Xi's UK visit: Queen speaks, government seals its lips

Protest during State Visit of Xi Jinping October 2015
Protest during State Visit of Xi Jinping October 2015

12th May 2016

The Queen's recent comments about difficulties during the visit of Chinese president Xi Jinping to the UK last October have put the spotlight again on the controversial trip. They were made as Free Tibet received a letter from the UK government which again refused to shed any light on human rights discussions during the visit.

China's bullying

Widely reported video from a garden party at Buckingham Palace shows the Queen commiserating with a Metropolitan Police commander over the stresses of managing the visit and remarking that the Chinese were "very rude" to the British Ambassador. On being told that police commander Lucy d'Orsi was in charge of the visit, the Queen commented "bad luck" and Commander d'Orsi replied that at one point the Chinese had walked out on a meeting and threatened to cancel the trip.

In 2014, China's government also threatened to cancel a trip by its prime minister, unless he was granted an audience with the Queen. This is not normal protocol for a foreign politician who is not head of state (President Xi is China's head of state). The British government acquiesced and a letter from Tibet groups including Free Tibet criticising the decision was published in The Guardian newspaper.

Government silence

The UK government was widely criticised for failing to stand up to China in public about human rights issues during the trip and the Metropolitan Police also received criticism for its arrests of three peaceful protesters, two Tibetans and a Chinese Tiananmen Square survivor, on charges that were quickly dropped.

In advance of the State Visit, Free Tibet and other Tibet and China human rights groups had an unproductive meeting with the UK China minister Hugo Swire, who refused to provide any information about how human rights would be dealt with during the visit. He also refused to answer similar questions in the UK Parliament during the trip and the only reference to human rights made in the joint statement issued by the two governments at the end of the visit concerned the UK-China Human Rights Dialogue, rather than addressing any concerns, cases or specific human rights issues.

In February, Free Tibet and other China-related human rights groups wrote to the government asking it to provide specific details of the discussions that took place.  Our letter noted that:

The government has faced criticism for its failure to raise human rights concerns in public during the State Visit: we would also like to put on record our disappointment that there were no public statements expressing concern about human rights in China made by any representatives of the government. We hope, therefore, that you will be able to show us that the issue was raised effectively and productively in private.

On May 5 we received an answer to that letter, failing to provide any of the specific information we sought about the nature of discussions that took place, whether any cases were raised and whether there had been any outcomes. Instead, the letter simply said that "human rights issues" were "covered" in formal talks between Mr Cameron and Xi Jinping and "discussed" in another meeting involving the Foreign Secretary.  The letter also notes that the visit "was aimed at boosting the relationship between our two countries".

Failure on human rights

The UK government's repeated refusal to provide any useful information about how human rights were addressed during the visit appears to confirm suspicions among many China-related groups that discussions were perfunctory at best, and the government's goal was not to challenge China but avoid provoking it.  Without pressure from human rights groups such as Free Tibet, there is a risk they would not have happened at all.

In March, the UK Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee published a report criticising ministers for appearing to "undermine" its human rights work by their actions and words in public. The committee quoted Free Tibet's evidence expressing concerns about ministers' failure to engage constructively.

Take action

The next UK-China Human Rights Dialogue is due to take place in coming weeks. If you are a British citizen, please contact the UK government to ask it to challenge China over torture in Tibet at the meeting.

If you are not a British citizen, pelase contact your own government and ask it to stand up for Tibet.