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13 Oct 2009 : Column 39WH—continued

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The second issue, which I shall merely mention, because the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire has already discussed it, is the importance of China's role in climate change. Whenever we talk to Chinese Government representatives about climate change, their usual answer is that they do not wish to be lectured about it by the west. We have been climate polluters for 200 years, and the Chinese sometimes find what we say a little rich. As my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) said, however, we may have a lot to offer the Chinese in specific technological areas.

I will not touch on the global economic crisis, because my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster made some good points about it.

The final specific point that I want to make-once again, this is a sensitive area, but we should put the matter on record-is that there is no doubt that as part of a strategic plan the Chinese Government are only too happy, and would see it as perfectly legitimate, to involve themselves in what we would now call economic and military espionage. That is part and parcel of leverage. There is a vast amount of evidence for that, particularly in the United States of America. The Chinese Government or Chinese companies, either indirectly or directly, by investing in western companies, have been involved in knowledge transfers-what we should call illegal knowledge transfers. They are only too well aware, from having watched the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that the old kinds of military conflicts are not likely to be relevant in the future, and therefore the Chinese military is heavily into thinking about ways of countering the kinds of advantages that the United States military has in asymmetrical warfare.

The Chinese watch that very closely, and, indeed, only recently I read a translated volume by some Chinese military officers who wished to perfect a system in which if they were ever involved in a crisis involving other countries-the book did not spell out which countries-they would be able literally to close down a power's information technology. One thinks of that as the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters. I see the Minister frowning. I can just imagine him here in the 1930s, hearing about the idea that somehow or other mechanised units might go through the Ardennes. There would have been much tut-tutting from the Minister, saying that it was a physical impossibility. That is not a fantasy world at all. I believe that it is something into which the Chinese are putting vast investment. Once again, we should make it quite clear to them that we know what they are doing, and perhaps we should think about how we are to address it.

I want to touch on some specific countries, the first of which is Sri Lanka. In its war against the Tamils, Sri Lanka relied heavily on Chinese help-not only political but economic and military. China has a long-term interest in the development of Sri Lanka, and not least in acquiring a major naval base. In May 2009 China voted against a resolution by the UN Human Rights Council calling for an investigation into allegations of war crimes by both sides during the military conflict. Once again, that is an area in which we are in conflict with China. By "we" I mean, of course, the United States of America and most of our European allies as well. What discussions have the UK Government had with representatives of China about its support for the President of Sri Lanka? Have concerns about China's actions at the United
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Nations been raised by UK officials? Given that the EU Commission will decide later this week-in fact in a few days, on 15 October-whether Sri Lanka can retain its generalised system of preferences plus trade concession, what assessment has been made of how effective that will be in persuading Sri Lanka to improve its record on human rights? Will Sri Lanka simply turn to countries such as China to support its textile industry?

Secondly, I want to mention Burma. China is Burma's largest trading partner, and the country's biggest source of foreign direct investment. China has repeatedly shielded Burma from action by the UN Security Council. How can China's deep financial ties with the ruling military junta, in the form of diplomatic support, trade links and the sale of military hardware, be harnessed to ensure stability and economic development in the country? Last month the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, announced that the US would enter into dialogue with the Burmese junta and would effectively consult and seek the help of countries such as India and China as part of its new policy. Did the US Administration discuss the formulation of their new policy with officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office? In June 2007 China hosted low-profile talks in Beijing between representatives of the United States and Burma. What can be done to persuade China to continue to pursue similar initiatives?

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire touched on the issue of Sudan and Darfur. China, as we know, has very close relations with Sudan and has invested heavily in the area. Once again, it has provided direct military support, including jet fighters, to the Sudanese Government. Have the UK Government urged the Obama Administration to make Sudan a priority in their discussions with China, given the sheer humanitarian horror that is going on there? What assessment has been made of China's support for the implementation of the comprehensive peace agreement in Sudan? How closely are the special representatives from China and the UK working to ensure peace, stability and development in Sudan?

I have raised my questions not to try to trick the Minister-he is too good to be tricked, and he has some clever officials to provide him with briefing notes. I have raised them because we are directly involved in all those issues, which are raised time and again in Westminster Hall and the main Chamber of the House. Indeed, Mr. Speaker himself has taken a direct personal interest, particularly in Burma. It is right and proper that we should be seen to raise these questions, not in a hostile way, but so that, hopefully, the representatives of the Chinese embassy in London will see that they are being raised and are important to British parliamentarians. We do not see those questions as a way to destroy relations between China and the UK, but they are issues on which there is strong public feeling and opinion in the United States and western Europe.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster for raising this important debate. Our relations with China are very important. They should be frank and robust and British Governments, of whatever political party, and the Foreign Office and other Government Departments should attempt to have a long-term strategy towards China, just as China has a long-term strategy towards us.

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Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the succinctness of his remarks, which will give the Minister adequate time to reply.

12.7 pm

The Minister for Europe (Chris Bryant): It is a delight, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Nicholas, although I disagree with you and think that it would have been rather nice if the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) had spoken a little longer. It is always a delight to hear his pearls of wisdom, whether they are cast before swine or not.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field)-I would call him my hon. Friend, I think-on his comments and on securing the debate. It is very timely, and he did not so much take us on a tour d'horizon as give us a historical outlook. It was a succinct and prescient look at China's relations with the west. As the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk just said, it is difficult to assess quite what one means in speaking of China's relations with the west, because the west is multifarious, but perhaps I shall come to those issues later.

I should apologise because I have something of a cold, which is the reason for the slightly odd sound of my voice. I am not sure whether it is a Peruvian cold, or a Venezuelan or Colombian one, but it came across the Atlantic with me last week. An anecdote may explain what I think our attitude should be in discussing this issue. I went to the theatre three or four years ago, and a couple there were having a ferocious row just in front of me. It ended with the woman turning to her husband and saying, "The worst of it is that you are so blasted patron-ising". He turned to her, kissed her on the forehead and said, "It's not 'patron-ising'; it's 'pat-ronising', my dear." That is a true story; he was a brave man. I would merely say that I sometimes think, in particular in the case of countries that are distant from us and whose cultural expectations and understandings are different from ours, it is all too easy to seem patronising. Even with countries in Latin America it is easy for British diplomacy to seem heavy-handed, aggressive or neo-colonial. Iran sometimes feels the same, and in China, the least effective form of diplomacy will be one that feels as if a heavy stick is being wielded, or that is in any sense patronising.

The comments made by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster about the global financial crisis and the changing role of China are important. We must see China as an ally, rather than a distant country that somehow or other we have to subjugate in discussions. That is certainly true economically for the UK, because the economic opportunities are very dramatic. In 2008, trade between the UK and China was up by 16 per cent. Exports to China grew by 25 per cent. The UK Trade & Investment presence in China is our largest presence in any market-that is important and as it should be. We have set ourselves a trade target of $60 billion by 2010, and we will achieve that only if we are able to proceed on the basis of alliance, friendship and economic co-operation, rather than through a more high-handed approach.

The hon. Gentleman raised one issue-intellectual property rights-about which I disagree with him. Clearly, there are different cultural understandings about how
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intellectual property should be looked at. Under the Napoleonic code, there is a different understanding of intellectual property rights compared with that found in British law. Through international organisations that are involved in intellectual property rights, we have managed to find a way of ensuring that those who develop ideas have a means of progressing to economic opportunity.

In the UK in the past we have been good at developing ideas but not so good at progressing them into the markets. That is one of the key points that Lord Mandelson has focused on and that we as a country need to focus on. I know that Adam Smith said that intellectual property rights should not really exist because copyright is a fake right, but I wholeheartedly disagree. I believe that those who have developed an image, an idea or a patent should have the security to develop it. Without that financial and economic opportunity, it is difficult to see how most people could secure the investment and the development of new ideas.

Nowhere is that more important than in health. The growing relationship between the UK and China on health issues is important on several different levels: first, in relation to intellectual property rights; secondly, in relation to dealing with some of the major illnesses that face the world, not least HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, and also in terms of reaching development goals in other parts of the world.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), whom I consider a friend, having co-operated with him in the all-party group on the Army, referred to what he called "the fly in the ointment"-the issue of Tibet. On behalf of the Government, I would like to congratulate him, and the group that went to Tibet. It was an important part of British dialogue with China, which tried to enable China to understand better the concerns of people in this country and across the European Union. The European Union has tried to speak with a united voice on the issue, and by virtue of doing so, has been far more effective. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman, Lord Alton, Lord Steel and my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt).

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire mentioned the significant military presence in Tibet, and considered whether the suppression of pictures of the Dalai Lama made the situation worse. He wondered whether something similar to the Vatican City model would make more sense. He expressed incredulity about China's bothering to make the issue so important that it becomes a fly in the ointment, not only in its relationship with this country, but with many other countries around the world.

That sense of perplexity is shared by Ministers and the Government. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), who is the Minister responsible for China, visited Tibet in that capacity to clear up the issue. He made many of the same points that were noted by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire and his friends when in Tibet, and he raised a series of issues to which I hope to return later.

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) made several important points, and I am grateful to her for that. If she does not mind my saying so, I felt that
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she erred down a slightly Liberal Democrat line when she started comparing the case that is in The Guardian today-or not in it-with the repression of freedom of expression in China. I think that those who want to make a comparison between China and the "Chinese situation in the UK" are rather over-egging the pudding. [Interruption.] I see that she wants to over-egg her pudding even more, and I am happy to take an intervention.

Jo Swinson: I want to clarify my point. I was not saying that such matters happen here to the same extent as in China, but before we pass criticism on what happens elsewhere, as the Minister pointed out at the beginning of his speech, we need to look at our own situation and ensure that we deal with genuine problems in our country.

Chris Bryant: I think that freedom of expression is well advanced in this country. The significant difference is that the rule of law applies. I do not know anything about the individual case to which the hon. Lady refers. I tried to google it, and the Google that I use in this country has not been interfered with by the Government. In China, the Google search engine is rather different. I urge the hon. Lady not to be too Liberal Democrat about things in life-on the whole, it will make for a much easier and more sensible life. I think that I have carried the whole Chamber with me on that point.

The hon. Lady referred to reform of credit and debt in the UK and there was a bit of interplay about the responsibility of borrowers. My view is that we should already have stopped the use of credit card cheques, guaranteed loans and the rest of it, and I hope that we will move to do so soon.

On language skills, the Department for Children, Schools and Families has been conducting a major survey on teaching Chinese in schools in the UK, which is obviously very important. Currently, one in six secondary schools teach Mandarin, but only 1 per cent. of primary schools do so. The Foreign Office and the UK Government believe that Chinese needs to feature more prominently across the curriculum. Chinese history and geography should also be an important part of the curriculum if people are to have a full understanding of the world in which they are growing up.

A significant number of Chinese students come to the UK to study, and we are keen to foster that. In my responsibility for consular services, it is one of the areas where we need to do some work to ensure that the visa regime for those who come to study in the UK makes that possible, rather than impossible. That exchange of educational opportunities is important.

Mr. Mark Field: Let me reiterate the Minister's words. There are some concerns from several providers, and a slight danger is that in the debate about immigration, it is easy to hit on numbers. One of the easiest ways of reducing headline numbers of migrants is to stop the educational programmes to which the Minister refers. He is absolutely right. We need to foster strong connections between some of the brightest and best from China, India and elsewhere overseas, not least because of the long-term benefits that that will bring this country. Those young Chinese people will often go back to their country, build up businesses, and hopefully become great ambassadors for ongoing trade between our country
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and China. That is the most important reason for ensuring as far as possible that the sort of work that the Minister is hopefully doing continues. We must make sure that our consular relations with regard to those student visas are as smooth as possible.

Chris Bryant: I could not make the point better than the hon. Gentleman. I would add only that the British Council has an important role to play-as does the World Service-in enhancing the reputation of Britain as a place in which to learn English and study other subjects.

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire referred to climate change, which I will discuss in a moment. In particular, she mentioned high-speed rail. When she next has an opportunity to speak to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), who is the finance spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, I hope that she will reinforce the point that it is important to protect the electrification of the railway to Swansea, otherwise there would be an inconsistency of policy, and we would hate to see inconsistency in the Liberal Democrat position.

The hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk referred to relations with Sudan, which is obviously a vital issue. China should be playing a much more significant role in trying to bring about a peaceful resolution and a proper regard for human rights in Sudan. It has saddened us in recent years when China has used its veto in the UN Security Council not only in that regard but in relation to Burma and Zimbabwe. Human rights issues form a seamless garment. We cannot encourage human rights in one country and choose to ignore them in another just because we share a political outlook on other issues. Raising the issue of human rights is a key part of how we seek to progress British interests.

I think that my hearing is going because I thought that the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk said that he was a fresh-faced undergraduate 14 years ago. [Interruption.] I just heard the Government Whip behind me cruelly say that it was more like 400 years ago. My eyesight is clearly as troubled as my chest. None the less, the hon. Gentleman made some interesting remarks about the respect for order and the fear of chaos and disunity that sometimes persist in Chinese cultural understandings. I suspect that the opening ceremony of the Olympics will be very different in the United Kingdom from the one that we saw last time, and that is entirely right and proper. We always need to protect those cultural differences.

The hon. Gentleman kindly welcomed me to my post and said that every time he blinks, there is a change of Minister. I am glad to guarantee him that I will remain in this post for the next six years.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to Iran and nuclear proliferation-I always find the word proliferation very difficult to say. He is absolutely right that China can play a vital role, especially over the next nine months, not only in relation to Iran but in trying to achieve a world with fewer nuclear weapons with safer fissile material and with a comprehensive test ban treaty. We were delighted with the role that China played following the second nuclear test that North Korea held. That showed that China has moved forward in the way in which it has chosen to play its role in the world. We hope that it will move in the same direction in relation to Iran-just as the Russians have in recent weeks.

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