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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:19 am on 7th October 2020.

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Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 10:19 am, 7th October 2020

I congratulate Sir Iain Duncan Smith on securing this debate. I declare an interest, in that I am also a member of IPAC. I, too, think that IPAC is to be commended for the production of the report that is tagged in the title of the debate.

To pick up on the theme first touched on by Tim Loughton, it is heartening to see the attention that issues such as the oppression of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang province and the situation in Hong Kong are now getting. However, it has not always been thus, and we should acknowledge that there has been a significant attitude change in Governments across the developed world towards China.

By and large I welcome that and I think it a positive change, but I sound a note of caution: when we criticise the regime in Beijing, the Chinese Communist party, we do that because what it does is worthy of criticism. It is not about isolating or demonising China. China has the potential to be a force for good as a massive and growing economy, but when we see that strength in the Chinese economy being used as a malign force in different parts of the world—the way in which China has used its economic influence in Africa, in particular, is worthy of greater consideration—we have not just the right, but the duty to call it out.

It is the case, candidly, as Kerry McCarthy touched on, that Governments of all stripes in recent years have been slow to the party on this. I remember the years when visits to this country under the Blair Government saw protesters shielded away from the site to avoid the risk of offending the delegations, and in 2013, Alex Salmond should have met the Dalai Lama when he came to Edinburgh. However, on all those occasions it is fair to say that the risk of upsetting China, getting on the wrong side of it and then being somehow economically disadvantaged, meant that we made the wrong call and took the wrong turns.

I am delighted to see a different approach from this Government and others throughout the western world. It was for that reason that I made the point about southern or, as we often call it, inner Mongolia, because what we are seeing there has disturbing echoes of what we have seen in other semi-autonomous regions in China. It starts with the linguistic and cultural oppression, but it never finishes there, and when we see it starting, that is the point at which we should be calling it out. I know today’s debate is not about southern Mongolia—perhaps we can keep that for other occasions—but I would draw the House and the Minister’s attention to some of the recent work being done by bodies such as Human Rights Watch and the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Centre and the reports that they published towards the end of August.

The IPAC report that the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green referenced reveals that Tibet now has a significant compulsory vocational training programme and forced labour transfer scheme—straight out of the Xinjiang playbook, we could say. More than 500,000 people have been enlisted by the programme in the first seven months of 2020 alone; 49,900 of them were directly transferred to other parts of the province, while 3,109, according to the report, were transferred out of Tibet. It is easy to talk about the figures, horrific as they are, but it is worth pausing for a second to reflect on what they actually mean.

The figures mean, essentially, that the people of Tibet are seen as tools of the state and are deprived of the right and the opportunity to have any say in how and where they work. They have no freedom to choose how they live their own lives. It is a wilful disregard of human rights and human dignity, and that is why we have a duty to call it out. The report says that the forced labour programme is overseen by “strict military-style management”, which limits the liberty of Tibetans in an attempt to remove their so-called “backwardness”.

There is absolutely no place for such an approach in any working or social environment. We see this obsession with conformity and uniformity time and again in the way in which the Government in Beijing approach their people. There is no place for that in a modern state. The treatment of Tibet is part of the much wider programme that we have seen by the Chinese in other parts of the country.

I have a number of points for the Minister. To pick up on a point made by Fiona Bruce, there is a need to get observers and a human rights taskforce, badged under the United Nations, into Xinjiang province and other areas of concern. There is a need to meaningfully use Magnitsky-type sanctions and to look at whether the supply chains of companies selling and operating in this country have been using forced labour and whether British businesses and public bodies should take that into consideration. The Modern Slavery Act 2015 means that we have legal obligations as well as a moral imperative.

This comes down to the most fundamental human rights imaginable. We should never forget that human rights are universal. If they do not matter in Tibet and Xinjiang, frankly they do not actually matter here either.