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China: Freedom of Religion and Belief

Volume 796: debated on Monday 25 February 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the government of China, and with the governments of other countries, about protecting the right to freedom of religion and belief of Uighur Muslims and other persecuted religious groups.

My Lords, we are concerned about restrictions on freedom of religion or belief across China, and particularly about the deteriorating situation for minority groups in Xinjiang. During 2018, the UK raised human rights bilaterally with China on a number of occasions, including by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. The United Kingdom also highlighted our concerns publicly at the United Nations Human Rights Council and continues to liaise closely with a wide range of international partners.

I thank my noble friend the Minister for her response. She will be aware that many human rights activists and organisations claim that China is organ harvesting religious prisoners of conscience. These people often highlight the fact that the average time to get a kidney transplant in the UK or the US is two to three years, whereas in China it is a few weeks. Has my noble friend asked either the World Health Organization or the Chinese Government how they can explain this remarkable difference? If not, will she do so and report the answer back to this House?

I thank my noble friend for raising a very emotive issue. We keep the issue under review and welcome any and all new evidence. At the moment, our analysis remains that the evidence available is not sufficiently strong to substantiate claims that state-sanctioned, systematic organ harvesting is happening in China. My noble friend referred to the World Health Organization. It collates global data on organ donations and works with China. Its view is that China is implementing an ethical voluntary organ transplant system, in accordance with international standards, although it does have concerns about overall transparency.

My Lords, this subject was recently discussed in this Chamber, particularly the so-called education camps in the province which was mentioned. Can the Minister tell the House whether we have made the strongest possible representations to the Chinese Government to allow, at the very minimum, UN access to these camps, so that we can properly establish what they are there for and how they are being used?

I can reassure the noble Lord that the United Kingdom Government have spared no opportunity to express concerns, ask questions and seek clarification on what is actually happening in the camps. The noble Lord will be aware that China held a press conference in Xinjiang on Friday where it accounted for and gave its explanation for what the camps exist to do, why they are there and who is in them. The United Kingdom remains very concerned and, along with global partners, has been regularly bringing this matter to China’s attention at every possible opportunity.

My Lords, these camps are an area of serious concern. We always hear that the Minister and the Foreign Office make representations to the Chinese Government. However, we have never heard from the Minister precisely what is the response of the Chinese Government and whether independent oversight of these camps would result in a better way of knowing exactly what is happening to the thousands of Muslims who are in them.

As the noble Lord will be aware, the United Kingdom takes seriously the issue of freedom of religion or belief and has taken a keen interest in activity in Xinjiang. As I said to both my noble friend Lord Suri and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, the United Kingdom Government, at various levels and through diplomatic channels, constantly raise concerns and seek answers to questions.

My Lords, can my noble friend tell me to what extent these representations are made also on behalf of some of the Muslim powers, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia? Would she agree that, while it is highly desirable that the United Kingdom should make representations of this sort, if they are done in support of representations by Muslim countries, they are likely to have more effect on the Chinese?

My noble friend raises an important point. He asks a specific question on which I do not have specific information, but perhaps I can undertake to inquire, and if I elicit information, to write to him.

My Lords, may I take the noble Baroness back to the question asked by her noble friend Lord Suri, specifically about unwanted DNA tests on some of the 1 million people estimated to be in these re-education camps, where Uighurs have been forced to go? Has the noble Baroness seen the evidence collected by David Kilgour, a former Canadian Minister, who says that he has seen more than 10,000 more organ transplants in China than the official figure indicates? Will she undertake, in the light of what she said about the role of the World Health Organization, to bring that evidence to its attention to see whether the practices that are currently being used in China are ethical?

I thank the noble Lord. I am not aware of the report to which he refers, and I shall be interested in looking further at it.

My Lords, the noble Baroness will be aware that part of the Chinese one belt, one road initiative was to open up connectivity in central Asia. Cannot our Government point out to the Chinese that, if they are trying to open up central Asia, make it more open and utilise it better, their behaviour, which is totally appalling, is the wrong thing to do to allow that to happen?

It was interesting that China felt it appropriate to hold its three-hour briefing on Friday. I can only surmise that China felt it important to explain to the broader international community what was happening. China is an important global presence and it wants to be a respected global power, but fundamental to seeking that respect is the tangible and visible implementation and observation of human rights, and respect for them.

My Lords, the noble Lord on the Benches opposite asked which Muslim countries had called for the closing of these camps. Turkey called for these camps to be closed down on 10 February, when the Turkish President said that it shamed humanity that these camps existed. Do the British Government agree?

The British Government have made clear to China our profound concern about these camps. We have sought detailed information, so far as we are able to get it, and have expressed profound concern about China’s response to what it claims is an attempt to deal with security and terrorism issues. We have pointed out to the Chinese authorities that all evidence suggests that they are taking disproportionate, indiscriminate measures in response which risk being counter-productive in the longer term.