Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240-259)


13 JUNE 2006

  Q240  Mr Keetch: I am grateful for that. Can I turn to another aspect of trade and that is the EU arms embargo with China. As you know, the EU introduced an arms embargo following the massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Last year France and Germany sought to try and lift that embargo. The Foreign Office have told us: "the embargo is largely of symbolic significance", but all our friends in America tell us that it is of massive significance and are very concerned that an arms embargo might be lifted. Do you believe, Foreign Secretary, that the issue of lifting the arms embargo is likely to come up again in the near future and what would your position be on lifting that embargo?

  Margaret Beckett: The principal thing that I could tell you is that there is at present no consensus within the European Union so it seems to me—and you will appreciate I speak only from the depth of a few weeks' experience—that it is not an issue that is likely to be decided in the near future. Whether it will come up again in the near future is not in my eye line. I do not know if there is anything you can add?

  Mr Wood: It is not a particularly live subject of debate at the moment.

  Margaret Beckett: Because there is no consensus and things on which there is no consensus tend to sink below the line.

  Q241  Mr Keetch: So far as we can judge there is no prospect that that embargo will be lifted in the near future?

  Margaret Beckett: I cannot see it, no.

  Chairman: Sandra Osborne?

  Q242  Sandra Osborne: Secretary of State, I would like to start a section of questions relating to UK engagement with China in relation to business. During this inquiry we have heard some criticism that there is a lack of a Whitehall strategy in relation to China, that the respective departments meet and talk about the bilateral initiatives in relation to China but not an overall strategy. What would be your response to that? How is the strategy for China co-ordinated in Whitehall?

  Margaret Beckett: I can understand and it is always the case, is it not, in the business community there is a tendency to want—and I am not criticising this, it is a natural tendency and it has merit—one kind of simple channel, but China, as you have seen for yourselves, is a large and very complex place and what we have at present is not a plethora of bodies but we have a number of different bodies, each of whom play a role which is slightly distinct in the sense of whether they are most focused on facilitating new starters or networking for people who are actually operating already in China. It appears to me from what I experienced before and what I understand to still be or to again be the case is there is quite a good working, constructive relationship. They are not competing with each other. UKTI, for example, shares some of their offices and may do more in the future. It is not necessarily harmful to have a number of different routes and avenues as long as we do more, and it is always necessary to do more, to make clear to people at this end of things how they can become involved. As to an issue of Whitehall strategy in departments, again this is something that one can always say one can improve and we will work on but there is actually quite a good co-ordination between the different departments and the involvement of departments working together to support things like the UK-China Task Force and so on. There is quite a lot of good engagement. Although I have no doubt that individual players who are operating in China have got views about how they would like to see things improved, again my impression is that between the UK Government and the China Government there is actually a feeling that things are going really rather better than they used to and going in the right direction.

  Q243  Sandra Osborne: Good. Given the importance that you yourself have acknowledged of the emergence of China would you see any increase in diplomatic staff in China? For example, we have had it suggested that there may be a policy adopted of bringing in specialists to China on the basis of a "one day China the next day Brazil" type situation. What would you foresee as the future of diplomatic involvement in China?

  Margaret Beckett: I certainly see an increase in staffing for China. I have not come across the suggestion that there might be a thing about somebody doing China one day and Brazil the next, but certainly on the trade side, on the general diplomatic side and so on, we are planning to step up our engagement in China, which I think the Committee would wish to see.

  Q244  Mr Purchase: Firstly, may I say I am delighted to see you in such an important position within the Government. I am confident that your experience and skills will be fully employed and fully appreciated in the Foreign Office, so I am delighted to see you there and I hope we have many exchanges of a constructive nature.

  Margaret Beckett: Thank you.

  Q245  Mr Purchase: I just want to ask about the question of support for British business in China. You will know that there has been considerable criticism that we lack a strategy concerning trade with China. I wonder how you answer that and how you would like to see a strategy developing so that we get full benefit, as you express it, mutually of trade with China?

  Margaret Beckett: As I say, one can always say that there is room for improvement, but I would not myself be inclined to accept that there is not a strategy. I am looking for and inevitably as always failing to find it in my papers, but there are a number of areas where in trade terms we have tried to concentrate some of our effort. In other words, we have not just gone in ad hoc "let's see what happens", but to see where the UK has strengths and where China has needs and where those two can be brought together. Pharmaceuticals is one that springs to mind, IT is another. It does seem to me that we have done a certain amount of identifying of the priorities. What I would certainly accept—and it goes back to my answer I think to Mr Heathcoat-Amory—is that in the past we have not enjoyed as great a share of trade as one might think judging from the share we have of investment in China. Again, it is my understanding that part of the issue has been that the things that China has most needed in the most recent past have been in the heavy goods/heavy machinery end of things, where, for good or ill—and I know you and I share a manufacturing history and we might regret it—the fact is that these are not areas where Britain has the strengths that we have had the past. However, what we are seeing as growing areas of interest and importance in China are in exactly those areas of services, financial expertise and so on where we still have major strengths. So on the one hand there has been some identification of areas where we think we can make a contribution up to now. There is also an identification of areas which we think will grow in importance between our two countries and to which therefore we are putting some effort. I think that would be my answer to the people who say there is no strategy and there are not priorities; actually, yes there are but we always welcome input and advice as to what more and what better we can do.

  Q246  Richard Younger-Ross: Obviously in the future improving trade with China will be beneficial if more British businessmen and women spoke Chinese and were more familiar with the Chinese nation and Chinese state and undertook Chinese studies. Can you say what you believe the British Government should be doing to ensure that happens? Would you bear in mind that in a couple of years' time we have the Beijing Olympics and the Chinese have initiated a Speak English programme to enable and make it easier for visitors to Beijing. Should we not reciprocate with a Speak Chinese programme for the future generation of young Brits?

  Margaret Beckett: I think the idea of having a Speak Chinese programme is certainly an interesting one. I know what you mean about the issue of language capacity. On the last occasion, I think it was, that I was in China I recall visiting a middle school. It was a language school so presumably the youngsters who were there had got some evidence of innate talent but their colloquial English was absolutely incredible. I am talking about eight, nine, and 12-year-olds. It was quite amazing, quite intimidating almost. So I take your point entirely about what is happening in China. In the UK there is a quite substantial (perhaps not by those standards) and growing area of study. There is the educational co-operation programme with schools in China. I was slightly surprised to learn (and I am sure we can do better) that over 110 primary and secondary schools were linked during the last full academic year 2004-05. Just under 2,000 15-year-olds were entered for a GCSE in Chinese in 2005 and just over 1,600 16 to 18-year-olds were entered for a GSCE A level. I take your point entirely that these are very important skills but I think it is quite encouraging that we are seeing that growth, and we are also seeing a growth in studies in Japanese. So in terms of acceptance and realisation that these are languages which would be of value, I think we are seeing a growing awareness, although no doubt we can and will build on that.

  Q247  Chairman: Thank you. Can I move on to the internal politics of China. When we were there just over two weeks ago, I came across a phrase I had not heard before which was a GONGO, a government organised non-governmental organisation—

  Margaret Beckett: It is a new concept in fact.

  Chairman: We were told very emphatically that there were almost no non-governmental organisations in China because of the nature of the law and the constitution, and all NGOs had to be registered, and had to be, in effect, organised by the government. This raises a wider issue about civil society, lack of independent trade unions—

  Mr Keetch: Do not tell a Cabinet minister that!

  Q248  Chairman: They may be Lib Dem policies! I apologise, let us get back to this. In the question of the nature of Chinese society and party control what can we do to assist the development of civil society in China in the sense that we understand it?

  Margaret Beckett: I am mindful of the speech that Jack Straw made, I cannot quite recall when but not long ago.

  Mr Wood: The Smith Institute speech at the end of April.

  Margaret Beckett: And the whole tenor of his remarks—and it may have been just before you went out to China—was that China obviously, as we all understand, is already an economic power house and it will become more so, but that it is in everybody's interests, including in China's interests, for that economic development and growth to be matched by a growth of participation and activity in civil society because these are the ways in which, especially in a fast-changing economy and a fast-changing society, sometimes with some difficulty adjustments are made to take account of the impact of those enormous economic changes. I think that there are two things we can do. One is to make that basic case to our Chinese colleagues that this kind of development is something which is really bound to come with their economic development and which can be beneficial, and also of course to offer people opportunities and experience. We have got this huge number of students from China, as from elsewhere in East Asia, coming to the United Kingdom and here too they will experience some of that, and no doubt learn from our mistakes as well as what we hope are our successes.

  Q249  Chairman: Do you think it is inevitable that economic development leads to development of political pluralism, free trade unions and multi party candidature at elections?

  Margaret Beckett: No, I do not think it is inevitable that it leads to that but I think it is inevitable that it leads to change, and if not that kind of change then perhaps other changes that may be more difficult to handle and can be more traumatic. I think what I would postulate as inevitable is that that kind of economic development leads to change in society. If one wants it to be beneficial change then maybe there is something to be said for opening up to a degree as a society in the way that China has opened up as an economy.

  Chairman: Can I take you then to questions about "One Country, Two Systems", the alternative system which is Hong Kong system. Some questions about Hong Kong from Ken Purchase please.

  Q250  Mr Purchase: Following directly on from that, Secretary of State, in Hong Kong there have been several demonstrations, as you know, and proposals made and refused. How helpful is it for pro-democracy people in Hong Kong to receive assistance from Britain and America and other countries who may have an interest in promoting not just a civil society but a pluralistic political system. How important is it for them? Is it good for us to try to assist or should we stand back and just watch developments?

  Margaret Beckett: I think it depends on what you mean by should we try to assist. There is the framework of the basic law in Hong Kong. There is an acceptance of moving towards, in time, universal suffrage. I know there are differences of view about the recent proposals. It seemed to us the recent proposals went somewhere in the right direction. I know there were differences of view about whether they went far enough and therefore whether it was worth accepting them and so on, but certainly there have been some moves there. I do not think anyone is suggesting that we would be hostile to such activities but whether it helps or hinders for us or indeed the United States or any other such players to appear to be visibly involved in some way in pushing things forward, I think is another issue.

  Q251  Mr Purchase: I have in mind the recent controversies in the former Soviet Union where voluntary organisations have been materially and in other ways assisted and that has led to rather more disputes than would have been helpful. I just wonder whether we could still help but avoid that kind of controversy.

  Margaret Beckett: As you will know because we have known each other for some years, I am very much an advocate of doing what is effective rather than what people would like to see one doing. I take what I think to be your point entirely, that we should try not to put ourselves in a position where we do things that make us feel high-minded and allow us to say we are doing all the right things but which would actually cause difficulties rather than help to resolve them.

  Q252  Mr Keetch: Certainly on the business side, Foreign Secretary, we were told that the system of One Country, Two Systems has worked incredibly well from a British business standpoint there.

  Margaret Beckett: And Hong Kong business too.

  Q253  Mr Keetch: And indeed Hong Kong, absolutely. According to the Heritage Foundation, which is not a body I would normally quote, since 1995 Hong Kong is ranked as the freest economy in the world by them. Certainly with its access into the Pearl River Delta, with its independent judiciary, common law, et cetera, it is clearly a spring point for British investment and indeed Hong Kong investment to go into mainland China. How do you foresee that Britain can support that kind of investment? Would you encourage British business to take that route into China with all the obvious benefits it has in terms of our traditional role in Hong Kong as opposed to a route going in maybe via Shanghai?

  Margaret Beckett: If I can put aside the issue of Shanghai for a moment, I think it depends on where they want to go. I do not think there is any doubt if one is wanting to move into the Pearl River Delta that there is a huge amount to be said for going in via Hong Kong in a whole variety of ways, with the experience that can give, with their understanding, with the links they have (more substantial every day it sometimes seems) with the mainland. I do not think there is any dispute about that at all. Equally though, and I am not sure whether I am really supposed to say this, I remember the first time I went to Hong Kong being told it was run by the Shanghainese. Sometimes there would be merit in going in through Shanghai but if one is involved in other parts of China I would have thought that it might work to go in through that route but not necessarily. I think it goes back to the remark I made earlier that it is wise for us to remember how enormous and complex China is and that for people wanting to operate in different parts of that enormous country then Hong Kong may not automatically be the best route. I do not know if there is anything you want to add.

  Mr Wood: The only thing I would add is that given our obvious business advantages and very well-established business presence in Hong Kong and the fact that it provides a level playing field for business, a well-regulated economic environment with the rule of law, then there are clear advantages for businesses to use it as a platform for doing business in wider mainland China. That is why we decided to take a long hard look at the possibilities for doing that and launched the UK/Hong Kong business partnership some years ago, which has been working with the authorities in Hong Kong, with our own authorities, and British businesses specifically to identify the possibilities in this area.

  Q254  Mr Keetch: Foreign Secretary, when you said very welcomely earlier that Britain was looking to expand our diplomatic representation and our influence across China, I presume we can take it that that will not be in any way at the expense of our post in Hong Kong, for the record?

  Margaret Beckett: No, we are not intending to do that. Perhaps I ought to make it clear; we are not necessarily talking about setting up any new posts but expanding personnel and staff where we are. We have looked at it and think that probably we are in enough of the right places but that there is more that we can do if we have more people.

  Q255  Mr Keetch: Certainly the Hong Kong post would not in any way be reduced as part of that?

  Margaret Beckett: I have not seen any suggestion that that should be done.

  Mr Keetch: I am grateful.

  Chairman: Sir John Stanley?

  Sir John Stanley: Foreign Secretary, I am sure you attach, like the Committee, profound importance to freedom of expression in general and freedom of the media in particular. I have with me the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs publication entitled Handbook for Foreign Correspondents in China, running to a total of 53 pages and included within it there are specified regulations concerning foreign journalists, including a number of potential catch-all offences. I read one, for example, under article 14: "Foreign journalists and permanent offices of foreign news agencies shall observe journalistic ethics and shall not distort facts, fabricate rumours or carry out news coverage by foul means."

  Mr Purchase: Can we have that here?

  Q256  Sir John Stanley: Foreign Secretary, I hope you will resist the enthusiasm from the Government members of the Committee for these restrictions here.

  Margaret Beckett: I thought it was cross party actually!

  Mr Keetch: You are giving her ideas!

  Q257  Sir John Stanley: Foreign Secretary, I am sure that you would agree that these types of catch-all offences, coupled with a whole panoply of requirements for approval before reporting, approvals before getting interviews, and approvals for travel, are wholly incompatible with a proper attitude towards journalists in a modern state and in a state which has been invited to host the Olympic Games. Will you tell the Committee what steps the British Government will take to try to persuade the Government of China to strip away this wholly antiquated raft of restrictions on the media in China and try to ensure that we get somewhere closer in China to the freedom of expression and the freedom of the media that we have in this country?

  Margaret Beckett: More seriously, Sir John, of course I do take entirely the point that you make and I do understand the concern that you have expressed. We are of course committed to a media being able to operate without artificial restrictions. You ask me what we can do to help and of course we have a human rights dialogue, as you will know, with the Chinese Government which takes place on a regular and a constructive basis where we explore and exchange our concerns. Also of course we do have a number of practical projects operating in China with regard to the courts, training for judges and so on, and also with regard to the news media for, I believe, journalists and also those who deal with the news media. What we seek to do through that is indeed to convey the notion of the role—and we talked before about trying to encourage greater openness in society—that a responsible media can play which can indeed be beneficial in terms of exposing and exploring areas where things have gone wrong, for example the handling of contracts and things of that kind, and there can be a benefit in having a media which is able to explore some of these issues—benefits to government as well as to society as a whole.

  Q258  Sir John Stanley: Do you agree that the forthcoming Olympic Games in which the Chinese Government is going to be host to hundreds, possibly thousands of additional foreign journalists, provides a golden opportunity for concerted pressure worldwide for the People's Republic of China to bring its handling and attitudes towards journalists up-to-date and to the levels that we would regard as being acceptable in our own society?

  Margaret Beckett: I certainly think that there will be a huge plethora of changes and impacts that hosting the Olympic Games will bring, and I hope that all of them will be beneficial.

  Q259  Chairman: Can I take you to a related area which is the human rights dialogue in which we have been engaged with in the Chinese Government for many years and the related European Union dialogue with the Chinese. It has been put to us in evidence that these are a kind of window-dressing exercise which in effect does not have much impact. How do you respond to that?

  Margaret Beckett: Well, to be honest, that tends always to be said, does it not, on these occasions because obviously such dialogues take place, relatively speaking, behind the scenes and there tends to be an assumption that they have not had enough impact unless everything is put right. From our perspective, this does represent a worthwhile engagement. We do believe that we see gradual movement and greater recognition of some of the concerns, and of course we are now involved—and I am not quite sure what the timeline of this is, when did we get involved with the Berne Group?

  Mr Wood: The Berne Group has existed for some time.

  Margaret Beckett: Has there been more active involvement more recently?

  Mr Wood: But over the last few months we have been concerting—

  Margaret Beckett: We and others who are members of the Berne Group have become more actively involved in sharing information, co-ordinating our efforts, precisely so that, first, we have got a better picture of what the problems are and, second, that we think we can have and we do get some indication that we are having greater impact in that respect. I think I saw a reference to some evidence that you had from one of the human rights representative groups in Hong Kong.

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