China: Labour Programme in Tibet — [Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:01 am on 7th October 2020.

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Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Transport) 10:01 am, 7th October 2020

It is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I thank Sir Iain Duncan Smith for bringing the report to the House’s attention. A constituent of mine will be particularly grateful that he mentioned the plight of the Falun Gong and concerns about forced organ harvesting, as she has been waging a long campaign to bring that to public attention.

I also congratulate Tim Loughton on all the work that he has done as co-chair of the all-party group for Tibet and his latest legislative move. A couple of years ago, as a vice-chair of the all-party group for Tibet, I had the pleasure of travelling to Dharamsala with him and Chris Law, where we met the Tibetan Parliament in exile. Everything he said about the peace-loving, respectful nature of the people we met is absolutely true. We have welcomed Tibetan exiles to Parliament on a number of occasions, from the hugely impressive Lobsang Sangay, the Sikyong—the political leader—of the Government in exile to Buddhist monks. I echo what he said about the humanity of the people and their desire for a peaceful solution to the situation in Tibet, as well as the grave injustice they have suffered over the years.

In Bristol, we have an active local group of people from the Tibetan diaspora, some of whom recently embarked on a walk from Bristol to London to raise awareness of their cause. I was there to see them off at the start of their walk by the plinth where the statue of Edward Colston was recently pulled down by Black Lives Matter campaigners. Obviously that statue marked another great injustice, so it was by fitting that they set off from that site. I know that those local campaigners are grateful that this matter is being discussed in the House today.

The report is worrying, and especially so when put in the context of China’s wider human rights abuses. The coercive training regimes in Tibet are not on the industrial scale of those in in Xinjiang, and is not yet any evidence of extra-judicial internment, but it does bear worrying hallmarks of the treatment of the Uyghur Muslims. The training of surplus labourers to “remove backwards thinking” and to teach Chinese language, work and ethics is the latest chapter in a long-running campaign to dilute Tibetan identity and assimilate Tibet in the Chinese provinces. Some 500,000 Tibetans have been recruited to the programme, which is disturbing when we consider that the population numbers only 3 million. Of the half a million people put into the re-education camps, 10,000 are monks and nuns, as has been mentioned. Conditions in those camps are so harsh that, according to recent reports, one nun was driven to suicide.

Outside the camps, the efforts to sinicize Tibetan Buddhism continue. China has recently demolished two historic Buddhist academic institutions, Larung Gar and Yachen Gar. Tibetans are being detained for sharing photos of the Dalai Lama, sharing books written in Tibetan, and even speaking to relatives about the importance of the Tibetan language. That is a clear, orchestrated attempt to remove Tibetan culture from Tibet.

What is happening in Tibet is reminiscent not only of Xinjiang but of Hong Kong, albeit for different reasons. The 17-point agreement lays out a framework for Tibet not dissimilar to Hong Kong’s one country, two systems rule; but as in Hong Kong, that agreement is being eroded over time.

I want to speak briefly about the brave Tibetans who have spoken up against China’s environmental crimes in the region, and who have faced imprisonment and fines. I was particularly distressed to hear what the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said about goats being destroyed. It is obviously wrong, when there are human rights abuses on such a massive scale, to be upset by what is happening to goats, but I think it is symptomatic of the wilful destruction of the Tibetan people’s way of life in the plateau.

The Tibetan plateau is not only a vital geopolitical region; it is home to the world’s largest ice storage outside the north and south poles, yet a quarter of its ice has been lost since 1970. Even if we limit global warming to 1.5°C, up to two thirds of the region’s remaining glaciers will disappear by the end of the century. At the moment the Paris climate accords bind us to 2°C rather than 1.5°C, but we are not even on track for that. Currently, it is very possible that the earth will be 4°C hotter by the end of the century. When we think that the temperature difference between the present day and the last ice age was only 6°C, that puts into context how massive an environmental catastrophe it would be.

It is not just a question of global warming. The Mekong, Yangtze, Ganges and Indus rivers all have their source in Tibet, and 1.6 billion people are supported by the rivers. The melting of the third pole will have a catastrophic effect on those people, and there will be global ramifications. Banks will burst and livelihoods will be destroyed; there will be an unprecedented refugee crisis, but there will also be an effect on geopolitical relations in the regions. Indo-Chinese relations could turn ugly. We need to question the environmental record of the CCP in Tibet, just as we do its human rights record.

A couple of years ago, I was involved in a campaign with Free Tibet. Liverpool football club had entered into a sponsorship deal with Tibet Water Resources, a company that extracted and bottled water from Tibetan glaciers. I think the football club did not have the slightest idea that there was anything wrong. Those involved probably thought it sounded like an incredibly environmentally sound, pure type of project. We drew to their attention the fact that they were facilitating, condoning and in some way complicit in what China was doing in exploiting the natural resources of the region. I am glad to say that after a year that sponsorship deal was dropped.

On the question of the trading relationship with China, it is obviously an incredibly important business partner of ours, but there needs to be a point where we put principles before our own economic interest. From 2011 to 2015 I was in the shadow Foreign Office team for Labour. As well as covering the part of the world that we are talking about, I had the shadow human rights brief. In September 2013, William Hague and Vince Cable launched with great fanfare the business and human rights action plan. We were the first country to present that sort of national action plan to implement the UN guiding principles developed by the former special representative to the UN Secretary-General, John Ruggie. Warm words were spoken—I think that William Hague used a phrase about two beating hearts of UK foreign policy: the business side and the human rights side—but only a couple of months later, in December 2013, David Cameron, the then Prime Minister, led the largest ever trade delegation to China. I asked questions about to what extent this business and human rights action plan in any way influenced that trade mission, and the answer became very clear. I remember a Minister from the Lords coming along to a meeting of the all-party parliamentary China group and saying it was not his job to think about human rights; he was a Trade Minister, and his job was to do the trade side of things.

The same was true for a number of other countries, as well. Nick Clegg went to Colombia, and I asked whether human rights were discussed there; in fact, I ended up making an official complaint because his answers were so hopeless. David Cameron went to Saudi Arabia, and it is quite amusing to look at the answers I got back when I asked if human rights were discussed. I was told, “We discussed a wide range of issues,” so I asked again, and was told that “Nothing was off the table.” There were endless permutations of those sorts of phrases, and it became clear to me that this business and human rights action plan was not worth the paper it was written on. That was very sad, because I think the intention was there to develop a more ethical foreign policy.

To conclude, we cannot allow countries such as China to act in this manner with impunity. The Government need to seriously consider Magnitsky sanctions on officials with ties to the situation in Tibet, as well as to human rights abuses elsewhere in China. We should not pick and choose which human rights abuses we condemn and which by our silence we condone; instead, we should stand up unequivocally for human rights throughout the world.