Dáil Éireann - Volume 494 - 07 October, 1998

Ceisteanna — Questions. - Official Engagements.

1. Proinsias De Rossa asked the Taoiseach if he will make a statement on his recent visit to China and his discussions with Chinese leaders; if he raised with them the matter of human rights in China; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17504/98]

[1246] 2. Proinsias De Rossa asked the Taoiseach if, during his recent visit to China, he sought the support of the Chinese Government for Ireland's election as a non-permanent member of the Security Council of the United Nations; the response he received to this; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17505/98]

3. Proinsias De Rossa asked the Taoiseach if he will make a statement on his discussions with the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Mrs. Mary Robinson, during his recent visit to China. [17506/98]

4. Mr. J. Bruton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to China and Hong Kong. [17563/98]

5. Mr. Higgins (Dublin West) asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meetings with the Chinese authorities. [17419/98]

The Taoiseach: I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, together.

My visit to China, from 14 to 18 September, had two main objectives: to strengthen bilateral political relations between our two countries and to promote Irish exports and business contacts in China. The visit was highly successful in both respects.

During my visit I met Premier Zhu Rongji on Monday, 14 September; President Jiang Zemin on Tuesday, 15 September; Mr. Xu Kuangdi, the Mayor of Shanghai, on Wednesday, 16 September; and Mr. Tung Chee Hwa, Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Government, on Friday, 18 September.

In addition to these meetings, I had a series of trade related meetings with a number of Chinese Ministers and with members of the Irish business community in China. I also had a brief meeting with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mrs. Mary Robinson, on Monday, 14 September. The Commissioner took the opportunity to brief me on her visit to China and, particularly, her visit to Tibet and subsequent meeting with President Jiang Zemin.

I discussed a number of issues during my lengthy meeting with Premier Zhu on 14 September, including Sino-Irish economic relations, China's application to accede to the World Trade Organisation, Ireland's candidature for the UN Security Council, the Northern Ireland peace process and the human rights situation in China.

With regard to human rights, the main points I raised with Premier Zhu and President Jiang are best outlined in a speech I gave to the Foreign Service College in Beijing, copies of which have been laid before the House. I expressed my satisfaction at the progress being made in the context of EU-China human rights dialogue and urged the Chinese Government to proceed as quickly as possible with the ratification of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and sign and ratify the International [1247] Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. I am delighted the Chinese Government signed this covenant yesterday without reservation. I also reiterated the willingness of the Government and our partners in Europe to assist China in whatever way we can to build and develop new structures to assist in the democratisation of Chinese society and the application of the rule of law.

With regard to Tibet, I referred to my deep concern at the reported human rights abuses and proposed to the Chinese authorities that they should be willing to talk directly to the Dalai Lama as a means of resolving the issue. I mentioned the deep interest of Members of the Oireachtas and the public in the situation in Tibet. I drew parallels with what had been achieved in the Northern Ireland peace process as a result of the willingness of all the participants to talk to, and negotiate with, all parties involved in the dispute.

China's support for our candidature for membership of the United Nations Security Council in 2001 was also raised and received positively by the Chinese side. Although there was no discussion on the EU's common foreign and security policy, I confirmed to Premier Zhu that the basic objective of the European Union is the preservation of peace and the strengthening of international security in accordance with the principles of the UN charter. This has always been and remains a core objective of Irish foreign policy.

From a trade perspective, the purpose of my visit was to open the door for Irish companies to do increased business and to seek support at the highest political level for greater trade between Ireland and China. I was accompanied during my visit by the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, who has responsibility for international trade, and by a large delegation representing 26 Irish companies drawn from the software, telecommunications, educational services and agrifood sectors. In addition, a number of State companies, Aer Rianta, Bord Bia and BIM, participated. There were more than 100 individual company to company meetings and I led business discussions with the Ministers for Information Technology, Agriculture and Education. I am pleased to announce that during my visit the Minister of State signed an air transport agreement on behalf of the Government. Irish companies in the aviation sector have enjoyed considerable success in China and I hope this agreement will facilitate further development of Sino-Irish relations in this area.

It is clear from subsequent discussions with members of the trade delegation that many companies received valuable and substantial exposure to potential Chinese clients and partners. They are satisfied with the access they gained to key buyers in both Chinese ministries and state companies. I am confident that, as a result of my visit, there will be a greater recognition within China of Ireland as a potential trading partner.

[1248] During my meeting with Premier Zhu I emphasised Ireland's commitment to develop trade relations over the long term. Premier Zhu indicated that he attached great importance to developing bilateral trade with Ireland. I am particularly pleased that the Chinese Government confirmed during my visit that it will send a trade delegation to Ireland within the next year and a large delegation to the 1999 world meat conference in Dublin.

The visit to China has reaffirmed the potential of this market for Irish goods and services. It is important that we now have a co-ordinated follow-up to the visit so that the progress we have made towards developing new business can be built upon. It is for this reason that I have asked for an Asia strategy group to be established to advise the Government on a coherent long-term market development strategy for the Asian region. By means of this strategy, through ongoing EU dialogue and future political level contact, our excellent Sino-Irish relations — political, economic and cultural — can be even further developed to the mutual benefit of both our peoples.

Proinsias De Rossa: It seems the Taoiseach's visit was a success. Did the Chinese authorities indicate support for Ireland's bid to secure a place on the Security Council of the United Nations? The Taoiseach indicated that their response was positive. Does that mean they will definitely support Ireland's bid? On human rights, did the Taoiseach raise the question of the use of the death penalty in China and highlight the fact that Ireland and many other European countries regard it as a barbaric method of dealing with breaches of the law? Did he raise the questions of freedom of speech and the right of groups to organise opposition parties in China?

The Taoiseach: Premier Zhu assured me that China would give our candidature serious and positive consideration. That cannot be taken as a definite “yes” as it has been the practice of the five permanent members of the Security Council not to state their position formally. Before leaving for China I met a number of organisations, including NGOs and the Tibet Support Group, and promised them I would raise the issues to which the Deputy referred. I raised numerous cases brought to my attention concerning the death penalty, the large number of people who disappear, poor conditions of detention and several other matters. Premier Zhu, in reply, did not deny any of those matters. He outlined to me the progress made and what they were attempting to achieve in these areas. I expressed strongly my own concern and that of the Government about these issues. While I was in China I could see that many of these problems continually occur, including house arrests and people disappearing.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which gives some freedom to the press as well as the right of assembly, was a major issue [1249] in all the newspapers both in Beijing and Shanghai. The Chinese authorities signed that covenant yesterday but there continues to be a difficulty in regard to people having the right of assembly or being involved in protest organisations. To give any other impression would be wrong. It remains to be seen whether the covenant will have the desired effect, although the people involved in the human rights area believe it will. They urged me to press China to sign the covenant along with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It will be a matter for the EU and all of us to continue to monitor this issue as we go forward.

Mr. J. Bruton: The Taoiseach will remember there was a considerable problem some years ago about the condition of children in orphanages in China, particularly girls. Did the Taoiseach raise this matter and will he give an indication of how matters have progressed?

The Taoiseach: That problem was mentioned to me also. I was told that the problem had improved substantially but had not been resolved. I raised the matter again and asked that the problem be addressed and the response was that some years ago there was no regulatory system of any kind. I understand the authorities are trying to put in place such a system. When I met Premier Zhu at the ASEM Summit in April and again on this visit he appeared to be endeavouring to press forward on all these human rights issues. My impression is that in some regions these issues have been regulated successfully but that may not be the case in others.

The Premier emphasised that he believed this was a long-term process and said that until 1990 they had spent 1,000 years trying to move towards a particular position. His generation accepts democracy and the Premier appeared to be doing his utmost to implement changes. This is being done province by province and it is only fair to reflect that. It would be an impossible task to implement such changes throughout the entire country with a population of 1.3 billion, but one gets the impression that substantial progress is being made in some provinces.

Proinsias De Rossa: Did the Taoiseach or the Chinese authorities raise the issue of the economic turmoil in Asia, the impact of that on China and its efforts to modernise its society by way of producing food and clothing for its massive population? Did the Chinese authorities request the Taoiseach to use Irish influence within the international fora of which we are members as a means of aiding China to overcome the current economic turmoil affecting virtually all countries in that area of the world?

The Taoiseach: I had many discussions on this issue, not so much with the President but with the Premier, the Mayor of Shanghai and people in the stock exchange. It is their primary consideration [1250] because there are problems with all the Asian economies. Japan is considered to be in its sixth year of recession and Korea is currently experiencing a major problem. Singapore appears to be the only country with which they are operating whose problems have diminished somewhat. It does not have the same difficulty because of its strong position.

The major question for the financial markets is whether to devalue, which would create enormous difficulty not only for the economy in that area but also for the United States and other countries which have pressed China to protect its currency. The Premier knew I would be meeting members of the financial press in Hong Kong and I felt he wanted to signal clearly to me that they had no intention of devaluing in the short or medium term. Nobody can speak about the long-term but that was his position. That has been a costly strategy but the Chinese see it as their policy of stability for the entire region.

In regard to food and clothing, since the land was given back to the people a co-operative system has been in operation. There is a levy on what people produce so if they over-produce, which is what they all do, they can make a profit. That is a total change from the previous system. The agricultural population, which is approximately 900 million people, works extremely hard so there is an over-supply of food. Feeding its 1.3 billion people is no longer a problem for China. Its problem is trying to get markets for the surplus. This issue upsets them greatly because they believe that until the World Trade Organisation and Neil Kinnock, who represents the EU in this matter and with whom I had discussions before I travelled to China, resolve these problems, they will continue to experience difficulties although they do not deny it is a two-way process. These issues will be addressed again this autumn by Commissioner Kinnock and others.

Mr. Higgins (Dublin West): It was reported in the media that while in Beijing the Taoiseach was received by the Chinese Government in Tiananmen Square, which was sealed off by the security forces. Did the Taoiseach not feel a deep sense of shame that he was being feted by the same Stalinist regime in the same square controlled by the same military which, only nine years ago, butchered thousands of students and workers campaigning for the most basic democratic rights? Even if the Taoiseach believed it was correct to go to China, which I do not believe it was, should he not have boycotted that particular place——

An Ceann Comhairle: The Deputy seems to be making a statement rather than asking a question.

Mr. Higgins (Dublin West): I am asking the question.

[1251] An Ceann Comhairle: The Deputy is making a statement which is not permissible during Question Time.

Mr. Higgins (Dublin West): No more than Deputies Bruton and De Rossa, in fairness, but I seem to get——

Mr. J. Bruton: My questions are a model of brevity.

Mr. Higgins (Dublin West): ——the short end of the stick every time. Did the Taoiseach not feel he should have sought to lay a wreath in Tiananmen Square in memory of the martyrs? What kind of signal does the Taoiseach think is sent to the Chinese authorities by high powered deputations from European states like Ireland going cap in hand to China for trade benefits and commercial gains while appalling human rights abuses continue? The Chinese authorities might take the message that such deputations are there for commercial gain despite the fact that democratic rights are denied across the board in China, and that such gain means more to the deputations than the democratic rights of the Chinese people. Does the Taoiseach agree this is a serious question that should be asked by state representatives like himself before visiting China?

The Taoiseach: Countries did not send delegations to China in the years after the Tianamen Square and other human rights incidents, but that did not improve human rights issues there by one iota. Since 1986 there has been an improvement in relations between the EU and China and the Chinese Administration has made significant advances, particularly under Zhu Rongji, to improve the situation in Tibet and elsewhere. There are many regions where there have been deplorable human rights abuses in the past, but progress has been made, covenants have been signed and people have been released, though there is still a long way to go.

The Chinese represent 23 per cent of mankind. The civilised world believes it should have relations with them and should try to convince them of the error of their ways, moving with them in the advancement of progressive democratic policies and proper human rights. The President of the United States did so recently, and the United Kingdom Prime Minister is doing that this week.

Mr. J. Bruton: The French Prime Minister?

The Taoiseach: The French Prime Minister will go to China next week. All have raised the human rights issue. I understand that when human rights were raised with the Chinese in the past they did not respond. It is very different now; they explain their position and they have signed two covenants this autumn.

As to whether I thought of the horrors of another day while standing in Tianamen Square, yes, I did.

[1252] Mr. J. Bruton: I am glad the Taoiseach got a good response on human rights. When in his position I met Li Peng in Rome and raised the same issue. The response I got was not as forthcoming as the Taoiseach's appears to have been. I do not doubt there is an improvement in China.

Is the Taoiseach aware that China is selling missiles and missile technology to a number of countries and that some of these countries are acquiring nuclear weapons? The combination of long range missile capacity and nuclear power is potentially lethal for mankind. Did the Taoiseach raise the matter of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction with the Chinese leadership? This weaponry could be turned in any direction.

The Taoiseach: Yes, I raised this issue. While doing so I referred to a long discussion the Minister for Foreign Affairs had earlier this year with the Chinese on the same topic. I cannot be as certain about their future policy as I was on other issues; there may be contractual links involved. The President of the United States has been pressing the Chinese strongly on this matter and the British Prime Minister is to discuss it today. I am not sure what the Chinese will do in the future.

Mr. J. Bruton: Does the Taoiseach agree that while it is undesirable that any country has weapons of mass destruction, there is some chance of controlling the situation if the number of countries with such weapons is small? However, if a large number of countries have weapons of mass destruction and long range missiles, it becomes increasingly difficult to control the situation; it is like multi-dimensional chess. Does the Taoiseach agree that Europe should take this matter seriously because Europe is potentially threatened given the advances in long range missile technology?

The Taoiseach: It is for that reason that this development is such a threat. From EU briefings I understand the technology has advanced apace in the 1990s and that large proportions of these countries' budgets are being invested in the development of missiles. They then have to find outlets for what they have made. This has been discussed at the General Affairs Council on numerous occasions and the Minister for Foreign Affairs has raised this whenever he gets an opportunity because of his long opposition to this threat.