A Former Governor, A Beauty Queen And The Daughter Of A Kidnapped Bookseller Go To Parliament: One Year On, China’s Human Rights Darkness Is Darker Still

Benedict Rogers Human rights activist and writer
Exactly a year ago, the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission published a report on China’s human rights crisis. The title, The Darkest Moment, came from the words of one Chinese dissident, Yang Jianli, who told us that “this is the darkest moment for Chinese human rights in years”. In the past twelve months, China has become darker still – as the mistreatment of Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo epitomises.
Our report was the result of an inquiry held to examine human rights in China during the period since Xi Jinping became President. It was held in light of the then British government’s talk of a ‘Golden Era’ in Sino-British relations, following President Xi’s State visit in October 2015 where he was feted and human rights were swept under the carpet.
We held two three-hour hearings in Parliament where we heard from ten witnesses, a mixture of Chinese activists and western experts. We also received over thirty written submissions. The report examines the spectrum of human rights concerns, from freedom of expression to freedom of religion or belief, from Tibet to Xinjiang to Hong Kong, from the crackdown on human rights lawyers to increased Internet censorship, from disappearances, abductions and torture to forced organ harvesting. It is a damning report. Without exception, every oral and written submission pointed to a bleak and deteriorating assault on human dignity. Prison sentences imposed on those convicted of particular political crimes are longer than previously seen, and the threshold of behaviour deemed “unacceptable” by the regime is lower. The abduction of activists outside China, the arrest and detention of foreign activists in China, the introduction of new and repressive laws restricting civil society, and the use of forced televised confessions are especially alarming.
We launched the report in the House of Commons with the former Governor of Hong Kong Lord Patten, the Chinese-born Canadian actress and beauty queen Anastasia Lin, and Angela Gui, daughter of the missing bookseller Gui Minhai. Lord Patten urged the British government to “take account” of our report, which he described as “a first class piece of work”. Former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind also endorsed the report, saying it is “excellent, professional and well-researched” and its recommendations are “spot on”.
So what were our recommendations? There are 22 of them, and they include a call on the United Kingdom to conduct a “thorough, comprehensive, open and radical review of British foreign policy towards China” and greater consultation with human rights organisations and benchmarks to measure progress in dialogues with China. We urged the British government to speak out publicly, as well as privately, to China on human rights, and to raise the cases of specific individuals imprisoned. We called for a review of the mechanisms for monitoring developments in Hong Kong under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a review of the role of Confucius Institutes in the West, China’s “soft power” propaganda machine embedded in universities around the world, and an international, independent inquiry into forced organ harvesting in China.
In the past year, while we have had a change of prime minister, foreign secretary and chancellor of the exchequer, little has changed in China. Lawyers and dissidents continue to disappear, churches continue to be raided, and Hong Kong’s freedoms are eroded. The election of pro-democracy candidates to Hong Kong’s legislative council was met with attempts to block them from taking their seats. Several of the organisers of the ‘Umbrella Movement’ of 2014, notably the student activist Joshua Wong, face court cases. Torture remains rampant in China’s jails.
Just one example of China’s brutality is the case of Sun Qian, a 51 year-old Canadian citizen who was arrested in February this year in Beijing simply because of her Falun Gong spiritual practice. Falun Gong is a peaceful Buddha-school spiritual practice, involving meditation and physical exercises, and their principles are truthfulness, compassion and forbearance”. Since 1999 Falun Gong has faced a brutal campaign of persecution by the Chinese Communist Party, which feels threatened by any movement that gathers millions of followers.
Chinese-born Sun Qian became a Canadian citizen ten years ago, but continued to do business in China. On 19 February police stormed into her home without a warrant, blindfolded her, and took her to a detention centre. Since then she has been tortured, locked in a small, dark room, pepper-sprayed in her face and eyes, and charged with “using a heretical organisation to undermine the law”.
Last week Anastasia Lin raised Sun Qian’s case at the UN Human Rights Council, and launched a petition for her release. But voices like hers are becoming increasingly rare, as member states line up to kowtow to China. In March only seven EU member states signed a statement about the torture of human rights lawyers in China. Earlier this month, Greece blocked an EU statement at the UN on China’s human rights record.
There are exceptions, however. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has made at least nine visits to China and on almost every visit has made it a point to meet dissidents and speak out about freedom and the rule of law. On at least one occasion Mrs Merkel spoke of the importance of “free dialogue” to enable citizens to “believe in the power of the law, not the law of the powerful.” She told China, “You need an open, pluralistic and free society in order to shape the future successfully. Germany’s President Joachim Gauck gave a speech in Shanghai in which he went as far as to condemn dictatorships and argued that “vibrant and active civil society always means an innovative and flexible society.”
As Leader of the Opposition in 2007, David Cameron spoke out along similar lines on a visit to China, and again as prime minister three years later. In 2008, as opposition leader, he met the Dalai Lama, and again in 2012 as prime minister, and refused China’s demands for an apology for doing so. Unfortunately, he changed course the following year after a temporary freeze in relations with China.
Lord Patten told a US Congressional hearing three years ago that “there is a very quaint notion that you can never disagree with China,” otherwise “you risk not being able to sell things to China, you risk doing damage to your economy.” Such a belief, he argued, is wrong. “It is ridiculous to suggest that any attempt to stand up for our values or for what we believe in means risking economic damage in our relationship with China”. In a Parliamentary hearing in 2014, Lord Patten claimed that Britain has “kept shtoom . . . in the bizarre anticipation that that would be the best way of developing our relationship with China.” It isn’t, he argued – it simply “encourages China to behave badly.”
When Xi Jinping visited Britain in 2015, James Macgregor, a Shanghai-based American businessman, was interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, and criticised the British government’s handling of the visit. “If you act like a panting puppy,” he said, “the object of your attention is going to think they’ve got you on a leash. China does not respect people who suck up to them.” David Cameron’s former adviser Steve Hilton was similarly critical, arguing that “kowtowing to China’s despots is morally wrong and makes no economic sense”.
We do not underestimate the importance of a relationship with China – economically and strategically, especially in the context of Brexit. Our argument is not that we should not engage with China. It is that in our engagement, we should not sacrifice our values, but put them centre-stage. I hope, a year after its publication, the current government will study our report seriously, implement its recommendations and listen to the voices of people like Lord Patten in shaping its China policy.