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Volume 537: debated on Wednesday 7 December 2011

Thank you, Mr Gale, and thank you to Mr Speaker for choosing this subject—in Tibetan, thuk-je-che: thank you.

At this time of year, we can probably have no debate more appropriate than one about Tibet, given that United Nations human rights day is commemorated this coming Saturday, 10 December. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an issue that has often been a subject of debate in this House.

As I have declared in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, two months ago, at the beginning of October, at the invitation of the Tibet Society and the Tibetan Government-in-exile, I went to Dharamsala in India with the hon. Members for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) and for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson), all of whom I am happy to call my hon. Friends. The five of us spent four informative days together in Dharamsala, during which time we were privileged to meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama, other people in the Tibetan Government-in-exile and many others.

The reason why the debate is as appropriate as ever is that, sadly, in recent weeks there has been an outbreak of self-immolation—suicide—among nuns and monks in Tibet, and it has caught the attention of the world. This year, on 31 October, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East tabled early-day motion 2327, expressing great sadness at the disturbing news of 10 incidents of self-immolation in eastern Tibet by young Tibetan monks, former monks and a nun. Since then there has been a further death. Those people, in monasteries mainly in Ngaba in Tibet, have been setting themselves alight as a protest against their inability to express their faith and their allegiance to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. They have drawn the sympathy of the world.

I will in a second. I am grateful to see the hon. Gentleman in the Chamber.

On 25 November, a letter in The Guardian from Dai Qingli of the Chinese embassy was headed “Tibetan deaths violate Buddhism”. The argument of the letter was that the deaths were a fatal violation of the spirit of peace and tolerance that defines Tibetan Buddhism. I am grateful that hon. Friends from a number of parties have joined me in replying to that letter in today’s Guardian:

“Dai Qingli’s letter…revealed not only a woeful lack of comprehension of the crisis in Tibet but also the Chinese Communist party’s failure to gain any measure of legitimacy among the Tibetan people after more than 60 years. Since February 2009, 11 Tibetan monks or former monks and two nuns in Tibet have set fire to themselves in a new and disturbing development driven by agonising oppression. It is a terrible indictment of China’s Tibet policy…Contrary to Dai Qingli’s claims, the Dalai Lama and other religious leaders in exile want these deaths to stop and Tibetans to be able to practise their religion and protect their cultural identity. Dai Qingli is wrong, too, on his paranoid assertions of a separatist agenda of the Dalai Lama; the exiled religious leader is urging the Chinese government to implement its own laws granting Tibetans a genuine autonomy within the People’s Republic of China. It is in the interests of the Chinese leadership to listen, instead of risking the further escalation of tensions, and to engage in dialogue with this most-respected and reasonable figure, the Dalai Lama.”

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and on his consistency in his work on this important issue. He referred to those serious incidents of self-immolation. Does he agree that it would be appropriate for the UK Government to make a statement outlining their position on recent events and on how they aim to pursue the matter with the Chinese Government?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He and his party have always been good on the issue, which has united people throughout the parties and the United Kingdom. I have had the privilege of meeting His Holiness three times in this country and the Tibetan peace garden, which he opened on a previous visit, is in my constituency—in the grounds of Geraldine Mary Harmsworth park over the river from Parliament.

I appreciate the presence of the Minister, the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), and hope that he can give a positive response to the request made not only by the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) but by all of us together.

I have not been to China, other than to Hong Kong when it was still under British rule, although I would very much like to go. I have therefore not been to Tibet, although all my life, since I was a little boy—I just about remember the uprising in Lhasa, the Chinese invasion and the flight of the Tibetan people from Tibet—the country has mattered to me and to many in the UK.

Not surprisingly, in 1959, the same year as the uprising, the Tibet Society was formed in this country to argue the case for the proud and historic nation of Tibet and its people and for their rights to be upheld. I pay tribute to the Tibet Society, which has done consistent and effective campaigning work, and to its president, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). I also pay tribute to its chair, Ricky Hyde-Chambers, who is a constituent of mine, and to its chief executive, Philippa Carrick. With their staff, they are a really effective team. They supported us in our visit to Dharamsala this year and have done so at other times in the past.

I want to come to history and politics in a second. When we were in Dharamsala, we were privileged to meet the new Kalon Tripa. This year, for the first time, His Holiness the Dalai Lama announced that he would give up all political authority, while retaining spiritual authority. There was an election among Tibetans worldwide and, on 8 August, Dr Lobsang Sangay was elected as the new political leader. We had the privilege of welcoming him only recently, as part of his tour of Europe and the States; he had been living in the States, but is now back in Dharamsala.

An important issue for our country is to keep in constant dialogue with such elected representatives, who are enlightened and engaged in their international contacts. I salute them, together with His Holiness, for what they have done already. In a way, we are in the Chamber to pledge our commitment to go on and to work better with them.

I do not pretend to be a great historian of China or Tibet but, put simply, Tibet has a proud independent history. We can argue whether it was completely independent but it was perceived as effectively independent by the British, who have had a particular link over the years, especially in the previous century. It was only in 1959, after the Chinese invasion, that the people of Tibet turned their loyalty to the Dalai Lama, who had to flee the country. They have remained loyal to him.

All the evidence is that the overwhelming majority of the people, not only in what the Chinese call the autonomous republic of Tibet, but in greater Tibet, which goes beyond what the Chinese recognise, have an independence that is both ethnic and cultural, in language and in faith. It is one that they want to be able to exercise. The present view of the Dalai Lama, which he has held for many years, and of the Tibetan Government-in-exile, is not that they want total independence—they are not making that argument—but that they want to have the autonomy that already exists in other parts of China.

For example, Hong Kong and Macau have a certain autonomy, which was negotiated, and parts of mainland China have a certain autonomy. The Tibetan Government-in-exile are asking for that autonomy, as well as for the freedom not to be told how to live their lives, how to worship and who to worship, and how to go about their own cultural activities.

I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gale. I also declare my interests set out in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

The right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) is clearly outlining a difficult situation in Tibet. Does he agree that in all the representations from Lobsang Sangay and the Dalai Lama there is clarity about the desire for a peaceful settlement, and recognition that everything that can be done to cease the troubles in Tibet, particularly self-immolation, should happen peacefully? People are being urged to cease those terrible events in Tibet.

Not only—[Interruption.] I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, who was with us in October.

Not only is my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe right about that, but the whole ethic of Tibetan Buddhism is peacefulness, non-aggression and non-violence. That is why it is such a terrible indictment of the Chinese regime that it will not allow those peaceful people to express themselves in their peaceful way. I have nothing against China and its people; I represent one of the largest Chinese communities in this country. That is not the issue. The issue is how the Chinese behave at home towards that different group of people in its territory.

Over the years, a number of colleagues have persistently raised the issues here, and I pay particular tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes, who, when he was not a Minister, was able to raise these matters. He did so in March 1999, on the 40th anniversary of the 1959 uprising; on 28 June 2005, just ahead of the EU-China summit, which was under our presidency; and on 1 April 2008, when he opened by saying that he was angrier, sadder and less hopeful then than ever before.

That was before what was probably an understandable, but in the end rather unhelpful, clarification of policy by the then Foreign Secretary. It was not well received in Tibet. Whatever our politics and understanding of how we want to build and cement links with China, the fact is that the then Foreign Secretary said:

“Our ability to get our points across has sometimes been clouded by the position the UK took at the start of the 20th century on the status of Tibet, a position based on the geopolitics of the time. Our recognition of China’s ‘special position’ in Tibet developed from the outdated concept of suzerainty.”

He hugely disappointed people among the Tibetan community in exile and in Tibet when he then said on behalf of the then Government:

“We have made clear to the Chinese Government, and publicly, that we do not support Tibetan independence. Like every other EU member state, and the United States, we regard Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China.”

The statement was, of course, more balanced, because it went on to say:

“Our interest is in the long-term stability, which can only be achieved through respect for human rights and greater autonomy for the Tibetans.”—[Official Report, 29 October 2008; Vol. 481, c. 30WS.]

I pay tribute to the fact that Ministers have gone on arguing that case under the Labour Government and the present Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition Government. I also pay tribute to the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), and to the Minister on the Bench, as well as to the Foreign Secretary, who has been robust about human rights issues.

I want to take the Chamber to where we might go. Many hon. Members have persistently expressed their concern. A litany of colleagues on both sides have asked questions, including, from the Conservative party, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) and my hon. Friends the Members for Banbury (Tony Baldry), for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab), for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood), for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray) and for Witham (Priti Patel); from the Labour party, the hon. Members for Bassetlaw (John Mann), for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson), for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn)—he is in the Chamber—for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds), for Leeds North East, for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain) and for Scunthorpe, all of whom I am happy to call my hon. Friends; and from the Liberal Democrat party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) and my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood). There is a real desire in this place to try to make progress.

I want to end by making some suggestions to the Minister on ways in which we might be able to take on the debate and to influence the outcome. We must try to persuade the Chinese that it is in their interests to deal with the issue because it clouds and affects all the perceptions of China in the democratic world.

When we spoke to Tibetans in exile, we heard that they believed that if ordinary people in China had the information, many of them would take a different view of what should be happening. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the same applies to the Chinese community here? I wonder whether work should be done to engage with various key people in the Chinese community in the UK.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Avaaz petition, which today has 665,260 signatures, says:

“People from all over the world call on you to: investigate and stop the Tibet crackdown”.

It says to our Prime Minister:

“A rising number of Tibetans are taking their lives through self immolation in a desperate cry to the world to stop the escalating Chinese crackdown. As shocked citizens, we call on you to urgently send an independent high-level mission to the area…to speak out against the ongoing repression. Only coordinated and swift diplomatic action can stop this crisis.”

I am sure that both at home and abroad people of Chinese origin share exactly that view. Sadly, many of them in China do not know what is being done in their name.

I apologise for only having just arrived. The right hon. Gentleman has taken this case up many times, and I congratulate him on that. Does he agree that it is deeply disturbing that a culture, language and whole way of life is being systematically destroyed in Tibet? The rest of the world is at last beginning to understand that, and that message must get through to the Chinese Government.

I agree, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who is good at arguing such cases. That proud, historic nation has culturally contributed hugely to the world. It would be a tragedy if we did not manage in our lifetimes to give it the opportunity to do so again.

I have a shopping list, which degrades the matter, but I will put the items on the table. We could argue that there should be permission for the Red Cross or a similar organisation to be allowed regularly into Greater Tibet to ensure that there is independent monitoring of what is going on. We must argue that people must be allowed to teach the Tibetan language in schools in Tibet, and to speak it when they want to so that they can be brought up speaking their own language and understanding their own culture.

I hope that our Government will keep on raising the issue of the Panchen Lama, the Dalai Lama’s heir, who has been captured and has disappeared with his family. No one has owned up to his whereabouts, or to what is being done to secure his freedom and his ability to be where he wants to be with his family.

I hope that the Government will strongly take up the issue of self-immolation with the Chinese authorities, and make a robust statement of concern about that. I hope that they will argue that troops should be withdrawn from Kirti and the monasteries where such things are happening and that the Chinese Government should review their policies. I hope that our Government will raise concerns not just in general with the Chinese authorities, as they have been doing, but with the Chinese Ministry of Religious Affairs. I understand the diplomatic difficulties, but the Government should ensure that the lines of communication are open to the Tibetan Government-in-exile. Of course, Governments do not recognise Governments-in-exile, and our Government do not, but we need to ensure that we understand the democratically represented voices of the Tibetan people.

I want to make two other calls that are not to the Government. The faith leaders of the world should step in and engage themselves. The Christian communities in this country—the Anglicans, the Roman Catholics and the Free Churches—and the Hindus, the Sikhs, the Buddhists and the Muslims need to speak up for other people of faith who are not allowed to practise their faith.

Finally, I hope that the House can play another role. With two colleagues, I co-chair the all-party group on conflict issues, and I hope that we will soon engage with this issue and invite the Chinese Government’s representatives to come and talk here. The issue must be negotiated peacefully. I hope that that can be done, and done soon. There have been too many deaths and too many injuries, and there has been too much oppression. The Chinese must understand that it is in their interests to move on and to give greater autonomy to Tibet—and the sooner, the better.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) on securing this important debate, and I pay tribute to him for a committed, well researched and well informed speech. I also thank the hon. Members for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson) and for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) for their contributions.

The Government are seriously concerned about recent reports of self-immolations among nuns in the Tibetan areas of Sichuan province. We have closely followed those reports and other developments in the region. Let me describe the situation as it stands today. We are aware of 11 confirmed instances of monks and nuns in the Tibetan areas of Sichuan province who have self-immolated since March, and we know that four of those people died. We are aware of reports of a number of other attempted self-immolations, including one within the Tibetan autonomous region on 1 December, although those have not yet been confirmed.

The incidents began with the self-immolation on 16 March of Phuntsok, a monk at the Kirti monastery in Aba county, Sichuan. His immolation sparked a number of demonstrations and protests in the area, which by 12 April had led to a stand-off at the Kirti monastery between locals and monks on the one hand and Chinese security forces on the other. That ended on 21 April, when about 300 monks were removed from the monastery by the security forces. Their location and legal status has not been confirmed by the Chinese Government. Six of the 10 subsequent immolations have been by monks, or former monks, linked to the Kirti monastery.

We understand that there continues to be a high security presence at the monastery, and that a significant number of its monks have been dispersed away from the monastery grounds. The other immolations have been by two nuns, one in Aba county and the other in Daofu county, and two monks, one in Daofu county and one in Ganzi county—all in Sichuan province.

The Dalai Lama has made several public statements about the immolations, which he has said are the result of human rights violations caused by discriminatory Chinese policies in the region. The Chinese Government, on the other hand, have stated that the immolations are “politically motivated”, and that the Tibetan community in exile should be held responsible.

I assure my right hon. Friend, and other hon. Members, that the Government have been following developments closely. In terms of making a strong statement, as recently as 29 November my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said that we should urge the Chinese Government to work with local monasteries and communities to resolve the grievances that have led to these self-immolations.

Furthermore, during his visit to China in November, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), the Minister of State, raised his concern about the immolations with Fu Ying, the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister. He also wrote to the Chinese ambassador about the situation at the Kirti monastery, asking for information and calling for restraint. Officials have raised their concerns with the Chinese embassy in London and with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing.

At the 17th session of the UN Human Rights Council in June this year, the EU issued a statement calling on the Chinese authorities to refrain from the use of force in dealing with the situation at the Kirti monastery, and to allow independent observers on to the site. British embassy officials have kept in frequent contact with the Foreign Affairs office in Sichuan and with local public security bureau offices, regarding access to those areas.

British diplomats were able to access neighbouring Tibetan areas in October, but we understand that access to the Kirti monastery remains severely limited. I assure my right hon. Friend that we will continue to urge the Chinese authorities to allow access to Tibetan areas for foreign diplomats and journalists, just as we will continue on a regular basis to raise the case of the Panchen Lama.

I wish to say something about the dialogue between China and the Dalai Lama. Let me be explicit: the UK regards Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China and, as my right hon. Friend recognised, this Government’s position is consistent with and identical to that of the previous Government. All our international partners adopt a similar stance. Our interest, however, is in long-term stability for Tibet, and we believe that that is best achieved through respect for the universal principles of human rights, and genuine autonomy for Tibet within the framework of the Chinese constitution. We believe strongly that meaningful dialogue between the Dalai Lama’s representatives and the Chinese authorities is the best way to resolve those issues.

The last round of talks was held in January last year. No substantive progress has been made for several years. We appreciate that reaching a compromise is not easy and is likely to require sacrifices and risks on both sides. UK Ministers and officials have regularly encouraged both parties to engage in meaningful direct dialogue without preconditions. I certainly agree with the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark and other hon. Members that the people of Tibet are peaceful. They preach non-violence and they want dialogue above all else.

I should like to say a few words about the wider situation in Tibet. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office online human rights Command Paper, updated quarterly, provides regular updates on the situation in Tibet and makes it clear that we remain concerned about the rights and freedoms afforded to the Tibetan people.

I should like to begin this part of my speech by discussing political prisoners in Tibet. It goes without saying that the imprisonment of people for exercising their political, cultural and religious rights is completely unacceptable. The Government have lobbied the Chinese Government regarding a number of individuals, including Dhondup Wangchen, who was arrested in 2008 for filming a documentary recording the reactions of ordinary Tibetans to the Olympic games. We have serious concerns about the health and treatment of Dhondup in prison.

Those individuals also include the brothers Karma Samdrup and Rinchen Samdrup, imprisoned in 2009 and 2010. We have very serious concerns about the manner in which charges were brought against those men and about the reports that they have suffered serious mistreatment and torture while in detention. We are committed to supporting efforts to prevent torture around the world. We will continue to advocate the view that independent oversight of prisons is important to maintain prison standards and to prevent the mistreatment of prisoners.

Freedom of religion in Tibet is a particular concern. We believe very strongly that ordinary Tibetans must enjoy the right to live according to their traditions and customs. Political controls and restrictions should not be placed on normal religious practice. Monks, nuns and lay people should be completely free to manifest their beliefs without interference from the state.

We also believe that the languages of minority groups should be actively provided for, particularly in education and employment policy. China’s laws make it clear that its minority groups should have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken languages. However, given the lack of qualified teachers and appropriate teaching materials, access to education in the Tibetan language can be severely limited, particularly at secondary and tertiary levels. Those issues were a focus of the UK-China human rights dialogue earlier this year. My right hon. Friend referred to that dialogue, and we regard it as a very important part of our bilateral relationship.

Of course, we welcome the huge investments that the Chinese Government have made in Tibetan areas—they amount to many billions of dollars a year—but we hope that everything possible can be done to ensure that the economic development of Tibet benefits the native population. Education is part of that; so, too, is ensuring that rural communities benefit as much as urban ones. Consultation and dialogue with local groups is also vital.

Let me say a few words about Tibet’s environment. Tibet has a unique natural environment, which should be carefully protected. We hope that the Chinese Government will respect the knowledge and livelihood of local herdsmen and farmers within that protection, rather than trying to move them away from their ancestral homes. Those groups have managed the land for generations and have a real contribution to make in ensuring that development in Tibet is sustainable.

In addition to the actions that I have mentioned, Ministers have regularly raised with China at the highest political levels our concerns about aspects of the human rights situation in Tibet. We have raised individual cases of concern with the Chinese Government. We have pursued the discussions 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 human rights dialogue included, for example, an expert workshop on minority rights and languages—an area of particular relevance to Tibet. I make the commitment that, following this debate, the Government will write again to the Chinese authorities to express our concerns about the issues raised here and to urge a return to negotiations with the Dalai Lama’s envoys.

To sum up, the Government are actively engaged both on the issue of immolations in Tibet and on the broader issue of human rights there. The Foreign Secretary has recently said that

“human rights…are part of our national DNA”.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark for raising this issue and giving me the chance to explain the Government’s position. I hope that he accepts that we are actively engaged and will continue to push for the respect of Tibetan human rights and the protection of the culture, natural environment and dignity of the people of Tibet. They deserve nothing less.