[30 October 2015] The UK government failed to publicly raise human rights during Xi Jinping’s State Visit to the UK last week. However, Tibet protestors ensured it remained on the media’s agenda despite the lavish ceremonies afforded to Xi Jinping by the UK government and Chinese state-backed efforts to silence demonstrators.
The four-day State Visit was the first by a Chinese President since Hu Jintao in 2005. The only other such visit was by Jiang Zemin in 1999, when British police colluded with Chinese state security to confiscate Tibet flags and placards and block the view of protests.
Below is Tibet Society's report on the 2015 State Visit, including Tibet demonstrations, the arrest of three Tibet protestors, questions raised by MPs in Parliament, an overview of each day of Xi's meetings and opinions by media commentators.
MPs open letter | Stateless Lunch | Protests on The Mall | Arrests
MPs on arrests | Xi in Parliament | MPs on China | Day one | Day two
Day three | Day four | Media comments& analysis
Photos of Tibet protests (album on Tibet Society's facebook page)
MPs' Open Letter to Prime Minister
Prior to the start of the Chinese President’s State Visit, a group of MPs and Lords sent an open letter to David Cameron asking him to “express British values” on human rights, freedom and democracy.
The letter, written by Fabian Hamilton MP and co-signed by 15 MPs and Lords, called on David Cameron, “To send a clear and public message to the Chinese government: their violations of basic human rights are unacceptable; their control and regulation of civil society intolerable; and their punishment of peaceful dissent inexcusable.”
Tibet Society approached Fabian Hamilton MP with the idea of a joint letter and helped to gather co-signatories. Fabian Hamilton is Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tibet, of which Tibet Society is the Secretariat.
Click here to read the letter.
'Stateless Lunch' in Parliament
On 19 October, the eve of Xi Jinping’s State Visit, Tibet Society, along with Fabian Hamilton MP and several human rights organisations, organised a ‘Stateless Lunch’ at the UK Parliament. The event highlighted human rights violations in Tibet, East Turkestan and China and honoured those silenced by the Chinese regime.
Tibetan, Uyghur and Chinese activists called upon Prime Minister Cameron to deliver a robust, public message during the State Visit urging Xi Jinping to bring an end to human rights abuses and to release all prisoners of conscience.
Fabian Hamilton MP (pictured, second left), said, “Engagement and trade links with China are important, but not at the expense of freedom and democracy.”
Tash Despa (pictured, far left), a Tibetan documentary-maker who went undercover in Tibet for Channel 4, said, “Britain’s leaders must raise prisoners of conscience with the Chinese delegation and insist on the importance of human rights.”
Tash also spoke about Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, the Tibetan political prisoner who died in a Chinese prison earlier this year. Other cases raised included Uyghur academic Ilham Tohti, who is serving a life sentence on alleged separatism charges, and Cao Shunli, a Chinese human rights lawyer who died in custody last year after being detained for calling for a national review of human rights.
Further reading: Tibet Society
Tibet protests on The Mall
To ensure that the Chinese President and the UK government were reminded of public concern over Tibet and China’s appalling human rights record, Tibet Society worked with other UK Tibet groups and human rights organisations to organise peaceful protests during the State Visit.
On the first day of the State Visit, several hundred Tibet supporters and human rights protestors, including Chinese dissidents and Falun Gong practitioners, gathered on The Mall. An area was designated for the protestors, which was located considerably further back from the road than that allowed for pro-China supporters. The area was also heavily policed and surrounded by multiple rows of barricades. This imbalance of policing was referred to later by Tim Loughton MP in parliament (see below).
The protestors waved Tibetan flags and carried placards with messages including “China: Buying UK’s silence on Tibet”, “Xi Jinping: Tibetans are dying for freedom” and “Cameron: Don’t trade away human rights”.
However, the protestors were vastly outnumbered by pro-China supporters. At least 10,000 Chinese lined The Mall with identical banners, flags and t-shirts. With the Chinese national flag adorning official flagpoles along the length of The Mall, combined with hundreds of massive pro-China banners stretching between Admiralty Arch and Buckingham Palace, the scene was reminiscent of a Communist Party propaganda event in Beijing. Tibetans and Tibet supporters were seen bursting into tears upon sight of the sea of red.
As was later reported by the media, the vast majority of the pro-China supporters were Chinese students bussed in from universities around the UK. The supposed ‘spontaneous’ gathering to welcome Xi Jinping had actually been carefully orchestrated by Chinese officials. Journalists discovered boxes scattered along The Mall with labels clearly identifying the Chinese Embassy in London as the recipient of a large shipment from Beijing of banners, t-shirts and baseball caps.
On The Mall, and throughout the State Visit, pro-China supporters were directed by Chinese stooges to disrupt Tibet and human rights protests. This began with Chinese students interfering in press interviews with Tibet supporters and the media filming the protests.
BBC news correspondent Ben Geoghegan reported from The Mall on the pro-China aggression. He said, “President Xi’s supporters vastly outnumber the human rights protesters. So why the repeated attempts to block the protesters’ banners and upstage them?” He witnessed the “strategic movement” of Chinese flags to block protestors and even his camera crew were interrupted when trying to film Tibet demonstrations. He concluded, “Some of President Xi’s supporters seem determined to make sure their opponents aren’t seen or heard.”
Many Tibet supporters who attempted to protest along The Mall (and elsewhere during the visit) reported they felt intimidated by the pro-China supporters, often being surrounded by five or six students waving Chinese flags, blocking their view, and in some cases attempting to pull the Tibet flag down. In one case, an elderly Tibet supporter was pushed by a group of students and then had his flag snatched away.
In addition to the unequal positioning and heavy policing, hundreds of pro-China supporters gathered around the protest zone to try and drown out the “Free Tibet” and “Long Live the Dalai Lama” chants. Massive Chinese flags were continuously draped in front of the protestors, and despite prior assurances from the police that musical instruments were not allowed on The Mall, the pro-China contingent produced and played numerous drums and cymbals without any interference from the authorities.
Despite the intimidation and tactics, no doubt at the behest of the Chinese Embassy and Chinese state security, the Tibet and human rights protestors still made their mark. Journalists swarmed around the protest zone interviewing Tibetans and human rights defenders. Much of the media coverage referred to the Tibet protests, with numerous opinion pieces noting the orchestrated pro-China support and the efforts to silence the Tibet protests.
Later in the day, Tibet protests were also held on Parliament Square during the Chinese President’s speech in the Houses of Parliament and outside Buckingham Palace (pictured above) where the State Banquet was held.
Further reading: Reuters I BBC I Guardian (19 Oct) I Guardian (20 Oct)
Video: footage of Mall protests: Reuters (1 min) I Guardian (36 secs)
Arrest of Tibet protestors
On 21 October, the second day of the State Visit, two Tibetans and a Chinese human rights defender were arrested for peacefully protesting outside Mansion House where Xi Jinping was due to attend a business conference.
Sonam Choden (top right), Jamphel (middle right) and Shao Jiang (bottom right) were arrested for attempting to hold up the Tibetan flag and messages as the President’s car arrived at the event. All three were held for 24 hours in a local police station during which time they had their homes raided by the police and computer equipment confiscated.
The three were charged with conspiracy to commit a public order offence, a charge a representing solicitor had never heard of being applied to a peaceful protest in 40 years of practice. All three were released on bail.
On 28 October, following their cases being raised in Parliament (see below), all charges against the three were dropped.
However, questions remain over the decision to arrest the three, charge them with conspiracy and raid their homes. Formal complaints are being considered.
Prior to the charges being dropped, Tibet Society issued several statements, noting it was “appalled at the UK police’s heavy-handed approach of dealing with the peaceful protestors”, questioned “where the orders for such actions have emanated,” and added, “There are Chinese security fingerprints over the UK police’s actions.”
Further reading: Tibet Society
Video: Shao Jiang’s arrest: BBC (22 secs)
MPs question government over arrests
The arrests were raised in parliament on 26 October via an Urgent Question submitted by Fabian Hamilton MP. The Minister responsible for policing, Mike Penning, refused to comment on the matter citing that it was “an ongoing police investigation”, but then came under increasing pressure as MPs lined up to criticise the decision to arrest the protestors.
Fifteen MPs criticised and questioned the government over the arrests, in a debate that lasted nearly 30 minutes. A selection of MPs' comments follows:
Jack Dromey MP said, “In a free society, we defend the right to dissent and to protest.”
Anne McLaughlin MP asked if the Minister could “think of any reason... why somebody waving their country’s flag should lead to them being arrested, put behind bars and having their mobile phone and PC taken from them?”
Mr David Winnick MP said the arrests “could be described as British police action with Chinese characteristics.”
Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab) said she was “embarrassed... a peaceful demonstration was treated in such a way.”
Tibet Society, as Secretariat for the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tibet, worked with Fabian Hamilton MP to raise the Urgent Question and provided a synopsis of the protests and arrests to MPs.
Further reading: Tibet Society
Xi Jinping in UK Parliament
In the afternoon of the first day of the State Visit, Xi Jinping became the first Chinese leader to address MPs and Lords in the Houses of Parliament.
Xi Jinping was welcomed by the Speaker of the House, John Bercow, who introduced the President by referencing prominent Asians that had been previously hosted in Parliament, including “Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, democracy champion and international symbol of the innate human right of freedom.” He also said the President should be “a moral inspiration”, prize “individual liberty” and added that the world “will be watching” what China “does politically”.
In his 11-minute speech to the gathered parliamentarians, Xi Jinping emphasised the need for the UK and China to “forge ahead together”. Xi said, “China-UK relations will certainly embrace an even brighter future,” and added, “It is fair to say that China and the UK are increasingly interdependent and are becoming a community of shared interests.”
Whilst Xi addressed the MPs and Lords, Tibet supporters protested outside in Parliament Square.
Further reading: Reuters I BBC I Independent I Telegraph
MPs question China's human rights record
During the third day of the State Visit, an emergency parliamentary session was granted to MPs who demanded to know whether the Prime Minister had raised human rights issues with Xi Jinping.
Fiona Bruce MP, chairwoman of the Conservative party’s Human Rights Commission, tabled an urgent question urging ministers to place dialogue on human rights, freedom of thought, speech and assembly and rule of law “at the centre” of Britain’s relationship with China, adding that it was widely recognised that individual freedom led to better business outcomes.
Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire refused to say if specific human rights cases had been raised during the State Visit, instead referring to the raising of issues and cases in April during the UK-China annual human rights dialogue.
Tim Loughton MP (Con) drew attention to the heavy policing of human rights protestors on The Mall, asking why the protestors were “corralled behind barricades at the back while Chinese state-sponsored cheerleaders were given... prime position at the front?”
Sir Edward Leigh MP (Con) said, “The house does not want vague assurances from the minister; we want to know that... we are absolutely fearless in these matters and that during this visit our leadership will raise these matters with the Chinese President.”
David Winnick MP (Lab) asked whether ministers “really have to grovel to every dictatorship going that treats human rights with such total contempt as China is doing?”
Further reading: Guardian (a) I Guardian (b)
Video: MPs questions: BBC (3 mins)
On 20 October, Xi Jinping was officially welcomed to the UK by the Queen at a ceremony held on Horse Guards Parade. Following a 41-gun salute, Xi travelled down the Mall to Buckingham Palace alongside the Queen in a gilded horse-drawn carriage.
In the afternoon, Xi Jinping addressed MPs and Lords in the Houses of Parliament (see above).
At the State Banquet, held at Buckingham Palace in the evening, the Queen hailed the visit as a “milestone” and declared UK-China ties were being taken to “ambitious new heights”. Xi Jinping referred to the “everlasting friendship” between the two countries.
Prior to the banquet, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn met Xi Jinping. Mr Corbyn was reported to have raised human rights with the President during a 30-minute meeting that was described as “cordial and constructive”.
Further reading: BBC (a) I BBC (b) I Guardian I Telegraph
On the second day of the State Visit, Xi Jinping met with David Cameron at Downing Street. Officials confirmed the Prime Minister raised human rights with Xi in private but refused to provide any specific details. Mr Cameron refused to express concern over China’s human rights record in public, only stating that the UK and China’s “strong partnership” meant issues such as human rights could be discussed.
At the joint press conference with Cameron and Xi, only one question was allowed to be asked of Xi Jinping. Thankfully, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg used the opportunity to raise human rights. She asked, “Why do you think members of the British public should be pleased to do more business with a country that is not democratic, not transparent and has a deeply, deeply troubling attitude to human rights?”
President Xi said China “attaches huge importance” to human rights. “We combine the universal value of human rights with China’s reality and we have found a path of human rights development suited to China’s national conditions,” he said. “Looking around the world we know that there is always room for improvement. All countries need to continuously improve and strengthen human rights protection.”
During the Downing Street meeting, Tibet Society joined other Tibet and human rights groups and supporters outside for another noisy and colourful protest. The message to the PM was clearly portrayed on a large banner, “Cameron: Has China bought your silence? Speak out on Tibet.”
With the presence of the protestors, Xi Jinping was shepherded in and out of Downing Street via the back entrance.
The protests continued through the day, as Xi Jinping visited Mansion House for a business conference and the Guildhall for another banquet. (See below to read about the arrest of three peaceful protestors.)
Further reading: BBC
Video: press conference: BBC (6 mins) I BBC (3m 30s)
On the third day, an official event due to be attended by the Chinese President was hastily rearranged due to the fear of demonstrations. Apparently, due to the possible close proximity of the President to protests by students at UCL, a conference on Confucius Institutes was moved to the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park hotel where the President’s entourage were staying. Despite short notice, Tibet and Falun Gong supporters joined UCL students to protest outside the hotel (pictured right) and ensured Xi and his officials were aware of their concerns over human rights and the propagation of state-sponsored propaganda by Confucius Institutes in the UK.
Xi Jinping left London to have further talks with David Cameron at Chequers, the Prime Minister’s official country residence. In a joint statement, the two leaders praised the trip as opening a “golden era” in UK-China relations, with the countries committing to build “a global comprehensive strategic partnership for the 21st century”.
The statement was virtually silent on human rights, noting only that the two countries “will further enhance political trust based on equality and mutual respect, and in that spirit recognise the importance each side attaches to its own political system, development path, core interests and major concerns”.
Further reading: BBC I Guardian
Day Four and UK-China deals
The Chinese President spent the final day of the State Visit in Manchester, when it was announced the UK government’s Northern Powerhouse project had gained “Chinese backing”. Also unveiled was a new direct flight service between Manchester and Beijing (the first such in the UK outside of London) and a the development of a commercial base at Airport City Manchester for Chinese businesses arriving in the UK.
At the end of the week, Chancellor George Osborne said the State Visit had “cemented the UK’s position as China’s best partner in the West” due to “billions of pounds of Chinese investment”.
The deals signed between the UK and China during the visit reportedly were worth almost £40 billion, including a multi-billion pound contract, between EDF Energy and state-owned China General Nuclear Power Corporation, giving China a 33% stake in the building of a nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset. An agreement was also agreed to introduce a 2-year tourist visa for Chinese visitors at a vastly reduced cost. It was also reported the UK government is considering an unlimited visit 10-year tourist visa just for China.
Tibetans and supporters ensured the protests continued in Manchester, giving Xi Jinping a send-off with calls for freedom and human rights for Tibet.
Further reading: Reuters I BBC (21 Oct) I BBC (23 Oct)
Video: Osborne interview: BBC (4m 38s)
Official statements and media comments in the run-up to the State Visit:
China’s Ambassador to the UK said human rights had no place on the State Visit. Speaking to the BBC on 18 October, Liu Xiaoming said the Chinese President would be “here for cooperation, for partnership, he’s not here for a debate about human rights”. However, when questioned he added, “We do not shy away from discussions about human rights.” (via The Guardian)
Before leaving for the UK, Xi Jinping praised Britain’s decision to become Beijing’s best friend in the West. In an interview with Reuters, Xi said, “The UK has stated that it will be the western country that is most open to China. This is a visionary and strategic choice that fully meets Britain’s own long-term interest.”
On the eve of the State Visit, The Guardian questioned the UK government’s new policy towards China, referring to it as “a big gamble”. In an editorial, The Guardian said, the State Visit indicates “a fundamental shift in British foreign policy, and one with profound implications.” It was noted there had been no public discussion on the matter and would likely mean “growing Chinese influence over our economic decisions and over our approach to critical human rights issues in China.”
Even The Express, which believes the government is right in “solidifying our relationship” with China, stated that the “pursuit of closer ties should not blind them to the problems in the country” and “human rights issues should not be ignored”.
The BBC’s China Editor, Carrie Gracie, described the UK’s strategic shift on China as “the Osborne Doctrine”, where “the Prime Minister has let the Chancellor drive the agenda.” She added, “For the UK, the “prosperity agenda” has eclipsed the “values agenda” in relations with China.”
The BBC also quoted Jonathan Fenby, former editor of The Observer, who noted his “unease” at the UK putting infrastructure and development “at the mercy of a regime in Beijing which we don’t understand too well, which certainly we can’t control and even whether we can influence it is another nice question.”
Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s former chief strategist, criticised the government for “sucking up” to China in a comment for The Guardian on 18 October. In the article, entitled “Kowtowing to China’s despots is morally wrong and makes no economic sense,” Mr Hilton said a “robust approach to China” was needed, similar to the sanctions that ended apartheid. He added, “By standing up to the Chinese regime we can assert our commitment to decency and avoid the embarrassment of overlooking behaviour we know to be repugnant.”
Pictured right, cartoon in the Daily Telegraph on 22 October 2015.
Carrie Grace, BBC’s China Editor, noted the Chinese media had “exulted that their president got a ‘redder than red carpet welcome’ in the UK and certainly Xi Jinping rarely stepped off the carpet.” She added, “critics of [the UK] government’s campaign to become China’s “best partner in the West” drew attention to Beijing’s censorship and the authoritarian political culture.” She concluded that, “Over time... we’ll see how strong the economic partnership is, how strong the underlying relationship, and whether Britain’s big China gamble is paying off.”
The Financial Times said the State Visit seemed to mark a “momentous geopolitical shift - the moment when the existing global hegemon’s closest ally bent its knee to the rising superpower”. It was also noted that “while some in the business community have cheered Mr Osborne’s move, many in the UK as well as traditional allies in Europe and North America feel a deep sense of unease over the lengths Mr Cameron’s government has gone to please Beijing.”
The Guardian’s diplomatic editor Julian Borger said “what was striking about the week-long bilateral coupling was the absence of public discussion of the geopolitical crises of the day such as Syria or Ukraine or the South China Sea”. He said the visit was no more “than a commercial arrangement between two consenting nations”.
In the Daily Mail, Dominic Sandbrook said, “Far from securing a great deal for this country... [the government] merely bent over backwards to give the Chinese everything they want.” He opines, ”Perhaps never in our modern history has the British establishment demeaned itself so enthusiastically before a foreign visitor.” He suggested it would be better if the UK-China relationship was “characterised by old-fashioned hard-headed realism, rather than the embarrassingly supine flattery”.
George Kerevan in The National (Scotland), said, “Now the Tories are happy to cast Tibet aside because they need Chinese money.” He explained, “President Xi is desperate for a solution” to China’s slowing economy, and has therefore instigated a new “Silk Road” connecting China and Europe’s economies, including Chinese investment in European infrastructure and intellectual property. He concluded, “David and George have just signed up to making the UK a branch of the Chinese economy.”
In the Mail on Sunday, Peter Hitchins said the UK government had “sold this country to the Chinese police state”. He referred to the “disturbing rentacrowd of Chinese students” on The Mall and said that, “While Parliament, Premier and Palace prostrated themselves before this despot, a brave few objected to his presence.” However, he said even the few demonstrators were sidelined. “It looks as if the police were ordered at all costs to ensure that China’s leader did not see or hear any protests.”
Finally, Mark Steel, writing in The Independent, had the last laugh saying, “If trade helps improve human rights, it’s about time we let North Korea and Isis run some of our industries.”
Tibet Society, the world’s first Tibet support group, was founded in 1959. Funded by its members, it has been working for over 50 years to seek justice for Tibet through parliamentary lobbying, campaigns and actions. Help keep Tibet alive by joining Tibet Society today. Annual membership £24; Family £36; Life £500.
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