Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 89-99)


8 MARCH 2006

  Q89 Chairman: Mr Adams and Ms Francis, thank you for coming this afternoon. I do not know if you heard the previous session, but we are trying to look at a whole range of issues. In this session we wanted to focus on human and political rights in China, but inevitably there is an overlap with other areas. Can I begin by asking a question about China's compliance with international human rights law and the treaties it has ratified? Does it actually comply with the treaties it has ratified? I understand that there are a number of areas where China has a reservation, including with regard to the rights of organised labour. It has also signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights but not ratified it. Could you explain, from your great expertise on these questions, how China is in compliance or not in compliance with its international obligations?

  Ms Francis: I would say that, overall, China has failed to comply with the treaties that it has signed up for. There are also certain treaties that it has signed up for but has not yet ratified: for instance, the ICCPR. Taking the ICCPR as an example, I think there are a number of areas that are of concern in terms of its behaviour. These have to do with systems of justice, personal liberty, fair trials. China has very problematic areas in its judicial system, having to do with the independence of the judiciary. It has a system of political and legal committees that severely compromise the independence of the judicial system, which fundamentally undermines the independence or the ability for it to have fair trials. A major concern is the ability to get a fair trial in China. In terms of labour issues, China has signed on to quite a few of the International Labour Organization treaties but it has systematically not signed up to those that refer to freedom of association. It has taken reservations on all of the key areas that refer to free associations. China maintains quite a strict system of official labour unions, and there is still no move towards allowing genuine autonomous labour unions. In other areas, such as torture, China has signed on to the Convention against Torture; yet, as the recent Special Rapporteur on torture has found in his recent mission to China, his conclusion was that torture remains widespread. It took ten years for this mission to take place. There was an effort over a ten-year period to get the mission accepted on the terms of the UN and, even so, the Special Rapporteur still concluded that there were not the kinds of conditions that would have been ideal for him to carry out his mission. There was a great deal of fear. He concluded that there was tremendous fear among the people that he met. The UN Committee on the Child last year came out with conclusions regarding rights of the child. In very important areas such as education, despite the fact that the Chinese Government guarantees public education to all children for, I believe, nine years, there are increasing percentages of children in rural China that do not effectively have access to public education, because of the increasing rates of fees, informal fees, that are applied to rural schools. So that again is an area of concern, where China has signed up to these treaties and yet has failed. The question of education was raised in the report of the Committee on the Child, especially regarding rural children. There are other areas that I can follow through, and perhaps later we can go into more specific areas. That gives a little bit of an overview.

  Q90  Chairman: Do you want to add anything, Mr Adams?

  Mr Adams: Yes. It is important to note that there is a lot of interest in getting China to ratify the ICCPR. It is the chief diplomatic aim of many countries that have human rights dialogues with China. I sometimes think that this is a bit of an over-hyped goal, because the signing and ratifying of these documents has not noticeably changed Chinese behaviour in many cases. So it would be good to have China ratify—it is one of our goals institutionally, of course—but it does not mean that, tomorrow, much changes. It is true of many states. China is not a huge exception in this regard. It would give us more tools, it would give Chinese people more tools, to hold the state accountable; but I do not think one can expect that the act of ratifying will lead to major changes on the ground. The other point I would like to make is that China often holds up the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as its touchstone. It says that it is primarily interested in the social and economic rights of its people and that therefore political and civil rights have to wait. I think that you are all familiar with the argument. In the transformation that you discussed in the previous session—the big economic transformation in the country—many of the economic and social rights that were in place in China have actually been degraded; education being one, and healthcare being another big example. Many things that used to be free and provided by the state are no longer available. The divide that you were talking about and the tensions you were discussing previously are in many cases fuelled by the problems with access to education and healthcare, for example. There is a huge problem with forced evictions. Land being a motivation for that; greed being a motivation for that in some cases. Forcing people out of their homes; not giving them proper compensation. If you look at Tibet and Xinjiang, for example, those issues are very live. So the compliance of China with its obligations is weak; the area in which they used to say that they were doing the best is now under great strain, under great question; and state obligations for basic economic and social rights are weaker than they have been in the last 30 years.

  Q91  Mr Horam: I am very interested in what you have to say. I understand precisely where you are coming from, and there is obviously concern. None the less, as we heard from the previous evidence, there is a rising level of protest among people and they are not afraid to have riots, to take what we would call trade union action, to protest in all sorts of ways. This is clearly some sign of assertiveness and a lack of willingness to kowtow to the regime in certain circumstances. What is the significance of this? Do you think that this is important? Is something happening at the ground level?

  Mr Adams: There is a long history of public complaining in China.

  Q92  Mr Horam: It is not new.

  Mr Adams: The petition system is thousands of years old. It was quashed by the Communist Party when they came to power. It has revived itself over the last couple of decades. There is a very big debate in China about whether it is being allowed as a steam valve or whether it is representing something deeper. Most people who look at this think that it is essentially a pressure release valve for a one-party state. People have to have somewhere to go with their grievances. Interestingly, the Chinese Government actually produces statistics. The last statistic was 87,000 public protests last year in the country, following 74,000 the previous year. It is not clear to me what interest is served in reporting these figures, but I think—

  Q93  Mr Horam: Do you think they are reliable, these figures?

  Mr Adams: They are certainly a minimum level. They are certainly not going to overstate these, but I think that they have a reason for reporting them, which is to tell the public that there is some space for political discussion. I would not say that people are not afraid. In some parts of the country they are not afraid. They lose their fear and they have even had riots but, throughout the country, I think that fear is still a very salient characteristic of people who are opposing local officials. We published a report on petitioning very recently. We found that people are basically so desperate that they are willing to take any risk that it takes, and they work their way up through the system. Often they end up in Beijing but, in Beijing, there is a system of what are called "retrievers". It is an official system of having people go and find people who have made their way to Beijing to protest against local officials and to send them back, physically. In many cases they are tortured and abused on their way back. There are two reasons. One is that, in Beijing, they do not want these people hanging around the streets. It is rather embarrassing for the capital of an incipient superpower. Secondly, local officials send people to get them, because they do not want to be told on; they do not want to get in trouble, in case they have actually done something that is wrong. Where corruption is involved, that is a bit of a vulnerability for local officials. They can be held accountable for corruption. For other kinds of things they have less of an exposure.

  Q94  Sir John Stanley: I read the section on China in the Human Rights Watch World Report for 2006. For my money, I would have it as compulsory reading for all British ministers visiting China.

  Mr Adams: I am glad someone reads it!

  Q95  Sir John Stanley: The opening sentence reads, "While many governments have praised recent developments in China, the country remains a one-party state that does not hold national elections; has no independent judiciary; leads the world in executions; aggressively censors the internet; bans independent trade unions; and represses minorities such as Tibetans, Uyghurs and Mongolians". Against that backcloth, I would like you both, if you would, to give us your view as to where we are going in the broad sweep, in terms of human and political rights for real in China. Are they marking time? Are they advancing, or are they actually going backwards?

  Ms Francis: I would say that, with the administration of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, we have seen a deterioration overall since they came into office in 2003, compared to the reform period. There had been an expectation when they came into power. People were quite hopeful that after Jiang Zemin, the last leader, there would be a further liberalisation. There was the hope of both Chinese society and the West that there would be a gradual, inexorable trend towards liberalisation. I think that both Chinese society and the West were quite taken aback by the steps backwards, in terms of human rights, in terms of civil society. Within that several-year period we have even seen, in the last several months, an intensification of the human rights situation. My feeling regarding the Chinese Communist Party is that the contradictions between its desire for continued rule and the pressures of economic reform and economic opening to the world periodically come to a head and then die down. I think that contradiction, that sort of tension, has reared its head again. We would all like China to be able gradually to reform and gradually to become a more democratic, liberal, humanitarian society, as we see in other countries in Asia—in South Korea and Taiwan. There are examples of authoritarian regimes, even one-party or military authoritarian regimes, able to make that gradual transition. We all hope that that will be possible; but for that to be possible the Chinese Government will have to take much more serious steps towards political reform. Unfortunately, they have not taken those steps towards political reform. We think of China as having just started its reforms and we give it a lot of slack. We give it slack because it is large, and so on, but in two years' time it will be 30 years since China started its reforms. It is far overdue. Deeper changes to the legal system, deeper changes to freedom of the press—deeper changes are very much in order. Otherwise, there could be a crisis. In fact, with the recent National People's Congress having opened a few days ago, the government recognises an impending crisis and they are, quite belatedly I think, trying to respond to that. Their focus is primarily on the rural areas. They see the crisis and intensification of protest in the rural areas as the most threatening to their regime. They are throwing a certain amount of money at that problem, without undertaking the underlying institutional changes that they really will have to undertake for this to proceed smoothly. So my feeling is that this administration has gone backwards. They are not committed to expanding the freedom of the press, freedom of expression, freedom of association, to resolve those underlying issues to the extent that they need to in order to make this a smooth process.

  Mr Adams: You can look at the last couple of years since President Hu has come into power, where they have intensified a crackdown on internet activity and they have passed new media laws. You now have to be licensed to be a journalist. You have to make a pledge to commit to the party ideals. They have closed lots of newspapers. They are cracking down on blogs. So there are different trends here. If you ask a Chinese person, "Are things better now than 20 years ago?"—"Yes". "Are things better now than 10 years ago?"—"Yes." They would laugh at you if you thought otherwise. "Are they better than five years ago?"—"Yes." "Are they better than two years ago?" Ah, now we have a different question, and in some places we will have different answers. What has happened is that these different forces which have been contradicting each other have become quite apparent over the last couple of years. China is deathly afraid of independent political activity. They are afraid of "colour revolutions". They are very conscious of it. It is a term that they are bandying about. They do not want that to happen. They are worried about the influence of George Soros, for example, and other people who may fund local NGO activity. Soros has a record in other countries. They are lopping all this together, so that any independent activity is now getting more scrutiny than it was before. University students used to be able to use the internet freely. They used to be able to use pseudonyms, just like a lot of us use pseudonyms or we do not use our full name. They now have to register it completely. They have to say who they are and have to identify themselves, to be able to have an account as a student at university. So in many ways big, in many ways small, the space is actually closing in the last couple of years. I think it is because they intend to buy off their problems, where possible, but they intend absolutely to hold on to political power—and there is no debate about that.

  Mr Hamilton: Following on from what Sir John said about social freedoms, I want to ask you a question about religion. I understand that there have been new regulations on religious affairs, which became effective on 1 March 2005. I know that Human Rights Watch have called it "little more than a continuation of long-established policies that limit religious freedom". There is some practice of religion in China. Three to four per cent are Christian, one to two per cent are Muslim, and I think that there are even some Jews near Shanghai. My question really relates to what I think have been termed as independent groups, which are of course subject to monitoring, harassment, arrest and severe ill-treatment. The state definitely distinguishes between a religion and what they call a cult. You can guess what I am moving towards. Can you tell me what the situation is at the moment regarding Falun Gong? Whether it has a large membership, whether it is regarded as a cult—which is clearly is—what is its status as far as being registered as a religion is concerned, and are Falun Gong adherents still persecuted in the way they have been up till now?

  Andrew Mackinlay: And why they feel threatened by it.

  Q96  Mr Hamilton: Yes. Why do they feel so threatened?

  Ms Francis: Falun Gong was outlawed in 1999 by the Communist Party. It was deemed a heretical, illegal organisation. The reason it was branded as such was that in that year it organised, silently, quietly, very effectively, a large demonstration in Beijing, right at the steps of the office of the Communist Party. This is the main reason: its ability to organise. Its size and its ability to organise are what scared the Communist Party. They were protesting the prior treatment that they had been subjected to. Since that time, it has been an illegal organisation and the crackdown began in 1999. It is still an illegal organisation. In fact, anyone who has anything to do with Falun Gong is at risk of detention. It is very hard to know the numbers, because people cannot register. So we really cannot know the numbers, although the numbers and the depth of organisation externally are quite remarkable. Judging from that, we do not know if that correlates to membership continuing within China. The situation is that it remains illegal; it remains extremely dangerous for anyone to have anything to do with Falun Gong. We know from interviews we have done that Falun Gong members tend to be subjected to some of the worst treatment in the prison system and also within the re-education through labour system.

  Q97  Mr Hamilton: Does the Communist Party feel so threatened because of the ability of Falun Gong to organise or is there something deeper than that?

  Ms Francis: I think it is a combination of those. China has no official religion and I think this is in some sense a problem. Unlike the Soviet Union that in a sense could foster the Orthodox Church and have that as part of the system, China does not have its own indigenous religion. Because the Communist Party in a sense wants to be the religion, it wants to be the church and the state combined, it therefore feels threatened by any ideological or religious belief system that might put its rule into question. I think that is why any form of religion, not just Falun Gong but Christian and Muslim groups, is a threat to their legitimacy. It is a problem for China because I think there is a real need within Chinese society for some sort of spiritual outlet. The sheer number of Christians is growing; we are quite certain about that. That growth in the number suggests that there is a need within society which the Chinese Communist Party is not fostering or for which it is not allowing outlets. I think a long-term problem for the Chinese Communist Party is how to resolve this need for some sort of spiritual outlet, yet there is fear of the consequences. This new rule, the crackdown, effectively was a way to bring all religious organisations under its wing, so that now all religious groups have to register with the local authorities. If anything, it is a mechanism for more control.

  Q98  Mr Illsley: Basically you are saying what these people are preaching or doing is not an issue. I have read stuff in the past that has been put before us stating that Falun Gong is a suicide code but you are saying it does not really matter. The point then is that if, all of a sudden, the Chinese discover Christianity and there are a few thousand Christians organised in the same way, the same thing would apply?

  Ms Francis: The same thing is happening. The same thing is happening with the underground Christian churches. People are constantly being arrested. The police are constantly raiding their services. The Falun Gong had been more open and I think they have organised more externally to China, and that makes it more of a threat perhaps. They are much more vocal and more organised externally, which is partly why the intensity of crackdown is high, but it is there for all of the groups.

  Mr Hamilton: Would not the same apply to Buddhists as well?

  Q99  Mr Pope: There is some irony that we move on to somebody called Pope, is there not? I wanted to ask about the human rights dialogue between China and the UK and also between China and the EU. It seems to me that a despotic regime like Iran would welcome a human rights dialogue with polite countries like the UK, meeting up twice a year for civilised chats behind closed doors with nice, polite ministers. That would provide a perfect cloak for me to continue repressing my people. I have been a long-term critic, as you may guess from those comments, of this policy of engaging in a human rights dialogue. I wondered if you could give me your assessment as to whether or not it has been a success and whether it is worth continuing with it. My own view is that we should abandon it. I would be interested to hear your views.

  Mr Adams: Your Foreign Office staff should be commended. May I say for the record that within the confines of the dialogue they are pushing pretty well. I have just attended a meeting in Brussels of all the dialogue partners with China, and there was nothing but pessimism in the room. Nobody claimed the dialogues were a success. Some governments, at least at the civil servant level, would certainly stop them. There is a feeling, however, that they do not know what to do in their absence. I do not think that is a good enough answer, but that is where dialogue governments are coming from. My feeling is that the Chinese basically are running circles around dialogue partners. The one thing that a dialogue does is to marginalise human rights. It does not mainstream them. From talking to people who were at the embassies, we know that they do not think they have to deal with human rights because they are waiting for the dialogue. The Chinese actually say the same thing back to governments: "We do not need to talk to you when people in your embassies do bring human rights up. If we need to talk to you, let us wait for a dialogue." Sometimes the dialogues are postponed or held hostage to other events. Secondly, when the dialogues do take place, it will be no surprise to you that the Chinese do not really want to engage with the subjects that are being brought to their attention. They stonewall; they delay; they have the wrong person there. You have missions of foreign service officers going over a subject as important, let us say, labour rights, and allowing one hour per year to talk with the Chinese about that. That hour can be frittered away very easily. That is the dialogue process on that subject. We hear this from lots of governments; your government, the EU people, the Americans, you name it, they have all had similar experiences. Interestingly, some governments write reports that say that things are going great and progress has been made. They list the subjects that were discussed but there is no qualitative analysis to it. When you talk to them, there is a very different story from what you read in terms of their public reporting on it. I think that it is absolutely crucial that the UK in particular finds its public voice on human rights with China, that it be raised at the highest levels, and not be marginalised to a dialogue. It does not have to be either/or. In fact, when Tony Blair was asked at a press conference when President Hu was here what subjects he was going to discuss, and I do not know whether you saw the proceedings on TV, when he came to say the words "human rights" he swallowed them. He could not bring himself to say them. He said, "We will discuss security, political reform, economics and security". He actually repeated himself.

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