China

UK politician's Tibet visit under fire

  • 14 August 2014
  • From the section China
Lord Davidson, Member, House of Lords, United Kingdom
Lord Davidson is a Labour party front-bencher in the House of Lords, the UK's upper house

Given that the UK Labour Party says that it is "deeply concerned" about the human rights situation in Tibet, it might seem odd that one of its senior politicians is in Lhasa at all.

The Fourth Forum on the Development of Tibet, taking place in the Tibetan capital this week, is a Communist Party-run symposium and therefore an unavoidably political affair.

But Lord Davidson of Glen Clova, a Labour party front-bencher in the House of Lords, is not only in attendance but happy it seems to sing the praises of Beijing's economic policies.

"It's very clear that the investment that has been put into Tibet has raised the standards of living of people here quite remarkably," he is seen on camera telling a journalist from Chinese state-run media.

"I was hearing about the doubling, more or less, of the longevity of the population," he goes on.

"These are remarkable accomplishments achieved in a very short time."

Free Tibet demonstrators protest during a visit by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to Downing Street in London 17 June 2014
The Free Tibet group say Chinese migration into Tibet has marginalised Tibetans

His comments have been met by astonishment by Free Tibet, a UK-based group that campaigns for an end to what it calls China's occupation of Tibet.

"If the reports are accurate," it said in a statement, "Lord Davidson should have acquainted himself with the facts before regurgitating China's propaganda on Tibet."

"Economic development in Tibet is far from what it seems from the window of a car or a plush meeting room in Lhasa."

The group's lengthy statement goes on to make the case that mass Chinese immigration has, rather than being beneficial to the population, shut Tibetans out of their own economy, leading for example, to high rates of child malnutrition.

The BBC has been unable - either through the Labour Party or through Lord Davidson's legal practice in Scotland - to contact him to seek a clarification of his comments.

A Labour Party spokesman said he did not think the Shadow Advocate General for Scotland was at the Lhasa conference in an official Labour Party capacity, although at the time of writing he too had been unable to reach him.

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The Tibet Divide

  • China says Tibet has always been part of its territory
  • Tibet had long periods of autonomy
  • China launched a military assault in 1950
  • Opposition to Chinese rule led to a bloody uprising in 1959
  • Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled to India
  • Dalai Lama now advocates a "middle way" with Beijing, seeking autonomy but not independence

The Tibet issue: Two views

Inside Tibet

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It is, however, clear from the Chinese state-TV video footage that Lord Davidson at least makes one reference to his Labour Party connections in his speech to the conference.

Even more controversial than his remarks made on camera though, are the further quotes attributed to him by the Chinese print media.

"Many western reports are written by enthusiasts of the Dalai Lama," the state-run China Tibet Online quotes Lord Davidson as saying.

"And they may feel uncomfortable when their presumptions or assumptions are challenged," the quote continues. "It is uncomfortable and expensive to have their prejudice challenged."

The article goes on to claim that, in Lord Davidson's view, the high cost of travel to Tibet is one reason why the "profit-making" western media chooses not to report from the region.

The true reason, of course, is that China has in effect completely banned foreign journalists from visiting Tibet at all, let alone carrying out any kind of independent journalism there.

The Free Tibet director, Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren, is incensed.

Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama speaks to devotees before he teaches on the fourth day of Kalachakra near Leh, India, Sunday, July 6, 2014
The exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, leads a government-in-exile in India

"If these reports are true," she says, "there is no excuse for Lord Davidson's ignorance and naivety in giving a propaganda gift to the Chinese regime."

"If he has, in addition, chosen to stay silent on China's oppression and human rights abuses in Tibet, the Labour Party should take him off the front bench."

Of course until we hear from Lord Davidson himself it is impossible to know if he was quoted out of context.

It would certainly not be at all unusual for Chinese state media to quote selectively, or even embellish and distort, for propaganda purposes.

But given that this is a widely-known fact it seems even more extraordinary that a Labour Party politician and a QC listed by his own chambers as having some experience of Chinese law as well expertise in "public law, judicial review and human rights" would appear oblivious to that danger.

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