Comment: The name no-one dared mention

Keeping quiet over China's human rights abuses is not an option.

By Denis MacShane MP

Does the name Liu Xiabo mean anything to you? He is China's first-ever Nobel peace prize laureate.

It is quite an honour for a country's citizen to be given the most prestigious global prize for peace. The response of the Chinese community authorities to this honour has been decisive. They have sentenced Mr Liu to a long period in the Chinese gulag. They have also arrested his wife for good measure.

When in the past Communist regimes treated Nobel laureates harshly British Conservatives and the press were the first to denounce such behaviour. Mrs Thatcher called repeatedly for the release of Andrei Sakharov from the Russian gulag after he was awarded the Nobel peace prize. The Nobel prize for literature awarded to Alexander Solzhenitsyn turned the Russian novelist into a symbol of freedom.

But the British government and press obviously regard a Chinese Nobel prize-winner as below the salt. In all the coverage of the Chinese premier Wen Jiabo's to Britain, there was no mention of his fellow citizen and Nobel laureate, Liu Xiabo.

The BBC Today programme reported gravely on a deal to export British chickens to China as part of the visit. Poultry farmers were cheered up. But the name of Liu Xiabo could not cross anyone's lips. At the press conference between David Cameron and Wen Jiabo, the brave British reporters also failed to mention Liu's name.

On his visit to China last autumn, David Cameron was similarly silent. He failed publicly to mention Mr Liu's name despite being asked to do so ahead of his visit. His pusillanimity in Beijing was repeated by silence in London. The excuse given is that Britain raises human rights issues in private. This has the noble name of the UK-China Human Rights Dialogue. It was already in existence when I was the FCO minister responsible for China a decade ago. Britain did the dialogue. China just locked up anyone they disliked for raising issues like rule of law, democratic accountability, or media freedom.

David Cameron has again said "human rights are not off-limits" in talks with China. They never have been. But as long as they are held on Chinese Communist terms – behind closed doors with no names mentioned in public – they are worthless and British ministers should not waste their breath. Mr Wen is a fan of Shakespeare and visited Stratford. He might take time off to see Macbeth or Richard III and understand that human rights can be crushed by tyrants but not forever. The prime minister may justify his public silence when he was a guest in China but there is no excuse to hide behind diplomatic niceties when on home ground.

A public statement in support of Mr Liu's release from prison is long overdue from Britain and it is sad that today's British prime minister does not have the courage of his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, who not afraid to name and shame Russian communist abuse of human rights.

Britain should also cooperate with its European partners as I suggested in a letter sent to William Hague last week. I wrote after the news that the Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei had been released and told the foreign secretary: "Like me you will be pleased that the Chinese artist, Ai Wei Wei, has been released on bail. It is good he is free. But the charges against him by the Chinese communist government remain. As he is free let us not forget that the China's Noble peace prize laureate, Liu Xiabo, remains locked up in the Chinese Gulag. Can you assure me that British ministers who visit China will mention the UK's wish that Liu be freed in public statements? Can you also ask the Chinese communist authorities to allow a visit by EU ambassadors in Beijing to Liu to check on how he is treated in prison. It shames China that a man of peace and dialogue remains rotting in prison."

To be sure, we all want trade and business with China though it remains largely one-way. We buy Chinese goods. They don't buy ours. But building China into an open rule-of-law economy is vital. Sectors of British manufacturing, including those firms contributing to the aerospace industry, are doing well as China buys hundreds of planes and needs hi-quality steel and hi-tech components that Britain can contribute. But we cannot completely shelve our commitment to democracy and human rights in order to kow-tow to obtain contracts.

Daring to name a name – that of Liu Xaiob – would be a good place to start. As long as China treats its Nobel peace prize laureate with such contempt and cruelty, a British prime minister should not remain silent.

Denis MacShane has been Labour party MP for Rotherham since 1994. When Minister at the British foreign and commonwealth office he was responsible for China between 2001 and 2002.

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