I beg to move,
That this House has considered Tibet.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am delighted that we have the opportunity so early in this Parliament to debate a subject that is close to my heart and, I know, to the hearts of many Members of the House. When we last debated Tibet in Westminster Hall, about six months ago, it was for an hour and a half. I seem to remember that it was over-subscribed; there were far too many Members who wished to speak and far too little time for them to do so. That is why I asked the Backbench Business Committee, before the end of the last Parliament, for a three-hour debate, and I hope that we will have one now.
This week, as all Members present will know, we celebrated the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta. Commentators here in Parliament and around the world have been eager to remind us of the importance of our tradition of democracy and the rule of law. Speaking about the anniversary, the Foreign Secretary said:
“The UK will continue to defend the values of the rules-based international system which can trace its origins to this landmark document.”
Addressing the United Nations Human Rights Council on 15 June, just three days ago, the Foreign Office Minister of State, Baroness Anelay, said:
“It is our solemn duty to give voice to those whose rights have been violated and abused, to call for accountability and to work with those who want a different future—a future where universal values are not simply words in a UN treaty but a reality of everyday life… So in this year of anniversaries, eight centuries after Magna Carta, let us give a voice to all those whose views and fears are not heard. Let us ensure that our voice goes beyond words to action. Let us remember that universal values need to be truly universal, for everyone everywhere.”
Those are fine words, and I am sure that every Member in this debate and in Parliament would endorse them fully.
It is timely at the beginning of a Parliament to remind ourselves of the practical applications of those values and to illustrate our commitment by considering closely the position of one group of people whose rights have been violated and abused, and who might expect this Parliament, this country and our Government to speak out for them, to give them the voice that they are systematically denied. They are the people of Tibet.
Many Members present will have had a long involvement in the issue of Tibet, and I have no doubt are well informed about its history and the oppressions suffered by its people since the Chinese invasion in 1951, but many new Members who are just as interested might be less well informed, so I make no apology for giving an overview of the historical situation of Tibet and of the Dalai Lama, who will celebrate his 80th birthday—his 56th in exile—on 6 July, just two and a half weeks from now.
Tibet has had a tumultuous history, during which it has spent long periods functioning as an independent nation. An early example of British involvement in Tibet is the short-lived treaty of Lhasa, signed after a British colonialist excursion into that country under the leadership of Francis Younghusband in 1904. It is worth mentioning as evidence that, at least during that period, Britain regarded Tibet as an independent state with which it was legally possible to treat. That contradicts the view promoted by the Chinese Government that Tibet has never been more than a province or collection of provinces forming part of China. Indeed, Chinese official histories refer to the exchange of envoys between the Tang dynasty, which ruled China between the seventh and 10th centuries, and the Tubo kingdom, the ancient name for Tibet, suggesting that they were separate nations at the time.
What is not in question are Tibet’s unique cultural traditions. Ethnic Tibetans have a four centuries-long allegiance to the Buddhist tradition of which the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is the spiritual leader. In the years before the Communist party came to power in China, Tibet was governed by a priestly caste and was a separate, independent state. When the Communist party came to power, the Chinese army invaded Tibet and attempted, but failed, to force the young Dalai Lama to act as a client ruler. However, after a popular uprising against Chinese rule, the Dalai Lama and his supporters were driven into exile in India following an alleged threat to his life. The Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, welcomed the exiled Tibetans to Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh, where they established a Parliament and Government in exile.
In May 2011, the Dalai Lama announced his retirement as the political leader of his people, but he will of course always remain the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. However, that step by the Dalai Lama has in no way diminished the fear and loathing with which the Chinese Government regard His Holiness. They describe him as a separatist, a supporter of terrorism, and—maybe worst of all in the lexicon of communist China—a splittist. Since the 1980s, the Dalai Lama has not pursued the aim of full independence for Tibet, but has sought only what he calls a middle way—full autonomy for the people of Tibet—although many Tibetan activists still believe in the possibility of a truly independent Tibet.
Meanwhile, the Chinese, having created what they describe as the Tibet autonomous region, or TAR, have done everything in their power to undermine that autonomy and to destroy the ethnic and cultural identity of Tibet. They have sought to isolate the Dalai Lama and have used their political and economic influence to bully the Governments and parties that support him. I aim to outline some of the ways in which they have done so and to explain why I believe that we have a moral obligation to support those suffering under the oppression that has resulted from the “Chineseification” of Tibetan culture.
I am grateful to my fellow officer of the all-party parliamentary group for Tibet for giving way. I am sorry that I will not be able to stay for the whole debate and make a full contribution. Is it not ironic that the Chinese constitution recognises the diverse culture and heritage of the various peoples who make up the People’s Republic of China? Whatever arguments we may have about the politics of it, China is clearly failing to recognise and protect the culture, heritage and, indeed, language of the Tibetan people, which is being destroyed at the hands of the Chinese Government.
Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend, if I may call him that, and fellow officer of the all-party parliamentary group for Tibet. In May 2006—more than nine years ago—I had occasion to visit Lhasa and the TAR under supervision by the Chinese Government, along with four other members of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, to see for myself exactly how much change had taken place.
The Chineseification of Lhasa, through the encouragement of ethnically Han Chinese citizens to settle in Lhasa and other parts of Tibet, was extraordinary. We learned while we were there that Tibetan was not allowed to be the main language in schools in the city of Lhasa. Mandarin had to be spoken first, and Tibetan was, to all intents and purposes, outlawed by the mayor and provincial Government of the TAR. That was sad to see.
Many elements of Tibetan culture were being suppressed by the Administration and the local Communist party. I know that that has continued apace since the opening of the Chengdu to Lhasa railway, which has allowed many more people to travel much more easily to that extremely high city, where those who are there for only a few days suffer from altitude sickness.
I hope to show that events in Tibet have global implications, and that by failing to speak out against the political, environmental and economic oppression in the TAR, we risk allowing a bully to influence world events and undermine our values.
As an example of that bullying process, let us consider that the 14th world summit of Nobel peace laureates was scheduled to convene in South Africa in October 2014 to honour the late Nelson Mandela’s legacy. However, it had to be cancelled when several Nobel peace laureates pulled out after the South African Government failed to issue a visa to one of the laureates, the Dalai Lama. That is just one example of Chinese pressure; in fact, China went on to thank South Africa for not issuing the Dalai Lama a visa. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, said:
“China highly appreciates the support offered by the South African government on issues concerning China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. We also believe that South Africa will continue to uphold this correct position and continue to support China in this regard.”
Let us remind ourselves that the Dalai Lama has been in exile since 1959. That a country such as South Africa should be so afraid of losing important Chinese investment that it was willing to renege on the solidarity offered by Nelson Mandela himself when the Dalai Lama visited Cape Town years ago is truly a tragedy.
China has tried such tactics on many Governments, our own included. In May 2012, David Cameron and Nick Clegg privately met the Dalai Lama in London, outside St Paul’s cathedral, where the Dalai Lama was being awarded the Templeton prize for his contribution to human spirituality. The Chinese Government made a formal protest to the British ambassador in Beijing, saying that that meeting had “harmed” China-UK relations and had
“hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”.
In addition, in a public statement, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, urged the UK
“to respond to China’s solemn demand and stop conniving and supporting Tibetan separatists”.
The Chinese Government then cancelled the visit to the UK of a top official, Wu Bangguo, Chair of the National People’s Congress.
In April 2013, David Cameron postponed an official trip—
I am so sorry. Thank you for correcting me, Mr Gray. Let me try again.
In April 2013, the Prime Minister postponed an official trip to China after Beijing indicated that senior leaders were unlikely to meet him, yet the Government have been clear on their position. They regard Tibet as
“part of the People’s Republic of China.”
Does that mean that Her Majesty’s Government do not support those Tibetans who call for independence? With their professed support for the right of self-determination and their commitment to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, would it not be more appropriate for the Government explicitly to support the Tibetans’ right to self-determination?
I ask the Minister to clarify the Government’s position on dialogue between Chinese and Tibetan representatives. Without such dialogue, the Dalai Lama’s call for genuine autonomy for Tibet cannot possibly be achieved. The Chinese Government have put obstacles in the path of such dialogue by requiring, in their own latest White Paper on Tibet, that His Holiness the Dalai Lama make a
“public statement that Tibet has been an integral part of China since antiquity”.
In the past, the Chinese maintained that a precondition for talks would be the abandonment by the Dalai Lama of his stance on independence. He has effectively done that, but after every concession made by His Holiness further barriers have been raised by the Chinese Government. I strongly hope that Her Majesty’s Government can and will resist efforts to force the UK to isolate the Dalai Lama.
However, this is not simply a debate about history. The rights of the Tibetan people—both collective rights, and the rights of individuals and families—have been horribly breached. Religious freedoms have been attacked for decades, and religious institutions have been suborned. Along with the call from the political head of the Tibet autonomous region for Buddhist temples to
“become propaganda centres for the ruling Communist Party”,
there are proposed new counter-terrorism laws that will allow sweeping measures to be taken to suppress religious activity. Many rites that are central to the traditional worship of the Tibetan people, such as the lighting of butter candles, will be treated as subversive acts, as they imply support for the Dalai Lama. Have our Government raised concerns about these proposed new counter-terrorism laws, which appear to contravene the protection of religious freedoms enshrined in international and—until now—Chinese law?
The Chinese Government have given themselves the right to interfere in spiritual life and to deny the approval of the reincarnate lamas named by Tibet’s spiritual leaders, all of whom they have forced into exile. A key role of the Dalai Lama is the obligation to select the successor to the Panchen Lama. The selection of His Holiness is Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who was a six-year-old boy in 1995—20 years ago—when he was hailed as the reincarnation. He was abducted by the Chinese authorities, along with his family. The Chinese authorities will not reveal his whereabouts and say that he is in “protective custody”. The Chinese authorities have decreed that another young man, Gyaltsen Norbu, will be the next Panchen Lama.
If Choekyi Nyima’s custody can be described as protective, he may be much more fortunate than the many other political prisoners being held in Tibet today for a range of offences, from displaying hand-drawn copies of the Tibetan flag to taking part in explicitly religious practices. For example, one monastic leader, Thardoe Gyaltsen, was sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment for possessing copies of the Dalai Lama’s religious teachings and another, Geshe Ngawang Jamyang, was beaten to death in jail.
We should also be aware of the case of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, which I have raised with the Minister before. He was sentenced to death for alleged involvement in a bomb plot, for which there was no evidence. His sentence was later commuted to life in jail. He has served seven years and is believed to be in dangerously poor health. I urge Her Majesty’s Government to call for immediate medical parole for him, and to continue to press for answers on the whereabouts and safety of the Panchen Lama.
For these prisoners, as for other political prisoners, justice is very hard to achieve. At present, there are more than 600 known political prisoners in Tibet. Lawyers and human rights campaigners who take up the cases of such prisoners are threatened, and in many cases lose their licence to practise law. How do the Government propose to support their right under international law to a fair trial? Furthermore, with regard to the annual publication of Her Majesty’s Government’s report on human rights, do the Government review their policies in relation to countries of concern? How can the United Kingdom strengthen its policies on Tibet, so as to take a clear stance on the essential issue of human rights?
Tragically, in desperation at their situation, as many as 120 Tibetan activists have sought the ultimate expression of frustration and grief and committed self-immolation. Such actions are certainly not sanctioned by the Dalai Lama, who has spoken of his sadness and questioned the effectiveness of such actions in the face of the Chinese authorities, who treat them as criminal and immoral acts, punish the families of victims and portray such suicides as terrorist acts.
Of course, monks and nuns bear the brunt of Chinese wrath. Many are barred from their monasteries, and almost none can get visas to travel even within their home country. However, it is not only members of religious communities who suffer in Tibet. Other victims of Chinese displeasure include those Tibetans who have worked hard to preserve the country’s linguistic heritage. That falls foul of new regulations issued in many parts of Tibet, such as Rebkong, where new rules criminalising freedom of expression are being reinforced. They include rule No. 4, which prohibits
“establishing illegal organizations… under the pretext of ‘protecting the mother tongue’”
Many artists, poets and musicians who have attempted to celebrate ethnic identity are among those who have been arrested, jailed and—in many cases—tortured. Meanwhile, across the world China promotes its own language and culture by interfering with the academic freedoms of universities, in which they have funded so-called Confucius Institutes. Those schools actively undermine western support for Tibet and Taiwan, and control the employment of staff within the institutes, often under employment law that conflicts with that of Europe and the United Kingdom.
What steps will Her Majesty’s Government take to ensure academic freedom and the human rights of staff in those institutes? Although it is hard for western Governments to protect the culture and human rights of minority groups in faraway countries, is it too much to ask that the Government take steps to control the spread of Chinese propaganda in the United Kingdom? The rigid censorship that the Chinese seek to impose on news media and the internet is well known. We must not allow similar restrictions on the freedoms of commentators, educators and students in our own country.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, as he always does on this subject. I have made representations to the Home Secretary on this issue, but does he share my concern that His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who is visiting this country at the end of the month and again in September, has been afforded no police protection? During recent visits to other countries people have tried to disrupt his peaceful meetings and conferences, so there is the threat that many of his meetings may have to be abandoned.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the Dalai Lama’s free speech is being put at risk? What message will be sent to the Chinese people if the British Government do not afford him the protection that is normally afforded a dignitary of his stature?
I will mention that issue at the end of my speech. My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I am very concerned. People in the Tibetan community, supporters of the Tibetan community in the UK, supporters of the Dalai Lama, and Buddhists and non-Buddhists throughout Britain who love to hear the Dalai Lama’s words are extremely concerned that there is a threat to his personal safety. So far, the Government have offered no security for His Holiness’ visits to the United Kingdom. I thank my hon. Friend for taking up the issue with the Home Secretary. We need to put more pressure on the Government to ensure that the personal security of His Holiness is protected by our security services, especially as it is under threat.
Events in Tibet and our response to them have global implications that cannot be ignored. Many of those who have been shot at, arrested and intimidated in Tibet have been campaigning against the environmental exploitation of and damage to the fragile ecosystem of that beautiful country. That damage must certainly have global consequences. Almost half the world’s population depends on water from Tibet, and about 1.3 billion people directly depend on its major rivers.
The Chinese have increased the number of dams in the Tibetan plateau region, and further planned works will deprive millions of water in the downstream regions. In addition, unchecked mining operations in Tibet have been a major cause of environmental degradation and pollution of the water systems. Tibet’s glaciers are the fastest melting in the world, and many scientists regard Tibet as an environmental barometer. The opening of the Gormo-Lhasa railway, which I mentioned earlier, has not only sped up the Chineseification of Tibet by allowing a massive influx of ethnically Han Chinese, but enabled the swifter and more voracious exploitation of Tibet’s natural resources. Many rare native species of plants and animals will have to take their chances in a landscape that is at serious risk of destruction.
Protests against such pollution, exploitation and destruction—many of them by members of traditional nomadic groups that depend on the country’s grasslands and the purity of its waters—have been among those crushed by the Chinese. Many nomadic groups have been forcibly resettled, as I saw for myself in 2006. The US Special Co-ordinator for Tibetan Issues, Sarah Sewall, has said:
“Tibetans have an inalienable right to be stewards of their own cultural, religious and linguistic heritage”.
Will Her Majesty’s Government add their support to that of the US in encouraging the Chinese to live up to their international obligation to respect that right?
Many will ask what we in the UK can do to help the Tibetans in their attempts to preserve their language and culture, defend their spiritual freedom and traditions, and save their country from physical exploitation and damage. We should not underestimate our authority and resources. In China, a new law—the foreign non-governmental organisation management law—is being drafted, which seeks to restrict the activities of foreign NGOs and give the Chinese police the authority to enter their premises and seize documents and property. Those powers may have a massive impact on the work of groups that are working to promote health education and develop civil society in China as a whole and Tibet in particular. How will Her Majesty’s Government respond to those proposals, and what steps will they take to support the work of NGOs?
Many thousands of Tibetans now live in exile as refugees who depend on the welcome and support of host Governments and of campaigning and fundraising groups. We must continue to work with the groups representing Tibetans abroad. Will the United Kingdom Government continue to explore the possibility of cultural exchanges with Tibetans, whether from within Tibet itself or from the communities living in places such as India and Nepal? Programmes such as the Chevening scholarship, excellent as they are, have only a limited availability to Tibetans living within Tibet and are not available to refugees. If the UK Government were to extend that scheme and help refugees to take up degree and postgraduate courses in Britain, they would be better able to contribute to their host societies and help build civil society on their eventual and much desired return to Tibet.
The promotion and survival of the Tibetan language depend on it continuing to be heard. Will Her Majesty’s Government call on the BBC Trust to consider including Tibetan as one of the languages in which the World Service is broadcast?
The mention of those refugee communities brings me to my final, most topical, point. The terrible earthquakes in Nepal in April and May had a horrific impact on the Nepalese people, who are some of the poorest in the world. In the past, they have extended generous hospitality to their Tibetan neighbours who have continued to flee from the oppression in their homeland. At this time of crisis, it has become more difficult for them to do so. The catastrophe has heavily affected the Tibetan refugees in particular, as they are effectively stateless citizens. Many of them survive by making traditional Tibetan handicrafts, and many of the small factories in which they work have been destroyed.
There is grave concern, as recently expressed by Amnesty International, that the Tibetans’ lack of status within Nepalese society will make it hard for them to access the aid that is being provided by international communities. I recently had a case in my constituency of a British man of Tibetan origin, whose wife and child were made homeless by the earthquake in Kathmandu, but were having serious problems trying to obtain a visa to come to the United Kingdom because my constituent does not earn enough to support them. Meanwhile, over the border inside Tibet, there is some evidence that the Chinese authorities are using the earthquake as a pretext to redevelop parts of Tingri county against the wishes of local people, who are being forcibly relocated.
Finally, will the Government ensure the personal safety of His Holiness the Dalai Lama when he visits the UK at the end of this month to lecture at a Nepalese Buddhist temple? Sadly, one of the world’s foremost proponents of peace and compassion is the subject of threats from groups opposed to what he stands for. It is essential that when His Holiness comes to the UK we guarantee that he will be safe and secure. His message has huge resonance throughout this country and in every country in the world. We should value it more, and stand up more strongly to the bullying tactics of those who continue to oppress the Tibetan people and vilify His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, as I have discovered that you were brought up in my constituency. I did not have a lot of time in my maiden speech to sing my constituency’s praises, and I do not intend to detain hon. Members by doing so today. I note that what was Kelvinside parish church next to your childhood home is now the Òran Mór, a tremendously popular and vibrant cultural venue for the city and the country as a whole. Indeed, it contributes much to the local economy and the wider cultural scene.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) on bringing this important debate to the Chamber. I commiserate with him on the result of this morning’s ballot, but wish him every success, should he seek to be a member of the International Development Committee. In contributing briefly to the debate, I would like to offer some perspectives from the Scottish National party, the Scottish Parliament and the country more broadly.
Much as there is a system of all-party groups in Westminster, a system of cross-party groups exists in the Scottish Parliament. My colleague, Linda Fabiani, the Member of the Scottish Parliament for East Kilbride, chairs the cross-party group on Tibet. Much like the all-party parliamentary group here, it has shown considerable cross-party interest in and concern over issues affecting the area. It is supported by Aberdeen University’s Scottish Centre for Himalayan Research and in particular by Dr Martin Mills and Dr Sam May.
It is important to recognise the important work of that institute in promoting and researching issues that affect Tibet and the wider Himalayan area. Some of its current topics include tantric medicine, 17th century Scots in the Himalayas—there are similarities between Scotland and Tibet, and I saw an interesting chart comparing the heights of the mountains of the two areas—plant collecting, spirit categories in Afghanistan, and Tibetan divination, which is relevant to this debate. The cross-party group is active, meets regularly and has campaigned on a range of issues. It called, for example, for a portrait of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to be displayed in Holyrood to mark his 80th birthday. Though the conventions in that place unfortunately did not allow for that, I think the suggestion indicates the respect and affection in which the Dalai Lama is held by parliamentarians in Scotland and the wider public.
Tibet was the subject of a debate in Holyrood, which was led by Maureen Watt, the MSP for Aberdeen South and North Kincardine. The debate focused specifically on immolation. By February of last year, there had been 127 reported incidents, and that number is now up to 137. The way Members’ business debates work is not dissimilar to Westminster Hall, only they are debated on a slightly fuller motion than we would have here. The motion said:
“That the Parliament…understands that these actions are largely acts of protest against restrictions on religion, the Tibetan language, access to employment and the degradation of water resources and grazing lands; expresses concern at what it understands has been the state’s attempts to prevent accurate reports of self-immolations reaching the media; condemns what it considers the criminalisation of family members and sometimes witnesses to the incidents; believes that 11 countries urged China to improve the human rights of Tibetans at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on 22 October 2013”.
That demonstrates the consensus. I and my colleagues in this House share the sentiments expressed and put on record our sadness that such numbers of people have felt the need to resort to such dramatic and desperate gestures. The Scottish Government’s response to that debate very clearly condemned human rights abuses, wherever they occur. The Cabinet Secretary for Cultural and Government Affairs said:
“Upholding basic civil and political rights is a core duty of the state, and individuals must be free to celebrate their cultural traditions and demonstrate their faith in any society.”—[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 4 February 2014; c. 27401.]
The Scottish Government recognise the role that China has to play. On a number of occasions when visiting China, Ministers have raised concerns about freedom of religious expression, transparency and access, and the situation in Tibet. Indeed, the Scottish Government’s overall China engagement strategy has four guiding principles: securing sustainable economic growth by building Scotland’s prosperity by strengthening links to China; understanding the culture, including attaching great importance to learning more about the culture through a memorandum of understanding; increasing the influence we can have; and, most relevantly for the debate, respecting human rights and the rule of law, supporting China’s process of modernisation and internal reform, and the need to balance the demands of economic development with social justice.
In Scotland, we are justly proud of our reputation for ethical business practices, human rights and the rule of law. We want to continue to share our experiences wherever we can. Key to “Scotland’s National Action Plan for Human Rights” is ensuring that we all play a part in building a better world, giving effect to our international obligations at home and abroad. That hopefully demonstrates that many of the broad concerns expressed in today’s debate and elsewhere in the House over the years are being taken seriously and acted on by our colleagues north of the border.
I will finish with some personal reflections. As part of a crowd of some 4,000 people in the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre, I saw the Dalai Lama 11 years ago when he visited Scotland. I was struck by how, even with such a vast crowd, he appeared to be addressing each of us individually. It is important to recognise the importance of spiritual leaders to the world. Today, Pope Francis has released an encyclical that includes a radical and prophetic call for environmental justice and care for creation. That is particularly important when we consider pollution and climate change, particularly in the Himalayan region that the hon. Member for Leeds North East spoke about. My maiden speech was on the theme of justice and peace around the world, and peace must be built on respect for human rights and democracy, whether in Tibet or elsewhere. The dignity of human beings and their fundamental right to be agents of their own destiny are hugely important, and that should be the start and ending point of any such debate.
Thank you, Mr Gray. It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship. You have just demonstrated its great clarity in making that decision. It is also a pleasure to follow the spokesperson for the Scottish National party, who gave us a good picture of what is going on in Scotland, which is replicated across all the regions and nations of the United Kingdom. In this Chamber, we are concerned to look at how the United Kingdom and its Government respond on our behalf on this important matter.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), who has been a doughty campaigner on Tibetan rights for many years. We got the full sense of that through the comprehensive way in which he laid out the issues in terms of the international perspective and the UK perspective, as well as issues more germane to our domestic policy.
I want to pick up on the words of Sarah Sewall, the US Government’s Under-Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights, because they capture the essence of the issue. Speaking at an event recently, she said:
“The problem of Tibet is, of course, also a problem for China. For the United States, just as for many countries represented here today, China is a vital strategic partner, and we welcome its participation and leadership in the web of international norms, laws and practices that have helped preserve global stability since the end of World War II. As we look at the past 70 years, one of the key long term lessons is the cost and fragility of the repressive state. Thus, as we look for China to play a growing role in the international community, we also look for it to abide by its international commitments with respect to the human rights of people in Tibet.”
That captures the challenges of the moment and of our time. China is an important strategic partner, and the Chinese people are terribly important to the world’s future, but if China is to be a truly modern state, taking its place in the world and showing the leadership I am sure the Chinese Premier wishes it to, it needs to step up to the plate and behave in a way that recognises the human rights of others.
In a sense, Tibet is symbolic of all that. China will have to get its head around how to respond to Tibet in a 21st century way, so that it does not become or remain a repressive state, because as a repressive state it cannot realise its full potential and take its full place in the world. That is an issue not only for the Tibetan people but for the Chinese people—it is a global issue.
We have an excellent Minister who I am sure will rise to the challenge when he responds. The UK Government, in various manifestations, have a good record on Tibet. That does not mean that they please everyone or that there are not voices saying, “The UK Government should be doing more,” and it is right and proper that the voices in this debate have tested the Government, but they have a good record on Tibet. I am confident and hopeful that, when he responds, the Minister will give us a strong sense of forward direction in friendship and support of both the Tibetan and Chinese peoples, because they are important not only for us, but for the world.
Thank you for allowing me to join the debate rather late, Mr Gray.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) on securing this debate. As has already been said, he has done a tremendous amount of work and advocacy in support of the people of Tibet over the years. Having visited Tibet himself and worked with the exiled Tibetan community in Dharamshala, he provides valuable insight. I was present for his speech in the Chamber last year on International Human Rights Day, when he conveyed the profound beauty of Tibet, which too often provides the backdrop for scenes of grotesque suffering. I will return to that.
I should begin by stating that China’s sovereignty is not in question. We recognise Tibet as part of China, but we support genuine autonomy for Tibet and recognise that that is what His Holiness the Dalai Lama is seeking. The Dalai Lama’s middle-way approach is about not independence, but autonomy that respects the rights and culture of Tibet. Of course, they are not currently being protected, as we heard in compelling detail from my hon. Friend. China must recognise that a more authoritarian approach will not strengthen its sovereignty; it will only diminish its moral authority.
The international community must raise concerns about the treatment of Tibet, but we recognise that the issues can be resolved only by meaningful dialogue between the Chinese Government and representatives of the Dalai Lama. Disappointingly, we are now into the fifth year without talks, making it all the more important that both the UK and the EU do everything they can to promote a resumption of dialogue. Will the Minister tell us what the Government are currently doing on that front?
Autonomy is a matter for China and Tibet, but human rights should be a concern for all nations and all peoples. As we have heard, freedom of expression is severely restricted in Tibet: websites are blocked and violence and intimidation are used as means of repression. There have also been worrying signs that the situation is deteriorating, with China expanding its police and military presence. Tibetans’ religion and loyalty to the Dalai Lama is a particular concern to China, and over the past year we have seen greater efforts to restrict religious expression. Photos of the Dalai Lama are banned, and so too are songs praising him; monks are at particular risk of persecution and must seek permission to travel; and nuns have been expelled from their nunnery for refusing to denounce the Dalai Lama.
In March, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief warned that China’s actions are
“really destroying the autonomy of religious communities”.
Tibetans’ cultural identity is also being undermined: their language is under threat, their flag is banned, and last year China announced a programme to help local artists to
“form a correct view of art”—
chilling words. In addition, musicians are being detained on charges of separatism. We have heard about the Chineseification of Tibet, and it is feared that the development of Lhasa and the InterContinental resort will mean that Tibetan culture is further subjugated.
Those deemed to be on the wrong side of the authorities have been subject to excessive force—we have heard about the number of political prisoners, many of whom have died from injuries sustained in prison. Last August, Tibetans protesting against the detention of village leader Dema Wangdak were met with tear gas and live ammunition. Protestors have been injured and jailed for demonstrating against mining, and people have even been jailed for messaging each other about an anti-fur campaign.
There are many other examples—we have heard some from my hon. Friend—but the self-immolations are the most shocking evidence of the extent to which freedom of expression and peaceful protest are restricted in Tibet, as well as of the length to which people will go to try to make their cause heard. Last month, a mother of two children resorted to self-immolation. The Chinese authorities reportedly then arrested a family member and ordered others to lie about her death.
There were at least 10 self-immolations last year, and there have already been five this year, bringing the known total to 140, the majority of whom will have died. As I said in the debate in December last year, self-immolation is a harrowing indictment of human rights in Tibet, and it is shameful that it continues. Criminalising bereaved relatives is not preventing the self-immolations—of course, it would not. The solution is dialogue with the Dalai Lama’s representatives and an end to repressive practices. Since December’s debate, there have been further steps backwards. For example, it has been announced that monks and nuns will come under even greater scrutiny and must “educate themselves in patriotism”, and 20 new rules have been issued to prevent perceived “splittist” behaviour.
My hon. Friend mentioned a number of cases. I remember that last year he highlighted the case of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, whom he mentioned again today, a senior monk whose death sentence on false charges was commuted to life imprisonment. There are serious concerns about his deteriorating health. Last year, the Minister told us that he shared our concerns about Tenzin Delek’s conviction and wellbeing, and said that he had urged the consideration of parole on medical grounds. Last week, the Tibet Society issued an urgent appeal because the parole request has still not been considered. I hope that we hear from the Minister on that.
Over recent months, and indeed years, there has been very little progress, stalled talks and a number of worrying developments. China has even sought to put pressure on other Governments and isolate the Dalai Lama, as we saw after the Prime Minister rightly met the Dalai Lama, and when South Africa denied His Holiness a visa to attend the peace summit for Nobel laureates.
Tibetans have tried to protest their cause peacefully, with dignity and restraint, but China’s failure to engage and steadfast refusal to consider genuine autonomy suggests that it does not recognise such a measured approach. It is a missed opportunity for China to reach a positive agreement that enables Tibetans to live peacefully in accordance with their culture and religion in a stable Chinese Tibet autonomous region. China is also missing the opportunity to demonstrate to the international community that it can engage on human rights, and that it is a genuinely outward-looking, forward-thinking nation with a leading role to play in the international community.
China’s global role is not in doubt. The UK values our bilateral relationship with China. We want a strong partnership, and the Government should look to work constructively with China on a whole range of strategic issues, as is happening in some areas. Nevertheless, we cannot let that work inhibit us when it comes to universal principles of human rights. The Government cannot allow the UK’s message on human rights to be undermined by an inconsistent approach. Of course, it is somewhat difficult for the UK Government to send that message to China when they themselves are threatening to renege on international human right agreements—although perhaps that is a debate for another time.
We heard in the debate in December—the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s latest human rights and democracy report also emphasises this—that the Government continue to raise Tibet as part of the UK- China human rights dialogue. That should be an important part of our bilateral relationship, yet the dialogue seemed to be held rather sporadically during the previous Parliament; indeed, my understanding is that China cancelled some sessions. Will the Minister advise us on how effective he thinks the dialogues have been, and on the extent to which he feels China has taken our concerns on board? We know that the Government have urged the Chinese authorities to exercise restraint in Tibet, but does he think that they have done so, and, if so, was that in response to the Government’s urging?
From what we have heard today, it does not seem that the UK has been particularly influential. I appreciate that it is not an easy task, but is the Minister able to tell us what progress he thinks the Government can make during President Xi Jinping’s state visit later this year? Was the decision to invite the President a response to agreement from the Chinese Government on any areas of concern? Encouragingly, the FCO’s human rights and democracy report noted that a UK diplomat had been granted permission to visit the Tibet autonomous region—the first such visit for three years. I would be grateful for any information the Minister has on China’s response to the UK’s request for unrestricted access for international journalists, non-governmental organisations and diplomats. Can he also confirm that the Government have made representations in support of a visit from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who has, we understand, been in discussions with China directly?
My hon. Friend touched on several other issues. During December’s debate, a number of hon. Members expressed concerns about the impact of mining in Tibet, not least following Greenpeace’s report exposing illegal mining on the Tibetan plateau; Tibetans have faced severe punishments for challenging that mining. The Minister had limited time during the last debate and was unable to comment in detail on that, but I am sure that he has enough time now to tell us whether the UK has had any discussions with Chinese authorities or with mining companies on those mining operations.
Tibet was described earlier as an environmental barometer and is sometime called the third pole. Its susceptibility to climate change makes it all the more important that China demonstrates responsible environmental stewardship as part of its welcome international commitments to tackling climate change. With the Paris talks taking place in December, this year is incredibly important for international climate dialogue. China has made some welcome moves towards taking a stronger position in Paris this year, but has Tibet, given its particular environmental sensitivities, formed part of the discussions?
Finally, my hon. Friend mentioned the Nepal earthquake, which also led to people in Tibet losing their lives. The impact on Tibetan refugees in Nepal is important, and I hope that the Minister touches on that.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) both on his re-election—I am sorry that he was not elected to the chairmanship of the Select Committee on International Development—and on securing a second debate on Tibet, maintaining the momentum that followed the debate in Westminster Hall on 10 December last year. I said during that debate that Tibet commands great interest and that such matters should continue to be raised regularly in the House. I am glad that he took me at my word and has given us the opportunity to debate the issue in greater detail this afternoon.
The UK’s relationship with China—I gently remind the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) that the UK or British Government handle relations with overseas countries—is both strong and important. Our co-operation on shared interests and challenges is broadening and deepening by the day. We have a shared interest in a peaceful and prosperous China, which includes Tibet. Let me reaffirm that it is the clear position of the British Government that Tibet is part of the People’s Republic of China, and that we do not support Tibetan independence. The Prime Minister reaffirmed that position during the UK-China summit in June 2014. I am aware that some hon. Members—and indeed some who follow Tibet closely—question the UK’s stance, but the Dalai Lama himself has publicly said that he does not call for independence. I wish to state the Government’s position, and that of the official Opposition, publicly and clearly to avoid any ambiguity.
As the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs told the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on 10 June, our relationship with China has never been closer. We engage on a wide range of subjects, both in areas where we work closely together and in others where we may have different views. China is now the UK’s 6th largest export partner, and the UK is Europe’s No. 1 destination for Chinese foreign direct investment. Visa applications are up 20% year on year. 2015 will be a particularly important year; it started with His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge’s visit to China in March, will culminate in President Xi’s state visit to the UK in October, and is punctuated by a range of dialogues. Such high-level visits and dialogues are a key part of our engagement with China. They are underpinned by concrete commitments, activities and shared agendas, all of which help to deliver a partnership for growth, reform and innovation in the interests of shared prosperity and security in the UK, China and the world.
I want to turn to Tibet and human rights, which many hon. Members rightly raised, but before I do, I should like to mention the devastating Nepal earthquake in April. Its effects were felt in the wider region, including in Tibet, where a number of people lost their lives and at least 2,500 people were relocated to temporary settlements. I extend the Government’s deepest condolences to all those who have lost family and loved ones. Like the UK, China has responded quickly to the international effort and has been involved in search-and-rescue attempts and offered medical assistance. Within China, the central Government have also released emergency funds to help reconstruction in Tibet.
Despite the pressures that natural disasters and other challenges may bring, I am pleased to report that rapid economic growth has raised living standards across China and has improved access to a range of social and economic rights. In Tibet, investment in education, healthcare and employment has led to a doubling in life expectancy since the early 1950s. It is essential that that growth across China, including in Tibet, is underpinned by the rule of law and full respect for human rights, as guaranteed by the Chinese constitution. We watched China’s fourth plenum with interest; we welcomed President Xi’s commitment to move to a more independent, transparent and professional legal system, and the further commitment to ensure that China is ruled according to the law, with human rights fully protected, by 2020.
Of course, as the Chinese Government have acknowledged, proper implementation of the announced reforms will be paramount. That is why the UK is sharing with the Chinese authorities its own experiences, many ongoing, of domestic legal reforms, and why we continue to raise cases of alleged human rights violations directly with Chinese officials at all levels, at the United Nations Human Rights Council, and at the annual UK-China human rights dialogue, the 22nd round of which took place in Beijing in April, focusing on judicial reform and identifying common ground for future co-operation.
Specifically on Tibet, the Chinese Government have been clear in their commitment that Tibetans should share the same social and economic rights as the rest of China. Nevertheless, we have specific and long-standing concerns, particularly in three areas, all of which should be protected under the Chinese constitution. First are ethnic minority rights, because everyone must have the right to enjoy their own unique culture and language, wherever they live, without fear of discrimination. Second is freedom of religion or belief, which is one of this Government’s core human rights priorities. Third is freedom of expression.
The hon. Member for Leeds North East mentioned counter-terrorism. We have a regular dialogue with China on such issues, and held the last round of the UK-China counter-terrorism dialogue in London. Through the EU, we have contributed comments on proposed legislation, including non-governmental organisation laws, and we continue to monitor the development of such laws extremely closely.
As in the debate in December, much focus this afternoon has been on freedom of expression. We remain concerned that many individuals are detained for the peaceful expression of their views. Many hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and the hon. Member for Leeds North East, mentioned Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, who was discussed during the human rights dialogue in April and who continues to suffer from ill health in detention. We again urge the Chinese authorities to ensure that, while detained, all such people have access to adequate medical care or, in severe cases such as Tenzin’s, are released on medical parole.
Several self-immolations in Tibetan areas have been reported in the past few years. Disproportionate force, sometimes lethal, is also reported to have been used to disrupt peaceful protests. We maintain our belief that the best way to address and resolve the underlying differences between Tibetan communities and the Chinese Government is meaningful dialogue. We have made that point in our discussions with the Chinese Government, including in our annual human rights dialogue. We will continue to work with China for the protection of citizens’ constitutional rights, in line with the international frameworks to which China is a party.
Various hon. Members raised the issue of the Panchen Lama, which we continue to raise with Chinese authorities. We have urged them to ensure that the restrictions on his freedom of movement and communication are lifted, so that he may select the career, education or religious life of his choosing, wherever he is. We continue to support calls by the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child for the relevant authorities to facilitate a meeting between the Panchen Lama and independent international observers.
A number of hon. Members talked about issues to do with the Tibetan plateau. I assure the House that we continue to work closely with the Chinese Government on all environmental issues. As set out in the UK-China joint statement on climate change, our shared objective is agreement of an ambitious global deal from the international negotiations in Paris this year, alongside substantial domestic action to reduce emissions. We also encourage the adoption of better governance in the extractive industries. It is important that high standards are applied throughout China, including in the Tibetan autonomous region, and by Chinese companies operating internationally.
As part of our dialogue and co-operation, we have made it clear that improving understanding through international access to Tibet is important, both for diplomats and for the wider international community, including journalists. We are disappointed that foreign journalists and diplomats are regularly refused access to the Tibetan autonomous region. We regularly visit ethnic minority groups, including in Tibetan areas, and we continue to press for access to the Tibetan autonomous region. As the hon. Member for Bristol East pointed out, a British diplomat was granted access to the TAR in June 2014 for the first time in three years. In answer to her question, we have one request pending and Her Majesty’s ambassador in Beijing is also considering an application.
In answer to the hon. Lady’s other question, three UN special rapporteurs intend to visit China this year, although their schedules remain unknown: the special rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; the special rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation; and the independent expert on the effects of foreign debt. China has also invited the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to visit, but dates are still being agreed.
Finally, I will respond to the points made about the Dalai Lama. Let me reaffirm that the Government regard the Dalai Lama as an important religious figure and esteemed Nobel laureate. He has visited the UK on numerous occasions, and I understand that he is headlining at Glastonbury in the run-up to his 80th birthday in July. As to any protection required by the Dalai Lama or his party, visits of that sort—as the House knows—are subject to a routine threat assessment. We will certainly be keeping this and subsequent visits under review.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who is not in the Chamber, raised the issue of the Confucius Institutes and the Chinese cultural centres. We are strongly supportive of links between educational institutions in the UK and China. It is true that we have seen significant growth in student numbers from both sides. Our higher education institutions have a great deal of autonomy and the right to accept funding from where they see fit. That said, a commitment to free speech is at the heart of UK educational philosophy, and the autonomy of educational institutions is extremely important. The Confucius Institutes have been raised with me before. For the record, we are not aware of any evidence to suggest that they are compromising those principles in the UK, but we remain alert to any impropriety or allegations of impropriety.
The hon. Member for Leeds North East spoke about the World Service, and he will be aware of its new arrangements. It will make an assessment of where its funds are best employed and where it can reach the best audiences. I suggest that he approaches the World Service himself; it is for the Foreign Secretary to agree, rather than to initiate, where new World Service broadcasts should be made.
In conclusion, I fundamentally disagree with those who say that we are neglecting the interests of Tibetans. A broad, deep, equal partnership with a strong China is a prerequisite for being able to discuss sensitive issues such as Tibet. We will continue to do that as we deepen our relationship with China—a relationship that is in all our interests. I thank the hon. Member for Leeds North East for providing the opportunity to debate this important issue and allowing me to restate the Government’s position. I have a sneaking feeling that this is a subject to which he and other hon. Members will return—quite properly—on a regular basis.
I thank all hon. Members who have contributed this afternoon. I thank the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), for her speech and the Minister for his responses to my points and those of other hon. Members.
As the Minister says, the subject will continue to be debated in this place—rightly so. As long as this Parliament is the centre of free speech and debate in our nation, I am absolutely sure that the rights of the Tibetan people will be one of the subjects with which we will be concerned, until any injustices are put right. I thank everyone for this afternoon’s contributions, and I hope that we will be able to debate this subject again in future and see progress on behalf of the Tibetan people.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Tibet.