Mike Gapes MP, a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, took part in an emergency debate in the House of Commons on Tuesday 2 December 2014 on the ban by China on the Foreign Affairs Committee visit to Hong Kong.
Mike Gapes MP (Ilford South):
As always, it is a great pleasure to follow Sir John Stanley He will recall that I, as a newly elected Member of this House, joined him on the Foreign Affairs Committee in 1992. In my time as a member of the FAC, I made many visits to many different countries. We might have had some issues about who we were able to meet and the exact timings of visits, but we were never told—not even by Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan or China—that we were not welcome to come and that the authorities would stop them getting off aircraft. It is not, as some Members have said, a matter of visas; UK citizens do not need visas to go to Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Government determine their own internal arrangements, yet the people in Beijing and their diplomatic representatives in London have told us that we are not welcome in Hong Kong, which is, as the Chair of the Committee so ably put it, a breach of the undertakings given by the Chinese to the people of Hong Kong and to our representatives in the negotiations that led to the joint declaration.
Members have asked why China is doing this. I suspect—and this really surprises me—that they are afraid that the presence of a handful of British parliamentarians is somehow going to change the internal dynamics in Hong Kong and China. They must be very nervous and worried. What is happening in Hong Kong is not being broadcast in the Chinese media. We can see it covered in the rest of the world and we can see it in Taiwan, but the Chinese authorities have rigorously censored communications about events in Hong Kong. That also happens when the people of Hong Kong protest on the anniversary of the massacre in Tiananmen square—not a word of it is broadcast by the Chinese state authorities. This is an indication that the Chinese regime is prepared to use a ruthless power because it is afraid. That augurs badly for what might happen in Hong Kong in the coming weeks and months.
I do not want to spend too long talking about that, but I did want to talk about the issues about Parliament and the Committee’s inquiry. Let me go back to the previous time we visited China. In May 2006, the previous Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, which I had the great honour of chairing, went to Hong Kong and from there to Beijing. The group then split into two. One went to Tibet, to Lhasa, and the other, which I led, went to Shanghai. We then met up again in Hong Kong and went to Taiwan. One of the interesting episodes, to which the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling just referred, was the meeting we had with Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing. He was very pleasant to begin with and asked me how my right hon. Friend Margaret Beckett, the then Foreign Secretary, was doing as he had had amicable discussions with her in the United Nations Security Council meetings. After 10 minutes, he switched completely to tell us, “I understand that you intend to go to our 19th province”—that is, Taiwan. “We have no objection to your going, but only after the reunification of our country.”
He then said, “You are all diplomats.” We said, “No, we are parliamentarians. You don’t understand. We are not here representing the British Government but doing an inquiry and our presence and visit will not in any way change the British Government’s policy. We are doing this because we need to investigate Taiwan and its relationship with China.” He said, “If you do this, there will be serious consequences.” We wondered what those serious consequences were. As the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling said, the visit continued and we went to Tibet and to Shanghai, went back to Hong Kong and then to Taiwan. There were no serious consequences for the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Later on in the previous Parliament, when the Committee was considering human rights issues globally, we decided as a Committee to receive the Dalai Lama for a public evidence session, which I chaired. At that point, I received a very long and vitriolic letter from the National People’s Congress in Beijing and a visit from the then Chinese ambassador, who subsequently became a deputy Foreign Minister, bringing lots of different materials including piles of books about the CIA’s role in Tibet and other documentation. The Chinese are obviously very sensitive, as they always have been, about issues to do with their status and the respect others have for China in the world. We can have a robust exchange about such issues, but there has never been a ban on parliamentarians from this House as a result of those differences. That tells me that there is something happening internally in China that is worrying.
In our report after the inquiry in the previous Parliament, we commented on the situation in Hong Kong. In one of our conclusions, we recommended that
“the Government urge the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to make significant, major steps towards representative democracy and to agree with Beijing a timetable by which direct election of the Chief Executive and LegCo by universal suffrage will be achieved.”
I hope that that is a position to which we all, including Members on the Government and Opposition Front Benches, could agree today. It is of course a matter for the people of Hong Kong and China to make proposals using the arrangements set out in the basic law, but the
aspiration for representative democracy and universal suffrage should apply for all people as soon as possible, including in Hong Kong.
The Committee also commented on the internal situation in Hong Kong with civil liberties, humanitarian issues and the rule of law. Our conclusion in 2006 was that
“despite some concerns, overall Hong Kong remains a vibrant, dynamic, open and liberal society with a generally free press and an independent judiciary, subject to the rule of law.”
I hope that we can say the same about Hong Kong today. Obviously, our report will have to be published in due course when we have finished taking evidence, but I think that the behaviour of the Chinese authorities towards our Committee as well as other issues that have been raised with us so far in the evidence we have received prompt concern about whether those principles and values are under threat today.
Let me conclude with a more general point, which has been mentioned in passing. Some people believe that we should turn a blind eye to this and some people believe that the economic imperative should determine everything. Those of us who have been to Taiwan, however, or to other countries around the world with significant Chinese populations, know that there is nothing inherently authoritarian, Stalinist, Leninist or Maoist in the Chinese character. What is communist about China today? Only the name of the ruling party. It has a state capitalist economic system run by an elite that holds political power through a one-party system and suppresses and controls dissent. How sustainable is that the future? I do not know. China’s economy is turning down and the rate of growth is slowing. China has a major demographic problem long term and its ability to meet the aspirations of its people, which it has done, taking hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in recent years, is not necessarily sustainable indefinitely under its current political model.
There are clearly big questions for the rest of the world about how we deal with a growing China. People have talked about China’s rise and Martin Jacques, an author who is very well informed although I do not agree with his rose-tinted conclusions, has written a book called, “When China Rules the World”. Frankly, if China were to become the most important country in the world politically that would raise serious questions about what kind of universal values it would have and what kind of rule of law and humanitarian law there would be.
It might be a small point for some people that a Committee of the House of Commons has been prevented from going to Hong Kong, but it raises fundamental questions.
Margot James MP (Stourbridge):
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the banning of the visit is symptomatic of China’s attitude to the rest of the world, particularly her near neighbours, considering the aggression over the Senkaku islands, the adventurism in the South China sea and the intransigence she has demonstrated in the Security Council?
Mike Gapes MP (Ilford South):
I would be fairer to China, because it has played a positive role in some international matters, such as climate change, and certainly on international security, so I do not think that all its actions have been on the bad side. However, there are concerns about its
attitude and, as the hon. Lady has highlighted, there are a number of territorial disputes around the coast and in east Asia, where a number of states are in contention for territories that have the potential for gas and oil exploration. I do not want to go down that track now and so will conclude by talking about democracy.
In our 2006 report, the Committee came to an important conclusion. We were commenting on the Chinese military build-up across the Taiwan straits and the possible threat to peace and stability in east Asia. Relations between Taiwan and China have since improved significantly: there are now far more direct flights, there is massive investment, and millions of mainland Chinese tourists visit Taiwan, as I saw last new year—the hotel I was staying in was full of mainland Chinese. Nevertheless, there is still great sensitivity in China about what is happening in Taiwan. The Taiwanese people, as they have shown in recent local elections, are very committed to democracy. They throw politicians out and reject incumbent parties and Governments regularly.
Our 2006 report—I think that this is still pertinent today—concluded:
“the growth and development of democracy in Taiwan is of the greatest importance, both for the island itself and for the population of greater China, since it demonstrates incontrovertibly that Chinese people can develop democratic institutions and thrive under them.”
That is also relevant to Hong Kong, which is why what is happening there matters and why our Committee is absolutely right to continue our inquiry and, in due course, produce a report. The Government will then have to respond to that report, hopefully before the next election, so that the House can have a further debate about developments in Hong Kong and China over the coming months.
You can hear Mike's speech below or alternative watch it on the Parliament website.