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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:43 am on 7th October 2020.

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Photo of Nigel Adams Nigel Adams Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 10:43 am, 7th October 2020

Thank you, Mr Hollobone. It is a great pleasure to be back in this Chamber. I start by thanking my right hon. Friend Sir Iain Duncan Smith for initiating this very important debate. I am also grateful to others for their contributions and strong views, including the hon. Member for Bath (Vera Hobhouse), my hon. Friend Tim Loughton, Kerry McCarthy, Mr Carmichael, my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce and the Opposition spokesman, Stephen Kinnock.

Promoting and protecting human rights are incredibly important to this Government, no matter where those violations and abuses occur. As we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green, on 22 September the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China published a report alleging that the Chinese Government had expanded a large-scale mandatory vocational training programme in Tibet. The reported nature of this programme is deeply concerning to the UK Government and we take these allegations extremely seriously.

As we have heard, the report alleges coercive vocational training and the transfer of labour. It describes a large-scale campaign to retrain and transfer some rural labourers within Tibet and elsewhere in China. Those allegations bear similarities with the reported system of forced labour in Xinjiang, including the military-style vocational training; a focus, as we have heard today, on Chinese language training; and local middlemen receiving financial incentives to transfer labour throughout Tibet and beyond.

It is worth noting, however, as brought up by the hon. Member for Bristol East, that we do not have clear evidence that the very worst abuses taking place in Xinjiang are being replicated as yet in Tibet. There is no evidence of mass extrajudicial internment or of workers being kept in closed and securitised environments, like in Xinjiang. But of course we are working very closely with the report’s author. We are scrutinising the report, which has been out for two weeks. We are also working with other experts on Tibet and our international partners, so that we can get a clear and thorough understanding of the situation.

As is evident from our track record, we pay very close attention to the human rights situation not only in Tibet but right across China. We have called on the Chinese authorities to lift the severe and unjustified restriction on access for foreigners to Tibet. That has been raised by virtually every right hon. and hon. Member in the Chamber. Our officials at the British embassy in Beijing were last able to visit Lhasa in July 2019. We are consistent in our calls that that access needs to change.

We have consistently urged China to respect all the fundamental rights, in line with its own constitution and the international frameworks to which China is a party. The right to freedom of religion or belief applies to the people of Tibet just as it does to the people of Chingford and Woodford Green and elsewhere in the UK.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama was mentioned by Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. The UK views the Dalai Lama very much as a respected spiritual leader, and as such he has visited the UK on a number of occasions. We continue to do all we can to encourage freedoms for religious and cultural expression in Tibet and across China.

I think that the hon. Member for Bath made the point about the succession. The appointment of a new Dalai Lama is clearly a religious matter, and one for the relevant religious authorities to decide, in line with freedom of religion or belief. It is worth pointing out that we have also raised the case of the Panchen Lama with the Chinese authorities. We have demanded confirmation of his welfare and that he enjoys freedom of movement.

This Government have therefore shown time and again that when allegations are substantiated, we will speak out and act to hold China to account. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs and First Secretary of State, supported by his ministerial team, has repeatedly set out our grave concerns about the human rights violations perpetrated against the people of Hong Kong and against Uyghur Muslims and other minorities in Xinjiang. I have done so myself in many parliamentary debates, the most recent being last month. We have raised those concerns directly with the Foreign Secretary’s counterpart, Wang Yi, on a number of occasions.

We have also played a leading role within the international community to hold China to account, with two unprecedented joint statements at the UN in the past year. Twenty-eight countries joined the UK-led statement at the Human Rights Council in June, and right hon. and hon. Members will have seen that yesterday 39 countries joined a statement at the UN General Assembly in New York expressing our deep concern at the situation in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet. I believe that that growing coalition reflects UK diplomatic leadership. I have an awful lot of respect for the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Aberavon, but I rather disagree that we have been ineffective in that regard. We have shown diplomatic leadership, as those statements in the UN demonstrate. The personal involvement of the Foreign Secretary is testament to that situation.

At the UN Human Rights Council, we used China’s most recent universal periodic human rights review to challenge its record publicly and encourage improved compliance with all its international human rights commitments. Last month, we dedicated our entire national statement at the council to the human rights violations taking place in China. That is only the second time that the UK has dedicated a national statement to a single country, with the first being in 2018 on Russia, following the poisonings in Salisbury. As the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have made clear, we want a positive relationship with China. China is a leading member of the international community with which we want to have a strong and constructive relationship in many areas.

I turn to points raised by right. hon. and hon. Members. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green raised sanctions, as did virtually every other Member. We are carefully considering further designations under our newly introduced sanctions regime. It is essential that sanctions are developed accurately and with the correct evidence. My right hon. Friend will know that it is not appropriate to speculate on who may be designated, but it is absolutely right to say that we are constantly reviewing this within the FCDO.

Members have mentioned supply chains, responsibility and amendment 68 to the Trade Bill. It is crucial that all businesses conduct the appropriate due diligence to ensure that their supply chains are free of forced labour. All Members referenced how there should be reciprocal access, and that is absolutely the Government’s position in terms of unfettered access to these regions. I will come shortly to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green also referenced judges in Hong Kong. An independent judiciary is a cornerstone of Hong Kong’s economic success and way of life. Sadly, the new national security law provides Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, rather than the Chief Justice, with the power to appoint judges. That risks undermining the independence of Hong Kong’s judiciary. We will monitor that closely, including the implications for the role of UK judges in the Hong Kong justice system.

My right hon. Friend also mentioned the Olympics, which he has also mentioned publicly. As the Foreign Secretary said yesterday, we are focused on working closely with our international partners to hold the Chinese authorities to account. We need to build the evidence base on which future action should be taken. While we have no current plans to boycott the Olympics—that is a matter for the sporting authorities—we have been clear throughout that we will not look the other way when faced with egregious human rights abuses in Xinjiang or violations of the freedoms of the Hong Kong people.

The hon. Member for Bath mentioned the Tibet (Reciprocal Access) Bill, promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. I thank my hon. Friend for his work on the APPG for Tibet and all he has done to bring Parliament’s attention to what is happening in Tibet. We are very much aware of his Bill, which has its Second Reading in March 2021. We will continue to call, at the UN and directly with the Chinese authorities, for unfettered access to the region, and obviously we will work with my hon. Friend and closely monitor his private Member’s Bill.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland raised the issue of Inner Mongolia, which he and I have discussed separately. We will continue to monitor that situation and engage on that. He also referred to unfettered access to those regions, which we will continue to call for; all the Opposition spokesmen also made that point clearly. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton mentioned, as have others, the call for a UN special rapporteur. We have repeatedly called in the UN for China to allow unfettered access to observers, including the High Commissioner for Human Rights. It is vital that that should include access to Tibet. She also mentioned the work of Confucius institutes. It is simple: any attempt to interfere with academic freedom or freedom of speech will not be tolerated. If any universities or research institutions experience attempts to undermine free debate, we encourage them to come forward and speak to the Government.

I have a few seconds left before I hand back to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green. We will always act to uphold our values, our interests and our national security. We are crystal clear with China when we disagree with its approach. We urge the Chinese Government to respect all fundamental rights across the People’s Republic of China, including in Tibet. We are examining the latest reports of coercive training and transfer of labour in Tibet, and we take them seriously.

I thank my right hon. Friend for bringing this issue to the attention of the House today. We are working to establish a full picture of the situation. We have repeatedly held China to account for its human rights violations, and we will continue to do so. We will continue to stand up for our values and act as a force for good in the world.