to continued advances and growth. Along with the US economy, her economic success has been a driving force for world economic growth.

In 2003, Chinese real GDP growth was estimated at 9.1 per cent. Production levels are rising year on year; for example, car production alone rose by 32.7 per cent. That is only one example, but it is symbolic of a pattern repeated across the Chinese economy. In 2002, China accounted for 4 per cent. of global GDP. She is currently the sixth largest economy in the world and is projected to be fourth largest by 2010. All that presents an impressive picture, which is complemented by China's participation in international trade. China's accession to the World Trade Organisation was welcome. Her membership will open up important new markets and act as an important encouragement to economic liberalisation. China had exports totalling a huge $438 billion in 2003 and imports of a similar range and quantity. China is a huge market, with tremendous potential for British, American and other firms. China's increased participation in the global trading system is to be welcomed, not feared.

Trade and economics are but one facet of China's complex and multifaceted geostrategic position, but they also have a direct impact upon China's domestic political development. One consequence of China's impressive economic growth, which I have seen for myself on a number of occasions, is a widening gap between rich and poor, between urban and rural communities, among regions and between the so-called elite and the mass of the population. Such differences as arise during a period of economic transition are perhaps inevitable, but they give rise to tensions and pressures in society for parallel political reform and social reform. Such pressures are evident in China. The challenge facing China's rulers is how best to address them and to ensure that all Chinese share in and benefit from economic success.

Under the leadership of Hu Jintao, small steps have been made towards greater participation in government at the village council level. It is progress, and is thus to be welcomed, but it is only a small step. I believe that there can be no doubt that the Chinese Communist party remains determined to preserve its hold on power. Economic growth must be sustained, runs the strategic equation in China, so that continued improvements in living standards can be delivered, thereby reducing social inequality and possible discontent and preserving at the least an acceptance of the continual rule of the Communist party and the current system. Whether such a calculation will be capable of satisfying aspirations for greater participation and empowerment for any length of time remains doubtful. However, it is to be hoped that China will look towards more long-term reforms designed to increase democratic participation and diversity.

We can rightly be proud of our relationship with China, but it is also right that we are honest with our friends. As China's influence and participation in international affairs grows, we would encourage her Government to take seriously the many documented human rights concerns of which she is accused. The latest Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights report makes our concerns in that respect clear, and the US has spoken out particularly forcefully against China's human rights record, leading China to bring talks with the US on the subject to an end. To simply lecture and hector would serve little purpose, but I hope that the Government will reaffirm their commitment to remain actively engaged with the Chinese Government on the issue and will make clear the tremendous advantages to China, and to their international image and reputation, of taking an increasingly open and transparent approach. I hope that under the outward-looking leadership of Hu Jintao such considerations will increasingly feature in official thought.

A similar approach applies to Tibet. It would be wrong for me to seek to over-simplify that complex issue. However, in essence, China should seek to respect Tibetan culture fully, and I hope that the Chinese leadership will seek to build a successful direct dialogue with the Dalai Lama, given his standing in the world at large.

Hong Kong has also been a cause of some tension of late, with calls for increased democracy for the Special Administrative Region. The handover of Hong Kong in 1997 and the "one country, two systems" compromise that was reached was rightly regarded as a success, preserving much that was economically and politically successful about Hong Kong in the past. The expiry of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's term of office in 2007 has led to calls from men such as Martin Lee for fuller democracy by that time and for the right directly to elect their next leader. However, Beijing appears unwilling to countenance that, although talks have been under way between Hong Kong's Chief Secretary and the Chinese Government in Beijing about the matter.

It is important—the Minister has alluded to this—for China to think seriously about the democratic aspiration that has been constitutionally incorporated in Hong Kong, and to continue the special status and feel of Hong Kong. It is a great tribute to the flexibility of the Chinese system that the handover has happened so successfully. China can be complimented on the way in which it has handled Hong Kong since the handover from the United Kingdom. The vexed question of Taiwan remains—one of the longest lasting and seemingly intractable disputes in the world. It is regrettable that the recent election results appear to be somewhat inconclusive and that Taiwan's voters appear split on the question of rapprochement with Beijing. We believe that a process of reconciliation can be carried out at all levels, even the most basic. Further useful and important steps could include the establishment of direct flights between Taipei and mainland China, for example, and improving communication and economic links in general. However, while encouraging such steps, it is right that we always bear in mind that Taiwan is now a functioning democracy. Its leaders must, in their own interest, approach relations with China in a way that minimises friction and maximises the potential for dialogue.

Of late, China has adopted a far more outward-looking approach internationally. She was a strong supporter of the fight against terrorism after 9/11 and has become increasingly engaged internationally through organisations such as the UN Security Council, the WTO and the Association of South East Asian Nations. Her increased participation in international multilateral diplomacy is encouraging.

I do not share the fear expressed by some that China's participation in international affairs is in some way threatening. Terrorism has proved a point of common concern between east and west, and China's overriding priority of economic growth means that she sees a stable international scene as important. China has no interest in raising the international temperature while economic growth remains its top priority. That is not to say that her self-image can be discounted, and she will doubtless react when she feels threatened or affronted. However, much of her current activity revolves round lowering the temperature in some parts of the world, including her relationships on the Indian subcontinent. More importantly, she is attempting to use her regional and global influence to address the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear activities, and Chinese diplomacy has been pivotal in getting talks under way. I look forward to a 21st century marked by increased co-operation and closer friendship with China and by the extension of current economic and political reforms. There can be no doubt that China will be a major global power in the 21st century.

A modern, well educated younger generation, many thousands of whose members are being educated in this country's universities, will undoubtedly want greater political plurality. China continues to debate reform and how to adapt to the changes wrought by economic liberalisation. That is no easy task, but the fact is that political liberalisation must go hand in hand with economic liberalisation. We can be confident that the reform process will grow and will, in time, deliver an increasingly successful, prosperous and internationally engaged China. That prospect is very much to be welcomed.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook)

As hon. Members will know, this is a three-hour debate, but it might be helpful if I point out that we have already exhausted 42 minutes. If I choose to set aside 10 minutes for the winding-up speeches, we will be left with about 125 minutes. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will take account of that when making their contributions and accepting or making interventions.

3.13 pm
Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South)(Lab)

I shall try to be as brief as I can. However, it would be remiss of me not to thank the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) and the Minister for their kind remarks about the all-party group on China; I am delighted to see so many of its members and officers here today. It would also be remiss of me not to say how much I appreciate the fact that the Foreign Office has set aside time to debate this important issue. Members of the all-party group also appreciate the way in which the Minister has kept us, and parliamentarians generally, informed of Chinese matters.

There is always a juncture at which it is appropriate to debate China; indeed, such an occasion seems to recur regularly. This time, we are celebrating 50 years of our trading relationship with the People's Republic. As the Minister said, we also welcome the visit by the Chinese Premier.

Like the Minister, I wholeheartedly welcome the creation of the China taskforce chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister. That was important in itself, but the decision by the Chinese to reciprocate greatly enhances the initiative's potential as a tool for expanding existing spheres of co-operation. Like other members of the all-party group, I await with considerable interest the outcome of deliberations by both taskforces in the coming weeks.

I want to say a few words about the development of the group. It is a large group—one of the largest, I think, in the Palace of Westminster—and our membership has increased by 35 in the past two months alone. The main group now has 155 members, and its Hong Kong committee has, without duplication. 101 members, so we total 256. That makes us a significant group.

We recently receivdd a delegation from our counterpart organisation in China to discuss ways in which we could deepen and strengthen our relationship with the UK-China friendship group in the Chinese Parliament. We have many things in mind. We want to make more regular visits, not necessarily in formal delegations, but as individuals or in small, specialist groups interested in science, technology and other areas. We want to exchange information on a regular basis, to engage in discussions and to make it possible for our members to take lessons in Mandarin.

We want to invite officials from the National People's Congress to London for training and experience, as we did on a former occasion. We may even want to invite members of the Congress individually for such training and experience. In any event, we need to deepen and widen the relationship between us as parliamentary bodies.

We need to visit China regularly because change is a constant there, and we need to keep up to date—and just to touch on a domestic matter, we need money for the purpose. I greatly appreciate the efforts that went into raising the money that comes to us through the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and I know that the Minister was instrumental in securing that, but it is important that we examine the funding of such bodies if they are to contribute positively to our bilateral relationship.

The all-party group's role is important. China's long-term aim is to move towards democratisation, and our role in that process and the development of parliamentary processes with the Chinese is surely valuable. Although we, as the mother of Parliaments, may have something to teach China, let us take account of the fact that it will have something to teach us. It is for that purpose that frank, frequent and robust dialogue at parliamentary level must continue and develop.

Times are changing, and the times when countries could maintain a state of isolation are long gone. Politically, China has more than come in from the cold. It has become a positive force in the international community, seized of the necessity of exploring the problems that unite us, rather than dwelling on those that divide. The new leadership has heralded what I hope will be a period of openness, as the Minister commented. The experience of SARS has brought about change.

We have differences on human rights. That is the issue that attracts most attention from members of the parliamentary group and their constituents. We frequently press our case to the Chinese parliamentary delegations and others, in a forceful manner. It is not a softball game. Human rights are a serious and pressing problem. However, we must be careful to acknowledge the staggering social, political and economic change that China has undergone in the past 30 years, and its overwhelming imperative of stability.

China is on a continuum that will, I believe, take it from economic reform through political reform to social and civil reform. Although that progress is not a straight line, it is our job to assist China, in however modest a way, along it. I share the Minister's enthusiasm for the decision of the National People's Congress to amend the constitution to broadcast the state's respect for and guarantee of human rights. What that will mean in practice remains to be seen.

The current state of social and political rights in China still leaves something to be desired. There is real progress to be made on the ground. Much has been said, and I shall not repeat it here, about the detention of democratic activists, the death penalty, Tibet and Xingjiang, and on the ineffectiveness of megaphone diplomacy.

China is an economic leader in its region not only because it is a massive economy with a massive internal market, but also because of its policies and its new internationalism. It was a bedrock during the last Asian financial crisis. It is now the driver of the regional and wider economy. Products from Japan and its neighbours have triggered growth in other areas of the world.

I was talking last night to a Brazilian diplomat who told me that the Brazilian economy had been sustained in recent times by the export of commodities to China. China is now one of the biggest consumers in the world of copper, tin and zinc; it is a big consumer of coal and rubber; and it is the world's largest consumer of cement. It is the world's second largest importer of oil—a growth in demand that has been instrumental in keeping up the price of oil. It is the factory of the world, accounting for half the world's cameras and photocopiers, a third of the world's air conditioners and a quarter of the world's refrigerators.

The Prime Minister spoke earlier of the Chinese speaking economic language with a fluency and comfort equal to that of any first-world nation. I agree with the Prime Minister and with the Chinese ambassador, Zha Peixin, who last week spoke of his expectation that Chinese and English would be the major languages of business in the years to come. Last year the economy grew by 8.5 per cent. in China, despite the SARS outbreak, and it attracted more direct foreign investment than the United States. It has developed a new, young, middle class, and in 2006 China will be obliged by the WTO to open its financial sector to foreign competition, with all the free, rapid contact with the world that that requires.

It has been said that China represents an economic bubble. The Minister said something about that, as did the hon. Member for West Suffolk, and I think others will too, so I will not. The consensus view seems to be that although reform will be increasingly difficult, growth rates above the mid-point will continue for some years to come.

We are, as the Minister said, facing a big trade deficit with China. I learned long ago, when I was involved in trade diplomacy, to argue the benefits of free trade when the trade balance was in our favour, and the benefits of reciprocity when it was in others. I am arguing for reciprocity in this case because we have a lot of expertise, services and goods that match Chinese needs. I compliment the work of the China-Britain Business Council. which has been the principal vehicle in the UK for the development of business in China; its work is to be encouraged, as is the networking and standing of the 48 Group club, which also plays a major part.

I should also mention the Great Britain-China Centre, which has unparalleled expertise in running exchange projects with Chinese partners working with many different UK organisations. It was chosen by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to be an implementing partner in human rights training for the Chinese police. The work of the Department for International Development is no less important, but the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) may say something about that so I shall leave it to one side. The British Council, as the Minister has said, is to be congratulated, not least in the context of Think UK. The council is instrumental in shaping the image of the UK abroad, and one look at the number of Chinese wishing to study here and experience British culture is testament to the remarkable job that it does in bringing perceptions of the UK up to date.

As China increasingly opens up to the global community, the links and understandings fostered at an early age among students through shared culture and experience can only contribute to a harmonious and empathetic future relationship. A truly successful relationship works both ways, of course, and although it is imperative that we do our utmost to encourage those in China to experience the finest that our education system has to offer, it is important that British students take advantage of the opportunities for study that exist in China. Astronomers at Liverpool John Moores university recently completed the manufacture of the world's largest robotic telescope, ordered by the Chinese Government to develop modern astronomical facilities in China. Nottingham university is to open a campus in Ningbo in partnership with the Chinese education authorities. That will be an exchange of research and expertise between academics and students in China and the UK. Liverpool's universities, which are close to my constituency, are closely engaged with these developments, as are universities across the UK.

I know that you wanted me to be brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I would like to say a bit about Hong Kong. A major aspect of our bilateral relationship is quite properly apportioned to Hong Kong. Economically, the last couple of years have been stormy to say the least. The SARS virus impacted relatively severely and suddenly. However, growth has resumed and property prices have started to rise again.

I want to concentrate on democratisation. It may be thought that that is a matter for China, and not one on which external views should be expressed. However, Britain has a continuing interest in developments in Hong Kong and in the implementation of the joint declaration, so we have an interest in democratisation too.

Colleagues will be aware that the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong is administered by a Chief Executive with the help of a Legislative Council and an Executive Council: LegCo and ExCo. The members of LegCo are elected on varying bases and by various constituencies. Under the Basic Law that has applied since 1997, provision is made for the gradual and orderly progress towards direct election, by universal suffrage, of the Chief Executive from 2007 and the LegCo members from 2008. Although the Chinese leadership is rightly concerned with protecting the stability of the giant nation with its varied, disparate and semi-autonomous regions, areas and provinces, it is also right that obligations vis-à-vis popular sovereignty in Hong Kong be honoured. That is not just a moral duty; it is a point of political and economic necessity.

To me, "legislative council" and "executive council" are terms that British administrators have traditionally used to describe legislatures in colonial territories. It may be just nomenclature, but to me a legislative council always seems to reflect a colonial concept. In any event, it is surely a form of government that is fundamentally transitory and has built-in obsolescence. It comes with and immediately after the plumed hats regime. Taken as a generic term, legislative councils have a tendency to be conservative bodies, for holding back rather than moving forward.

In Hong Kong, the concept of political appointees as so-called Ministers—the accountability system—seems to me equally transitory. The system seems to be wrongly described and is ultimately doomed to disappear if it has no Government party supporting it. A Government without a Government party lack credibility and strength. An Opposition without a Government party lack focus and cohesion. We need to move on to that sort of concept in Hong Kong.

If the "one nation, two systems" concept for Hong Kong is said to have been based on a template originally produced for Taiwan, how are the Taiwanese to view the matter if there is no progress towards normally understood forms of democratisation in Hong Kong? What the Basic Law does and does not allow may be a matter of debate, but the fact that more than 500,000 people marched in support of a democratic expression of views in Hong Kong suggests that progress on that has something of the imperative about it.

If the Hong Kong economy has improved, I would venture to suggest that that improvement lies in external factors, such as the strength of the Chinese economy and the number of tourists from the mainland coming to Hong Kong. It is not because of the strength of the Government. If, as I believe, Hong Kong will have to plan its strategy as it has not done before, it will require the strength of a Government backed by a Government party. The Chief Executive has announced a review and consultation, and I hope that that, and the work of nongovernmental organisations such as the Civic Exchange, will lead to the earliest possible election by universal suffrage of the Chief Executive and the LegCo.

Finally, I want to say a few words about the Chinese community. The hon. Member for West Suffolk beat me to the draw, but it is worth saying that although in this country Chinese has been virtually synonymous with Cantonese, that is changing. What were known as Chinese restaurants in this country were Cantonese restaurants. However, the people who represent the Chinese community are now from all parts of China, as are the restaurants. The 2001 census enumerated 247,000 people of Chinese ethnic origin in the UK.

Large-scale migration of the Chinese to Britain is fairly recent. At the end of the second world war there were a few thousand Chinese in Britain. The majority of today's Chinese came in the 1950s and '60s largely from Hong Kong, attracted by opportunities in the catering industry in the UK. Although that is the general picture, it is not true in Liverpool. which is close to my constituency and has a community going back many years coming substantially from Shanghai. Later waves include Vietnamese and Chinese coming in the '70s and students from mainland China who have remained in Britain after finishing their courses.

The profile of the Chinese in Britain is one of a successful ethnic minority: small in size, young in age and balanced in gender, and its arrival is one of the most recent on the British scene. The Chinese are well educated: the proportion of those educated to college level and above surpasses that of the white population. They have a low unemployment rate and they are disproportionately represented in professional and skilled occupations. In education and occupation they have outperformed the rest of the populace and present a socio-economic profile reminiscent of the Chinese in the United States. In short, historically, they are an integrated and hard-working community.

Yet in 2001 the tabloid media made the Chinese scapegoats for the foot and mouth epidemic. Restaurants suffered a 40 per cent. drop in takings and racial attacks took place on Chinese in rural areas. In Northern Ireland it is estimated that as many as two out of three members of the Chinese community have been subject to racial abuse. That industrious and otherwise unobtrusive group has been the subject of distorted tabloid media presentation, painted sometimes as illegal immigrants, asylum seekers, long-term stayers, snakeheads, triads and God knows what else. The fact is that they are a highly contributory and a greatly respected part of the community. My friends from the community are currently in the House of Lords, President of the Manchester chamber of commerce, deputy lords lieutenant of their counties and so on. Because of their cultural, economic and family links with the PRC, they are not only a highly valued part of the community, but vital to our bilateral relationship.

China is a colossus of global, political, economic, social and cultural importance. In these times we should do all that we can to help to plot the future course of that great nation. It is our duty to assist it in its navigation and to keep its course smooth in so far as we can. We have much to offer China and it has much to offer us. There is much to hope for in years to come and our bilateral relationship still needs a lot of development, but I look forward to working with hon. Friends, the Minister, his colleagues in the Foreign Office, members of the all-party parliamentary group on China and our friends in the Chinese embassy to maximise the potential of our already strong bilateral relationship.

3.33 pm
Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare) (LD)

I thank the Minister for initiating the debate, and the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman), who is the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group. It is a great pleasure for us to discuss China.

The importance of China is increasingly and rightly recognised for economic reasons and for the important role that it is playing in international diplomacy and affairs. It has suffered in the past from economic deprivation and can therefore bring an informed historical view to the world stage, which uniquely means that it has a leading role in representing third-world countries—something that is dear to my heart and to those of others in the Chamber. Although China is seen as a great power with an increasingly modern economy and a growth rate that many envy, it has that other role to play.

As a member of the all-party parliamentary group on China, I am fortunate to have many opportunities to meet members of the Chinese Government and the Chinese ambassador to this country. Through such contacts, we can learn from one another and open up various avenues. I spoke about the way in which China is a major player on the world stage and has the authority to represent an alternative view, such as that of third-world nations. At a recent meeting at the House, the ambassador legitimately spoke of the need for all peoples to be incorporated in the United Nations in a significant way that is based on regions, and the fact that many countries do not have the strength and power of this nation and, increasingly, of China.

The Liberal Democrats welcome the internationalist approach by which we engage with each other, talk to each other, learn from each other and respect each other. I am sure that many leaders in China will agree that there have been times when our relations have had an impenetrability that was based on circumstances and historical events. That is why our regular and open dialogue with our friends in China, between parliamentarians, our Governments, and increasingly our peoples, are so welcome. There are great problems on the world scene—the growth of terrorist activity is a particular problem—and the fact that the Chinese Government have played a leading role in working with us to find ways of combating terrorism has been very welcome, since all Governments are potentially at risk. Korea is often mentioned whenever the all-party group meets officials. Korea is of great concern to us as well as to China, and I was interested to see that the South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister, Mr. Lee, is currently in China to discuss the nuclear stand-off and other issues in the area. At a recent meeting, the ambassador said how important relations with the EU were. He also pointed out that of all the EU nations, the UK is the leading investor in China.

It is important that we engage with China bilaterally and through the EU. It is therefore encouraging that Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief who visited China after the Madrid bombing, agreed with the Chinese Government that international co-operation was key to combating terrorism—a view with which Liberal Democrats, and, I am sure, many others, would also agree.

Before we conclude our debate on international affairs, I should say that we are all very concerned about the recent Taiwanese presidential election, to which the Minister referred in passing, the resulting uncertainty, and the continuing stalemate between China and Taiwan. We hope that the issue will be resolved, as there is clearly uncertainty about the direction in which the Taiwanese want to go. They may have voted for the status quo, but that remains to be seen. We hope that the improved economic relations between China and Taiwan will increasingly provide their own solution.

I spoke earlier about respect. As we in this world get to know one another better, we can listen to one another and learn from one another. I have the highest respect for the Chinese nation, with its long history and fascinating culture, which I have had the wonderful opportunity to experience first hand on my two visits to China, and in this country through the recent visits by Chinese opera and ballet companies.

I also pay tribute to the importance of China's medicine. Seven or eight years ago, I went to a Chinese medical practitioner when I was feeling very unwell. People will judge whether the results were any good. I must report that, as far as I am concerned, the results were reasonably good. We can learn from Chinese medicine and use our knowledge in the health service. Increasingly, the large pharmaceutical companies are looking to the Chinese experience.

On the subject of human rights, the Minister said that he was addressing several issues. The Liberal Democrat approach could be seen as interfering, and it is accepted that we do have a different historical perspective, but we are candid friends and should be able to speak as we find. I note that our Prime Minister recently spoke about our interest in an ongoing dialogue with China over human rights issues", as he frequently has in the past.

On Tibet, the Prime Minister said that he welcomed the recent contact between Chinese authorities and the Dalai Lama. Recently, the Foreign Secretary spoke about EU-Chinese human rights dialogues, which I believe take place twice a year. We will always be interested in those issues, and look to the Minister to continue to address them on our behalf.

Let me make some general points on economic matters, in which I have a particular interest because of my portfolio in the House. Clearly, with China's economy growing at a rate of 8 to 9 per cent., there are tremendous opportunities for the UK. One area of growth is consumer products. We spend an enormous amount on consumer goods such as DIY products to beautify or improve our homes. I could go on at length about the economic progress that we could make in China, but I shall highlight only a few areas of growth in the Chinese economy about which we should be aware.

The hon. Member for Wirral, South spoke about learning Chinese. I tried to learn Mandarin but failed abysmally. I know a bit of French, but my pronunciation is not good. I have no doubt that some hon. Members will be able to pronounce the name of the company Carrefour better than I can. I note that that French retailing giant has just opened its 43rd store in China. I hope that our foremost groups—Marks and Spencer is one among many—take note of that. There is a fantastic market in China, and I hope that we do not allow the French to get ahead of us in it.

In China, 10 million new computers are sold every year. I realise that the market is highly competitive, but I hope that our IT companies make gains there. This country can establish a niche market, as we have a great deal of expertise in innovative software. Progress could be made in that area.

In studying the media in China, I note that there is more than one television organisation but that CCTV—China Central Television—has a significant presence. There are two aspects to using the media to get over our message. The Minister can use the news reports of television companies such as that one to explain what Britain stands for—they are a tremendous resource. Some fantastic television programmes are made in this country, many of which could perhaps be sold to China. Publicity is important.

There are many types of businesses—banking, financial services, manufacturing—through which we can co-operate in many ways. Car ownership among the Chinese public is increasing greatly. There are problems in exporting cars, but there are many related products. I hope that the Minister will continue to ensure that British companies become acquainted with the opportunities in China. I know that he will do that, because I have engaged in several conversations with him on the matter.

The all-party group has frequently been told by the ambassador and others about the many Chinese students—currently 60,000—who come to this country. That is an important initiative. The Minister may or may not recall that I have made the point before that we should engage with students who come to this country from China as much as possible and give them opportunities to meet our people. The all-party group cannot do much, but I hope that the Government will support universities—I am not sure about funding—in encouraging local communities to meet the students and vice versa. Education is vital for everything in life, not least in understanding one another's countries. It is encouraging to learn that our universities propose to have campuses in China. When I was last in China I managed to twin three schools from my constituency with three schools in Beijing. That is part of the process of trying to relate to one another more closely.

We could talk endlessly about China, but I shall not. With these few words about our relationship, open dialogue, the economy, education and opening up relations with the Chinese people as well as with the Chinese Government, I end by saying again how welcome this debate is. It is a step in the right direction of building understanding in this country about what China represents for us and for the world. I congratulate the Minister and the chairman of the all-party group on China on promoting this debate.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. By my calculations we have about 93 minutes available and there appear to be seven hon. Members seeking to catch my eye. I offer that as a gentle reminder.

3.46 pm
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I reiterate the expressions of appreciation that other hon. Members have made to the Minister and to the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman). From the point of view of balance, I should like to make it well understood that not only does the all-party group on China do good work, but so do the all-party groups on Tibet, of which I have the honour of being chairman, and on Taiwan. We must keep our debate on China in that wider perspective. That I undertake briefly to do.

We are all pleased about the prospect of a visit to the United Kingdom by the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao. I gather that that is likely to take place in early May, although the Minister has promised us clarification. When Wen Jiabao comes, I am sure that he will understand that the British people have warm sentiments towards the People's Republic of China. The Government understandably regard China as a strategic force in the world and a power with which they must engage constructively. British business understands clearly the potential in the Chinese market. At the same time, the British people, who are lovers of democracy and freedom, are profoundly concerned by the lack of progress on human rights in the People's Republic. The failure, as yet, to embrace true multi-party democracy, the suppression of religion, and judicial practices that leave much to be desired all rightly cause anxiety. I hope that Her Majesty's Government can raise those anxieties face to face with the Chinese Premier when he arrives. It is quite appropriate that, as friends, we should be candid and not allow that opportunity to pass us by.

Mr. Drew

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of religious freedom, because, as a committed Christian, I am interested in the rise of the Christian Church in China. The Chinese Government have done everything that they can to forestall that advance, including putting many people in prison and restricting the development of the Church. Is that not something that the British Government should take up formally?

Mr. Wilkinson

Indeed. The hon. Gentleman puts the matter eloquently. As people of a democracy, we believe in the right of people to exercise their religious faith, whatever it may be. We are also adamant that the people of Tibet are perfectly entitled to express their religious faith in the Buddhist tradition and that, for example, the Falun Gong movement should be permitted in the PRC. We hold such fundamental freedoms dear, not only in this country but in Europe as a whole.

We also look forward most earnestly to the visit by His Holiness the Dalai Lama from 27 May to 3 June. On a day when the Prime Minister is due to meet Colonel Gaddafi, it is sad to reflect that there seems to be no time in his schedule to meet the Dalai Lama. Colonel Gaddafi's background is one of violence, but he appears to be eschewing a violent path, for which we are all most grateful. The Dalai Lama has resolutely and consistently pursued the path of peace since he had to leave his homeland.

This year sees the 45th anniversary of the brutal suppression of moves by the people of Tibet towards self-determination and freedom from the PRC. It is noteworthy that His Holiness has consistently pursued the path of peace, even despite that atrocity, which caused a mass emigration from Tibet into northern India and elsewhere. We are supposed to have an ethical foreign policy, and we should warmly welcome a leader such as the Dalai Lama at a time when international terrorism and the pursuit of political objectives by violent means are all too prevalent. I hope that Her Majesty's Ministers, if not the Prime Minister, will give him that warm welcome.

I should make another point about the use of peaceful as against violent means. The PRC is now a formidable economic power, which is growing at the rate of 9 per cent. per annum and sucking in vast amounts of overseas capital. It is perhaps keeping the value of its currency artificially low by means of the link to the dollar, and it can therefore flood world markets with cheap goods, building itself an ever stronger position. We would like that determination to pursue growth and prosperity to be focused entirely domestically, on ameliorating living standards, rather than on the acquisition of armaments.

I cannot, therefore, comprehend why the European Union, at the behest of the Federal Republic of Germany and the French Republic, in particular, should be reviewing arms sales to the PRC. In July last year, the annual report to the United States Congress on the PRC's military power made some interesting observations. It claimed that China had more short-range ballistic missiles—about 450—than previously thought and that it was expected to increase the number by more than 75 per year for an unspecified period. The estimated annual rate of accumulation was previously thought to be about 50 missiles per year. The sophistication and accuracy of Chinese missiles has improved, with the People's Liberation Army developing longer range models of the CSS-6 with ranges of up to 3,000 km, and therefore capable of reaching Okinawa. The PRC is growing and sucking in foreign capital. As a result of its export drive, it is able to claim an ever bigger share of world markets. At the same time, however, it is pursuing a policy of modernising its armed forces. Although it is somewhat reducing manpower, it is also increasing the sophistication of its offensive capabilities. That comes at a time when its relationship with Taiwan is not easy. Taiwan is, as we see from its latest elections, an entirely democratic political entity. It has no aspirations to flex military muscles; it wants only to have a good relationship with its Chinese friends on the mainland and to allow its people to express their view of how their political destiny should be settled.

It is important to have a balanced policy on China and to seek every opportunity to maximise our trade without relinquishing our principled stand on human rights, and without diminishing our commitment to an arms sales policy whereby we sell armaments only to those countries that do not oppress their own people or pursue policies at home that violate human rights.

I ask the Government to use this and any other opportunity that arises to persuade the Government of the PRC to exercise clemency for Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche, who on 7 April 2004 will face the second anniversary of his arrest. You will remember, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that he was sentenced to death, with a two-year suspension, for allegedly plotting to split the country and cause explosions. His case was raised most recently by the European Union on 4 February 2004 when Chinese officials claimed that he was in good health. We were pleased to hear that, but we were anxious because the two-year suspension of his death sentence dates from his conviction in December 2002. I hope that the authorities of the People's Republic will, as evidence of their good will and preparedness to receive representations on human rights and humanitarian issues, exercise clemency and receive any further envoys from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It has received two delegations from members of the Dalai Lama's Cabinet in north India, which is all to the good, but we want the process of engagement and dialogue to intensify. That is our hope and I am sure that the Government will take every opportunity to intensify that dialogue.

3.57 pm
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 made 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 not only than any other nation, but than 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 Xingjiang 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 single out one person in a country that is so populous, but it is important because this is a symbolic case.

Jampel Changchub, a monk who lived in the Drepung monastery near Lhasa, 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 Xingjiang. 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 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 he 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 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 benchmark ing, 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 listing 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.

4.7 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con)

I am sure that there are human rights concerns, but before the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) turns them into black and white issues, I suggest that he goes to the Library and gets out an excellent book called "Just Law" that has recently been published by Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws. He might like to reflect on the incursions into human rights that are occurring in this country; they are serious matters. For example, we have seen the first occasion of ouster of judicial review, for certain cases, since Magna Carta.

I suggest that matters are not quite as black and white as certain hon. Members would suggest. I commend Helena Kennedy's book to the Minister. It is a good book, and an interesting read. However, that is not really what I wanted to say. I have four brief points to make.

We must do much more, including more to engage positively with China. I am fortunate to be one of the vice-chairmen of the all-party group that is led by the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman). He does an excellent job. As he said, we recently had a visit from the National People's Congress. It was a constructive visit and enabled Members to discuss just such issues as the hon. Member for Hyndburn has raised—Tibet, human rights and others. It was a considerable effort to get that meeting established.

This week, in the all-party Whip, the opportunity is advertised for hon. Members to go to the United States as part of the all-party group on America. That is an excellent all-party group. Last year I was fortunate to go to Washington as a member of the group. The delegation was led by a Cabinet Minister, supported by the then shadow Chancellor, who is now Leader of the Opposition. We met many members of the Congress and the Senate. That group has been funded by the Foreign Office for decades.

If we are to engage more meaningfully with China and members of the National People's Congress, we in the House must be consistent in that dialogue. We cannot just dip in and dip out, and have a dialogue one year, then pass on it for a couple of years. Given China's increasing importance in the world, I suggest to the Minister that, if we are to be serious about our dialogue with China, the House needs to improve the contact that we have with members of the National People's Congress.

That will require the Foreign Office to make some financial commitment to the all-party China group. Of course we can—and do—get a certain amount of money through sponsorship from the business community. However, I think that it sets an unhappy precedent if all-party groups in the House, particularly all-party country-related groups, have to rely increasingly on sponsorship from the business community to enable us to carry out our work effectively. The funding is not necessarily for Members to go to China, it is so that we can welcome members of the National People's Congress here and return to them the hospitality that they have given to us.

The Minister mentioned that there were concerns in China about the perceptions of the UK that were held there. I think that we can also be concerned about the perceptions in the UK of China. I conducted a survey a while ago. No school in the state system teaches Mandarin. Fifty schools in the private sector teach it up to GCSE. Level. My daughter was fortunate enough to be able to learn Mandarin up to GCSE level and she is now in Beijing teaching English. I was impressed that the first thing that she did was to acquire a Chinese mobile telephone. That generation cannot seem to live without a mobile telephone clasped to their ear. If we are to engage, develop and thicken a relationship with China, we need to examine how to promote and improve—really, to start—the teaching of Mandarin in this country. We cannot expect to understand Chinese people and their culture if we are entirely dependent on them speaking English.

Likewise, I suggest that we need to do much more with trade partners and to support the China-Britain Business Council in helping UK companies prepare for the Chinese markets. Sometimes there is a perception that, simply because the Chinese market is huge, a few of us should go there on a plane and find customers.The Economist had an interesting survey on China a couple of weeks ago, where it flagged up the considerable difficulties that can face companies. Foreigners tend to underestimate the eccentric nature of China's business environment. Perhaps it is not so much eccentric as different. I am fortunate enough to be invited to meetings of the 48 Group club, which gives awards for the exporter of the year to China. When I talk to the members, I am very often struck by the fact that it is a matter of luck that they happen to have found an appropriate niche. If we are to take advantage of the Chinese market and build up Chinese trading partnerships, I suspect that an enormous amount more needs to be done to prepare small and medium-sized companies in this country for the opportunities and the difficulties in China.

In other words, we need engage a lot more as parliamentarians, in our schools in learning more about Chinese culture and language and in business and regional business forums, such as the larger chambers of commerce, in trying to understand what makes China tick. I think that we need to up our game in those areas.

Finally, as Chair of the Select Committee on International Development, I would not wish to make a contribution without paying tribute to DFID for the work that it is doing in China. I know that many other Members want to speak in this debate, so I will not spell this out in detail, but it is important to remember that about a quarter of China's rural population live on less than $1 per day. They constitute about 20 per cent. of the world's total poor.

If we are to meet the millennium development goals, we and China must work in partnership to ensure that poverty in China is alleviated, as in other parts of the world. China is actually making significant strides with that, but it is important work and it would be remiss if tribute were not paid to DFID officials for the work that they are doing in poverty reduction and tackling HIV/ AIDS. It is estimated that about 12 million Chinese will have HIV/AIDS by 2020, so it is a significant problem.

I say to the Minister: great debate, fantastic that it is in Government time, but where is the chequebook? The treasurer of the all-party parliamentary group on China will be grateful for a cheque. If we have the resources, we as parliamentarians will do a great deal more to deepen and thicken relations with China. Can we please have encouragement from the Department for Education and Skills to promote Mandarin in schools and colleges? Can we also have some encouragement from the Department of Trade and Industry and Trade Partners UK to help UK companies understand more about Chinese culture so that we can make much greater and longer-lasting trade relationships with China?

4.16 pm
Mr. Michael Trend (Windsor) (Con)

I, too, would like to thank the Minister for providing the opportunity for this important debate. I begin by quoting from a statement made two weeks ago: China is undergoing a process of deep change. In order to effect this change smoothly and without chaos and violence I believe it is essential that there be more openness and greater freedom of information and proper awareness among the general public. We should seek truth from facts— facts that are not falsified. Without this China cannot hope to achieve genuine stability. How can there be stability if things must be hidden and people are not able to speak out their true feelings? China's emergence as a regional and global power is also accompanied by concerns, suspicion and fears about her power. Hosting the Olympic Games and World Exposition will not help to dispel these concerns. Unless Beijing addresses the lack of basic civil and political rights and freedoms of its citizens, especially with regard to minorities, China will continue to face difficulties in reassuring the world that she is a peaceful, responsible, constructive and forward-looking power. That seems to be a commendable and astute analysis of China's current position, and it is very helpful to our debate. The author of those words is the Dalai Lama, speaking in characteristically open and generous terms —especially when one considers how the Chinese have treated him and his long-suffering people for more than half a century.

I welcome the opportunity to debate China's current position. I recognise the current enormous importance of China and the need for constructive dialogue. We have heard good examples of the work done by the all-party group, and its work should be commended. Like many in this House, including my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) and the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope), and many people in the country, however, I see the debate on China really as an opportunity to raise the subject of Tibet. Nobody should be surprised by that, and China in particular should not be surprised. It brings the situation on its own head.

All over the world there are countless people who will never be prepared to treat China on the terms it wishes until there is a proper resolution of the many human rights issues that exist there for its minorities and religious groups, and particularly until the question of Tibet is settled.

The British Government should not be surprised by the strength and depth of feeling about Tibet in this country either. That is partly because our country has had a particular historical relationship with Tibet, which meant, for a while, that we were responsible for that country and its future. However, it is also because of the widespread admiration in our country for the tormented people of Tibet and especially their leader, the Dalai Lama. China has an unenviable recent history of dealings with Tibet. The invasion of Tibet was met throughout the civilised world with disgust, and a series of resolutions at the United Nations condemned Chinese human rights abuses in Tibet and called on China to respect the fundamental freedoms of the Tibetan people, including their right to self-determination. China has done none of those things.

In preparing for the debate I thought it might be of benefit to the House if I went over the historical material documenting the relations of the British and Chinese Governments with Tibet. I found, however, that the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) had already done so in an excellent Adjournment debate on 19 March 1999. He showed that Britain has regarded Tibet as a de facto independent state for years. He also asked the question that UK parliamentarians should ask: what is the British Government's current view of Tibet's status as a nation? Sadly, he received the standard answer, which successive Governments have used for many years: the Government regard Tibet as autonomous, while recognising the special position of China there."—[Official Report, 19 March 1999; Vol. 327, c. 1463.] What is so special about that "special position"? The word "special" can mean whatever one wants, which is why it is so beloved of the advertising industry. It means anything and nothing, and the Government should not hide beneath such weak and woolly language. Can the Minister explain what that "special position" is? What does it involve? What does it mean?

I will tell the Minister what is so special—in the real sense—about the Dalai Lama and Tibet. The Dalai Lama represents a country that has undergone the kind of suffering that has resulted in the violent uprising of the oppressed in other parts of the world, but does he look to us for weapons? No, he asks only for our good offices. Does he follow a policy of hatred and recrimination? No, he asks only to be allowed to negotiate in a peaceful and purposeful manner. The Dalai Lama is a rare phenomenon on the world stage: a true national leader who practises what other world leaders only preach—that progress should be made through peaceful negotiation rather than violent action. We are always being told that violence should not be rewarded, yet there are countless examples to the contrary.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood, I was struck by the fact that while we are here debating China, the Prime Minister is in Libya talking to President Gaddafi. I understand why he thinks that progress can best be made through dialogue with the Libyan leader, as opening doors must be better than keeping them closed, but surely there is a problem when the British Prime Minister makes an effort—many would say a commendable effort—to engage with former perpetrators of violence, but is not ready to talk to those who suffer from violence. It is good to reach out a cautious hand to those who have renounced violence, but should not we also stretch out our hands to those who have turned their faces away from violence from the start? That approach would make an important point in the war against terrorism.

I ask the Minister to consider how Tibetans will interpret the Prime Minister's visit to Libya, bearing it in mind that many Members have told us that the Prime Minister will not open his door to the Dalai Lama on his forthcoming visit to the UK at the end of May. I find it hard to believe that the Prime Minister simply will not have the time. Of course he should see the Dalai Lama, both as a point of principle and, especially, because of the expected visit of the Chinese Premier at around the same time.

Last July, I made a speech in the House in which I politely encouraged the Prime Minister to use his good offices on behalf of Tibet during a trip that he was about to make which included top-level meetings in China. I later wrote to him, asking whether he had been able to raise the subject of Tibet during his meetings in China and, if so, what response he had got. He replied that he had raised human rights with the Chinese Premier, and underlined our interest in an ongoing dialogue with China on human rights issues. He said that he had also discussed Tibet with the Chinese leadership and welcomed recent contact between the Chinese authorities and representatives of the Dalai Lama.

Well, that is something, but not much, although another opportunity will arise with the Chinese Premier's forthcoming visit. As my earlier polite approach did not seem to get very far, I believe that we should all increase the pressure on the Chinese, and on our Government. The Prime Minister should raise a number of matters when he sees the Chinese Premier, such as the talks between the Chinese and the Dalai Lama's representatives, which the Chinese have stalled. Those talks need to go ahead as soon as possible, without ridiculous preconditions on the Chinese side.

The Prime Minister should also—here I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood said—raise the position of the imprisoned Buddhist leader Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche. Why are the UK Government merely expressing concern about that case, rather than calling for it to be reopened with independent legal representation of Tenzin Deleg's choice, and for that trial to be held in the presence of international observers? That is what we routinely demanded during the show trials in the former Soviet Union, of which this case reminds us so powerfully.

There are many other cases of manifest injustice in Tibet—we heard one from the hon. Member for Hyndburn—that should be raised. Having done that, the Prime Minister should feel able to report to us that he has done so not just in general phrases but with some specific points that he raised and the responses that he received. In short, the Government should turn up the pressure and do so publicly. Surely we can do that without endangering our own national interests?

After all, we have many things that the Chinese are interested in and want. An opportunity was given to us by the review of the EU arms embargo on China which we have heard about. I was encouraged to hear the Minister say that he was considering joining the Americans in their current resolution at the Office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights in Geneva criticising Beijing's human rights record. The Chinese have got very upset about this. I can imagine some people at the Foreign Office saying, "No, no, no. That just goes to show that we shouldn't get involved in these things." I take the opposite view. To me it shows that we can get things moving with the Chinese only when we stand up for our principles. I also think, as others have said, that we should press the EU to think again about the appointment of a special representative on Tibetan issues.

The mistake in dealing with China is to believe, as some do, that the best place to be is somewhere just below the parapet. We have tried delicate diplomacy on human rights, but the Chinese interpret that as weakness. We did not deal with the former Soviet Union in this way: we did not go around apologising for bringing difficult matters up. We stuck to our guns and exposed where the real weaknesses lay.

To be frank, British Governments have largely kept their eyes shut on the question of China and human rights for a generation. During that time, the people of Tibet have been murdered, imprisoned and abused, and their religion, customs and culture have been fiercely attacked. Lhasa has been turned into a Chinese city and enormous ecological damage has been done to parts of the Tibetan landscape. Those are the fruits of keeping one's head below the parapet. China always interprets weak words as a cover for weak intentions. We should push our Government harder to be firmer and more precise about what they are doing.

I would like to conclude where I began, with the Dalai Lama's recent statement. He adds: The Tibetan issue represents both a challenge and an opportunity for a maturing China to act as an emerging global player with vision and values of openness, freedom, justice and truth. A constructive and flexible approach to the issue of Tibet will go a long way in creating a political climate of trust, confidence and openness, both domestically and internationally. A peaceful resolution of the Tibetan issue will have wide-ranging positive impacts on China's transition and transformation into a modern, open and free society. There is now a window of opportunity for the Chinese leadership to act with courage and farsightedness in resolving the Tibetan issue once and for all. I say that we should do more for the Tibetan people and do it openly. Only in that way will progress be made. I look to our Government to follow the calm and measured approach of the Dalai Lama, and to act with greater courage and determination.

4.29 pm
Ian Stewart (Eccles) (Lab)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. First, I wish to congratulate the Minister and acknowledge his role. He is genuinely interested in the subject of China. He has worked closely with the all-party group on China and has helped to improve the circumstances that some of my colleagues have addressed today, and I hope that he continues to do that. He has been put under pressure by my colleagues, and perhaps he will act on some of the points that they raised.

It would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman). I claim the credit for engineering his election to the chair when we founded the all-party group, because I knew that he had deep experience of China and that, like my colleagues and me, he is a friend of the Chinese people. So I congratulate my hon. Friend, who is a true China hand.

I am one of the vice-chairmen of the all-party group and I have visited China twice under its auspices. My hon. Friend and I represent constituencies in the north- west, which has links with China and has seen vibrant Chinese communities develop, particularly in Manchester and Liverpool.

I commend the work of Mr. Lee Kai Hung and the north-west Chinese council, which has taken several significant steps to encourage the active involvement of Chinese communities in civic life in the north-west. I also commend the council for its work in setting up an online welfare network for Chinese students in Britain—a model that could be transferred to students of other nationalities in this country.

This is an omnibus debate, so I want to comment briefly on several issues. My personal interest in China developed not from 20th century politics or economics, but from a lifelong fascination with Chinese history, culture, philosophy, martial arts and traditional Chinese medicine. China is an enormous country that is in transition from a command economy to what it calls a socialist market economy, which resonates with me. Today's debate has been balanced. Concerns have been expressed, but there has also been praise. Most importantly, there has also been some understanding. Key achievements of the all-party group under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend have been to raise awareness and to increase understanding among all hon. Members of the real challenges that China faces.

China is a massive country that is moving into a modern world, and those of us who have been lucky enough to visit it have seen Shanghai and Beijing on the well developed east coast, which without doubt matches anywhere in the developed world. As the group's visits progress, however, the chairman has been increasingly keen to see the group members visit the centre of China and, hopefully, the west, because there is in one country a modern and well developed east coast, a centre that is some 50 years or so behind that, and a western area that is almost mediaeval. Any Government who are trying to develop the interests of the whole country and all its people face many challenges.

There is a downside to China moving to a market economy like ours, not the least being unemployment. Chinese people under the old system had employment, housing and health care that may not have been to western standards but was at least secure. They now face unemployment without a welfare safety net of the sort that we have in the west. This is one of the areas in which the partnership between the UK and China is having really positive effects. My colleagues have highlighted today the fact that this is a two-way process, but I hope that China can embrace some of the benefits of western experience so that it can design systems for its people without making some of the mistakes that were made in the past. We, in turn, will learn from the Chinese experience, and I hope that that will be of benefit.

Chinese medicine is a unique medical system, which has made a significant contribution to health care in China and the UK, and I hope that you will allow me to comment on practice in this country, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Extensive though the Minister's talents are, I realise that he is not responsible for this aspect of Government policy, but it relates to the work that almost all the Departments that have been mentioned are doing on health, education, and trade and industry. As far as we know, the introduction of traditional Chinese medicine into Europe dates back to about the 17th century. In the UK, interest in traditional Chinese medicine, and in acupuncture in particular, has largely developed since the 1970s. I am sure that Chinese medicine will become even more popular, and as it does, we will need to regulate it to ensure that it is safe and effective for patients.

I have established links with the Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine, which is campaigning for the introduction of a suitable regulatory framework. I had a meeting about the issue with the association and the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson). I should also tell hon. Members that the Shi Zen organisation of Manchester is organising an international conference on traditional Chinese medicine that will take place in Manchester from 9 to 11 June and will be attended by Ministers.

We in the north-west have a proud record of promoting trade and business co-operation with China, as well as cultural, educational and sporting exchanges. That helps to create trust and mutual understanding between the citizens of our two countries. The British Council in Manchester does invaluable work to promote education, science and technology in China, as well as our expertise on crucial issues such as the environment, which is a high priority in the UK and China. We also have strong links with China's consulate general, which is in Manchester.

China's entry into the World Trade Organisation in December 2001 further opened up the market for foreign investment and two-way trade, as well as creating a competitive environment from which British and Chinese companies can benefit. The recent creation of an international trade centre at Chamber Business Enterprises in Manchester is an important step towards raising the profile of the whole north-west. A variety of services is on offer to small and medium-sized businesses at the special China trade unit, which is an integral part of the centre.

In our joint desire to promote economic co-operation, peace and understanding, there is more to unite us and the Chinese people than to divide us. As has been highlighted, however, China is little studied in our schools. I fully appreciate the pressures on school curriculums, but I hope that Ministers and educationists will include China when they update courses to educate our children for their global future.

It is one of the privileges of membership of an all-party group that Members are sometimes asked to serve on expert bodies on associated subjects. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South and I have been pleased to serve for several years now on the executive of the Great Britain-China Centre. I must admit that our attendance record would not merit a single star rating, but that is because of the nature of business in the House. Nevertheless, we try to keep up with the centre's work. It is developing and running high-quality exchanges on a number of issues, including criminal justice, human rights, judicial training, constitutional government and the rule of law.

The centre's work on trade union rights are a particular interest of mine. As you and other colleagues know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am a lifelong trade union activist. My interest in international work through my trade union, the Transport and General Workers Union, started when I was about 18. We have heard today of the awesome growth of the Chinese economy. I believe that it was about 9 per cent. last year and is predicted to be 7 per cent. this year. Such growth will bring the greatest benefit for Chinese workers if they are represented by effective, free and independent trade unions that can deal with the issues that the Chinese workers identify as important, such as excessive working hours, inadequate holidays and the need for better health and safety provision. It is clear that Chinese workers are no different from workers the world over; they have the same concerns.

The Great Britain-China Centre works with the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, which is not an independent body, but is currently the main game in town. The body has positive attributes on which we can build. That is not to say that I do not understand workers seeking independent forms of representation, such as we have in the UK, but as outsiders we must aim to promote reform through all the channels open to us.

Chinese trade unions want training and skills so that they can do the best for their members in terms of collective bargaining and representation, and in seeking legislative reform. We have a wealth of UK expertise on this matter. I am pleased that the ACFTU is expanding its international links. The Great Britain-China Centre has helped the ACFTU to develop training materials and has funding to set up and run the first labour tribunal in China to hear labour disputes. We should encourage the ACFTU to democratise and develop its independence, and we should also work with, and encourage the growth and development of, any new free, independent and democratic trade union.

The centre hopes to expand in another area dear to my heart: the promotion of civil society and citizenship. The assessment is that the centre, with its non-official status, is well placed to engage with Chinese organisations seeking to promote civil society. We all too often forget, because we are a developed democracy and society, about the democratising effect that free, independent and democratic trade unions, working with private employers, can have in a society, and we should applaud that effect.

Within any democratic civil society we expect respect for human rights, religious tolerance and toleration of diversity. I must raise two issues that I hope that the Chinese Government will act on. First, there is the issue of the Falun Gong, an organisation that was declared illegal by Chinese authorities in 1999. A constituent of mine, Mr. Terence Shanahan, is an active member of the Falun Gong UK. He is a powerful advocate for the stated Falun Gong ideals of truthfulness, compassion and forbearance. I take no view on the nature of Falun Gong, but I am concerned about repeated reports of human rights abuses against its followers. In turn, I make no judgment about the obvious concerns that the People's Republic has about the organisation. However, I urge the People's Republic to exercise tolerance in relation to organisations such as Falun Gong. Any organisation should quite properly be established within the rule of law and any abuse by members of an organisation would be punishable within that rule of law. The second issue that I should like to raise is Tibet, albeit briefly, as other hon. Members have talked about it at length. There has been some formal contact between the Chinese authorities and the representatives of the Dalai Lama. I welcome that and I hope that the time has come for sustained negotiations on Tibet without preconditions. There are hopes that the Prime Minister will be able to meet the Dalai Lama when he visits the UK in a few months. The Dalai Lama is a political and spiritual leader who seeks to resolve conflict through dialogue. That is something on which we can all reflect in these turbulent times. I urge the Prime Minister to raise the issue of Tibet with the Chinese Premier, when he, too, visits the UK this year. I hope that the Prime Minister will offer the Chinese Premier any assistance that the UK can give to help to resolve the issue.

When the Chinese Premier is here, I am sure that the Prime Minister will want to congratulate China on the important role that it has played in significantly easing tensions between Pakistan and India. For many years China has been seen to have close ties with Pakistan. However, in recent times it has sought co-operation with India in establishing joint infrastructure projects and focusing on energy and water resources and cooperation in science, technology and other areas. China is well placed to assist dialogue when relationships are strained and to point out the benefits of mutual cooperation, while acknowledging that differences need to be resolved, and it should be congratulated on its work towards world peace.

China is a major world player and has taken its place at the world table. It has exercised a mature and responsible attitude in its financial policies, which are designed to maintain economic stability in the south-east Asian region. When the south-east Asian crisis was abroad, China could have devalued its currency, but that would have had a destabilising effect in the regional and world economy. China chose not to do that and acted responsibly, and we should acknowledge that.

China is clearly developing a more open and transparent approach in its relations with other countries. That approach may not yet meet the standards that we expect in the west, but we should acknowledge that China is developing and improving. We should hold hands with our Chinese friends, work through our respective concerns and develop a positive partnership for the benefit of both the Chinese and the British people.

4.48 pm
Mr. Rammell

It is a common occurrence to start a ministerial summing up by saying that we have had a well informed debate, which is sometimes the case and sometimes not. I genuinely believe that this debate has been well informed. The level of knowledge of, commitment to and interest in Chinese affairs has been apparent during this short debate, which, as a number of hon. Members said, the Government initiated. We were pleased to do that.

The hon. Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend)

started by asking for the date of the Chinese Premier's visit to this country. No announcement has been made, but one will be made in due course. I hope that that is the least full answer that I shall give to the various points that have been raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) had to leave, but not before raising his concern about the one-child policy in China. The Government condemn coercive family planning programmes, wherever they occur. Through the Department for International Development, we have funded the UN family development programme, which works closely on the ground with the Chinese authorities to help turn coercive policies into policies of real choice. There has been significant cross-party concern about the issue. In 2002, a cross-party group of three Members undertook a visit to China to see at first hand the work that was being done. According to their reports, they came back much reassured by what they had seen. The then Secretary of State for International Development raised the issue with her counterpart in 2002, and the Chinese authorities gave assurances that China was working towards relaxing the one-child policy. We welcome that.

Tibet was discussed by several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson). I pay tribute to the work that he and the all-party group on Tibet do on the issue. There are still particular concerns about the situation in Tibet, and the British Government are deeply worried about reports of arbitrary detention, torture and the re-education of monks and nuns. It is certainly not the case that we have ignored Tibet. Indeed, a few months ago I had a detailed discussion with the hon. Gentleman and his all-party group about it. We raise the matter, including specific individual cases, at every suitable opportunity right up to the highest level, and have urged, and will continue urge, the Chinese authorities to continue negotiations with representatives of the Dalai Lama to find a lasting solution that is acceptable to the people of Tibet.

The hon. Member for Windsor asked about the Government's view of the status of Tibet. He asked the question and gave the answer, but for the record I shall repeat it. He said that successive British Governments have regarded Tibet as autonomous, while recognising the special position of the Chinese authorities. That continues to be the Government's view. We believe that the Tibetans should have a greater say in the running of affairs in Tibet and that the best way to achieve that is through dialogue without preconditions between the Chinese Government and the Dalai Lama. That is what we have urged and will continue to urge publicly and privately.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) began his contribution by referring to the all-party group. I was aware of its considerable work and influence, but I did not appreciate that 256 MPs were members of it. That underlines the significant depth of interest in the issue throughout parties in the House.

My hon. Friend also obliquely raised an issue that other hon. Members followed up more succinctly and assertively about funding for all-party visits. It is a matter of real concern, and not easy to resolve. The Treasury certainly has a view about funding all-party visits from departmental programmes. Political considerations must also be taken into account. I ask gently whether it is really appropriate and whether we really want to advocate that the Government of the day should have an influential say on which all-party groups will be funded for which purposes in which particular countries.

Ian Stewart


Mr. Wilkinson


Mr. Rammell

Clearly, I have started something that I may regret. I shall take some interventions.

Mr. Wilkinson

I thank the Minister for his approachability and willingness to listen on many issues relating to his area of responsibility, including Tibet. I personally welcome his view about the proposed funding by the Executive branch of the activities of particular all-party country groups. I treasure very much the independence of parliamentary groups per se as representatives of the legislative branch.

Mr. Rammell

I welcome that comment and understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. In a sense, that was my point, but a concern has been expressed and all of us in the Government and across parties in the House need to think about how we respond to it.

Ian Stewart

I, too, would defend the independence of the groups, but we also want the dosh. On a more serious note, the Minister alluded to political considerations—not least, perhaps, the views expressed by the media about Members enjoying junkets. How could anybody, listening to the depth and importance of the subjects raised in the debate and hearing how UK politicians interface with their counterparts in a country such as China, fail to see that it is genuine and necessary work?

Mr. Rammell

My hon. Friend makes an exceedingly good point. The media's characterisation of the work of Members in that regard and in many others is so wide of the mark that it is not true. We have all contributed to the current state of apathy—I can put it no stronger than that—over the conduct of government and politics in this country. However, media misrepresentation of the work and the role of Members does not help at all. The point about funding has been made and we will undoubtedly return to it.

The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Brian Cotter) stated that he was pleased to have benefited from Chinese medicine. The matter was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart). I am not medically qualified but my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) is—or at least I think she is. She is no longer present, however, so I will leave my remarks at that, although I am glad that the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare benefited.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles raised the issue of student numbers. The latest figures from the Department for Education and Skills show that there are currently 35,000 students from mainland China in Britain; there are other Chinese students in further education and in schools, about 13,000 university students from Taiwan, and about 10,000 students from Hong Kong. The figures have increased significantly in recent years, which is partly because of the Chinese population's growing interest in this country, and partly because we have driven those numbers as a result of the Prime Minister's initiative.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud raised justifiably significant concerns about freedom of religion. Our serious concerns continue about the treatment of Christians and other religious practitioners in China who are not members of state-sanctioned religious organisations and about the Chinese Government's failure to allow full freedom of religious belief. We continue to take it up in human rights dialogue and at all other appropriate ministerial and official levels.

I have already paid tribute to the work done in the all-party group by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood. He raised several significant human rights concerns, and I reiterate what I said at the start of the debate: we continually raise such issues publicly and privately, and we will continue to do so.

In parliamentary terms, the hon. Gentleman then took a sideswipe at the Prime Minister's visit to Libya today. I genuinely believe that the most serious threat we face is international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. When a country such as Libya has committed itself to remove those weapons, it should be welcomed, and the Prime Minister's visit is part of that approach. The visit is widely understood and supported in all parts of the House, and I hope that that will be true of the media.

The hon. Gentleman also raised an issue about the Dalai Lama's visit this summer. I will be clear: the point is not one of principle; the Prime Minister has met the Dalai Lama before, but he cannot this time because of diary constraints. The Dalai Lama will, however, be met by the Foreign Secretary and other Government figures.

Along with other hon. Members, the hon. Gentleman also raised the case of Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche. We have regularly and persistently raised that case with the Chinese Government, and I have personally raised it in Beijing. We supported the three European Union démarches in February, and in their response to the most recent démarche in February, the Chinese said that the sentence is likely to be commuted to life imprisonment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) is no longer present, but I am grateful for his comments. He raised a number of exceedingly important points. He referred to the case of Jampel Changchub, which we have raised regularly through our own dialogue and while working for clemency. We believe that his sentence has recently been reduced slightly, but I shall continue to liaise on that in correspondence with my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend referred to the EU arms embargo, which is a complicated issue. It is important that we return to the context in which the embargo was first established and the immediate aftermath of the events of Tiananmen square. I repeat what I said at the start of my contribution: the House should be reassured that even if the embargo were lifted, that would emphatically not remove our ability to control arms sales to China. The EU code of conduct, interpreted by the UK Government through the consolidated criteria, will remain in place as the means of controlling arms exports to China. That is important. My hon. Friend raised significant concerns about the use of the judicial death penalty in. China. We are deeply concerned about that and it is one of the main themes of the human rights dialogue. I had been a Minister for only a couple of weeks when I first attended the human rights dialogue, and I spent about 50 minutes discussing the specific issue of the death penalty with my interlocutor. Hon. Members will understand that some of the dialogue takes place through formal processes.

After a long discussion of 50 minutes, my opposite number responded by saying that we must understand that China is at a different stage of development. We oppose the death penalty, but I felt that through that process of engagement it was possible to put our views forward. We received that eventual response, which was not the Chinese Government's initial formal response. That indicates that we can make progress on such issues. I welcome the fact that China has said that abolition of the death penalty is a long-term goal. There is undoubtedly a long way to go—that was reinforced by the figures quoted by my hon. Friend—but we welcome the recent greater openness on statistics and we will continue to press the issue with the Chinese Government, just as we press for abolition of the death penalty throughout the world wherever it occurs.

My hon. Friend also referred to the importance of continuing to review the progress and merits of the human rights dialogue. We most definitely do that. He said specifically that many of the cases that we raise with the Chinese authorities individually are not taken seriously. I believe that the evidence of the progress that we are making points in the opposite direction. In November 2002, we raised 44 individual cases with the Chinese authorities and received a response on 16. In November 2003, we received a response on almost 100 per cent. of cases. That does not mean that we get everything that we ask for, or the response that we want in every case, but it suggests that there is a greater willingness on the part of the Chinese authorities to open up and to discuss the issues.

My hon. Friend rightly, acknowledged that, by and large, non-governmental human rights organisations, whatever criticism they may make of our progress, support and welcome the bi-annual human rights dialogue. They are right, and while we keep the matter under review we shall continue to proceed on that basis.

The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) started by referring to the judicial ouster in the context of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill. I may have misunderstood—I apologise if I did—but I thought that he was trying to compare our human rights record with that of China. If that was his intention, I ask him to reflect on what he said and whether he seriously intended to put that point of view forward. I do not believe that that is sustainable.

Tony Baldry

Hon. Members should be careful not to see everything in black and white and seek to cast other countries as totally black and us as totally white. I commend Helena Kennedy's book to the hon. Gentleman. It shows that there are many grey areas and difficulties that we all face. What might look like a human rights abuse in one country may not be so. I think that we must be careful not to be totally sanctimonious on such matters.

Mr. Rammell

Sanctimoniousness is something that I try to avoid. The reasonable manner in which the hon. Gentleman has now made his point is far more comprehensible. We do not take the view that we have a perfect human rights record. I do not think that any country has such a record. However, I think that the particular concerns with the Chinese Government are ones that we are right to continue to pursue.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of the teaching of Chinese in British schools. Clearly that is a matter for the Department for Education and Skills. I know that the DFES is interested in encouraging links between Chinese and UK schools. That is important. The fact that it is now possible to study Mandarin at GCSE level is welcome. I know that there have been some concerns, which we have considered in Government, about the development and expansion of the teaching of Chinese studies in higher education. In all probability, that is a matter to which we shall return.

The hon. Member for Windsor cut to the quick of the debate by asking the fundamental question: do we get anywhere with the issues that we raise with the Chinese authorities? I will not give a glib answer to that. Engaging with a huge superpower that has the largest population in the world and that will be the second biggest economy in the world in a relatively short period is complicated. I hope that it is reasonable to say that an ongoing judgment must be made about the rhetoric that we use and how that might either help or hinder us in terms of leverage with the Chinese Government. That is the judgment that we constantly have to make throughout the world, and we certainly have to make that judgment with China.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of urging the appointment of a European Union special representative on Tibet. That is something that we have discussed with European Union partners. We honestly do not feel that such an appointment would help at the moment. Part of the rationale is that the US equivalent does not seem to have made any significant difference in that regard. The issue is something that we will continue to consider.

I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles for his kind remarks. I think that his contribution was genuinely well informed—as were many contributions—particularly from a constituency perspective and because of his links with the Chinese community. He also hit on the head one of the key issues in terms of the internal development of China, which is the split between the east, the centre and the west of China. There is a world of difference between those regions, as people who have travelled in the country will know. It is not only east and west, but urban and rural. One of the difficult issues that the Chinese authorities have to handle is the migration that takes place from rural to urban centres. I am reassured to know that the position of the new Chinese leadership marks one of the key changes of orientation and emphasis from that of the previous leadership. That is welcome.

My hon. Friend also raised the issues of his role in the Great Britain-China Centre and of trade unions. I think that the work that the Great Britain-China Centre does in employment law is very positive, particularly the good project that was run on collective bargaining two years ago. It is also a fact that the issue of labour rights and trade union rights featured strongly in the human rights dialogue that we held in November 2002, in which we involved the TUC, ACAS, Unison and others. We will continue to press the Chinese to lift their reservation to article 8.1a of the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights, which concerns the right to join a trade union. We have long campaigned and argued for that in this country. I do not think that we should move away from that view in terms of what we advocate anywhere in the world. My hon. Friend He also raised the issue of adherence to Falun Gong. Like him, I do not take a view on the nature of Falun Gong and nor do the Government; nevertheless we urge that the rights of Falun Gong adherents be respected.

I genuinely believe that we have had a productive, well informed and constructive debate. China is a huge, developing global superpower with which, for the series of reasons that I listed at the beginning— climate change, economic opportunity and world security—we must continue to engage. That does not mean that there are not differences that we will air both publicly and privately. We need to keep working at the relationship. The contributions this afternoon, like the work of the all-party group, will continue to help us in that regard.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes past Five o 'clock.

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