Since being elected MP for Hove and Portslade I’ve been asked to go on quite a few foreign visits but I’ve not seen the value to my work in our city so turned them down.
That was until just before Christmas when I got a call asking if I’d take part in a delegation to China as part of the follow-up from President Xi’s state visit. I said yes straight away!
I’m lucky because I’ve travelled a lot. I was an aid worker for almost a decade, spent months in South America when I was a student at Sussex University, making the most of those summer holidays, and academic research I did took me to Africa for long periods of time. All of these experiences have given me a good grounding for life as an MP at a time when Britain is finding its way in a fast-changing world.
But I’ve never been to China. The size and scale of their country, population, and economy makes them the single biggest force for global change in the foreseeable future and that includes direct opportunities and challenges for us in Brighton and Hove too so I leapt at the chance to take part in the delegation.
They work you hard on these trips! We had half an hour to freshen up after the flight and then we went into our fist set of meetings. Each day we met different delegations representing different aspects of life, from political figures to business and academic, usually in very formal meetings. Over lunch and dinner the conversations carried on but were a much better time to get stuck into meaty and more challenging conversations than the very formal sessions.
On the second day a staff organiser for the visit took me to one side. She said a group of LGBT activists had requested to meet with me while I was in Beijing and asked if I wanted to meet them in a bar when we finished work that evening.
Too right I did! Our visit had been covered by Chinese media and one of the activists realised I was an openly gay politician and wanted to meet to discuss LGBT issues.
It was great to escape the formal events and jump into a cab to Beijing’s Old Town, where we walked through beautiful and atmospheric side streets filled with small shops and bars. There, in a really lovely bar, I spent the evening listening, learning, and talking with a truly inspirational group of Chinese LGBT activists.
China’s human rights record has a lot to be desired so I was so keen to hear first hand where the fight for equality had reached. The first thing I learned was that most of the people I was sitting with had been arrested or detailed, one for almost 6 months, for activism around LGBT issues. I was shocked.
I listened as the group told me about life, their ambitions and amazing achievements. However, knowing the hardship they have faced I actually became anxious when a lesbian couple began holding hands and openly showing love and affection. We were in a straight bar so wasn’t this going to trigger arrest?
Actually, nothing happened even though we were certainly being surveilled, and no-one else in the bar cared at all. Life went on just as it should. After all I’d heard, and expected, this surprised me.
When I asked more about what the activists were doing to get arrested things became clearer. Firstly they told me about China’s liberalising attitude forwards gay rights. They have set up an LGBT Centre, similar to our own Community Safety Forum in Brighton, with state approval.
There have been other steps in the right direction too, homosexuality has been decriminalised for example. Gay bars and clubs are not hidden away and are accepted, even though they suffer inexplicable closers, but apparently that’s normal for straight clubs too in China.
However, what becomes a real problem is when the activists try to organise. Handing out leaflets or posting online messages advertising gay support groups or drop-in sessions lands you in trouble.
I was told of one support group meeting they advertised where the police called and said “tomorrow’s meeting cannot go ahead”. The organiser said they are not interested in meaningless protest and want to work constructively with the state so agreed to cancel the meeting. At 1am that night doors were knocked on and all of the organisers of the meeting were detailed for 24 hours. The police wanted to make doubly sure the meeting wasn’t going ahead.
In a one-party state, the fear of civil society getting organised is all-pervasive and LGBT activism has been swept up in this paranoia. The day after our meeting I was told that there had been no repercussions for the activists due to our meeting, but the fact I was told that at all shows how far these brave campaigners have to go before they will enjoy the freedoms we have fought for and won in recent years.
I’m still in touch with the campaigners, they have just been granted permission to hold an international LGBT conference this year. I admire so much the smart way they work within strict perimeters of the Chinese system but always seem to manage to move things forward. I’ll be doing all I can to help them on that journey.
Peter Kyle was elected Labour MP for Hove & Portslade at the General Election in May 2015 with a majority of 1,236 and 42.3% of the vote.
You must be logged in to post a comment.