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Volume 743: debated on Tuesday 26 February 2013


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have held with the Government of China about self-immolations in Tibet and China’s approach to human rights in that region.

My Lords, I am sure the whole House will join me in welcoming the most reverend Primate to the House in his new role. We all look forward to working with him on some extremely important issues, on which he has great expertise.

We are deeply concerned about the large number of self-immolations in Tibet. We regularly raise our concerns with the Chinese authorities. My right honourable friend Hugo Swire issued a statement on 17 December. Tibet was discussed at the last round of the annual UK-China human rights dialogue in January 2012. We encourage all parties to work for a resumption of substantive dialogue as a means to address Tibetan concerns and to relieve tensions. We believe that long-term solutions depend on respect for human rights and genuine autonomy for Tibetans within the framework of the Chinese constitution. Our position on Tibet is clear and long-standing. We regard Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China.

My Lords, with 105 self-immolations and 88 deaths, including three more in the past two days, many of them young people, the Dalai Lama has said that this futile waste of people’s lives brings tears to his eyes. As the noble Baroness considers how best to respond to these events, would she undertake to read the report Tibet: Breaking the Deadlock, which the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and I published following our visit to Tibet, and which focused on the need to create dialogue, to end attempts to discredit the Dalai Lama, to examine human rights issues and constitutional arrangements, and to address the reasons why these extreme actions are occurring, leading to this heartbreaking and tragic waste of people’s lives?

I know that the noble Lord has a long-standing interest in this matter. Indeed, I have had an opportunity to look at the recommendations of the report that he mentions. I am sure he will be heartened by the fact that we agree, at least in part, with some of its recommendations about the People’s Republic of China and the Dalai Lama returning to dialogue to take these matters forward bilaterally. Of course, I have real concern about the tragic cases of self-immolation. I have had an opportunity to read the casework on some of them. Tragically, those who die do so at great loss to their communities and families, but those who survive end up suffering for many years with very little treatment. It is a matter that we continue to raise.

My Lords, China is building better rail and road links to Tibet, which help the Han Chinese colonise that region. Of course, in spite of all these bilateral and multilateral meetings, China ignores any pleas for human rights in China itself, internationally or in Tibet. Does the Minister have any evidence that China is altering its stance in response to human rights in Tibet or internationally, commensurate with its new economic power?

My Lords, we are concerned about the lack of meaningful dialogue to address the underlying grievances against a clearly worsening situation. We continue to encourage all parties to work for a resumption of substantive dialogue as a means to address the Tibetan concerns and to relieve tensions. Of course, we continue to make the case to China that any economic progress can be sustained only if there is social progress as well.

Does the Minister, having read the report to which she has kindly referred, recognise that in the three years since, two important things have happened? One is that there was a change of leadership in China; the second is that the Dalai Lama has given up his political role as head of the Tibetan Government in exile. Therefore, would she and her colleagues try to encourage the Chinese authorities to enter into dialogue with the Dalai Lama as a religious leader in order to stop these immolations and try to improve relations between the Tibetan people and the Chinese?

Many of us around the world recognise the Dalai Lama as a spiritual leader, but my noble friend will be aware of the position of the Chinese Government. That is not the way he is seen within the People’s Republic of China. The noble Lord will also be aware of the UK-China annual human rights dialogue, and we continue to raise these concerns at that point.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her answer to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Steel. I still want to probe a bit further. He is certainly exiled, but the Dalai Lama is not only a spiritual and religious leader of the people of Tibet; he is also recognised throughout the world. Will the Government nevertheless impress upon the Chinese Government that they should recognise and respect the Dalai Lama as a religious leader and not as a political leader? If they did that, it is possible that they would then have a dialogue.

The most reverend Primate raises an important wider issue: the freedom of religion within China and the recognition of religious groups and therefore of religious leaders. It is a matter that we raise in generic terms, although I cannot categorically say whether the specific issue of recognising the Dalai Lama as a spiritual leader has been raised.

What representations have the Government made about the fate of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the young boy identified in 1995 by the Dalai Lama as the new Panchen Lama, the second highest office in Tibetan Buddhism? The Minister will recall that shortly after that identification, that young boy was taken into what the Chinese Government called “protective custody” and has never been seen since. What assurances have the Government sought about his fate and well-being, and if they have not made any representations, will they do so?

Representations were made about the young boy. Indeed, I think his name appeared on a specific list that was handed over during one of the UK-China human rights dialogues. We have also put forward the idea of him being allowed access to an independent organisation that could assess his current health and whereabouts.

My Lords, I associate these Benches with the welcome that has been given to the most reverend Primate. We all wish him every success in the contribution he will make in this House. The last major dialogue that the Minister has reported to us was in January 2012. Obviously, there has been a change in the leadership of the Chinese state and Communist Party in the period since. I wonder whether other channels are available that might be used. I am thinking particularly of the business group, the 48 Group Club, which has managed to establish decent relationships with the Chinese Government and is not always associated with the past that this country has had with China, which has not been held in great esteem in many respects by the Chinese people historically. Is there a dialogue going on with those groups? Can we improve it and can we achieve the objectives to which the noble Lord, Lord Steel, referred just a few moments ago?

The noble Lord makes an important point. I cannot answer it directly. I am not sure whether other groups are being used as alternative avenues to make our views clear. I can, however, inform him that the annual dialogue is now overdue and that officials have been in contact with each other with a view to try to fix a date for further discussions.