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My message to the Chancellor is that China is vital for our economy and our country, and for the peace and future of the world, so please do not ask the FCO to close posts in Europe, Africa or small Commonwealth countries or on Pacific islands. In the CSR, please give it the resources that will enable it to do the job that is needed as the rise of China continues.

3 pm

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): I wish to tell the House that I undertook a visit to the Republic of Korea, funded by the Korean National Assembly and the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, as recorded in the Register of Members’ Interests.

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It is a pleasure to follow the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes). I congratulate him on his effective leadership of the Committee through what was a complex and demanding inquiry and, most particularly, on standing up firmly, when we were in China, against the deplorable attempt by the Chinese authorities to intimidate the Committee out of proceeding as it was planning to do, and did, from China to Taiwan.

China, as we all know, is the most populous country in the world. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is a country that is still deplorably deficient in many aspects of human rights. I wish to devote most of my remarks to that issue. I am very glad that this Minister will reply to the debate, because he has a long-standing and most creditable record in the human rights area. Indeed, that is a particular area of his ministerial responsibility.

As the Chairman of the Select Committee said, a group of us visited Tibet. That was certainly the first time since I have been on the Foreign Affairs Committee that we have been allowed into Tibet. I do not know whether any previous departmental Select Committee has been to that part of China. From years of looking at media reports and pictures, I was prepared to see a very sadly transformed Lhasa, but the Lhasa that we found in reality was sadder than my worst expectations. The bulldozers have been rampant in Lhasa for many years and, sadly, a very great deal of the historic Tibetan part of Lhasa has now disappeared, with, of course, the conspicuous exception of the Potala palace. That reflects what has been going on in Tibet over many years. A striking illustration of the relationship between the state, Tibetan culture and the Tibetan Buddhist religion awaited us when we went to the Sera monastery in Lhasa. The abbot beckoned me to sit next to him on the sofa. I sat down and looked up, and there, staring down at me, was the portrait of Chairman Mao. That spoke volumes for where we are today in Tibet. There is no doubt that Tibetan culture, Tibetan religion and Tibetan language are all under sustained threat. That is clearly a serious and very worrying human rights dimension.

I want to put to the Minister what I think is the key area of policy, both for the British Government and, indeed, for the wider free world—what position do the Governments in the free world take towards the Dalai Lama and towards the authenticity of the Dalai Lama’s statement that he is not seeking to secede as far as Tibet is concerned? We quote in the Select Committee report, at paragraph 367, one of the latest statements from the Dalai Lama on that issue. It is taken from the statement that he made on 10 March last year. He said:

Nothing could be clearer or more unqualified than that. We made it clear in our report that that was the evidence that we had taken. We say in our conclusion that

Unhappily, the British Government are silent on that absolutely key point. I hope that the Minister will tell us in his reply whether the British Government accept that that is the position of the Dalai Lama, because if the British Government and, indeed, Governments around the world can give us that acceptance, the entire
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argument and supposed justification that the Chinese authorities advance in Tibet for violating human rights—that every Tibetan is a potential subversive and the Tibetan people are universally bent on separation, independence and secession—clearly goes overboard. That is a crucial public platform issue for the British Government and for other Governments around the world, and it would be helpful if the Minister said in his reply whether the British Government accept that what I have set out is the genuinely held, sincere position of the Dalai Lama—that he is not seeking the independence of Tibet.

I come now to human rights elsewhere in China—in mainland China. Just as some 500 years ago the arrival of the printing press had a volcanic impact on freedom of thought in Europe, so undoubtedly the arrival of electronic communications is having an equally volcanic impact on expression and freedom of communication in China now. The hon. Member for Ilford, South alluded to that. As far as the Chinese authorities are concerned, electronic communications is probably the biggest single fear factor that they have in trying to preserve their one-party regime as it is and to continue to conduct the political repression in their country that they do. I have read that they have some 40,000 people engaged simply in trying to police the internet.

The Chairman of the Select Committee referred to the activities of Google. I am sure that the Minister will have seen the report produced last year by Amnesty International. It is entitled “Undermining Freedom of Expression in China: The Role of Yahoo!, Microsoft and Google” and it contains searing criticisms of those three companies. I shall quote just a few sentences:

I would like to follow the request from the hon. Member for Ilford, South by putting two more in that area to the Minister. First, does he have any evidence as to whether any British companies have been involved in any way in facilitating Chinese suppression of human rights through censorship of the internet? Secondly, with regard to the television arena, does he have any evidence that Sky has, as part of its deal with the Chinese authorities, undertaken any self-censorship in terms of the news reporting that it carries out in that country?

Let me turn now to the written media. Those of us who went to Beijing were shocked by the first-hand accounts that we received from the British journalists we met, who told us how extraordinarily difficult it was for them to carry out their proper journalistic responsibilities in China. They told us of the intense degree of control over their travel, the restrictions over how freely they could report, the clearances that they were supposed to get and, indeed, of the possible risk
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of arrest that they faced. That is all wholly unacceptable, particularly in a country that will shortly host the Olympic games. As we said in the report:

In that respect, I was somewhat disappointed by the Government’s response, which refers to the Prime Minister’s meeting with Premier Wen in London on 13 September 2006. The Government quote two sentences from Premier Wen’s statement, the first of which reads:

Open policy? What open policy? It does not exist. That is a ludicrous description of the repression and control exercised over foreign news agencies. The second sentence quoted by the Foreign Office reads:

Of course it will flow freely. Western companies’ financial information and details of their trading will be eagerly hoovered up by their Chinese competitors, but that is not the issue. The issue is what is happening as regards the free flow of information about the nascent free trade union movement and non-state-controlled Churches in China? What about information that represents legitimate and proper freedom of expression? What about the ability to talk about Taiwan? Those are the issues on which we want a dramatic change in policy from the Chinese Government.

Tony Baldry: Is there not a bit of a conundrum here for all those of us who want to thicken and deepen relationships with China? One must be able to establish a basis of friendship and respect to have the appropriate conversations, but our experience has been that beating the Chinese around the head on human rights and other issues sometimes simply causes them to retreat back into themselves. That is a difficult issue for the Foreign Office, or for any Foreign Ministry that is seeking to deal with China, and I should welcome my right hon. Friend’s thoughts on it.

Sir John Stanley: That is the classic diplomatic argument, and I accept that there is a place for private discussions. However, there are also universal obligations, just as there are universal human rights, and some of the things that are happening in China should be made public. On the crucial issue of freedom of expression and the freedom of the media, I see no reason why we should not require the same standards and freedoms from a country such as China, which will shortly host the Olympic games, as we would require from any major country that expected to be treated as a major player in the world. On this issue, therefore, I do not accept that we should compromise our position on the freedom of the media and freedom of expression in any way.

Several hon. Members wish to speak, so let me turn briefly to the Chinese arms embargo. Having had to write to the Committee about this, the Minister will be aware that there was a serious error in the Government’s response, which stated:

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That error was potentially damaging for the Committee, because we made no such observation. That observation was made by a witness, and we are grateful for the apology that the Minister has given us. As hon. Members know, the embargo is hugely sensitive to the United States, but it is even more sensitive now, and that was certainly brought home to me when I was in Washington last week. If the Americans were absolutely determined before that there should be no weakening at the knees as regards the EU’s attitude to the embargo, they are even more determined now, following the apparently successful anti-satellite test by the Chinese military.

Let me now say a few sentences about Hong Kong, before making one point about Korea and one about Taiwan. On Hong Kong, it is regrettable that we seem to be making no progress towards fulfilling the undertaking in the Basic Law to achieve universal suffrage. We stated that clearly in our report, but the Government disagreed with us in their response. They came up with the little phrase that diplomatic officials had faithfully repeated during our visit, saying that the Chief Executive’s constitutional changes

For those of us on the Committee, that incremental step has been pretty much devoid of movement. We do not accept that any significant steps have been made and we hope that the Government will continue to be robust in seeking the delivery of that crucial requirement in the Basic Law.

I turn now to North Korea and the issue of proliferation. Obviously, we all wish—without huge, rose-tinted optimism—that the six-party talks, which I understand will recommence next week, will be successful. On proliferation, North Korea has been among the worst, and possibly the worst, proliferators of missile technology and aspects of weapons of mass destruction, as hon. Members will know. We were grateful for the Government’s response on the issue, in which they quote the important amendment that has been made to the relevant convention. They say:

The killer sentence is of course the last one. I hope that the Minister and the Foreign Office’s experts on maritime law will apply their minds to how we can establish a legal basis for intervention on the high seas in cases where ships may be carrying components of weapons of mass destruction or ballistic missiles. Such a provision should extend to all countries, whether or not they sign up to the convention, and particularly to those that sign up, but which are nevertheless in breach. I just put that thought forward, because this is an important area of policy, and I hope that the FCO will take the issue on board.

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Lastly, I have a deep feeling of unease about Taiwan and the possibility that at some point down the line, there may arise a potentially catastrophic miscalculation, the same miscalculation that led us into two world wars in the last century, led Galtieri into the Falkland islands and led Saddam Hussein into the invasion of Kuwait; a miscalculation about being able to carry out an invasion and get away with it. I treat with scepticism the Chinese Government’s protestations that they want only a peaceful solution to the Taiwanese issue. All their procurement, defence positioning and training points unmistakeably towards two capabilities. The first is the capability to deliver overwhelming intimidation through force, particularly against the civil infrastructure of Taiwan, sufficient to produce, in effect, a Taiwanese political surrender. The second is a capability designed to delay sufficiently long to get that surrender before major US assets can be committed. Procurement and training for the People’s Liberation Army seems to be moving towards providing that option.

I put it to the Minister that it is of critical importance to security and continuing peace in that part of the world that the British Government, not least in their capacity as a permanent member of the Security Council, along with our United States friends, should continue to make it clear to the Chinese authorities that any contemplation of a military option towards Taiwan will have unacceptable consequences for China.

3.21 pm

Mr. Greg Pope (Hyndburn) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to make some brief remarks, and am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) and the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), who made excellent contributions not only to the debate but to the report on which it focuses.

I associate myself particularly with the right hon. Gentleman’s comments on a robust approach to promoting and defending human rights in other countries. I shall come to that, but I believe that the traditional softly-softly approach has not paid dividends and that we have a right and a responsibility to stand up for the values that we cherish.

We learned many things on our visit to east Asia last year. I have been used to describing the UK as the fourth richest country in the world, and it came as something of a surprise to discover that we are now not the fourth richest but the fifth richest, as defined by gross domestic product. I thought that being fourth was pretty good, and I put that down to a long period of guidance by a benign and wise Chancellor of the Exchequer, but there we are—we have slipped to fifth.

The reason for that is not that we are not performing well, but that another country, China, has overtaken us. To be honest, we should not beat ourselves up about that. China overtook Britain in 2005. It will overtake Germany in 2009, on current trends, and Japan in 2015. At some point in the next 30 years, it will overtake the United States of America. That is the position if one considers only GDP. We might view China’s economy as a matter of its purchasing power parity, which is $8 trillion a year—making it second only to the United States.

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China is a rising economic power and a rising military power, as other hon. Members have mentioned. There are ground forces of 2.3 million in the People’s Liberation Army, and 8,000 battle tanks. There are 3,500 aircraft in China’s air force. In some ways, the most worrying development is the fact that China is achieving blue-water-navy status. That is a striking development. When the Foreign Affairs Committee was in India and Pakistan a couple of months ago, we learned that China has negotiated with Pakistan access to Pakistani ports for part of its fleet. That is a quite worrying development. It exponentially increases China’s influence in the Arabian sea and the entrance to the Gulf.

Of even greater concern, as the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling mentioned, is Taiwan. China has developed a sophisticated submarine presence in the strait of Taiwan. It is also developing a fairly sophisticated anti-submarine presence to deter the American navy in that area. When we were in Beijing, we were left in no doubt by officials of the Communist party who were responsible for relations with Taiwan, and in our talks with the Chinese Foreign Minister, that they were none too keen on the concept of self-determination for the people of Taiwan.

In passing, I want to say that I have been a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee for six years, and have in that time visited a number of countries and met a number of Foreign Ministers. I have never before been treated as we were treated in Beijing. The pressure put on the Committee not to visit Taiwan was intolerable. It is important that, as we have a right of free speech in this country, we should stand up and say that it is not acceptable for free parliamentarians to be treated in that fashion.

It is worth bearing that in mind in the context of the none-too-subtle hints that China made only last year that it had not ruled out the possibility of military intervention in, or even invasion of, Taiwan if the Government of Taiwan continued to take steps towards independence. The United States has traditionally been the guarantor of Taiwan’s freedoms, but the response of the United States army to such pressure from the Chinese was to invite representatives of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to go on military manoeuvres with the US army in Guam. One need not be a fully paid-up supporter of Taiwanese independence to think that, on balance, that might send the wrong message to the old guard in Beijing.

In addition to China’s approach to Taiwan, other aspects of its foreign policy and its economic policy overseas give great cause for concern. China’s attitude to Africa, as the Chairman of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South, suggested, is not dissimilar to that of western nations at the height of imperial power, in the scramble for Africa. One aspect of that is the environmental damage that is being caused by the plundering of precious and irreplaceable natural resources in Sudan and other parts of Africa. China’s attitude towards Zimbabwe should also cause concern to people in this country, because it is involved in directly selling arms to the dictator Mugabe.

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