China: MPs question Minister on Religious Freedom

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con)
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on human rights in China, following reports that human rights lawyer, Zhang Kai, imminently faces a severe prison sentence or the death penalty for defending civil liberties.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Hugo Swire):
We are in the middle of a hugely positive state visit, which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said will benefit not just our nations and our peoples, but the wider world. Yesterday, the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary had extensive discussions with President Xi Jinping and his delegation. These discussions continue today, including when the Prime Minister hosts President Xi at Chequers.

As we have made very clear, the strong relationship that we are building allows us to discuss all issues. No issue, including human rights, is off the table. The UK-China joint statement that we have agreed commits both sides to continuing our dialogue on human rights and the rule of law.

Turning to the case of Zhang Kai, we are aware that he has been accused of “endangering state security” and “assembling a crowd” to “disrupt social order”, apparently in relation to his work with Churches in Zhejiang province. We are concerned that his whereabouts are undisclosed, and that he has reportedly been denied access to legal representation.

At the UK-China human rights dialogue, which was held in Beijing in April this year, we raised issues relating to religious freedom in China, including the destruction of churches and religious symbols in Zhejiang province. We raised a number of related individual cases. A transparent legal system is a vital component of the rule of law, and we urge the Chinese authorities to ensure that proper judicial standards are upheld.

Fiona Bruce:
I thank the Minister for his reply, and I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question.

This is, of course, an urgent matter because of the imminent risk that the lawyer Zhang Kai could be sentenced to as many as 15 years in prison—or even the death penalty, given that he faces grave charges including threatening national security—and the risk that there could be a closed trial. Zhang Kai’s family do not know of his situation, and his lawyer has tried several times to ascertain it. The matter is also urgent because of wider concern that China’s human rights position should be raised directly with President Xi Jinping during his state visit, which ends tomorrow.

Zhang Kai’s case is significant not only in itself, but because he is one of nearly 300 lawyers and human rights defenders who have been detained since July this year. At least 20 are still in custody or have disappeared, their whereabouts unknown. We know from the example of the case of Gao Zhisheng—another prominent human rights lawyer, who defended, among others, members of the Falun Gong movement and who was “disappeared” on several occasions and imprisoned in solitary confinement for three years, where he was severely tortured—that the consequences of secretive detention can be grave.

Lawyer Zhang Kai had been advising Churches in China’s Zhejiang province in connection with the demolition of churches and the forcible destruction of more than 1,500 crosses in Zhejiang over the past two years—a gross violation of freedom of religion or belief. The Churches affected include both unregistered and state-approved Catholic and Protestant Churches.

As we have heard, Zhang’s is not the only case. Nineteen-year-old student activist Joshua Wong faces court next week for inciting unlawful assembly, and I understand that among those who are also in secret detention is Wang Yu, a fearless defender of feminist activists and the victims of rape. Thousands of political prisoners also continue to languish in Chinese jails, the most famous being Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, who is halfway through an 11-year sentence for peacefully advocating democratic change. Members may well wish to raise other cases, including, perhaps, events in Tibet and Xinjiang, and the plight of the Uighurs.

As chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, I welcome the opportunity to engage with China. The Select Committee on International Development met representatives from the Chinese delegation yesterday to discuss the sustainable development goals, which include a commitment to promoting peaceful and inclusive societies and access to justice for all. I recognise the significance of the business relationship and the importance of dialogue with China on a range of issues, including trade, but I hope that dialogue on human rights, freedom of thought, speech and assembly, and the rule of law will also be placed at the centre of the relationship. It is well recognised that the promotion of such freedoms contributes to better business and economic outcomes for the peoples involved. The two go hand in hand.

As the United Kingdom’s relationship with China develops, it is good for us to remember the words of Martin Luther King:

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Mr Swire:
I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend does in this area. We work closely together in relation to other countries. This evening’s Adjournment debate is on Burma, and she will no doubt take part in it.

In respect of China and human rights, I am sure that many Members on both sides of the House will want to know what was discussed and when. I shall do my best to answer that question, although I stress that the state visit is still under way. I know that the Leader of the Opposition used an opportunity to discuss these matters when he had a meeting with the President.

I do not think that it is really a question of what we have raised. What I find interesting is what the President said during yesterday’s Downing Street press conference when asked about human rights. He said—among other things—

“All countries need to continuously improve and strengthen human rights protection to meet the needs of the time and the people. And on the issue of human rights, I think the people of our respective countries are in the position—in the best position to tell. And China is ready to, on the basis of equality and mutual respect, increase exchanges and co-operation with the UK and other countries in the area of human rights. Thank you.”

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As the relationship between our two countries becomes ever closer, we are in a position to raise these matters continually, particularly the extremely concerning individual cases to which she referred.

Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab):
The freedom to practise our religion is one of the most fundamental of human rights. For many people around the world, including in China, religious belief defines who they are. It should therefore be a matter of great concern to this House when those rights are infringed wherever that happens across the globe.

As we have heard, since the summer a large number of lawyers and human rights activists in China have been targeted and detained, including Zhang Kai, whose case was raised by the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). Can the Minister give the House any further information about the circumstances that led up to Zhang Kai’s detention and that of other human rights defenders and activists?

Article 18 of the UN declaration of human rights, says that:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”.

Can the Minister also confirm that article 36 of the constitution of the People’s Republic of China specifies that

“citizens enjoy freedom of religious belief”,

but then goes on to say that

“The state protects normal religious activities”?

Will he tell the House what his understanding is of this term and what it means for the practice of religion and, in particular, Christianity, in China?

Have Ministers had an opportunity to raise these concerns with their Chinese counterparts, either before the current state visit or during it? Does the Minister have any information about when any case against Mr Zhang might be heard?

The Prime Minister has said that the developing trade relationship between the UK and China provides an opportunity for further dialogue. We agree. Will the Minister therefore undertake to the House, if the Government have not already done so, to raise this case during the remainder of the state visit, as my hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary, both in their places in the House now, will do later today?

Mr Swire:
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her remarks. There is a whole range of cases about which we are concerned. The case in Zhejiang is not new. If the hon. Lady trawls back through Hansard, she will see that I answered a question raised by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) on this back in June, when I talked about our concerns about restrictions on Christianity particularly in Zhejiang province. I went on to say:

“We raised these, and our broad range of concerns around religious freedom, directly with Chinese officials during the UK-China Human Rights Dialogue in April this year. We have also highlighted them publicly in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Annual Report on Human Rights and Democracy.”

Further to that, in September I answered a question from my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard). I reiterate what I said then:

“I am aware of reports that lawyer Zhang Kai was detained on 25 August, alongside two of his assistants, Liu Peng and Fang Xiangui, and members of a Christian congregation.

I am concerned that this is reflective of the wider situation facing rights lawyers in China. Reports suggest that over 200 lawyers have been detained or questioned since 9 July, and the space in which they operate is increasingly constrained.

The UK supported an EU statement of 15 July which said the detentions raised serious questions about China’s commitment to strengthening the rule of law. We have ongoing discussions with the Chinese authorities on human rights and rule of law issues, and discussed these matters in detail during the UK-China Human Rights Dialogue in April.”

I then went on to say what I have said in answer to an earlier question.

On the question of whether this case and other cases will be addressed, a number of cases are always being addressed. This is not just a one-off and I cannot gainsay what the Prime Minister might say. The Chancellor will of course be with the President in Manchester tomorrow, and there will be private meeting between the President and the Prime Minister at Chequers later this evening. I do not know what will be on the agenda, but I do know they have an ever-closer relationship and these matters are continuously being discussed.

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con):
May I raise the case of a very old man—he is 94—called Cosma Shi Enxiang, who died in prison in China last year? His only crime was that he was a Catholic bishop who refused to kowtow to the state. This is a very serious matter; it is the sort of thing that was happening in this country in the 16th century. The House does not want vague assurances from the Minister; we want to know that, while we respect the world’s growing superpower and want to trade with it, we are absolutely fearless in these matters and that during this visit our leadership will raise these matters with the Chinese President.

Mr Swire:
We certainly do not see this visit as presenting a binary choice between greater economic co-operation and human rights, as some would have us do. I reject that utterly. As I have said, there are individual cases that have been raised consistently. We are one of the few countries to have an annual human rights dialogue with China, and we are of the view that that gives us the right format and architecture within which to raise these specific individual cases. I believe that that is the right way to pursue these matters. As our relationship becomes ever closer, we are in a better position to discuss these very worrying cases with our Chinese counterparts.

Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP):
Will the Government use every opportunity, including those that arise this week, to make it clear to China that human rights and equality are a fundamental part of achieving greater and fairer economic growth? Given that the Chinese ambassador said at the weekend that no one would be put behind bars simply for criticising the Government, will the Minister join the United States Secretary of State John Kerry in calling for the release of Zhang Kai? If not, why not? More broadly, will he commit to speaking out, without fear or favour, against the use of the death penalty, even when it is used by strategic allies such as the United States, Saudi Arabia and China?

Mr Swire:
We do speak out without fear or favour. The United States is responsible for making its own comments on various matters. I refer the hon. Gentleman to my earlier comment that we supported an EU statement on 15 July on the detentions in Zhejiang. We believe that that is the right place for us to do that, along with our bilateral discussions with the Chinese themselves.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con):
As we have heard yet again, freedom of speech and dissent in China are being brutally repressed, not least in Tibet, where the mere possession of a photograph of the Dalai Lama can result in imprisonment or worse. In the UK, our democracy is built on the principle of free speech, so can the Minister tell me why protesters in the Mall exercising their right to draw attention to human rights abuses in Tibet were this week corralled behind barricades at the back while Chinese state-sponsored cheerleaders were given “Love China” T-shirts, Chinese diplomatic bags and a prime position at the front?

Mr Swire:
My hon. Friend is an assiduous campaigner for Tibet and he will know that, after the death of the senior Tibetan Buddhist, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, in July, we supported an EU statement and the remarks of a Foreign Office spokesman were carried in the media. Prior to Tenzin’s death, I continued to call for his release, including in parliamentary debates on Tibet in June and in December 2014.

Ms Harriet Harman (Camberwell and Peckham) (Lab):
I warmly thank the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for bringing this issue to the House. I am sure that this debate will be watched by people in China, so this is an important occasion. I also thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question. Does the Minister agree that our ability to raise our voice and put pressure on China because of its gross violations of human rights is in part based on the recognition that this country has itself made a commitment to human rights? Does he recognise that the increasingly negative tone being used in this country to describe human rights as a problem—even to the point of describing the legislation as “Labour’s Human Rights Act”, which I cannot believe is a compliment—undermines our ability to champion human rights abroad? We cannot champion human rights abroad if we regard them as a nuisance at home. Will he ensure that he and his Government stand up for human rights in this country, as part of our policy of championing them in other parts of the world?

Mr Swire:
The right hon. and learned Lady is absolutely right. It is incredibly important to have good human rights in our own country before we preach to others, and I believe that we do. In my travels around the globe—looking after two thirds of the world, as I am obliged to do—I have observed that our own human rights are way better than those in the majority of countries. A second thing that gives us a huge moral case when we go round the world is that this Government have pledged to spend 0.7% of our GDP on international aid. Those two factors give the United Kingdom a good say at any table.

John Glen (Salisbury) (Con):
While I welcome the commitment of the Minister and the Government to greater intimacy between this country and China in economic terms, the concern of many people in this country is that we rest on carefully crafted diplomatic language when it comes to discussing human rights. We may have an architecture for dialogue, but people are looking for delivered change and a fundamental change in attitude. What will happen if there is no discernible change in outcomes and between what the Chinese say to us and what they practice? What sanctions or actions will the Government take?

Mr Swire:
I subscribe to the words that

“persuasion and dialogue achieve more than confrontation and empty rhetoric.”

Those are not my words; they are the words of the Prime Minister—[Interruption.] Yes, the Prime Minister of the time—Tony Blair, in October 1998.

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab):
While we of course have to trade with all kinds of countries, do we really have to grovel to every dictatorship going that treats human rights with such total contempt as China is doing?

Mr Swire:
I would only say to the hon. Gentleman that I agree with another statement:

“We will make our position clear as we always do, but the best way to do it is without grandstanding or hectoring”.

Those are the words of the Prime Minister—Tony Blair, back in 1998.

Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab):
May I associate myself with your kind remarks about Michael Meacher, Mr Speaker? My experience of working with Michael was somewhat different, in that I was employed by him here for two years in the late-1980s. If one way in which we should judge people is by how they treat their employees, particularly the more difficult and truculent ones, that is further evidence of his tolerance and generosity of spirit.

On the Chancellor’s recent visit to China, he was described by Chinese state media as

“the first Western official in recent years who focused on business potential rather than raising a magnifying glass to the ‘human rights issue’”.

Was not Ai Weiwei right this week when he said that the Government are sacrificing essential values for short-term gain?

Mr Swire:
No, he was absolutely wrong. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor did raise human rights during his visit to China. In Xinjiang, he addressed the case of Ilham Tohti and called for his release. It is not right to say that when Ministers travel in China and meet our Chinese counterparts here in the UK, we do not raise such cases. The hon. Gentleman is precisely wrong.

Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con):
In advance of the state visit, I was contacted by Rev. Lorelli Hilliard, the vicar of St John with St Philip in Nelson, who expressed concerns about religious freedom in China. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that our improving commercial relationship certainly does not prevent us from speaking frankly and candidly with the Chinese about these issues, and may even be helpful?

Mr Swire:
Yes, that is certainly the case. As we get ever closer in our relationship and our dialogue, so we are able to raise these difficult issues with our Chinese counterparts. Mr Speaker, you presided over the speech by President Xi in the Royal Gallery in which he referred to the ever-growing and ever-closer links, particularly with British parliamentarians, and invited more British parliamentarians to go to China. I submit that that would be an extraordinarily good way of forging closer relationships and raising these cases, as parliamentarians, in China.

Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op):
Of course we should be engaging with China, and promoting dialogue and trade, but there has been a huge sense this week that the Government are willing to sell themselves to China for any price, especially on this absurd nuclear energy deal—I say that as a supporter of nuclear energy. Surely we should have the moral confidence to stand up for what we believe in as a country, especially on political freedom and on religious freedom. Ultimately, other nations will respect us more if we are willing to do that.

Mr Swire:
I do not regard as ridiculous more than £30 billion-worth of investment from China into the UK, let alone into our nuclear industry. I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that if the previous Government had paid more attention to the gap in our energy provision, we would not find ourselves in the position we are in.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD):
The Minister will have heard the Chinese President say:

“we have found a part of human rights development suited to China’s national conditions.”

Will the Minister explain what part of human rights development, if any, allows for the possible execution of Zhang Kai, the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners, the alleged forced harvesting of organs and the harassment of Ai Weiwei? Why, at a time when the UK should be strengthening its commitment to human rights, does Sir Simon McDonald, the permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, say that human rights are no longer a priority for the UK Government?

Mr Swire:
Human rights are actually being brought into the mainstream work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, because we think they inform everything we do on a day-to-day basis. The right hon. Gentleman quoted part of what the President said and I shall just cite the last bit of it:

“China is ready to, on the basis of equality and mutual respect, increase exchanges and cooperation with the UK and other countries in the area of human rights.”

That seems to me to be very positive indeed.

Questions on China in the House of Lords