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Monday, 16 September 2002
Page: 4141

Senator PAYNE (4:58 PM) —I have listened with interest to a great deal of the discussion and debate this afternoon on this urgency motion relating to Li Peng. My interest is made more acute in many ways by the fact that in recent times I have been honoured to chair the Human Rights Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade—as you would know, Mr Acting Deputy President Ferguson, being the chair of the joint committee. In that role, in August I had the opportunity to participate in the last round of the Australia-China human rights dialogue held here in Canberra with Chinese Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Wang Guangya. That has in many ways refined, if you like, my attention to some of these matters. I think it is imperative that a discussion of genuinely held human rights concerns be held in this chamber, in the other place and in the Australian community in general. There are issues that I suspect we pay inadequate attention to at the best of times. I know that Senator Harradine, as a regular and fervent supporter of the work of the subcommittee, would possibly agree with that.

In this debate, though, I do see a very important difference between some of the discussions that have been held and my own view. In some ways I think it is very important to take an approach of positive engagement as a way of going about business in this area. Since 1997 we have engaged in a constructive human rights dialogue that has shown manifest and palpable progress in how we are dealing with the issue and how the Chinese government is responding to that. I took part in the human rights dialogue this year, and that was the first opportunity I have had to do that. Many senators would know that my predecessor, Peter Nugent, who was the Chair of the Human Rights Subcommittee, was a Sinophile of no small order and a person with a great commitment to human rights who has participated in the dialogue on previous occasions.

These are not easy programs to put together and they are not easy to construct so that they do make a real impact. I was very interested to see how the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade went about doing that. Through the Deputy Secretary, Alan Thomas, through Murray McLean, Kyle Wilson and their teams, I think it is important to acknowledge the effort that they put into making those programs work. When we sat down to discuss these matters across the table, there were a number of issues in the back of my mind. In fact, 4 June 1989 is one of those dates which one remembers in life. It is one of those dates when you remember where you were when you heard about the events of Tiananmen Square—I certainly do. I know exactly where I was and I know exactly the response that was felt in my heart and my mind to those appalling events.

I think that Senator Ludwig made some very valuable points in his remarks. Through some of the processes that we have undertaken, there have been changes and genuine advances on the Chinese side—many of which many members of this parliament may say are inadequate and many of which many members of this parliament say do not even come close, but they are changes and they are positive ones. They have made some constructive differences to the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese people.

At the same time in the human rights dialogue we discussed at length the treatment of women and children. For example, it came to my attention for the first time in that dialogue that the suicide rate of women in China is one of the highest, if not the highest, in the world. It involves hundreds and hundreds of women taking their lives each day. It occurs for reasons I have not yet had an opportunity to explore in any meaningful way, but I hope I will have a chance to—reasons which are not explained to us and which are not apparent to me. Those sorts of issues were raised and discussed.

I think the minister acknowledged in his press statement after those discussions that for the first time, in response to Australia raising individual cases with China, the Chinese provided a detailed account of each of the cases. But of the 25 cases raised on that day, six people involved had already been released from prison and one had had her sentence remitted. There is much further to go—even that leaves 19 more people. That is still not enough but it is some change. The activities that are pursued under the human rights technical program—and we have announced a new set of activities for 2002-03—are very important to the people of China in being able to progress this process. I think the discussion this afternoon has been a constructive one and I am glad to have had the opportunity to participate.(Time expired)