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Volume 474: debated on Tuesday 1 April 2008

Order. Before we start the next debate, there will be some musical chairs. Some furniture in the Public Gallery needs to be moved, and I do not want it to disturb hon. Members while they are speaking. I understand that the hon. Member for Lewes is happy to take interventions during his speech. The Minister, too, is happy for that to happen. However, they must be interventions not speeches.

This is the third debate on Tibet that I have secured in my 11 years as a Member of Parliament. Today I am angrier, sadder and less hopeful than I was on the previous two occasions.

We should remember that the past 50 years has been a terrible time for Tibet. Religion has been denied the people. The basic essence of the Tibetan culture has been denied to the extent that the atheist state of China has taken it upon itself to determine the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. The country has seen appalling human rights abuses, as bad as any in the world, with torture and arbitrary arrest being commonplace.

Tibet has seen a form of apartheid similar to that of South Africa’s, the quality of life available to Tibet’s indigenous population being less than that available to Chinese migrants there. We have also seen the destruction of the Tibetan way of life and architecture. I cannot remember the exact figure but about 6,000 monasteries were destroyed in the cultural revolution. Only 13 were left standing, which gives an idea of the scale of devastation visited upon Tibet by the Chinese over the past 50 years.

For all of that time, the Dalai Lama has advocated a policy of non-violence, of engagement. He has delivered everything that western countries and the world generally have asked of him, but the Chinese have delivered nothing in response—except for more human rights abuses. The Chinese have signed many bits of paper, but they have not moved forward. Sadly, as we have seen in recent days, they have moved backwards.

When the pressure cooker finally burst after 49 years, we saw demonstrations and slogan shouting—and, yes, probably the odd rock being thrown—but the reaction of the Chinese was completely over the top and unjustifiable in the extreme. More than 100 Tibetans lay dead. As The Sunday Times said in a headline, “Tibet: schoolchildren among dead in Chinese police ‘massacre’”. Hundreds more were injured, but were too frightened of going to hospital in case they were arrested. Hundreds have been arrested, including monks; allegedly some have been flown out of Tibet to mainland China. Based on China’s past performance, Tibetans must have expected that that reaction, which shows how desperate they are but also how extraordinarily brave.

What we take for granted in our country can be criminal offences in Tibet, punishable by long prison sentences and torture. Merely to have a photograph of the Dalai Lama or to shout “Tibet is free”, can land a person in prison for 15 or 20 years. Why is the mighty Chinese state so afraid of one monk?

Is one of the problems the fact that, despite people recognising the severity of the situation in Tibet, maps and the media all describe Tibet as the “Tibet Autonomous Region when in reality it is Chinese occupied Tibet?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is important to get the history right. China continually maintains that what happens in Tibet is an internal matter. It is not an internal matter because Tibet is not part of China. It is an occupied country. I believe that it was independent for hundreds of years, but it was certainly independent between 1911 and 1950. The United Kingdom has a special position in that respect; we were one of the few countries to have that dealt with Tibet during that period, and we can testify to Tibet’s status. Indeed, we signed detailed treaties with Tibet, including the Simla convention.

That may be history, but it is important in establishing how the international community should deal with Tibet. Only Britain can deliver on that. My first request to the Minister is that he should gently correct the historic record, and not allow the Chinese Government continually to say that Tibet has always been part of China. He knows that it has not.

The hon. Gentleman is right about the historical record, but would he concede that the Dalai Lama has made an historic compromise in calling for autonomy rather than independence? That compromise should have been taken up by the Chinese. May I also say that the current repression of Tibetans is worse than what happened in 1989 in Tiananmen square? It is the act of occupiers rather than of people who govern with consent.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Indeed, I am grateful to colleagues from across the political spectrum for being here today; it is not a matter for one Member only but for Parliament. Members of all three parties are concerned about this serious matter. Indeed, as we have seen, people across the world are concerned, including the Indian football captain who refused yesterday to take part in the Indian leg of the Olympic torch relay, and the protesters in Greece when the torch was lit. The Chinese authorities have horrified the entire world with their actions.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. As he knows, we hear a great deal in relation to foreign policy about the advocacy of liberal values and the pursuit of human rights. Does he agree—I am sure that he does—that the Government and political parties have a responsibility to pursue those ends in the face of powerful countries such as China no less than in the face of less powerful ones?

That is true. I am sorry to say that the world’s reaction to the events in Burma—the Burmese Government were heavily criticised, and rightly so—was very different from the muted response to the Chinese crackdown in Tibet. I hope that the leading nations of the world, including those in NATO, the EU and G8, will come together to make it clear to the Chinese authorities that they are not happy—that is an understatement—that they are appalled by the action taken in Tibet.

I digress for a moment on the historical context. The “Today” programme continually refers to protests that happen “outside” Tibet. That is to misunderstand the boundaries of Tibet. Tibet includes areas that the Chinese annexed when setting up the Tibet Autonomous Region, but provinces such as Sichuan are part of Tibet. I am sorry to say that the “Today” programme refuses to correct that, although they have been informed of the error by me and others. That shows the arrogance of the programme; it will not always correct things that are wrong. I hope that the programme will do so in future.

The western world’s muted response is not something of which we can be proud. It contrasts with our condemnation of the Burmese regime. The stifled sounds of western Governments should be much louder and more forceful. They need to be forceful not only for the philosophical or ethical reasons, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, but because time is limited. A railway has been built into Lhasa, and there is a mass migration of Chinese into Lhasa and Tibet generally, so Tibetans are becoming marginalised in their own country. We need a solution for Tibet in the next few years, and the Olympics is the key to putting pressure on the Chinese Government. Unless we take advantage of that, in five or 10 years’ time we will be arguing about an historical situation. Tibet is a wonderful country and it is sad to see it slipping away. I do not intend to let that happen without a fight, and I hope that Members on both sides will join me in that campaign.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the work that he has done for Tibet over many years. He mentioned the Olympics. The Dalai Lama clearly has not asked for a boycott of the games, but there is growing international support for boycotting the opening ceremony. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that would be used as a propaganda weapon by China? Does he agree also that it is quite outrageous that the Chinese ambassador in London should be carrying the Olympic torch—the torch of harmony—through the streets of London? Does he agree that everyone in London should be out on the streets protesting peacefully with the Tibetan flags and other placards about China?

I entirely welcome that intervention and I welcome the contribution that the hon. Lady has made on this and many similar matters. The action taken by the Chinese ambassador on Sunday quite unnecessarily stoked the flames and added insult to injury, and I hope that he will reconsider even at this late stage.

Let me use my last five minutes to suggest a number of actions to the Minister. First, however, I should say that the Government’s view on Tibet over the years has been helpful, because Britain, unlike most countries, has not accepted Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. The Government have a formula that they trot out, and I am sure that we will hear it from the Minister again today. Their position is that successive British Governments have regarded Tibet as autonomous while recognising the special position of the Chinese authorities there, and I expect to hear the Minister repeat those words back to me shortly.

The Government have also raised human rights matters in dialogue with China. I am not, therefore, criticising the Government. However, I urge the Minister to grasp the opportunity presented by the Olympics to move matters forward. Simply cajoling the Chinese authorities does not work, because they do not do anything; in fact, they go backwards. We need a gear change if we are to see action to save Tibet. The continuation of the present policy is not sufficient, and I hope that the Minister will accept that when he responds. Let me therefore suggest some points to the Minister.

First, I have suggested that the British, uniquely, have an opportunity and, indeed, a duty to set out the historical context so that the world will be aware that Tibet operated independently, at least between 1911 and 1950.

Secondly, the Government have rightly urged engagement between the Chinese authorities, the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in exile. That is correct as far as it goes, but I hope that the Minister will recognise that the six rounds of dialogue so far have been a farce because the Chinese authorities have given nothing at all in response to overtures from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. We are bound to conclude that the purpose of such dialogue is not to reach an accommodation, but to spin things out until after the Olympics and perhaps until the Dalai Lama is no longer with us on this planet. I hope that the Minister recognises that such engagement needs to be different, and my second request, therefore, is that the Government, along with like-minded Governments, should urge the Chinese authorities to hold real dialogue with the Dalia Lama; indeed, the Prime Minister referred to that at Prime Minister’s questions. That dialogue should also be independently chaired so that we know what is going on and we can measure how serious, or otherwise, the Chinese authorities are.

My third request is that the Government appeal to China’s self-interest. That may sound rather odd, but does China want to be the world’s pariah? I do not think that it does, although it is going that way at present. To return to the point made by the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen), China must also realise that it has a good offer on the table from the Dalai Lama. Notwithstanding the historical context, he has offered to accept Chinese sovereignty, which has no historical basis, provided that there is genuine autonomy. That is a good offer; it is certainly much better than the offer that the Chinese would get if the Dalai Lama was no longer there. Like others in the room, including my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) and hon. Gentleman, I have met young Tibetans, and plenty of them know that the next generation are not as peacefully minded. They are more frustrated and they are beginning to wonder what 49 years of non-violence have achieved. I am not advocating violence, but simply painting a reality—that is how people feel. The Chinese would therefore be better off doing a deal with the Dalai Lama than doing a deal after he has gone.

My fourth request is that the Government push the International Olympic Committee and the British Olympic Association to do something. When the Chinese were awarded the Olympics, they made promises about human rights and free access for journalists, but they have not kept those promises. In fact, the human rights situation is worse, and access for journalists is either non-existent or highly controlled, as we saw when journalists visited Lhasa the other day on some sort of official package tour. What will the BOA do? When will it break its vow of silence, come out and demand that the Chinese adhere to the conditions that they promised to keep to? I hope that the Minister will join me in encouraging the IOC and BOA to do something other than pretend that this is all a horrible dream that will go away.

The British Olympic Association has imposed a gag on British Olympic competitors. Should they not lift that gag?

I understand that it has in fact lifted the gag under some pressure, but the hon. Gentleman is quite right that there was a gag in the first place. It is an absolute disgrace that people should be gagged in a country where there is free speech.

That relates to my next point. My fifth point is that the Minister should reiterate the helpful view of his Foreign Office colleague in the House of Lords that UK athletes are free to make comments about Tibet if they wish to do so. No one is forcing them to do so, but if they want to comment, they should be free to do so without fear of reprisal or sanction. If, when they are in China, they say that Tibet should be free, the British Government should protect them.

My sixth request is that the Government press Ban Ki-moon to send a special mission to Tibet to investigate the situation. He can do that without approval from the Security Council, where the Chinese would doubtless veto such a move. As the Minister will know, there is a precedent for such a mission from 1985, which involved Nigeria.

My next request is that the United Nations Committee on Human Rights send a special rapporteur to Tibet to report back on human rights abuses. I hope that the Government will agree that this and my previous request should be supported.

Next, I ask the Government to work with NATO, the EU and the G8 to produce a statement of condemnation, which has so far been sadly lacking.

Lastly—the Minister will not agree with this, but he should hold it in reserve—we should not rule out boycotting the opening ceremony. We should see how matters develop, but we should not rule out such a move.

The world has let Tibet down very badly over the past 50 years and it has a duty to repair that damage. This country, in particular, has a duty to do so, given our historical links with Tibet. The international community must come together to defend the peace-loving people of Tibet. The Chinese Government can kill, maim and torture under the auspices of patriotic re-education, and they can destroy and marginalise, but they will never destroy the spirit of the Tibetan people and they will never win their hearts and minds.

It is a great pleasure to serve in the debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Wilshire. I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) on proposing this topic for debate at such an important moment.

Like the hon. Gentleman, many of us have been extremely troubled by the recent scenes of violence and unrest in Lhasa and other Tibetan areas. As he knows, the Prime Minister also takes a close personal interest. If I may, I should like to set out the situation as it stands, the underlying issues that the recent unrest has highlighted and our strategy on the way forward.

First, let me deal with the situation as it stands today. The demonstrations that began peacefully in Lhasa on 10 March, and which developed into outbursts of violence on 14 March, have now subsided. Unrest was still being reported in the provinces surrounding the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region after an uneasy calm had been restored to Lhasa itself. Official estimates of the casualties have been steadily increasing, and the authorities admitted on Friday that three of the 18 people officially reported dead were Tibetans. As we all know, the Tibetan Government in exile puts the figure much higher, at about 140.

Groups of journalists and diplomats have been taken to Lhasa on specially organised visits by the authorities, and our embassy in Beijing participated in that visit. However, it remains impossible to gain access to the TAR independently. As the hon. Gentleman said, there also remain severe restrictions on access to the surrounding provinces, and there is a significant security presence across Tibetan-populated areas, many of which, as he reminded us, are a long way from the TAR’s present borders.

As we have heard, the Dalai Lama called again in a statement on 28 March for restraint and for a resolution of the underlying issues through dialogue. My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) quite properly spoke of the significance of that statement, and it is groundbreaking. Despite that, the Chinese authorities continue to point the finger of blame for the violence firmly at the Dalai Lama and his supporters.

The rioting in Lhasa has been on a scale unseen since 1989, and the unrest elsewhere in Tibetan-populated areas is unprecedented. The current situation of Tibet is a vivid demonstration of many of the human rights concerns that we, as a country that aims to uphold international human rights standards across the world, find most troubling. The first, of course, is freedom of religion. We believe strongly that ordinary Tibetans must enjoy the right to live according to their traditions and customs. I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Gentleman has done over the years in pointing out the fact that special protection is needed for that precious culture and language, and that that does not mean being opposed to immigration—I am sure that, like me, he is not against immigration into this or other countries.

Freedom of expression is also necessary. There is no doubt that the demonstrations last month involved widespread violence, and in that situation the authorities in China, like those of anywhere else, are of course entitled to use proportionate force to quell them. Equally, however, where demonstrations are peaceful, like the first ones in Lhasa on 10 March, the right of individuals to make their views known, in Tibet or anywhere else, must be upheld. Peaceful advocacy of any cause—even one deeply unattractive to the Government—should not be criminalised, and journalists and others should enjoy the right to witness and report objectively on what they see. That is extremely important.

With wide scale arrests of those allegedly involved in the demonstrations, our focus must of course turn to trying to ensure the right to due process for those who have been detained. I know that in the short time available to him the hon. Gentleman did not have time to talk about that, but I am sure that he agrees with me that it is very important. We raised the issue last week at the organised visit to Lhasa by diplomats, and we were pleased with the verbal commitment from the authorities that those who protested peacefully during the journalists’ visit earlier last week would not be charged. However, we have not yet received a response to the international request made during the diplomats’ visit—it is not just this country that has been making the calls—for access to the trials of those alleged to have been involved in the unrest.

The underlying human rights issues in Tibet are concerns that have been addressed regularly at the highest level in recent discussions between my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary and their Chinese counterparts. We have also pursued them through our bilateral dialogue with China on human rights, and through programmes funded through non-governmental organisations and research institutions. The last round of our bilateral rights dialogue, for example, included a field trip to Tibet. I was quite sceptical when I read about that, but we took a very interesting party there. There were experts on, among other things, devolution: devolving power realistically and effectively. That is something that we could certainly debate here, although there is not time at the moment.

As to our response to the current situation, when violence erupted the United Kingdom’s response was fast and firm. Ministers went on the record as soon as the news broke of demonstrations becoming violent. The Prime Minister discussed the crisis in person with Premier Wen on 19 March and the Foreign Secretary discussed it with Foreign Minister Yang on 21 and 28 March. Further regular contact has been maintained with the Chinese embassy in London and through the Foreign Ministry in Beijing. I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to those officials who have worked round the clock to keep on top of the rapidly unfolding events.

The Minister has referred to the Prime Minister intervening quickly and discussing the matter with Premier Wen. It was good that he did so, but he reported to the House of Commons on 19 March that the Premier told him that

“subject to two things that the Dalai Lama has already said—that he does not support the total independence of Tibet and that he renounces violence—he would be prepared to enter into dialogue with the Dalai Lama.”—[Official Report, 19 March 2008; Vol. 473, c. 915.]

Will the Minister elaborate on that? Will there be face-to-face talks between Premier Wen and the Dalai Lama, and would not it be better for them to happen sooner, rather than later?

I certainly cannot give my hon. Friend any more information on that than he already has. If more becomes available I undertake to write to him and to copy the letter to the hon. Member for Lewes.

All along, our messages to both sides have been consistent and the Prime Minister will repeat them to the Dalai Lama when he meets him in London next month. They are: there should be an end to violence by those demonstrating and by the forces reacting to the demonstrations; there should be no use of excessive force by the authorities against those involved in violence, and no force should be used against those demonstrating peacefully; there must be due process for those detained; and there should also be an urgent resumption of the transparent and meaningful dialogue that the hon. Gentleman said is needed between Beijing and the Dalai Lama to resolve the underlying issues. I have no doubt that such face-to-face discussions as my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead mentioned would help.

We have been extremely active with international partners. We supported the EU presidency statement on 17 March and action in the UN Human Rights Council on 25 March. We participated in an extensive discussion of Tibet at the Gymnich, the informal EU Foreign Ministers’ meeting, last week. The Prime Minister has discussed the situation in Tibet with Presidents Bush and Sarkozy, and it is hoped that he will be able to meet Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the UN, to discuss the issue, in the margins of this week’s NATO summit in Bucharest.

Does the Minister agree with me that the way forward is through dialogue with the Chinese, and between the Chinese and the Tibetans, but that the dialogue is not particularly helped by a one-sided presentation of the facts, which ignores, for example, the violence against the Han Chinese in Tibet? Does he agree equally that it is not the best way forward to use the Olympic Games as a means of pressurising the Chinese, or to condemn the Chinese ambassador, who incidentally is a she not a he, for doing what is entirely proper in the circumstances and bearing the torch as a representative of her country?

My hon. Friend raises some important issues, and I agree with him on this: there should be no attacks on Han Chinese or anyone else in the streets of Lhasa, or any other city. I know that my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Lewes would agree on that 100 per cent. It does no good to any cause when people are attacked in that way. The action of mobs can never be condoned. We must of course be very careful when we try to rationalise or defend such attacks simply because they are occurring to an ethnic minority or outsiders. We have seen the results of that all too often in the world.

In the few moments left to me I want to answer some of the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. Our priority must certainly be to ensure that the tense situation on the ground does not develop into violence or lead to further repression. That means making it clear to the authorities, but also to Tibetan groups, that we believe in peaceful resolution of the underlying problems in Tibet, not the use of force. However, the point that the hon. Gentleman made is the right one: there must be dialogue. Whether such events flare up every 30 years—they seem to happen, anyway, in the year before the end of each of our decades—it is not good enough. We cannot leave things to fester. There must be real dialogue.

Our priority also means pressing for unrestricted access to the region. I am sure that one of the answers is transparency. It is always a mistake—and we have tried it at times in our own history—to try to hide what happens. Those things will bubble to the surface and the sense of frustration increases. We need to get a clearer picture of the situation on the ground in Tibet. Of course we worry about the way in which the character of the country is changing, but some things can change for the better. Those will include, if some of the news that we get from Beijing, rather than from India, is true, building hospitals, schools and infrastructure. The Tibetan people should have the opportunity to have those things, but underpinning that must be the sense that their political aspirations and sense of identity should not be stifled and stymied in any way.

We welcome last week’s organised visit by journalists and diplomats, but, given that the security situation is apparently calm, we see no reason for access to Tibet and the surrounding provinces to continue to be restricted for those who wish to travel independently. It happened in the past: why should not it happen now? More generally we have welcomed the media regulations that were put in place for the Olympics, which provide for freedom of movement for foreign journalists around most of China. However, we believe firmly that those should be expanded to cover the whole country and should be applied to domestic journalists as well as foreigners and be extended beyond October. We shall continue to urge China to lift all restrictions on freedom of access to Tibet and the surrounding provinces for journalists and others wishing to visit, as long as the security situation allows. That is in China’s own interests.

It being Two o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.