Previous Section Index Home Page

1 Feb 2007 : Column 159WH—continued

The picture is not all bad. There are some encouraging signs—welcome signs that the People’s Republic of China is at long last ceasing to see its membership of the UN Security Council solely
1 Feb 2007 : Column 160WH
through the prism of self-interest. We should point out that the People’s Republic has played a good role in seeking to temper North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. As the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) mentioned, China’s relations with Iran put it in an almost pivotal position on the UN Security Council, in which it could choose to play a constructive role. Let us hope that it does so. I hope also that the Minister will explain some of the things that Britain is doing in the Security Council to help China to emerge and play such a role.

China is a rising economic power but not yet the leading economic power in the world, and a rising military power but not yet the leading one. However, there is one area in which it is an undisputed world leader, head and shoulders above its nearest competitors. China is far and away the world’s No. 1 abuser of human rights.

Amnesty International estimates that about 3,400 people were executed by the Chinese state in 2004. To put that in context, those executions account for more than 90 per cent. of worldwide judicial executions in 2004. That is if we accept the figure of 3,400. Other people have made different estimates. Chen Zhonglin, a deputy in the National People’s Congress, put the figure at more than 10,000 a year.

As my colleagues have pointed out, it is not only the death penalty that is a cause for concern. There is widespread torture, detention without trial and re-education through labour. There are no meaningful freedoms of speech, association or assembly, and there is little freedom of religion. Culturally, the Foreign Office—I shall try to put this gently—has not been great on this issue. I emphasise that I am not referring to my right hon. Friend the Minister when I say that, because he has an excellent track record. However, even the Foreign Office, which traditionally has not been China’s sternest critic on human rights issues, concluded in its last, and previous, human rights reports that there have been widespread abuses, yet we continue along the path of the human rights dialogue.

We have a bilateral human rights dialogue with China, and the EU has a similar dialogue. Having looked at this issue over time, I have concluded that those dialogues achieve little and, arguably, allow the People’s Republic of China to compartmentalise human rights concerns. China seems to show that it is serious about tackling human rights concerns simply by saying, “We are serious: here is the dialogue; this is what we are doing about it,” while the human rights abuses continue apace.

Internet restrictions have been mentioned. There are also restrictions on broadcasting. When the Committee was in China, there were not a great deal of television channels available in our hotel in Beijing. We were reduced to watching BBC World—not the most reliable provider of information—to get an approximation of what was happening elsewhere in the world. I noticed that when the presenter said that the programme was going over to a BBC correspondent in China, the channel closed down for about 10 minutes until the broadcast had ended. It is startling to see such censorship at first hand, and we are right to speak out against such things.

We ought to change tack with China and how we view its economic rise. Far too often, we say that it
1 Feb 2007 : Column 161WH
impacts badly on Britain and talk about cheap imports and intellectual property rights. We do not spend enough time talking about the opportunities for British business in China. Lots of our businesses are doing well over there, and we have a well-established presence in the banking and financial services sector.

There are lots of other areas in which we could do business with China, but we need to be more robust and aggressive about it. There must be business opportunities for us in a country that is building, on average, one new coal power station a week over 10 years, given that we are a leading developer of green technologies. We discovered from our visit that business people feel that the language training that is meant to enable them to do business better in China is inadequate. Perhaps the Government should consider that.

On Taiwan, I believe that our policy is right. We must continue to encourage China to pursue its objectives by purely peaceful means. A period of prolonged good will on China’s behalf towards Taiwan might produce more dividends in trying to achieve its objectives than the kind of bullying that we have seen. When I was there, I was reminded of other territorial disputes in which a large neighbour has behaved badly, such as that between Spain and Gibraltar. It is not surprising that the people of Gibraltar do not feel as warm as they might towards their Spanish neighbours precisely because of the problems with handling the border and telephones. A lowering of the temperature and a period of good will are generally welcome in such disputes. One thing that the Government of the PRC could do is open up more direct transport links. Many people in Taiwan have family in the PRC, but it is difficult to get from one to the other. Opening up those links might be a step in the right direction.

On human rights, I associate myself with the comments of the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling. We should accept that the dialogues are not working and break them off. They provide a cloak behind which China routinely abuses its citizens’ rights. We should stand up and be proud of our liberal values, and tell the Government of China that their record is not good enough.

One thing that struck me greatly on our visit was how much China desperately wants to be part of the modern world. It wants to be more outward looking and to play a proper role on the UN Security Council. We ought to tell it that we would welcome that, but that if a country wants to be part of the modern world it needs to embrace modern values at its heart. People must have the freedoms of association, of religion and, most importantly, of speech.

3.36 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): We have heard several thoughtful speeches on the Committee’s interesting report. For reasons that I shall make clear in a moment, I intend to speak mostly about Hong Kong. The speeches of the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) and those who spoke before him flagged up the clear challenge for us all in dealing with China. I say that as an officer of the all-party group on China.

1 Feb 2007 : Column 162WH

I want to discuss some of the Committee’s conclusions. Conclusion 57 states:

I hope that we all, as democrats, believe it important to engage in dialogue. However, there is a particular conundrum with China, which is clearly demonstrated in two of the Committee’s earlier conclusions. The short, stark conclusion 8 states:

That is augmented by the sentence at the end of conclusion 10:

I emphasise the next part—

So, the Committee recommends that high-level Ministers should continue to visit China to promote UK business, but it also recommends, quite rightly:

The point that I was seeking to put to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley)—clearly I did not do so with sufficient eloquence—is that it is incredibly difficult simultaneously to promote trade and unflinchingly to have a crack at one’s counterparts on human rights. Both have to be done, but the situation with China presents whoever is in government with a particularly difficult and complex situation.

That means that we need the strongest possible embassies in Beijing and diplomatic support in China so that we can ensure that Ministers and others in London have the best possible advice on how most effectively to do this. I have been stung into making those comments as a consequence of the debate that has taken place so far.

The Foreign Affairs Committee has done the House a considerable service in producing a cogent and comprehensive report on China. As a footnote, I should point out that it was a slight pity that this debate has been referred to as being on “East Asia”, although there must be some reason for that. When people use Google and so forth, they tend to type in “China” in this regard, and I guess that, had “China” had been on the Order Paper, more right hon. and hon. Members might have been present as there is considerable interest in the House in China.

There is an enormous amount of meat in the report, which covers issues of substance ranging from China’s increasing impact on the world economy and the need for Britain to do more to support British business in China, to the need to ensure that China complies with the universal standards on human rights, to which reference has been made.

I do not, in any way, seek to diminish the importance of the other issues in the report, but I want to focus on one area: Hong Kong. Until the end of the previous Parliament, the House had a separate all-party group on Hong Kong. It was decided in this Parliament that,
1 Feb 2007 : Column 163WH
henceforth, that group would become part of the all-party group on China, of which I am the Conservative vice-chair. The group agreed that I would take the lead on ensuring that it maintained a clear focus on Hong Kong.

There is considerable interest in the House in Hong Kong, although for a number of years there had been little direct contact between it and UK parliamentarians. Last September, with the help and support of the Hong Kong office in London, an all-party group of eight MPs visited Hong Kong for a week. As a result of the success of that visit and the considerable number of parliamentary colleagues who applied to go to Hong Kong, the Hong Kong office in London is this year arranging two further visits, one during the Whitsun recess and the other in the summer recess, each for six Members of the House.

So far, 92 right hon. and hon. Members have asked to be considered for the visits, so unfortunately, but inevitably, a number of colleagues will be disappointed this year. However, I hope that this is a pattern of visits and contacts that we will be able to maintain in future years, so that as many colleagues as possible have the opportunity to visit and experience Hong Kong and so that we collectively have the opportunity of maintaining contact with those involved in politics and democracy there. Such visits will also help to ensure that we collectively maximise the opportunities for UK business in Hong Kong and, through the gateway of Hong Kong, in the rest of China.

I hope that twice-yearly visits by all-party groups of the House will be able to pursue, among other things, the points raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling on the progress to direct elections to the LegCo. That is part of the ongoing dialogue that we need to have in Hong Kong.

The year 2007 is particularly notable because it is 10 years since Hong Kong returned to China. I should mention in passing that on Sunday 1 July, the Hong Kong community in the UK is holding a day of celebrations to mark the success of Hong Kong over the past 10 years. They will include some dragon boat racing. I believe that the all-party group on China hopes to enter a team. I invite the Minister to join the parliamentary dragon boat team, perhaps as our drummer. Our team may well have 10 drummers and one rower, unlike most dragon boat teams. The fact we have such a dynamic community of Hong Kong origin indicates the vibrancy of London.

Mr. McCartney: I would be happy to come as the dragon, but I am less sure about being the drummer.

Tony Baldry: Excellent. The Minister always makes a fearful dragon, as I am sure those in the parliamentary Labour party remember from his days as party chairman.

I repeat that 2007 is notable because it is 10 years since Hong Kong returned to China. I cannot resist observing that when history comes to be written, the success of the negotiations on Hong Kong will be recorded as one of the lasting achievements of Margaret Thatcher’s Government and as the personal achievement of, and a tribute to, the painstaking patience of Geoffrey Howe as Foreign Secretary.

1 Feb 2007 : Column 164WH

The idea of “one country, two systems” was embodied in the first Sino-British joint declaration of 1984, and later in the Chinese Government’s Basic Law, which now forms the constitution of Hong Kong. What was remarkable about the settlement secured with China was the fact that the idea of two systems was allowed to be so far-reaching. As it is put in the joint declaration, Hong Kong enjoys a

In reality, the joint declaration and the Basic Law give Hong Kong phenomenal autonomy. Moreover, there is common consent that the provisions of the joint declaration and the Basic Law have been followed almost comprehensively in substance and in spirit since 1997. The consequence has been that for Hong Kong it has always been very much business as usual, but with the extra bonus, particularly for the United Kingdom, of the opportunities created by the opening up of the Chinese economy.

Hong Kong offers huge opportunities for UK business, both in Hong Kong itself and in the wider region—

Mr. Joe Benton (in the Chair): Order. May I point out to the hon. Gentleman the fact that the report is specifically concerned with China? Although I am prepared to let the constant reference to Hong Kong go for a short while, I want to draw him back to the point that the report is specifically with regard to China.

Tony Baldry: It is not for me to challenge the Chair, Mr. Benton, but may I draw your attention to the report? I hope that you have a copy of it. Conclusions 48 to 52 all refer to Hong Kong. While there is no doubt about “one country, two systems”, Hong Kong is now part of China, de jure, and is not a separate de jure entity in its own right.

As you will have heard, the Committee visited Hong Kong as part of its inquiry and took evidence from Hong Kong. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling and the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), the Chair of the Committee, made reference to Hong Kong. So, before I continue, may I ask you to reflect, with the advice of the Clerk, as to whether I am in order in continuing to comment on Hong Kong?

Mr. Joe Benton (in the Chair): I am unsure whether the hon. Gentleman has a copy, but may I read out a letter from the Chairman of Ways and Means, because it specifically emphasises my point? It states:

I take the point that the hon. Gentleman makes and I am prepared to be as flexible as I can on it, but I must point out that that is the guidance on which I am acting. I ask him only to bear that in mind.

Mr. McCartney: On a point of order, Mr. Benton. I am not sure how the guidance was drawn up. The Select Committee report relates to the whole region. If the ruling is as you suggest, and is in line with the
1 Feb 2007 : Column 165WH
advice that has been given, I, as Minister, could not report back to the House on the issues in the region, as I have been instructed to do. This is concerned with the region as a whole; Hong Kong is part of mainland China. The Committee went to the area to do the report on behalf of the House.

Mike Gapes: Further to that point of order, Mr. Benton. As the Chairman of the Committee and the person who managed to get the Liaison Committee to agree that this slot should be for our report, I had always understood that the debate would be on the whole report. It includes a significant section on Hong Kong as part of China. The Committee visited Hong Kong not once but twice—we went in and out on our way to and from Taiwan. It would therefore be unfortunate if it were made difficult for Members to comment on aspects relating to Hong Kong, and similarly to Korea and other parts of the region that are referred to in the report.

Mr. Joe Benton (in the Chair): I give the hon. Gentleman an absolute assurance that it is not my intention to make things difficult for any hon. Member. Bearing that in mind, there is clearly a conflict of interpretation. I am being guided by one set of guidance and I do not doubt for a moment that the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) believes he is acting properly. So that we can make some progress, I propose that we carry on, but I ask the hon. Gentleman to bear my remarks in mind.

Tony Baldry: I will of course bear your remarks in mind, Mr. Benton, but I make this observation, which needs to go on the record: having chaired the International Development Committee in the previous Parliament, I had always understood that in debates on Select Committee reports, anything in the report was within order and relevant. I have to say that, having fortunately taken part in many such debates in Westminster Hall, I have never hitherto heard of the Chairman of Ways and Means seeking to prescribe what can take place. If that does happen, his advice ought to be shared with the House before the debate takes place. If it had happened, I would have raised the matter as a point of order with Mr. Speaker this afternoon after business questions.

This is not a criticism of you, Mr. Benton, but it would be ludicrous and give grave offence to the people of both Hong Kong and China if, on the 10th anniversary of the sovereignty of Hong Kong passing to China, the House were to assert that discussion on Hong Kong was out of order in a debate on China. I can see that leading to considerable misunderstanding in both Hong Kong and Beijing. I cannot believe, on reflection, that that was what the Chairman of Ways and Means intended to indicate.

Hong Kong is in the wonderful position of having access to the opportunities in the rest of China while possessing the institutional, infrastructural and, importantly, legal arrangements to take advantage of them. We should never underestimate the potential for UK business in Hong Kong. First, there is the widespread use of the English language, which alone
1 Feb 2007 : Column 166WH
makes Hong Kong a convenient place in which to do business. Then there is the security of the rule of law, and I do not believe that there is any dispute that Hong Kong has an effective legal system with a competent and impartial judiciary. A number of senior judges from other common-law jurisdictions serve on the Court of Final Appeal, including a former Lord Chief Justice of England, a former Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia and two former presidents of the Court of Appeal of New Zealand.

In one of the earlier conclusions in the report, on the People’s Republic of China, the Committee observed:

Next Section Index Home Page