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Zhang Kai

Volume 765: debated on Thursday 22 October 2015

Statement

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat a Statement made earlier today in another place by my right honourable friend Hugo Swire. The Statement is as follows.

“We are in the middle of a hugely positive state visit, which the Prime Minister has said will benefit not just our nations and our peoples but also the wider world. Yesterday, the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary had extensive discussions with President Xi Jinping and his delegation. Those discussions continue today, including when the Prime Minister will host President Xi at Chequers.

As we have made very clear, the strong relationship which we are building allows us to discuss all issues. No issue, including human rights, is off the table. The UK-China joint statement, which we have agreed, commits both sides to continue our dialogue on human rights and the rule of law.

Turning to the case of Zhang Kai, we are aware that Zhang Kai has been accused of “endangering state security” and “assembling a crowd to disrupt social order”, apparently in relation to his work with churches in Zhejiang province. We are concerned that his whereabouts are undisclosed, and he has been reportedly denied access to legal representation.

At the UK-China Human Rights Dialogue, which was held in Beijing in April this year, we raised issues relating to religious freedom in China, including the destruction of churches and religious symbols in Zhejiang province. We raised a number of related individual cases.

A transparent legal system is a vital component of the rule of law, and we urge the Chinese authorities to ensure that proper judicial standards are upheld”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that Statement. In July, the Minister expressed deep concern over the detention of Chinese Christian lawyers arrested that month as part of a major crackdown. She fully supported the subsequent EU statement calling for the release of those detained, who had sought to protect rights under the Chinese constitution. Now, we have the case of Zhang Kai, who was taken into custody by the police on 25 August. On 31 August, China Aid reported that he had been sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for gathering a crowd to disturb public order and charges relating to stealing, spying, and buying and illegally providing state secrets and intelligence to entities outside China. The Minister referred to some information that she had. Could she go into more detail about what is available to the British Government in terms of this case, and in particular whether further charges have been made and whether there will be a further hearing?

I understand what the Minister said about raising this and other cases. However, will she confirm that she or other Ministers have had the opportunity to raise this further case with their Chinese counterparts, either before the current state visit or during it?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for making reference to the fact that the Government are being consistent in their relationship with China and to the fact that we have pressed the importance of human rights upon our interlocutors there, because human rights underpin a stable and prosperous society.

On the noble Lord’s first question, with regard to the case, I am not in a position to give further information at the moment. What I can say is that it is the usual occurrence for diplomats in post in Beijing to keep a very close watch on any cases that are under way, to make attempts to visit people in detention and, when they are brought to trial, to ensure that they make every attempt to attend those trials. I am advised that, if denied access, they will remain in place in the court during the day to make the point that we are trying to see that there is proper judicial process. We have assistance in that from our EU colleagues.

In his second question, the noble Lord asked about the matter of imprisonment and the details of whether or not this issue has been raised, either before or during the course of the state visit. I cannot say further than I have at present because, as I mentioned very briefly in the Statement, there are continuing discussions this afternoon at Chequers and I would not wish to try to pre-empt what they may cover.

My Lords, first, will the Minister reassure us on one point? The other day, we heard worrying comments from the new Permanent Secretary to a Commons committee that the issue of human rights is now a lower priority in the FCO than the prosperity agenda. It would be very good, in the context of issues such as this, to have some reassurance. Secondly, could she explain how we have got into such a contradiction about our approach to countries such as China? We are extremely relaxed about sovereignty and Chinese foreign investment and anything else coming in, although human rights is, nevertheless, something that we talk about. However, in our relations with our European partners we are totally neuralgic, even sometimes hysterical, about invasions of sovereignty, and do not think that they should have the right to talk about human rights at all. How do we handle that sort of intense contradiction between our approach to democratic countries such as our European partners and authoritarian countries such as China?

My Lords, we are consistent throughout in our approach to human rights and in discussing these matters with countries around the world. Fortunately, I do not have neuralgia, either mental or physical, and have not detected any sign of it yet among my colleagues—I will keep watching, though.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, for giving me the opportunity to set out clearly the position of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with regard to human rights. What the Permanent Under-Secretary made clear in his exchange in the Select Committee is that the issue of human rights underpins everything that we do at the Foreign Office. It is embedded across the Foreign Office. I was concerned that the previous way, in which we set out a list of priorities, meant that there were categories of people in this country who could look at those priorities and think, “I am not there; they don’t care about me”. There were people on that list who might think, “Why am I fourth on the list?”—freedom of religion and belief or of no religion was fourth. So in seeking to redraft the way in which we present our commitment to human rights, I was driven by the belief that those in the LGBT community or those who are disabled should realise that we are for all people. As I mentioned at the PinkNews event last night at the Foreign Office, no one person is more valuable than another; we are all valuable. That is what our redrafted approach to human rights makes clear, and it is embedded across all departments in the Foreign Office.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that Zhang Kai has been at the forefront of the fight in the Zhejiang province in speaking out for both the registered and unregistered churches, more than 1,500 of which have had their crosses removed and been subjected to intimidation and the kind of discrimination that she has just referred to? Will she further confirm that over 280 rights lawyers have been detained or disappeared in China since 9 July, including Zhang Kai? Rights lawyers in China are at the forefront of the defence of Article 18 freedoms: the right to believe, to not believe or to change your belief. As a result, their own human rights and freedoms are subject to heavy restrictions. Perhaps the most well-known rights lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, remains under house arrest after years of imprisonment, torture and enforced disappearance. I hope that the Minister will assure us that she will pursue that case. Would she be willing to meet, during his present visit to London, Chen Guangcheng, the barefoot, blind human rights lawyer who was imprisoned for four years after exposing the coercive one-child policy in China?

My Lords, I always do my very best to meet those who seek to meet me. I have to say that my attention has been somewhat diverted at the moment by the European Union Referendum Bill. However, I will certainly see what I can do with regard to his request. I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has put on record the work of Zhang Kai, which is significant. He is one of those people whose bravery can only be admired by those of us who see the importance of human rights defenders around the world.

The noble Lord is right: we are extremely concerned about the activity of crosses being removed. We are told that, sometimes, the rationale behind that is that there are planning restrictions, but it seems odd to us. Certainly, detention and disappearance should not be part and parcel of a normal judicial system. Perhaps we will have the opportunity to look at this further when the noble Lord has a Question for Short Debate in the Moses Room about Article 18.

It is important that we continue our discussions on these matters. Last week at the FCO, my right honourable friend Hugo Swire, who has country-specific responsibility for China, met 14 people from the China NGO Network, representing those who have a particular interest in fighting for human rights in China.

My Lords, does the Minister think that one way of responding to the disconnect alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, is to say that the deepening of our relations on industrial and such matters reinforces the need and the moral duty to raise human rights issues?

My Lords, I certainly believe that a constructive economic relationship with another country gives one the opportunity to have a stronger voice on why human rights should underpin a stable and responsible government. That voice does not have to be a clarion call; it can be more modest. I am reminded that Tony Blair made the point that,

“ persuasion and dialogue achieve more than confrontation and empty rhetoric”.

I cannot often agree with him, but I do there.