Yesterday Liberal Democrat Voice ran a post from (Lord) Chris Rennard about a question he had tabled regarding the Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. It’s now been asked and answered in Parliament, so here is the transcript from Hansard:
China: Liu Xiaobo
Asked By Lord Rennard
To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether, and if so how, they will raise concerns about the imprisonment of the Nobel Peace Prize Winner Liu Xiaobo during the Prime Minister’s visit to China.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Howell of Guildford): My Lords, the Prime Minister discussed the full range of our interests during his visit, reflecting the many-sided dialogues that we have with the Chinese Government. His discussions included human rights. No subjects were off limits.
Lord Rennard: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that all countries that are free and democratic should not hold back from exercising their right to freedom of speech by publicly supporting the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo and demanding his immediate release, the release of his wife from house detention and that his lawyer be permitted to attend Oslo to receive the prize on his behalf? Does the Minister agree that the best way of ensuring that countries can exercise their right to freedom of speech on these issues is by working together with a single strong voice to demand greater respect for human rights in China so that its Government cannot prevent other people from speaking out on these issues, extracting trade concessions at the expense of the human rights of their own people?
Lord Howell of Guildford: We work together with our EU partners in the various dialogues and will continue to do so. As for individual cases, I say to my noble friend that there is a time and a place. It may be that the handling of some of these perfectly valid cases is better done away from the glare of publicity, particularly when heads of state are exchanging views.
Lord Faulkner of Worcester: In view of the Minister’s first reply, will he confirm that the subject of China’s use of the death penalty was one of the subjects that Mr Cameron raised on this occasion, as indeed he did in 2007? Is the Minister aware that Amnesty International still says that it is impossible to calculate the number of executions that are carried out in China because it is a state secret, but the number runs into thousands?
Lord Howell of Guildford: So far as I understand it, all human rights issues were discussed, and that would certainly include the one that the noble Lord has mentioned. We welcome reports that a forthcoming revision of Chinese criminal law may reduce the scope of the death penalty by 10 to 15 non-violent crimes. In our language, of course, that would not necessarily be enough but it is something to welcome, and we hope that China will continue to limit the scope and application of the death penalty.
Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, while he is right that there is a place and time for delicate discussions, China does itself no favours in barring other people who are not related to this particular instance from travelling? I raise the plight of Mo Shaoping and He Weifang, legal scholars who were due to come to London for a legal conference, who have no visas for Norway and were not in any sense going to draw attention to the Nobel prize; they have been barred from coming to a conference here, although they are entirely legitimate and innocent. We must defend the right of people to travel and to mix with the rest of the world, while at the same time being sensitive towards China.
Lord Howell of Guildford: My noble friend puts it extremely well. I have a long list here of individuals whose particular problems have arisen and whose instances have been raised by our ambassador and our representatives at different times. We will continue to press for an enlargement of freedoms and human rights with the Chinese, but there are different ways of doing it and my noble friend is right: some are best done publicly while some are best done in a more sensitive way.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, perhaps I may ask two questions. First, have the Prime Minister or any member of his entourage met any Chinese dissidents in the past few days while they were in China? Secondly, does the Minister agree that members of the public who are interested in human rights in China might look at the human rights overview on the FCO website? That is exactly what I did today, and I was interested to see that the latest update was that Prime Minister Gordon Brown has discussed human rights with China’s Premier and that Foreign Secretary David Miliband has spoken to his counterpart on the same subject. Does the Minister think that that really is prioritising human rights in China?
Lord Howell of Guildford: I do not know whether the noble Baroness slipped into a time warp; it sounds as though the website did. I will look into that. When I glanced at the site this morning I thought that I saw a more up-to-date version, but strange things happen in the cyberworld of the internet. It may be that the noble Baroness was misled by the machinery of the FCO’s website. I will examine it to see what went wrong.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the first question was on meeting dissidents.
Lord Howell of Guildford: I do not have any information on meeting dissidents. The visit is continuing and I do not know what the rest of the programme will involve. However, I will write to the noble Baroness when I have precise information on that, as opposed to the other official-level meetings about which we have already heard.
Lord Tebbit: Is my noble friend aware that if we seek to impose our views excessively on other sovereign states we may set a precedent for some of them to impose their views on us, and that many states, particularly those which observe Sharia law, might have some fairly strong comments to make about the state of our society in this country?
Lord Howell of Guildford: In answer to my noble friend, I saw a Matt cartoon this morning suggesting there might be Chinese concerns about overcrowding on railway carriages in the United Kingdom. So there is always room for two-way commentary on how other people live. However, the point is that our commentaries are about our own standards and they put forward in a spirit of friendship and support. As the Prime Minister made absolutely clear, we are not in the business of going round lecturing and hectoring other great nations and great powers about how they should organise their affairs. But we can give friendly advice, and friendly advice is usually quite welcome.