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Persecution of Buddhists: Tibet

Volume 742: debated on Thursday 14 December 2023

[Valerie Vaz in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of the persecution of Buddhists in Tibet.

First, I thank hon. and right hon. Members for being here. I also want to put on record my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to this debate. We have some people in the Public Gallery today who have an interest in issues around persecution and in particular of Buddhists in Tibet. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) is here. In all the time I have known her—my time in the House is the same as hers—she has always had a particular interest in Nepal. I am very pleased to see her here to participate and to add her vast knowledge of the subject to the debate.

I am not yet quite sure who the Minister is. I am sure he is on his way. There may be other things happening and there may be a change of ministership as we sit here. Who knows? Whoever the Minister is, they will no doubt make a contribution shortly.

On a point of order, Ms Vaz. What happens if the Minister is not in his or her place? This is the first time this has happened to me since I have been a Member, since 2015. Others may have experienced that dereliction of duty, but I have not—and not on such an important subject.

If another Minister or Whip cannot be found in time, the Parliamentary Private Secretary should be advised to take notes and rise at the end to make apologies on the Minister’s behalf. They should inform hon. Members that the Minister will respond to the points made. PPSs cannot make specific speeches on behalf of the Government, but I am sure the hon. Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew), who I know is very assiduous, will make an assiduous note.

I thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), for that clarity. It is important that we have that; she is right. With these debates, we do not fill in a Thursday afternoon just because we have a bit of time; we fill it in because we have subject matter that is important. We are all here for that. We hope the PPS can take copious notes on all the important points and that the Minister, when he or she arrives, makes sure the responses that we seek are the ones that are placed on the record.

I am grateful that we are having this important debate on the persecution of Buddhists in Tibet. The people of Tibet are dear to me, so I find the topic to be of special importance. I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. We speak up for those of Christian faith, those with other faiths and those with no faith. Today, we are speaking for those with other faiths; we are speaking for those who have the Buddhist faith. Buddhists are among our stakeholders on the APPG and they are very important to us.

As the hon. Gentleman mentions that, I wish to pay tribute to him for his work for so many faiths: for the Christian faith, particularly and regularly, but also remembering in China that Buddhists and Muslims are persecuted by a vicious regime. The hon. Gentleman is more assiduous than any other Member in the House, with the possible exception of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce).

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. He and I share a similar faith and in this House we both realise that we serve a greater person—a greater God. Our job in this place is to do that, and we do so faithfully for all religious views as well.

A delegation was organised by the APPG, and I understand that the hon. Member for Congleton has also been in Nepal on two occasions. I am quite sure that from those delegations we have learned much about the situation of Tibetan refugees in Nepal, many of whom are unable to obtain official documentation. The significance of what happens in Nepal towards Buddhists and other religious minorities is particularly worrying. The situation is ongoing, which troubles me. It is clear that more must be done to ensure that all Tibetan refugees in Nepal and, indeed, in Tibet find access to Government services and assistance, which necessitates documentation.

In Tibet itself, persecution of Buddhists has been going on for some time. The persecution includes general cultural and linguistic oppression, as well as forced imprisonment and other grave human rights violations. According to the US State Department’s 2021 report on international religious freedom in relation to China, Buddhist monks and nuns in Tibet receive forced political education and face almost total regulation of their religious activities.

In essence, the Chinese Communist party, as the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg) in his intervention reminded us, actively seeks to control the religious affairs of Tibetan Buddhists and people of other faiths, including the Muslim faith, across China. What is happening to the Uyghur Muslims is, in my opinion, nothing short of genocide.

In essence, the Chinese Communist party tries to take control of all religious affairs of Tibetan Buddhists and has been shown to do to other religious groups something similar. There are direct violations of article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, which we commemorated just last week. It was important that we put down a marker on the 75th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights, which we did at many events.

China and the Chinese Communist party hold thousands of prisoners, political and otherwise, in Tibet; many are religious figures. Although there are not many details about prisons, it is known that many political prisoners are held in Tibet. The report to which I have referred suggests that some 1,800 were held in 2021, but it is estimated that the number may be even greater, and we suspect that it is. Free Tibet reports human rights violations in prisons, including torture and the denial of medical treatment and legal assistance. Unfortunately, this follows a predictable pattern of and in China, as can be seen in Xinjiang province, where Uyghur Muslims are detained in nothing short of detention camps. Some millions of people may well be detained.

In addition to its legal requirements under international law commitments, the UK has, I believe, a moral obligation to call out these abuses and to work for change, which is why we seek to have some idea about that from the Minister and her Department. We must, I believe, do more to promote human rights and to relieve the suffering of minority religious and ethnic communities throughout China. Whether someone be a Baha’i, a Christian, a Muslim or a Hindu Indian—whatever the religious or ethnic group of someone in China—China will try to deny their right to worship their God as they so wish.

Monitoring the situation is difficult because of China’s strict hold on communication flow in the region. Little to no foreign presence is allowed in Tibet. When allowed, tours are highly choreographed and limited to specific areas. There is very tight control of what takes place, and the opportunity to have an independent and free religious view is restricted.

Cultural oppression goes hand in hand with what the US State Department describes as the sinicisation of Tibetan Buddhism. These efforts are outlined in Chinese policy, which has been implemented in other areas. The efforts include forcing Mandarin instruction, restricting religious celebrations and pilgrimages, and monitoring closely monasteries and other religious sites. The Dalai Lama, the traditional religious leader of one of the major Buddhist schools in the region, lives in exile in India while China has attempted to take control of the religious and political position, including through the kidnapping of a chosen religious leader, the Panchen Lama. Essentially, the Chinese Communist party seeks to control the religious operations of Tibetan Buddhism through close supervision and control of leadership.

What happens to those of a different religious minority or faith in Tibet and across China is very clear. This Sunday, for instance, everyone in this Chamber can go and worship the God that they wish to worship in the church that they wish to go to. They have that freedom, because that is what we do in this country. Our concern is that that freedom is not there in Tibet. Such cultural oppression is immeasurably damaging to affected communities. With the loss of language and religious heritage comes the loss of local identity: culture, traditions, history and the importance of what people do. We must do all we can to prevent that.

It is good to see the Minister in her place. We look to her for a positive response on this issue. It is a big subject, and we have been seeking a debate for some time: we recognise the need for it to be debated in this House, and for the House to make recommendations that can help those of a Buddhist faith in Tibet and across the whole of China.

During the recent UN forum on minority issues, the nation of Tibet was raised. The contribution from the International Campaign for Tibet was incredibly telling:

“Today, Tibetans face discrimination in all aspects of their lives, including employment, housing, and travel. Unlike their Han Chinese counterparts, they often experience obstacles in obtaining passports and their freedom of movement is severely impeded. Employment opportunities for Tibetans often provide substandard salaries.”

Truly, to be a Buddhist in Tibet—indeed, to be a Tibetan in Tibet—is to be a second-class citizen in one’s own country.

“In recent years, the Tibetan language has also been significantly marginalized – including via a vast boarding school system that separates Tibetan children from their families and enforces Chinese-language curriculum.”

We speak the language of our country here, but if we were Tibetans in Tibet, we could not speak our own language; we could only speak Chinese. That underlines the importance of the issue.

The statement continues:

“Tibetans are increasingly unable to study in their mother tongue, which places them at an educational and economic disadvantage when competing with Han Chinese for career opportunities.”

They do not have the same opportunities when it comes to jobs, health or education.

“This marginalization of Tibetans in the labor market is further compounded by a Han centric development model that exploits Tibet’s natural resources but excludes local Tibetans from input and benefits.”

The Chinese come in, take total control and then bleed Tibet of resources.

“In particular, we are concerned by the forced resettlement of up to 2 million Tibetan nomads, farmers and rural residents.”

The significant number of Tibetans who have been resettled tells us what has been happening in Tibet for some time.

“Tibetans are also vastly underrepresented in leadership positions in party, government, and military, on both provincial and local levels.

It should be noted that the absence of an independent judicial system and lack of access to justice for Tibetans, and overall, the implementation of elements of totalitarian rule by the Chinese authorities, have led to a pervasive climate of fear that precludes the assumption of free, prior and informed consent given by those affected by state measures.”

That gives hon. Members an idea of the control and suppression of individual liberty, freedom and rights. It tells us what has happened to their human rights, including the right to worship in the way they wish. I hope that this part of my speech has outlined the case clearly.

The gravity of the situation is clear. I had a look at a poster entitled “Tibet in 2023”. It went month by month, outlining the difficulties each month, and unfortunately the months did not get better. In January, it illustrated the arrest of two Tibetans, Tatse and Dhonkho—I hope my pronunciation is correct, or even partially correct. In February, a new cyber-security law was put in place for surveillance and censorship, and there were increased restrictions and phone inspections during the Tibet Losar celebrations. In other words, everything that happens in Tibet is monitored. Everything that Tibetans and Buddhists want to do is restricted. A person cannot even have a cup of tea or breathe their last breath without it being monitored.

Month by month, beatings take place. Rights are eradicated, from censorship to ensuring that university entrance exams be carried out only in Chinese. It goes on and on. That poster represents the tip of the iceberg; it explains just 12 months in which different things were happening. The latest news came out yesterday, when my speech was being written. It was about the arrest of four Tibetans who were involved in stone-carving Buddhist mantras. Really? It was for their faith. Where is the threat in that? Does anybody honestly believe that that is right? It is not, and this debate illustrates that.

I have been clear that this House needs to take greater steps to defend religious freedom and to engage with the Chinese. Sometimes that is frustrating in itself, as they do not seem to want to engage. The Chinese are the masters of propaganda and censorship, but this House will not be silenced. The debate has given us the opportunity to express that, and I call on the Minister and the Government to be the strong voice that we are calling for.

A number of asks have been forwarded to me. I have given them to the hon. Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew), and I ask the Minister how we can help to accomplish them. The first is to protect the right of the Tibetan people and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama to follow their religious tradition in the selection of the 15th Dalai Lama. It is really not too much to ask. It is one of the basic rights that Buddhists seek.

The second ask is to free the Panchen Lama, who has been in detention for some time. The third is to release all Tibetan prisoners of conscience; the majority are from monastic communities, which illustrates exactly why it is important. The fourth is the freedom to practise religious traditions without fear of state persecution; when the state tries to control the very life a person leads, that has to be changed. The fifth is the freedom to learn the Tibetan language—the language that Tibetans love and that they want to use to express themselves. That holds the key to accessing the complete Buddhist canons of the Kangyur and the Tengyur.

The situation for freedom of religious belief in Tibet is grave. The nigh-on total governmental control over religious institutions and the attempts to suppress language and material culture are leading to clear violations of human rights. In these debates, I often say that human rights and freedom from religious persecution are like crossed fingers. They are not separate; they are the same. That is the truth: if somebody is denied their right to worship their God in the way they wish, they are denied their human rights. One follows the other.

I look forward to hearing the contributions of right hon. and hon. Members, including the shadow Minister, and to the Minister’s response. We seek to address these violations from our positions in Westminster Hall and the House of Commons Chamber. Let us be a voice for the voiceless in Tibet, and let that voice be heard loud and clear so that Tibetans and Buddhists have the freedom and the right to worship their God as they wish.

As always, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Vaz.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing it. He is always in his place, but it is good to see him leading a debate rather than being one of the last to speak and having to talk at breakneck speed because he has only three minutes to get his words in. He talked about his membership of the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief; I am also a member of that group, which does excellent work.

I am also an officer of the all-party group for Tibet, which is what brings me here today. It is a very active group: the officers speak quite frequently in the Chamber and ask questions of the Government. In the past year, we have welcomed Sikyong Penpa Tsering, the political leader, to Parliament; we knew his predecessor very well. As the hon. Member for Strangford did, I apologise for my pronunciation: I trust that Hansard will read my notes and will get it right on paper, even if what I am saying bears very little relation to how it is actually pronounced.

We also met Tibetan activist Dr Gyal Lo to talk about Tibetan children being placed in Chinese-style colonial boarding schools, a matter to which the hon. Member for Strangford referred. Several years ago, we made a trip to the Tibetan Parliament in exile in Dharamshala, which was eye-opening. It gave us a chance to speak to so many people who had been displaced from Tibet. We are not allowed to visit Tibet, although we have tried a number of times. I have also been fortunate enough to go to Nepal a couple of times and meet Tibetan people in exile there.

Since my last speech on Tibet in 2020, I would have hoped to see at least some humanitarian improvements in the region, but sadly not. Instead, China has continued to act with impunity, denying the most fundamental human rights to people in Tibet, and has not ceased its vigorous extermination of the Tibetan identity. I will echo the recent statement made by the Sikyong in Dharamshala, the headquarters of the Tibetan Government in exile. His speech was given to a group of Tibetans at the temple there—I am not even going to try to pronounce it—to mark Human Rights Day and the anniversary of the Dalai Lama being awarded the Nobel peace prize. He said that the Chinese Communist party was

“forging a strong sense of the Chinese nation as one single community, promoting the Chinese language, the Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism”

and that

“such infliction of suffering and oppression on the Tibetan people by the Chinese Communist Party authorities is unparalleled and unprecedented.”

It is true that Chinese control in Tibet reaches far beyond what even most would expect. In August this year, a yoghurt festival was met with a police crackdown. Sho Dun, the Tibetan yoghurt festival, is not a one-off; it is an important cultural event, but entirely harmless. It typically includes traditional performances, a feast involving yoghurt, and the unveiling of a large portrait of the Buddha. This year, there was a decidedly different atmosphere, with a heavy Chinese police presence, prohibitions on engagement in religious and public gatherings, and inspection booths to confirm the identities of participants and devotees. That is just one example of the pernicious oppression of the Tibetan people. They cannot even carry out expressions of their cultural identity without the Chinese seeking to stop them.

Over the past decade, Tibetan Buddhism has been seen as a threat to the occupying Chinese state. It has been tightly regulated, with Chinese officials closely monitoring and controlling religious activity at monasteries and nunneries. Religious festivals have been banned more frequently, and Government employees, teachers and students have been barred from participating in religious activities.

Aside from religion, Chinese control of education and the workforce has been extensive and overreaching. Tibetan schools have been closed and the Chinese Government have been accused of trying to forcibly assimilate over 1 million Tibetan children through state-run boarding schools, in an attempt to eliminate Tibet’s distinctive linguistic, cultural and religious traditions. All those things go together. It is not just about the suppression of religious views; it is part and parcel of their whole cultural identity, too.

In April, a group of independent experts within the United Nations human rights system “expressed concern” over China’s alleged practice of having Tibetans “transferred” from their traditional rural lives to low-skilled, low-paid employment since 2015. Although the programme is described as voluntary, experts have said that in practice, participants are being coerced.

As I always do when I speak about Tibet, I will also raise the environmental significance of instability in the region. The Tibetan plateau in the Himalayas is known as the third pole, as home to the largest ice storage outside the north and south poles. As a direct result of global warming, permafrost, the permanently frozen layer on or under the Earth’s surface, is thawing, with potentially devastating consequences for the invaluable water supply that flows into neighbouring superpowers China and India. The Mekong, Yangtze, Ganges and Indus rivers all have their source in Tibet. Some 1.6 billion people are supported by those rivers. If the third pole continues to melt at the same rate, the effects will be felt around the world: whole communities destroyed, an unprecedented refugee crisis and the potential for Indo-Chinese relations to turn increasingly sour with an arms race for resources.

I got back from COP28 on Monday. Events there this week have underlined just how difficult it is to facilitate global action on climate change. The 1.5° target is increasingly in doubt. When the Tibetan people cannot even defend their own environment, cannot speak up for themselves and are having to rely on a hostile force —the Chinese Government—to speak for them, the possibility of their concerns being recognised is even less than it would be for many climate-vulnerable places trying to speak up. We have to consider not just the terrible human rights record of the CCP in Tibet, but the environmental impact of what it is doing.

I remember challenging the Government of the current Foreign Secretary about the UK’s relationship with China back in 2013, when he was Prime Minister. There was quite a bit of fanfare at the time because during the coalition years, the then Business Secretary Vince Cable and the then Foreign Secretary William Hague launched a business and human rights action plan that was supposed to mean that the two things were not separate and that when we were doing business with countries like China, human rights always had to be on the agenda.

In theory, it was a really good move. However, at around that time a Trade Minister in the other place came to the all-party parliamentary China group. I asked him about human rights, but he just said, “That’s nothing to do with me. That’s Foreign Office. I’m just there to do business deals for China,” so it was not working as well in practice as it could have. Of course we want to trade with China—it is incredibly important —but we have to use that trade relationship to exert leverage, because that is the only way we can do so. I will finish by asking the Minister: is that happening? What representations are we making to China, not just about Tibet and the plight of the Buddhists there, but about the Uyghur Muslims, the Falun Gong and the people of Hong Kong? Is that happening across Government, not just in the Foreign Office?

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and, of course, my colleague and friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I thank him for calling this debate and for his dedication to speaking out for those who have no voice and are oppressed, in particular because of their religion or belief. I have the privilege of being the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. However, I will say for the record that I am speaking today in my role as a parliamentarian. I also thank the duty Minister for coming to the debate. I welcome her and look forward to her remarks.

It is a privilege on occasion to have a little more time than one normally has to speak about an issue. If I may, I will first go back to a report produced by the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission when I was the chair in 2016, titled “The Darkest Hour”. It was about the crackdown on human rights in China from 2013-16. There is a chapter on Tibet that quotes from submissions to us:

“Since the Chinese invasion in 1949, an estimated 1.2 million Tibetans have been raped, tortured and murdered, thousands imprisoned and over 6,000 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries destroyed”.

That was according to the submission from Tibet Post International, which also said:

“Every aspect of Tibetan life is under siege and Tibetans have even fewer civil and political rights than Chinese people also ruled by the Communist Party…The regime enforces its control over every aspect through the threat and use of arbitrary punishments, at times including severe violence.”

The Tibet Society submitted to us:

“Tibetans charged with political crimes are often tried in secret, not allowed independent legal representation and evidence against them is extracted by torture”.

Free Tibet submitted:

“a number of political prisoners escaped from Tibet between 2013 and 2016 and provided testimonies about their treatment in prison in the years immediately before 2013, including beatings by police and other security services during interrogation sessions, mock executions, receiving electric shocks during interrogations and being locked in cells that were pitch black or so small that they could not move…several… reported being shackled to a device known as an iron chair, which forces the detainee to bear their entire weight on their wrists and legs. They would be hung from this chair for periods of up to four or five hours at a time, sometimes accompanied by electric shocks and intervals when they are removed from the chair and beaten”.

That was in 2016. In 2020, the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission produced a further report. It was quite difficult to find a title for the report, because we had already called the previous report “The Darkest Moment”. We therefore had to call this one “The Darkness Deepens: The Crackdown on Human Rights in China from 2016-2020”. In summary, regarding Tibet, we noted that:

“Repression in Tibet has intensified…Torture and ill-treatment are widespread and continue with impunity…Images of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan flag are banned…‘There are more foreign journalists in North Korea that Tibet’, according to Tibet Post International…Reporters Without Borders listed Tibet 176 out of 180 in its Press Freedom Index…Freedom House lists Tibet as among the worst in the world, with the lowest score for civil and political rights…Restrictions on the use of Tibetan language create discrimination”


“Thousands of homes…destroyed in the Buddhist communities of Larung Gar and Yarchen Gar”.

I will give a bit more detail about those examples. There was destruction of homes and forced removal of people from several areas on a mass scale, in the two places that I just mentioned, for example. Free Tibet and Tibet Watch indicated that the removal of communities in Larung Gar and Yarchen Gar had been “drastically escalated” in the past four years. In the four years to 2020, 4,828 residents were removed from Larung Gar, 4,725 buildings were demolished and those

“who were removed were required to sign documents stating that they would not return”.

Some were driven many miles away—some even 1,700 km away. In this report, the Conservative Human Rights Commission concluded with the warning:

“As international attention increasingly focuses on the atrocity crimes against the Uyghurs”


“the destruction of freedoms and autonomy in Hong Kong…there is a danger that Tibet could get forgotten…it is vital that this does not happen, and that the egregious human rights violations in Tibet receive the attention they deserve”.

That warning was given in 2020, and, sadly, those words were all too prescient, because the atrocities that have been meted out in Tibet have not received the attention they deserve. While an increasingly and rightly intense international spotlight—including from the UK—has been focused on the plight of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, it has not been focused on Tibet with the intensity with which it should have been. That includes by us in the UK.

I know that the duty Minister will respond in a number of ways and will read out that we are concerned about human rights violations in Tibet, including the restrictions on freedom of religion or belief and on freedom of assembly or association, as well as reports of forced labour. Speaking as a parliamentarian, however, I say that the words we are using simply do not express enough concern.

The Minister will no doubt comment that in June 2022 the UK and 46 other countries made a joint statement at the UN Human Rights Council on the human rights situation in Tibet, and called on the Chinese authorities to abide by their human rights obligations. I have that statement in front of me—just one line refers to Tibet, and even that does not do so exclusively. The exact words are:

“We also continue to be gravely concerned about the deterioration of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong and the human rights situation in Tibet.”

The Minister may also refer to the fact that in September 2023 the UK raised a specific issue of the boarding schools—that have been referred to by other hon. Members—in a national statement at the UN’s 54th Human Rights Council. Again, I have that statement here, and again, Tibet is mentioned in just one line of a much longer statement referring to a number of other countries. Once again, even in that line Tibet is not referred to exclusively. It reads:

“Systematic violations persist in Xinjiang and Tibet, where the UN reports a million Tibetan children have been separated from their families to assimilate them into Han culture.”

There are hardly words to describe what is happening. The fact, as reported by the UN—an authoritative source with experts who have looked into this—that around a million Tibetan children are being removed from their families to be compulsorily re-educated. I have heard that that involves children as young as two years old; we are speaking of very young children here in many cases. The UN experts indicated that that points to

“the vast majority of Tibetan children”

so we are talking about a generation losing their familiarity with their native language and the ability to communicate easily with their parents. I have heard that those children might be allowed back home for a short time after, say, three months. They then find that they cannot understand what their parents are saying—they have lost the ability to communicate. That contributes to the erosion of the identity of those children of the Tibetan people, and is contrary to their educational, linguistic, cultural, and other minority rights, freedom of religion or belief, and to the prohibition of discrimination.

In fact, the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide—there is no stronger crime—states:

“Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group”

is genocide when committed

“with intent to destroy…a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.

We need to use much stronger words when we are speaking about such issues. I know that might not always be possible in formal UN statements, but there is nothing to stop us speaking about them outside that environment in a way that reflects the absolute misery that these children must be suffering.

The Minister may also refer to the UK co-ordinating with partners to draw international attention to the human rights situation in Tibet—most recently in the November 2023 G7 statement. I also have that statement in front of me and my staff have done a search for “Tibet”. It is several pages long, ranging across the world with whole paragraphs covering concerns relating to individual countries. There is half a line on Tibet—again, not exclusively. It reads:

“We also remain concerned about the human rights situation in…Xinjiang and Tibet.”

Meanwhile, the abuse in Tibet continues. The language being used to condemn it is wholly inadequate. Will the Minister please review how we refer to what is happening in Tibet?

We need to speak out more strongly, because words do matter. Only yesterday, Ben Rogers, a long-time authority on this region, and indeed, the vice-chair of the Conservative party’s human rights commission when I was chair, spoke on this issue. He was largely responsible for the research, drafting and production of the reports I have referred to, and he said that China shows consistently that it does take note of international criticism, and that pressure, public statements, and where necessary, sanctions, are important. What more will our Government do to call out those concerns?

We have just commemorated the 75th anniversary of the genocide convention, sagely saying, “Never again”, but it is happening again for the Tibetans. Their centuries-old ethno-national identity, religion and cultural heritage are seen by the Chinese Communist party as disloyalty and a threat to the state, so they are being systematically and comprehensively erased.

Why and how? Because the decades-long occupation of Tibet has happened with inadequate protest from the world and while the Chinese have refined their tactics for suppressing an entire people. As Nury Turkel, commissioner for the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, says chillingly:

“It became efficient at eradicating culture and independence while evoking very little protest from the world.”

I recommend Nury Turkel’s excellent and well-informed book, “No Escape”. Chen Quanguo honed the oppressive techniques now being used in Xinjiang in Tibet, with far too little outcry from the world.

Hitler said:

“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

The world looked away, and Hitler then invaded Poland and began his genocide of the Jewish people, allowing authoritarians to keep persecuting, and the world looked away. The world is now too often doing the same with Tibet, as China brushes aside and away the heritage, culture and identity of Tibetans, only now using facilities that were unheard of only a generation ago: digital dictatorship, technology for mass surveillance, artificial intelligence, and spying, even on children, using electronic devices.

I will refer now to the work of the religious and cultural heritage working group of the International Religious Freedom of Belief Alliance, which I had the privilege to chair until I handed the baton over just yesterday to the ambassador from the Czech Republic, Robert Řehák, who will take over as chair for 2024. That working group on religious and cultural heritage has been co-led by my deputy special envoy, David Burrows, and he took the opportunity at the recent ministerial meeting on freedom of religion or belief in Prague just two weeks ago to speak of his concerns about the weaponisation of the Tibetans’ cultural heritage by the Chinese. He explained that the Chinese authorities are not only seeking to extinguish the Tibetans’ own cultural traditions; by cynically using international systems to register themselves as the custodians of Tibetan culture, they are asserting their ownership of it. Through that process, they are making Tibet more aligned to Chinese Han culture.

That is done through policies such as conservation registrations and techniques, for example through the UNESCO system that facilitates registration of cultural and religious assets, and through the registration of cultural expressions under the World Intellectual Property Organisation. This is something that we should be alert to and aware of. Tibetan religious cultural heritage is being weaponised by the Chinese authorities to reimagine and redefine Tibet’s status as a culture, at the very same time that China is challenging Tibet’s right to independence.

In the case of Tibet, there is a pressing urgency to recognise that it will be increasingly hard to defend the freedom of religion or belief for its people, who are threatened by cultural genocide and, in the case of the children who I have referred to, by actual genocide. Those are compelling words, but more action is needed to address this issue.

I want to close by referring to a statement that my successor as chair of the international alliance, Ambassador Robert Řehák from the Czech Republic, will shortly be producing. It was discussed yesterday at our monthly plenary. There are now 42 countries in our alliance, and each month we select an individual religious prisoner of conscience to champion. Our December prisoner of conscience is the 11th Panchen Lama. I cannot think of a worthier, more capable and committed successor than Ambassador Řehák. He will say:

“As the Chair of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, I express my grave concern for the ongoing enforced disappearance of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the 11th Panchen Lama, whose whereabouts and well-being in the People’s Republic of China…have been unknown for nearly 30 years.

PRC authorities abducted Gedhun Choekyi Nyima in 1995 when he was six years old and just days after His Holiness the Dalai Lama recognized him as the 11th Panchen Lama. In response, the PRC installed its own Panchen Lama and continues attempts to compel Tibetan Buddhists to pledge allegiance to the government-selected individual.

I am concerned that PRC authorities have denied Gedhun Choekyi Nyima a lifetime of being able to freely practice his faith in a manner of his choosing. Further, I find the lack of independent access to his whereabouts, the seeming restrictions on his freedom of movement, and the limited information about him spanning nearly three decades highly troubling.

Gedhun Choekyi Nyima is one among many Tibetans whom PRC authorities have silenced or oppressed for expressions of their beliefs, culture, language, and traditions. This includes detaining Tibetans for possessing images of the Dalai Lama, such as Go Sherab Gyatso, a Tibetan Buddhist monk currently sentenced to 10 years in prison for his peaceful advocacy and whom authorities previously detained for reportedly possessing and displaying a portrait of the Dalai Lama.

The PRC’s cultural erasure throughout Tibet, including efforts to ‘Sinicize’ Tibetan Buddhism and interfere in the selection process of Tibetan Buddhist lamas, including the Dalai Lama, are alarmingly widespread. Earlier this year, several UN experts expressed concern about credible reports that PRC authorities have coerced approximately 1 million Tibetan children in what they characterized as a ‘mandatory large-scale programme intended to assimilate Tibetans into majority Han culture, contrary to the international human rights standards.’ Separating a generation of Tibetan youth from their heritage will do untold damage to their ability to shape and preserve their identity.

I urge the PRC to cease all human rights abuses against Tibetans, including by accounting for the whereabouts and well-being of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima; ending the coercion of Tibetan children into government-run boarding schools; upholding freedom of religion or belief for all; and abandoning policies and practices aimed at erasing Tibet’s rich cultural, religious, and linguistic identity.”

It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. I want to briefly put on the record my concern about the discourtesy of the Minister turning up late to today’s debate on such an important subject. There are people in the Public Gallery who wanted her to hear every single word of this important debate. I cannot help but notice that there is not a Scottish National party spokesperson either, so there is a bit of a sense of disarray today. I am not sure that you can do anything about that, Ms Vaz, but I hope things can be improved for next time.

The all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief is one of the most active in Parliament, and the two most active members of it are here. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing the debate, and on laying out his concerns in such clear terms. On a number of occasions, he has mentioned other issues associated with freedom of religion or belief that concern him, including the impact of blasphemy laws in Pakistan and the treatment of Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region of the People’s Republic of China. That concern was recently highlighted in an excellent piece in the Financial Times outlining new satellite evidence of the destruction of mosques in the Xinjiang region. The hon Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) laid out details of the mass displacement of people in the Tibetan region, which is worrying, and talked about more than 1 million children being involved. Clearly, a programme of sinicisation is going on, in which individuals are not permitted to speak in their native tongue, which will, of course, cause a great barrier between children and their parents. It is worrying that 1 million children could be moved into dormitory-style accommodation, from as young as two, as she said.

In the past decade, we have seen video evidence of the destruction of Buddhist temples. The hon. Member for Strangford highlighted the repression that nuns and monks experience daily. He also emphasised under-representation in leadership positions in the PRC; the restrictions and the increasing state-sponsored surveillance; and cultural events that have been stopped by the Chinese Government. As the hon. Member for Congleton emphasised, China is ranked 176th worst for journalism and freedom of speech. In parenthesis, I wonder whether the House would mind my mentioning the other obvious freedom of speech issue: Jimmy Lai, who is in prison at the moment. He used to be the Apple Daily owner and publisher. I am sure the Minister will comment on that, because I am aware that the Foreign Secretary met Sebastien Lai, Jimmy’s son, just this week, and I am sure she would not mind doing a mini-detour in her wind-up to update the House on that meeting.

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing that up. I tabled early-day motion 213 just yesterday on the imprisonment of Jimmy Lai. I urge all Members to note it. They might wish to sign it to raise awareness of Jimmy and how he is being suppressed. He has been in jail for some time, and any thoughts of his getting out are remote.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. He is relentless in highlighting social injustice and, in this case, the lack of freedom of speech for Jimmy Lai and others; we know that similar things are going on in Tibet. However, as the three main speakers in this debate mentioned, because of the difficulty in monitoring what is happening in Tibet, we do not hear as much as we should from journalists there.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) made an extremely important point about the climate and the vulnerable nature of Tibet. Having hot-footed her way back from COP28, she has given us her update on the environmental concerns about that fragile part of our beautiful planet, where third pole ice storage and permafrost is thawing, with dreadful consequences for the river system. We know that a lack of water can cause long-term problems, including social ones, and she has made an important point. She also highlights the potential for Indo-Chinese relations to sour, and makes the important point that when we speak to leaders from the PRC, we must consider the trade relationship, which is very important to the UK’s economy, but crucially must not leave our values at the door. Will the Minister say when she last raised the issue of freedom of religion or belief in Tibet with her counterpart in the PRC?

The Foreign Secretary is in the other place. What impact does the Minister think his previous business interests have? What is the impact of the clear speeches he was giving in Sri Lanka and other places in which China has an interest? Might that cloud the judgment of Ministers as they speak one to one with counterparts in the People’s Republic of China, or with those who represent the PRC in London? Can she also outline what representations are made to China, during trade talks, on the subject of Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet? We should not have one box for trade and one for human rights; they should be part of the same dialogue. What reassurances can she give concerning the issues raised today?

In conclusion, we have heard valuable contributions from members of the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief, who speak out regularly about the lack of freedom for so many to practise their faith abroad. We also heard the cultural and environmental concerns that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East has about the Tibetan plateau. On the specifics of how we do our diplomacy, what reassurances can the Minister give me and the House on the important subject of freedom of religion or belief in the People’s Republic of China, specifically as regards Tibetan Buddhists?

I apologise for the delay, Ms Vaz. There may always be a challenge when digital and analogue aspects of parliamentary information do not align. That is something we will work on, but please accept my apologies for being late. To the point made by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has kindly provided me, as always, with a copy of his speech.

May I clarify for the Minister? The summary agenda sets out the debate time as starting at 3 pm and in the House we go by the summary agenda.

Absolutely; that is why I apologise. My private office will be able to learn from the practicalities of that point.

I just want to say, Ms Vaz, that there was a bit of confusion because on the website, where it says “What’s on” in Parliament, it said 4 o’clock. People contacted me saying there was a debate at 4 o’clock. I just thought that it would be 3 o’clock and double-checked, because it usually is at 3 o’clock. That needs to be clarified in future.

Thank you, Ms Vaz. Just to say that the hon. Member for Strangford always provides a copy of his speech. That is hugely helpful and means that I know that I did not miss a single one of his words, even though I missed those first few minutes. I thank him, as ever, for sharing his speech. Other colleagues should consider doing that sometimes, as it is a helpful way to absorb and think more thoroughly about the issues being raised.

Of course. As ever, I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford for securing this incredibly important debate, for his continuing work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, and for his heartfelt presentation of the tragic Tibetan situation. I also thank hon. Members for their thoughtful contributions.

The Government place huge importance on protecting human rights around the world and on using all our diplomatic tools, alongside other countries, to highlight abuses where we see them. We are paying close attention to the deeply concerning situation in Tibet, where members of the Buddhist faith are enduring systematic violations of their rights. I am glad of the opportunity to reflect on the troubling situation and I will do my best to respond to all the points raised on the subject today.

We believe that long-term stability in Tibet is best achieved through respect for universal human rights and genuine autonomy for Tibet within the Chinese system. However, China is systematically violating Tibetans’ rights, including by restricting their freedom of religion or belief and, as colleagues have set out so starkly, their right to assemble and associate freely. We also have those troubling reports of forced labour.

Tibetans are banned from worshipping the Dalai Lama and there are reports of them being arrested for owning photographs of him, celebrating his birthday or watching videos of his teaching. The candidate identified by the Dalai Lama back in 1995 as the next Panchen Lama, who is a senior figure in Tibetan Buddhism, was forcibly disappeared by the Chinese authorities. Today, the authorities restrict the size of Buddhist monasteries in Tibet and there are multiple reports of their destruction, as set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce).

It is Chinese law that all senior religious appointments must be approved by the authorities. The UK views the Dalai Lama as a respected spiritual leader, and as such he has visited the UK on a number of occasions and we will continue to do all that we can to encourage freedoms for religious and cultural expression in Tibet and across China. We view the appointment of the next Dalai Lama as a matter for the relevant religious authorities to decide in line with those freedoms of religion and belief. We continue to engage regularly with international partners and non-governmental organisations to discuss the situation in Tibet and to continue to raise awareness.

Meanwhile, reports continue to document the suppression of Tibetan cultural, linguistic and religious identity. Earlier this year, UN special rapporteurs found that around a million Tibetan children have been separated from their families and placed into Government-run boarding schools with no access to traditional Tibetan learning. Rural schools have been closed and students have been forced to attend schools far from their family homes.

The Chinese authorities use enforced disappearances to silence critics and suppress dissent in Tibet. We are aware of reports of politically motivated detentions and arrests of Tibetans, as well as mistreatment in detention. UN special procedure mandate-holders have written to the Chinese authorities regarding the disappearances of Tibetans. There are estimated to be more than 700 political prisoners held in Tibetan areas and monks in particular are targeted for persecution. Reports continue to document the mass collection of DNA and other biometric data in Tibetan regions.

On forced labour, the Government are aware of UN reporting from April 2023 on allegations of so-called “labour transfer” and “vocational training” programmes in Tibet, which are being used “as a pretext to undermine Tibetan religious, linguistic and cultural identity” and “to monitor and politically indoctrinate Tibetans”.

I thank the Minister for her response. It has been brought to my attention that China is pushing to erase the name “Tibet”. Can the Minister and the Government assure me that the word Tibet will be continued to be used? The Chinese want to replace it with the Mandarin term “Xinjiang”. We must make it very clear that the word is Tibet—the same as the UK is the UK—and it cannot be changed to anything else. The Government must continue to use the word Tibet when meeting the Chinese at the next universal periodic review.

I thank the hon. Gentleman, as ever. I will take that away. Absolutely we continue to use the name Tibet when describing that region of the world; but I note his point, and if that is a developing narrative we must pay close attention and counter it.

That is really important to have on the record. The Minister has been responsive, and we appreciate that. Chinese leaders from the Tibet Autonomous Region are visiting the likes of Nepal, Bhutan and Thailand and seeking to claim the authority of the Dalai Lama and his reincarnation. Very clearly, from a Buddhist point of view, the Government must stand with His Holiness and affirm his total authority over his reincarnation—this is not something that the Chinese Government can give as if they were the Santa Claus of Christmas. Buddhists have control of a Dalai Lama; the Chinese do not.

I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman, and he was generous in his description of that potential further abuse of Buddhists’ freedom of religion.

The special rapporteurs warned that such programmes would lead to “situations of forced labour”, and they have suggested that “hundreds of thousands” of Tibetans have been transferred from work in the rural sector to these new jobs through this process. These amount to systematic human rights violations against Tibetan Buddhists and are part of the Chinese authorities’ efforts to erase the Tibetan identity and to assimilate Tibetans into the majority Han culture. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton set out in stark clarity the shocking real-life impacts on Tibetans as the authorities try to erase their identity.

This Government are determined to promote and protect human rights, no matter where violations or abuses occur. We have shown time and again that, when allegations are substantiated, we will speak out and hold China to account. We co-ordinate with partners to draw international attention to the human rights situation in Tibet. Recent examples include the 8 November G7 Foreign Ministers statement, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, and our item 4 statement at the UN Human Rights Council in September. In June 2022, the UK and 46 other countries joined in a statement at the UN Human Rights Council expressing deep concern about the human rights situation in Tibet and calling on the Chinese authorities to abide by their human rights obligations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton expressed the frustration that many feel. Any multilateral statement is invariably less punchy than any single country statement would be.

I accept that there is frustration about the type of words used, but there is also frustration about the proportion, the number of words used—or rather the lack of words used about Tibet.

My hon. Friend sets out her point clearly. As someone who has sat in many a multilateral session—the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) mentioned COP, which I led on two years ago—it is often a slow and tortuous process to reach a form of words that as many countries and voices can sign up to as possible. My hon. Friend’s point is well made, however, and we will continue to raise the matter. The past couple of years have been the first time this issue has been in those statements. We will continue to work on expanding them and on persuading with the force of the evidence other countries to accept the realities of what we see, so that they will be willing to be stronger in the multilateral statement that we can put out together. Her point is well made and well heard.

Our focus today is in part on the religion of people in Tibet. I wonder whether the fact that they are Buddhists, which is very much a peaceful religion, plays against them, because full-scale conflict in Tibet with fighting back would perhaps get more international attention. Sadly, however, as I am sure the Minister is aware, there have been at least 158 self-immolations in Tibet, with another 10 by people in exile. Those are the sheer lengths that they have to go to in order to get international eyes on their plight.

The hon. Lady highlights something important. One of the beauties of this extraordinarily peaceful religion is that it does not cause some of the violence and aggression that one sees in other clashes between religions or beliefs across the world.

The challenge in Tibet is that of access for foreign nationals, including accredited diplomats and journalists, and it remains highly restricted. British diplomats visited Tibetan areas of Sichuan province in June 2023, and we will continue to push for access to Tibet, including for the UN special rapporteurs, which China either has not responded to or indeed has refused. We are consistent in our calls for the necessity of greater access to Tibet for international observers.

On UK policy towards China more broadly, China of course has a significant role to play in almost every global issue. We want to have a strong and constructive relationship. As such, we continue to engage directly with China to create space for those open, constructive, predictable and stable relations that are important in, for example, areas of global challenge such as climate and health. Those are areas that we need and want to work together on, for the good of the whole of mankind.

We will, however, always condemn human rights violations, privately in our meetings with Chinese representatives and in public fora, as we have set out. The UK Government will continue to play a leading role in pressing China to improve its human rights and to get its record to a better place.

Does the Minister agree that, with the question mark over the Foreign Secretary’s business deals, it is correct for the House to ask whether the business deals or the human rights come first?

The China policy has not changed as the personnel in Government have. The policy remains entirely unchanged, but sadly the world has changed in how China is behaving, in particular through its coercive economic activities across a large area, but also through the increasing human rights violations. I hope that is clearly set out. The new Foreign Secretary is in absolutely the same place and is 100% supportive.

I asked the question because, in recent years and particularly since 2018, when Xi Jinping achieved his core leader status, which is when the internal repression and external aggression increased, the Foreign Secretary made positive speeches regarding the belt and road initiative in Sri Lanka. That is the specific business reference that I was making. The Minister may wish to write to me rather than put it on the record, but it is important, in an open and democratic system, that such things are out in the open.

I would not wish to speak on behalf of the Foreign Secretary about his activities when he was a private citizen. On some level, I think we all support and wish to see the direct success of some of the belt and road initiative. Without a doubt, those investments were in part an attempt by China to take their discovery about their way of investing long term in their own infrastructure, which saw their poverty levels drop dramatically, across the world. But there are other aspects to the initiative and some frustrations: where the impact has not been as well funded or followed through, it has left investees disappointed.

As the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green highlights, the challenge remains that there has been a shift in the way the CCP does its business. That now requires us to continue to lead—and, sadly, it requires more international effort—on holding China to account for what are, without a doubt, appalling human rights violations in a number of places, including Xinjiang, which a number of hon. Members referenced. We were the first country to lead a joint statement on Xinjiang at the UN, and our leadership has sustained pressure on China to change its behaviour and brought other countries’ voices with us. In October 2023, the UK led another joint statement on Xinjiang at the UN, calling China out for its human rights violations, and there were a record number of signatories. That relates to my earlier point about the challenge of continuing to build the evidence base and give other countries the chance to understand and see some of the violations for themselves. We will continue to lead that piece of work and bring UK diplomatic leadership across the world.

The hon. Member for Bristol East raised an interesting point. Ministers across Government do raise human rights concerns whenever they have discussions with the CCP or discussions on other Chinese issues. It was very interesting to hear about the policy work that was done in 2013, of which I was not aware. I will dig it out of the system and see whether the framework that we use now, or what was suggested, can ensure that we maximise our impact. It is very much on everyone’s agenda, but we are very comfortable with the fact that, when we talk about engaging with China, there are important economic relationships that we wish to continue to work on and grow. We have businesses that are keen to invest in what is, of course, an enormous market across the world.

To conclude, everyone, everywhere deserves to enjoy fundamental human rights, including the freedom of religion or belief. China should respect those rights in Tibet, in line with its own constitution and the international frameworks to which it is a party. Until it does so, the UK will continue to hold it to account—in public, in private and in concert with our international partners. We will continue to stand up for our values, and to promote and protect human rights in Tibet and around the world. Members’ concerns about the forcefulness of messaging about and criticism of suppression from Chinese authorities are well heard today. We shall continue to press for stronger language and the continued use of sanctions tools to express the disgust and righteous anger that colleagues have set out so eloquently today.

I thank all the right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions, starting with the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy). She reminded us of events of which she has personal knowledge from her involvement with the APPG for Tibet. We all know of Tibetans’ culinary expertise, and yoghurt is one of the things that they like. She spoke about a yoghurt event where the Chinese stepped in and tried to close it down; they were trying to take away that cultural identity. She also referred to the picture of Buddha—again, a vicious suppression by the Chinese Communist party. She spoke about the schools being closed, the language being restricted and the removal of some 2 million people from the countryside to the towns.

The hon. Lady also spoke very rightly about environmental issues, which I was not so aware of. I thank the hon. Lady for that. I had some knowledge of the Tibetan plateau, probably from the environmental programmes on TV and so on. It is important not just for Tibet, but for China and India. We hope that it does not become a political football for the future, which unfortunately it might. In an intervention, the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg) referred to the importance of highlighting the issue not just for those of a Christian faith but those of a Buddhist faith, which is why we have had this debate today.

In the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief, we try to speak up for all faiths and those of no faith, which the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) does regularly. I thank the hon. Lady. I am very pleased that she is the envoy for our Government. I am also very pleased that she is my friend, and speaks up on all the things that are important in this House. She underlined the issues focused on by the Conservative group for Tibet. She outlined the problems in Tibet as far back as 2013, and the timeline of human rights deterioration in Tibet between 2016 and 2020—and the indoctrination of children as young as two years of age. My goodness me! My youngest grandchild is just over one, and he is a wee dynamo at one year old. Imagine him being taken away for indoctrination and losing all knowledge of his parents.

The hon. Member for Congleton also reminded us that words do matter, and I think she is right. Sometimes we think that they are not enough, and they are not enough sometimes, but it is important that we use them. She referred to cultural, educational and linguistic genocide.

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), the shadow Minister, reminded us of the removal of people, the destruction of temples and the logistics restrictions; oppression came up each and every time. She also emphasised how important it is, when it comes to making trade deals with any country, and China in particular, that we ingratiate into those trade talks the importance of human rights for people around the world. There must never be a deal that does not take on board all the issues.

The Minister very kindly, as she always does, took our viewpoints on board. I know that, when she has the opportunity to read Hansard and have the discussions with her PPS, all those other things will emerge. The Minister absolutely understands the issue. She referred to the tragic Tibetan situation—issues of freedom of religious belief; the disappearance of Tibetans by the Chinese Communist party; the documentation of oppression with children removed their families; political motivations; forced labour with people being moved from the countryside to the towns.

The Minister also mentioned journalists who have been restricted in what they are able to report. One thing that I believe was clear from the Minister’s statement—I hope others will agree—was that she and her Government are not behind a wall in telling China that these things in Tibet are wrong. We wish to see a bit more zealousness in highlighting these issues at every occasion.

I must thank some of the people in the Gallery today who have taken the time to come along. Today, we are the voice for these people. We are the voice for all those religious minorities that are suppressed and oppressed in Tibet, and Buddhists in particular. We want them all to know that, when it comes to standing up for them and standing alongside them, this House and its Members will not be found wanting.

Question put and agreed to,


That this House has considered the matter of the persecution of Buddhists in Tibet.

Sitting adjourned.