Letters: China's human rights

China makes impressive progress towards freedom
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Readers would conclude from your account that the country remains a totally repressive society, unable to consider questions of democracy and freedom openly. They would not know that the Chinese government has recently published a thoughtful white paper, "Building of Political Democracy in China". I have just given lectures on democracy and freedom in two Chinese universities and had very open discussions of these issues with scholars and students.

Pollution has been reduced considerably in recent years in many big cities and in the formerly heavily polluted area of the north-east. There are also huge re-forestation schemes and much of the country's energy needs are being supplied by clean hydro-electric power.

In terms of freedom of religion, I have visited a number of Christian churches and numerous Buddhist and Taoist shrines. I have been in Tibetan houses where portraits of the Dalai Lama and Chairman Mao sit side by side with the Panchen Lama in the family shrine. There is little or no evidence of repression.

I have seen a China largely free of drugs (including alcohol), violent crime (very few guns) and pornography. It has just abolished all taxes on the huge peasantry, and the ethnic minority groups in most areas are extremely well integrated, with their wealth growing faster than the Han majority. It is building an impressive (and largely free) educational system, and spreading healthcare to the remotest villages. It has a road-building programme to link every village and a stupendous electrical and telecommunications network, which means broadband, television and mobile phones are found almost everywhere.

China has many problems and much remains to be done. But when we compare the progress in China with the chaos, crime and violence of the transition from communism in the former Soviet Union, it is difficult not to be impressed by the subtle and successful transformation.



Sir: Laura McLeod Ji (Letters, 10 November) states that "Tibetans can follow their religion without any trouble". Having travelled in Tibet and spent much time with exiled monks and nuns in India, I was quite surprised to read this statement.

How is it that possessing a photograph of the Dalai Lama is an offence in Tibet? Why would so many monks and nuns make perilous escapes into exile if they could freely practise their religion? Monasteries are regularly visited by "patriotic re-education teams", whose purpose is to erode the influence of the Dalai Lama. The 11th Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, is only 16 years old, but he has been in Chinese custody for more than 10 years. Monks and nuns are still held as political prisoners and tortured for their beliefs.

If this isn't "trouble", then what is?



Don't throw away hard-won liberties

Sir: After reading the moving account of the young couple falling in love during the Great War (10 November), I am amazed at the hysteria surrounding the Terrorism Bill. We should be ashamed.

The chances of being personally involved in a terrorist outrage are remote. We are far more likely to have a road traffic accident. On this weekend, when we remember the fallen of two world wars, it would do us good to reflect on the perils they faced. Because of them, we have free speech, the rule of law and parliamentary democracy.

Let's show our appreciation of their sacrifice. We must defend our civil liberties at all costs. Don't let a few fanatical terrorists panic us into throwing that away. Freedom has its price.



Sir: Three people have been released by the Iranian authorities after spending 13 days detained without charge, and the Foreign Office has expressed its disapproval to the government of Iran. Could you confirm which Foreign Office that would be? Presumably not the one headed by Jack Straw, who flew home from abroad this week solely to vote in favour of people being detained for 90 days without charge because 14 days is insufficient?



Sir: It is deeply disturbing that Tony Blair genuinely believes he and his Cabinet are better able to represent the will of the people than their elected representatives. Does he ever listen to what he's saying and what it implies for the way in which he would like this country to be governed?



Sir: From my perch here in the US, I've watched with some amusement - and envy - the debate raging in the UK over holding terror suspects for 90 days.

Our government has no such qualms. The White House decided after 9/11 that in these "extraordinary" times it should have the power to hold suspects indefinitely, without bringing charges or granting them access to lawyers, families or friends. Not only that, it directed the CIA to establish a network of secret camps abroad, so brutal interrogations could be conducted away from the prying eyes of the public, Congress, the media and human rights organisations.

Not to minimise the passions or consequences of your recent battle over rights, but at least you had the debate. Here, we weren't even consulted.



Sir: Earlier this week, the Chancellor and the Foreign Secretary were expected to abandon overseas trips and fly back to London at considerable expense to be present in person to vote on the latest Terrorism Bill.

In the 21st century, with all its sophisticated communications technology, isn't it time lobby voting was replaced by secure digital voting? Members anywhere in the world could take part, eliminating the need for a return from important meetings, and seriously ill members would not need to be summoned from their sick-beds.



Sale of wild birds should be banned

Sir: It is astonishing that Willem Wijnstekers, head of the CITES Secretariat (letter, 4 November), appears to be promoting the continuation of the trade in wild caught birds, despite worrying questions about disease, conservation damage and animal welfare highlighted recently.

Mr Wijnstekers is right that the RSPB is motivated by a desire to see the ban on wild bird imports made permanent. His argument for continuing this trade is based on a presumption that catching wild birds for export to the EU benefits both poor communities and bird conservation. Laudable theory, but where is this happening in practice? We know of no such cases anywhere in the world concerning the bird trade.

The RSPB has always supported CITES and indeed it has been an important agreement for world conservation. But is it enough, as Mr Wijnstekers claims? Given the damage the trade does to bird populations in exporting countries, the dangers to our native species and indeed our economy from traded species that escape and establish themselves in the wild in importing countries, the risks of bringing disease into Europe, the costs of trying to regulate this trade and the lack of any conservation benefits, RSPB indeed thinks a ban would be the better way forward. The onus would be on the exporters and bird dealers to prove that taking wild birds for the pet trade is actually beneficial for the conservation of that species, not for under- resourced conservationists to prove that it is not.



Army morale has not been 'shattered'

Sir: I must challenge the view of retired Captain Christopher Horsford (Letters, 8 November) that the Army's morale has been "shattered" and that post-tour operational leave has been stopped.

According to a recently published anonymous survey of the serving Army (Army Continuous Attitude Survey, 2004), 91 per cent of officers and 92 per cent of soldiers rated their own morale average or high. A noteworthy 95 per cent of officers and 72 per cent of soldiers also rated their working life as satisfying or more satisfying than their civilian peers.

Post-operational tour leave also remains. Soldiers receive four weeks after a six-month operational tour, in addition to their normal 30 days of annual leave.

General Sir Mike Jackson, the Chief of the General Staff, recently told the BBC that his current "sense of the Army, not only in Iraq but in general, is of a very professional and determined organisation who do absolutely fantastic work and are admired not only throughout this country but throughout the world".

Our soldiers are busy, but they continue to perform with honour at home and on operations around the world.



Families coping with disabled children

Sir: I agree with Mary Harris (letter, 4 November) about the desperation of families who have severely disabled children. I write from the standpoint of a retired paediatric psychiatrist with a continuing interest in the sleep disorders of disabled children.

Mary Harris suggests that more research is needed into the lives of devoted mothers such as Mrs Markcrow. Research since the 1960s has repeatedly confirmed the desperation of families with severely disabled children. They suffer high rates of mental and physical illness, marital stress and breakdown and financial hardship.

Many of the needs of these families are recognised, but the resources (such as respite centres) are not there to meet them. The hands of middle management in health, education and social services are financially tied. Parents frequently face serious behavioural problems during the day. When these are followed, as they often are, by sleep disturbances, parental suffering ensues. Night after night and the damage is considerable, to both parents and child.

North of the border, a charitably funded organisation, Sleep Scotland, has been training sleep counsellors for work in this field, as well as providing help for families. Its approach lessens stresses and is valued by parents. When the trained counsellors return to their own healthcare, educational or social work departments, difficulties can arise in obtaining time, clinic rooms and the like to carry out this specialised work.

The burden of a severely disabled child impacts painfully on family life. We now have a senior politician (David Cameron) who knows about this from the inside. He may be able to ring the bell that has so far only been heard faintly in the distance.



Atheism, dogma and intolerance

Sir: Dr Milton Wainwright's letter (9 November) appears to confuse rationalist argument with dogmatic intolerance. For all I know, Richard Dawkins is planning to distribute missionary shoeboxes to the poor this Christmas, go door to door with The Selfish Gene, or stone a few Creationists, but to date I am not aware that he has either proselytised or persecuted religious believers.



Sir: Steve Hynes (Letters, 10 November) writes that Richard Dawkins leaves believers looking stupid. Dawkins also is a believer. He believes that all living creatures are descended from a single common ancestor, which was rather like a bacterium and lived 4,000 million years ago.



Ministerial halfwits

Sir: Philip Hensher, commenting on Sir Christopher Meyer's book (9 November), indicates that he'd rather civil servants didn't describe existing ministers as halfwits until a reasonable period has passed. I'd rather they told us at once, so that the minister in question could be replaced by someone who was capable of doing their job.



The evils of avarice

Sir: In "Top independent schools broke the law to fix fees" (10 November), Ampleforth College tops the list. My reading of the Rule of St Benedict, chapter 57, has it that the craftsmen of the monastery (in this case, the school) must always ensure that: "The evil of avarice must have no part in establishing prices, which should always be a little lower than those outside the monastery so that in all things God may be glorified."



Blair's a poor performer

Sir: I am always astonished when people in the media say that Tony Blair has "performed well under pressure". As one who has shared stages with some of our finest actors, I have to say that Blair's performances are atrocious: predictable, overheated, empty, repetitive, mannered and pretentious. There are great performers on all sides of the House of Commons, William Hague being the best and the late Robin Cook a close second. The Prime Minister, though, might just rate a walk-on in Brookside.



A change in the weather

Sir: With dire warnings of global warming, melting ice-caps, one of the warmest Octobers on record, followed by a November with trees still largely green, some flowers out and temperatures more like September, can someone please explain why forecasters have warned us of one of the bitterest winters for decades? Since seasons seem to be slipping by about two months, can we expect a cold snap in May?



Wrong diagnosis

Sir: Patricia Hewitt claims that GPs' surgery opening hours are inconvenient and make doctors inaccessible to patients. Perhaps she would like to explain why my surgery and those of every GP I know are always full.