Martin Horwood MP writes: Facing up to human rights in China

Premier Wen Jiabao of China arrived in Britain over the weekend for a series of events culminating in bilateral talks with the Prime Ministers today at Number Ten.

While the discussions will undoubtedly turn to the economy, trade agreements and further cooperation between our two countries, I hope the Prime Minister will also promote our greatest exports: our long held values of democracy, human rights and free speech.

These bilateral meetings offer the British government a chance to place human rights unambiguously on the agenda in our discussions with the Chinese. As William Hague wrote last year, “promoting human rights is indivisible from our foreign policy objectives.” It is now more important than ever for the Prime Minister to hold to this commitment. Our government has consistently supported those calling for freedom during the ‘Arab Spring’ and our support for democracy and human rights must be extended to China too.

Obviously we have to recognise the growing importance of China as a global power – not just its obvious economic importance and growing military muscle but its significance in everything from art and popular culture to climate change. But we also have to be honest and recognise that respect for human rights is actually getting worse. As the Arab Spring swept through North Africa and the Middle East, any hint of a ‘Jasmine Revolution’ were swiftly quashed by the Chinese authorities. The government has responded to the growing momentum for change with crackdowns on known activists, dissidents and advocates. Much of the internet remains blocked by a Chinese government firewall and the authorities continue to crack down on bloggers and ‘netizens’. Since February, over one hundred and thirty people have been detained. The most famous of these detainees was the artist Ai Wei Wei who recently showcased his ‘Sunflower’ exhibition at Tate Modern here in London. Although he has recently been released on bail, he is effectively under house arrest. Nor should his release distract attention from hundreds of others are still being held in detention centres with no access to their families or to lawyers.

The Prime Minister should also raise the treatment of non-Chinese ethnic groups, particularly in Tibet, annexed by China in 1950. In March this year a young Tibetan monk, in the Ngaba region of eastern Tibet, set himself on fire in protest at Chinese government policies. His death triggered further protests which resulted in reports of over three hundred and fifty people being detained. There are concerns over the continuing situation in the Ngaba region, in particular the fate of monks who were reported to have been forcibly removed from their monastery. As with past crackdowns, there is little media presence in the region and no international observers so information is limited. Regrettably, the Tibetans are not unique. Uighur, Mongolian and other ethnic populations have struggled to have their voices heard. We need to ask Premier Wen to listen to them. Similarly, next January’s Taiwanese presidential election will provide a fresh test of Chinese neighbourliness.

As a Liberal Democrat, I believe the values of democracy, free speech and human rights transcend country, culture and political affiliation. I welcome the coalition government’s efforts to forge a closer economic, cultural and political relationship with China. But such co-operation and understanding must not hinder us from raising real concerns. The most profitable commodity that we can export to this great and ancient nation right now is a better appreciation of the value of freedom.

Martin Horwood MP is co-chair of the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party committee on international affairs.

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  • As a Liberal Democrat who’s currently living and working in China, I read your post with interest and broad agreement. There is much to criticise about the Chinese government”s human rights record.

    However, I would like to clarify something that people tend to forget about Tibet. Tibetans declared their independence in much the same way that the Southern States declared independence from the United States. Their politics might be different, and we might find the Chinese Government slightly odious, but the priciple is the same. They declared their independence from a central government they disliked, and (after just 38 years) lost. Consequently, I would argue that the term “annexation” is too strong a word when it comes to China and the Tibet, unless you want to apply it to any area that lost a civil war.

    Equally, in what might seem like a “Life of Brian” moment to some, it is often argued here (in China) that the Dalai Lama didn’t really do much for Tibet anyway. If he was their leader, are we really arguing for another theocracy or absolute monarchy in the world? I’m less than convinced that that is a particularly liberal or democratic thing to want.

    Since Tibet “was returned to the loving arms of China” (please not the irony), life expentancy, literacy and financial well being have all ski-rocketed. Unless you can convince the populace that there is something more to aspire to than that, you won’t convince them that what is going on here is a problem worth fixing.

  • Human rights begin at home. British politicians are far too fond of lecturing others. They wrote the European Convention on Human Rights solely for forcing onto others. Now we have habeus corpus in tatters, a border control system which means you have to ask for permission to leave and elections which are basically a sham (I’ve never had and will never get a choice of MP). They’re working on how to censor the internet and our police routinely patrol with machine guns full of dumdums.

    I’m not religious (by a long way), but two phrases come to mind. One is healer, heal thyself and the other is take the beam out of your own eye.

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