Letters: Chinese human rights

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The Independent Online

Sir: Your leading article (9 November) rightly notes the diminishing appetite on the part of the Government to confront China's record on human rights, but as important is the diminution of any moral authority to offer such criticism.

Mr Blair heads a government that is committed to undermining the rule of law by reference to national security to such an extent that not only have we been debating imprisonment without trial but also considering the use of evidence obtained by torture. National security is further used to justify a foreign policy which embraces the neo-conservative ideology of pre-emptive military action.

That President Hu Jintao would be justified in a smiling dismissal of any concerns over human rights should the Prime Minister raise them is the saddest reflection upon the moral and political failure of Mr Blair's premiership.



Sir: Having a mainland Chinese husband and having visited China many times and lived with family members, it is clear to me that Chinese people have freedom of speech, discuss politics in great detail and are very aware of the outside world. Many are highly educated and well informed. All these things happen without great access to foreign press or internet and even with so-called state propaganda. In short, the western press exaggerates the social and cultural conditions in China.

As for Tibet, I would suggest that people read about the repression of the Tibetan people by their own monks and the brutality of serfdom and slavery within former Tibetan society, which is very rarely talked about. As Great Britain considers a tiny patch of land in the Atlantic Ocean called the Falklands its property and was willing to fight for it, similarly China has always considered Tibet as part of its territory.

Standards of living have vastly improved in Tibet since the Chinese have been there and Tibetans follow their religion without any trouble - that is why so many tourists still go there and enjoy Tibetan culture.



Sir: I am dismayed at the lavish welcome extended to President Hu Jintao of China during his state visit. I find it wholly inappropriate that the leader of a nation with such a dubious record in human rights and environment issues should be afforded status and credibility by virtue of the British establishment's hospitality (paid for by the British public, of course).

I particularly object to national monuments of my democratic land being bathed in red light as a mark of respect for a dangerously flawed communist state. The sinister undertones of this display made me extremely uneasy - I wonder, have Tony's creative team been taking tips from Kim Jong-il?



Economic lessons of the French riots

Sir: In describing France's challenge as being to "create more bad jobs", Hamish McRae's article (9 November) is not only wrong but dangerous.

It is wrong because it misrepresents the UK's success on jobs, which has been to create more jobs at every level, not just at the bottom. Macroeconomic policies geared to steady expansion deserve the credit for that and the French should look to follow suit.

It is also wrong to associate bad jobs in the UK with competition from eastern Europe, India and China. Two thirds of the jobs in the UK in 2005 paying less than £6.50 an hour were in either hotels, restaurants or retail, or directly employed by the public sector. Low pay and poor conditions in these sectors have nothing to do with competition from abroad and it is within our power as a society to change this situation if we wish.

Where Mr McRae's advice is dangerous is for France itself. France needs to address the deprivation and discrimination that lie behind the riots. Far from doing that, however, creating "bad jobs for bad teenagers" would just entrench them further.



Sir: I was impressed by Paul Vallely's informative views on the relationship between race, culture, religion and the state ("What the French could learn from Moss Side", 8 November).

His remark about the need to avoid importing religious leaders "who don't know the difference between Pakistani values and Islamic ones" is particularly insightful. Lacking awareness of the people and culture which surround them, such leaders fail to connect with the youth, who in turn may fall prey to extreme ideas.

Where religious leaders have both a native and Islamic education, as in Leicester for example, the community around them is considerably more achieving and less volatile than other disaffected Muslim communities. The fact that Leicester enjoys excellent inter-religious and inter-racial relationships is evidence of this.



Sir: Thanks to Paul Vallelly for a welcome reaffirmation of multiculturalism as the best approach to integration. As a Liberal Democrat I would however quibble with his description of its critics as "muscular liberals". Many on the right who never accepted the concept (for reasons not dissimilar to French assimilationist doctrine), and those on the left who have now abandoned it, never really grasped the notion of "multiple identities".

Thus the right clung to an idea of Middle English homogeneity while the left, often patronisingly and risking fragmentation, emphasised only the differences of ethnic and religious minorities.

True Liberals appreciate that we all possess several identities, all of which need to be respected and given space. If that happens, we are able to find an overarching unity because each person feels valued and included rather than being told they have to sacrifice part of themselves.

Incidentally, this is the key not only to minority integration at a domestic level but also to an acceptance of European integration. A European identity adds to other layers of identity, it does not steal or negate them.



Sir: Your front page article on the rioting in France (7 November) was typically eye-catching, yet equally misleading. For to question the French idea of "liberty" by citing the case of the "French Muslims banned from wearing headscarves in school" is to disregard the historical and political context in which this decision was taken.

In 1905 a law was passed in France separating the church from the state and its functions, stating that "the Republic neither recognises, nor salaries, nor subsidises any religion". The explicit aims were, and still are, to protect the neutrality of the state and allow for free exercise of religion. In other words, to actually protect the idea of "liberty".



The myth of free university education

Sir: It is unfortunate that Cherie Blair perpetuates the myth that free university education was a great social triumph ("Now Cherie Blair criticises husband's education policies", 8 November). When Mrs Blair went to university, barely 10 per cent of school leavers, however talented, went to university. For every lucky student from a poor background, there were dozens of others not so fortunate. Keeping university free for the lucky few meant keeping student numbers small.

The UK has one of the most poorly educated workforces in the OECD, and the highly regressive policy of free university must take some of the blame: it lavished spending on a fortunate few at the expense of the many.

There is an intelligent debate to be had about the appropriate mix of tuition fee, government support and philanthropy for funding universities. Harking back to a mythological education golden age is not a way to start.



Sir: I have to agree with Cherie Blair's view of fees for higher education. Like her I benefited from a grant and have put my education to good use.

The fundamental absurdity of the current situation is that the eligibility of a student for support is determined by the means of the parents, who may nevertheless feel unable to contribute to the cost of university, the liability for which falls upon the destitute student, whether now or later. Will enhanced earnings ever repay the investment when 50 per cent go to university? Some courses are of very poor quality indeed.

As a trustee of a local education charity, I see this happening with increasing frequency, and it will undoubtedly get worse when the higher fees come on stream next year. Instead of higher education being provided for those best able to benefit themselves and society, we now have selection of those most able and/or willing to pay.



Biofuel distracts us from real solutions

Sir: The revolution at the pumps Michael McCarthy predicts (7 November) is not as desirable to greens as one might suppose. The argument for biofuels as originally proposed is sound: we produce waste biomass so let's use it for heating. It is even arguably carbon-neutral. The problem comes in regarding biofuel as a panacea to our quandary: lifestyle or habitable environment? Such comfort deflects focus from truly sustainable solutions.

There are further problems. Simply meeting the EU target of 20 per cent biofuel by 2020 has been shown to require almost all of our arable farmland. Any British-grown food replaced by biomass crops will require an imported equivalent. This will add to the transport emissions we are trying to reduce while destroying traditional farming communities.

Growing rape (the optimal biofuel crop) with the intensity modern farming dictates requires large amounts of nitrogenous fertiliser. Six tonnes of greenhouse gases are produced for every tonne of a fertiliser which also causes the soil to release nitrous oxide, 310 times more potent than CO2 in causing global warming.

Far from being the cure, biofuels could end up being part of the problem. The Green Party agrees with using waste biomass for fuel, but not with becoming dependent on it as a fuel, especially given the Chief Scientific Adviser's predictions on increasing weather severity and the corresponding implications for crop yield.



Exams out of date in age of Google

Sir: The letters page of The Independent has recently been peppered with correspondence emphasising that exams test knowledge to a degree that coursework does not. This seems to be a based on a misunderstanding of the roles of examination and coursework.

Throughout my education in British state schools the relative weight of coursework increased as I got older until examination disappeared completely during my MA. I was always led to believe that this was because exams test remembered knowledge, whilst coursework tests the development of skills with which knowledge may be interpreted, adapted and put to some useful purpose.

In an age of calculators long division becomes less of a priority. In an age of Google a near-photographic memory becomes less of a priority. The skills that lead to understanding will, on the other hand, never go out of fashion.



No Basra 'no-go' areas

Sir: It is entirely wrong for you to claim that a deteriorating security situation has created "no-go" areas for Coalition forces operating in the Iraqi city of Basra ("Basra bomb kills 20 as Iraq violence escalates", 1 November). British and Coalition troops under my command continue to operate throughout the city, and do not shirk from providing support to the Iraqi security forces wherever and whenever necessary.



Hunt law flouted

Sir: I can't be the only person who is appalled at the deliberate flouting of the anti-hunting legislation. And many of us must believe that if a similar taunting of the authorities was being done by ordinary people living on the country's estates then the police and other authorities would come down on them like a ton of bricks. The fact that many of them are well off and have access to clever lawyers will ensure that they continue to try and challenge the will of Parliament until they are stamped down on.



Sir: In our sterile, cling-wrapped world images of a beautiful fox been killed by a pack of hounds fuel vehement passion - mainly among those who know nothing about hunting. The unpalatable fact for the protesters is that foxes are vermin and will be controlled by one means or another by farmers protecting their land and livestock. Foxes shot in the jaw or leg die a slow painful death of starvation or gangrene. Hunting with hounds means the fox dies quickly or gets away. There is no middle way.



The Dawkins problem

Sir: Dr Milton Wainwright (letter, 9 November) suggests that Richard Dawkins' writings are intolerant of religion. To describe his writings as intolerant misses the point. The problem Dawkins presents for believers is that his arguments and evidence reduce religious belief to the superstition, ritual and tribalism that it really is. He does so with such devastating efficiency that believers are left looking a bit stupid. That's merely stating his case well, not intolerance.



Political rhetoric

Sir: So over the weekend Arnold Schwarzenegger "was assailed again and again by ordinary voters who accused him of wrapping a highly partisan Republican agenda in deceptive pseudo-populist language" ("The Governator loses the populist touch", 8 November). Well, at least the Californian educational system is working.