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Tibet (Reciprocal Access)

Volume 663: debated on Tuesday 23 July 2019

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to report annually on restrictions on access by UK nationals to Tibet in comparison with other regions of China; to make provision to deny persons involved in imposing such restrictions permission to enter the UK; and for connected purposes.

In May, in my role as chair of the all-party group for Tibet, I attended the seventh world parliamentary convention on Tibet in Riga, Latvia, together with the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), who I am delighted is in the Chamber today. We joined parliamentarians from around the world, representatives of the Tibetan Parliament in exile based in Dharamshala, and His Excellency Lobsang Sangay, the Sikyong or President of the Central Tibetan Administration since 2012. We were pleased to receive the Sikyong in this place, and that he met you, Mr Speaker, just a few weeks ago.

At the convention, we discussed continued human rights abuses of Tibetans at the hands of Chinese security forces; the routine intimidation of Tibetans, their supporters and the Dalai Lama himself around the world; the assaults on the Tibetan language, and the culture, religious practices and way of life of Tibetans generally; and the continued population transfer of Chinese into Tibet to dilute and smother further the Tibetan identity. We also debated at length the environmental degradation being waged on the Tibetan plateau, which has led to an unprecedented number of natural disasters, caused by the impact of excessive and unsustainable mineral extraction and dam construction in an area whose rivers service some 40% of the world’s population; as well as the accumulation of waste and the dumping of toxic waste on the plateau and in Tibet’s waters. We discussed, too, the tragic self-immolation of more than 150 Tibetans in protest against Chinese persecution in Tibet, and the continued human rights abuses generally.

We all signed up to the Riga declaration, which requests China

“give unimpeded access to Tibet to foreign journalists, scholars and researchers, diplomats and other foreign citizens, including those of Tibetan origin.

To cease its policies and practices that harm the natural environment of the Tibetan Plateau.

And to resume the dialogue with envoys of His Holiness the Dalai Lama without preconditions”,

because the Tibetan struggle has always been a peaceful one.

A few days before the convention, I received a phone call from a senior official at the Chinese embassy in London, strongly suggesting that I should not be going to Riga, that I should not be consorting with such people and that I should rethink my plans, because everything is fine in Tibet, and that is plain for all to see. Basically, I was told, “You don’t want to go Riga, Mr Loughton, do you?” I responded politely that his entreaties had made me even more determined to attend the convention and I asked why, rather than intimidating parliamentarians, the Chinese Government do not sit down to talk to us.

I again invited the Chinese ambassador to attend a meeting of the all-party group for Tibet and indicated that a group of us would be delighted to be hosted in Tibet so that the Chinese Government can show us at first hand how everything in Tibet is just fine. Subsequently, I wrote twice to His Excellency Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese ambassador in London, but I await a reply, even though the ambassador has found time to attend numerous other all-party group meetings in this place and various other events in recent months.

We should not be surprised, however, by that behaviour by the Chinese. Their record on human rights, cultural tolerance and the environment is deplorable, which is why they do not want people from outside finding out what goes on in the inside. Foreigners including British and EU citizens, and Americans require a number of special authorisations and permits in addition to a Chinese visa to enter the Tibet autonomous region, which spans about half of Tibet. For those who do get in, a Government-appointed guide must accompany them, and during politically sensitive periods the region is completely closed to foreigners. Such closures have occurred regularly since a wave of mostly peaceful protest swept across the Tibetan plateau ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Foreign diplomats, parliamentarians, journalists and even UN officials are almost always denied visits to the region, other than on rare official tours carefully orchestrated by the Chinese authorities. At the same time, Tibetans are regularly prevented from travelling outside China, and those passing information abroad are punished severely. A prominent example is Tashi Wangchuk, a young language rights advocate who last year was sentenced to five years in prison, just for giving an interview to The New York Times about his efforts to protect Tibetans’ mother tongue. The UK ambassador in Beijing has not been able to visit the Tibet autonomous region since 2017, and is still waiting for permission to travel. Trips by officials and tourists are always closely managed, and travel permits are often withdrawn at short notice.

Sadly, such restrictions are even harsher for European citizens of Tibetan heritage, many of whom are refugees who escaped from Tibet and are specifically targeted by and discriminated against by Chinese embassies and consulates when they apply for a travel permit. That cruelly prevents many of them being able to see their families, from whom in many cases they have been separated for a long time.

Recently we have seen the latest attempts at repression by the Chinese authorities in Hong Kong, and the brave resistance of millions of Hong Kong citizens. Less graphically we have been given limited access to the appalling abuses in the Xinjiang region of China, where more than 1 million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other primarily Muslim minorities are detained in concentration camps that are cynically dressed up as re-education schools. Families are being split up and thousands of children are being taken into state care. But we must not be distracted from the long-term protracted suffering of the Tibetan people; in the 60 years since the occupation and invasion, more than 1 million Tibetans have lost and continue to lose their lives.

We can no longer sit idly by. All attempts to shed light on human rights abuses through the universal periodic review of the UN Human Rights Council have been snubbed, and they continue unabated and largely in secret. The Foreign Press Association has reported that it is easier for Beijing-based journalists to visit North Korea than to visit Tibet.

Chinese authorities take advantage of our freedoms in the west to travel freely and spread their propaganda, but routinely refuse to reciprocate. That must stop. Recognising this, in December 2018 the United States adopted the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act, which promotes access to Tibetan areas for American diplomats, journalists and ordinary citizens—just as their Chinese counterparts enjoy in the US. Despite Chinese denunciation of this law, the legislation already appears to have made an impact, as Chinese state media are now reporting that Beijing has decided to adopt a faster process for foreign tourists to receive permits to enter Tibet. This landmark Act had cross-party support and was unanimously approved by the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in December. It was sponsored by Republican Senator Rubio and Democrat Senator Bob Menendez, and even President Trump welcomed it.

My Bill mirrors the US Act. I will shortly be publishing the draft Bill, replacing references to “US” with “UK” and “State Department” with “Foreign Office”, and making other appropriate adjustments. It will also include a recommendation for the UK Government formally to request that the UN Special Committee on Decolonization considers Tibet. Given that China is part of that committee, it would therefore need to recuse itself. I hope that request will be taken seriously.

My Bill requires the Foreign Office to report to Parliament annually regarding the level of access that Chinese authorities grant to UK diplomats, journalists and tourists to Tibetan areas in China. Such assessment shall include: a comparison with the level of access granted to other areas of China; a comparison between the levels of access granted to Tibetan and non-Tibetan areas in relevant provinces; a comparison of the level of access in the reporting year and the previous year; and a description of the measures that impede the freedom to travel in Tibetan areas.

Under this legislation, no individual who is substantially involved in the formulation or execution of policies related to access for foreigners to Tibetan areas may enter the United Kingdom if: the requirement that foreigners must receive official permission to enter the Tibet autonomous region remains in effect or has been replaced by a similar regulation that also requires foreigners to gain a level of permission to enter the Tibet autonomous region that is not required for other provinces; and travel restrictions on United Kingdom diplomats, officials, journalists and citizens to Tibet autonomous areas in Sichuan, Qinghai, Yunnan and Gansu provinces—I apologise to Hansard—are greater than travel restrictions to other areas.

The Bill will also require the Foreign Office to report to Parliament annually, identifying individuals who were blocked from United Kingdom entry during the preceding year and a list of Chinese officials who are substantially involved in the formulation or execution of policies to restrict the access of UK diplomats, journalists and citizens to Tibetan areas.

The Bill mirrors the legislation that has already been passed unanimously by the US Congress. It is time for us, in Europe and the United Kingdom, to take a similar stand to show categorically to China that its continued abuses in Tibet do not go unnoticed or unappreciated, and that we will tolerate them no more.

I am pleased to report that the Bill is co-sponsored by Members representing all the main political parties who have more than one Member in this House—demonstrating the widespread sense of outrage at what China continues to get away with in its continued persecution of Tibet and Tibetans the world over. I commend this Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Tim Loughton, Chris Law, Sir Peter Bottomley, Jim Shannon, Kerry McCarthy, Christine Jardine, Jonathan Edwards, Mike Gapes, Maria Caulfield, Catherine West, Fiona Bruce and Marion Fellows present the Bill.

Tim Loughton accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 429).