Benedict Rogers is the East Asia Team Leader at the international human rights organization CSW, the co-founder and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, the co-founder of the International Coalition to Stop Crimes against Humanity in North Korea, the co-founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch, and author of three books on Burma.
Two months ago I came face-to-face with the shrieking, ferocious, thuggish human face of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at the Conservative Party Conference.
As we were concluding a fringe meeting on Hong Kong hosted by the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission and Hong Kong Watch, Kong Linlin, a reporter for China Central Television (CCTV), the CCP’s propaganda arm, screamed abuse at me. It was yet another example of China’s “tantrum diplomacy”.
I had ended by saying that I am pro-China, even if I am critical of the regime. I have spent much of my life in China and I want China to succeed. But, I argued, it is in China’s interests for Hong Kong to succeed, so China must honour its promises to the people of Hong Kong.
With a venom which I have never before encountered, Ms Kong yelled out: “Liar, liar. You are anti-China. You want to divide China”. She continued to yell at me and our three speakers from Hong Kong – Martin Lee, founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, and Benny Tai and Nathan Law, leaders of the Umbrella Movement.
Then, when she refused to sit down, she slapped a young student, Enoch Lieu, three times after he politely asked her to leave. Part of the incident was captured on video and went viral. She was arrested and charged, although last week the Crown Prosecution Service dropped the charges.
After that experience, it was a shock to learn that CCTV is opening their largest media hub outside China in Chiswick next month, employing over 300 staff. The thought of hundreds of CCP agents roaming around Britain is alarming. Kong Linlin’s behaviour is part of the Chinese regime’s growing pattern of thuggery around the world, and it should not continue unchallenged.
That is why I was delighted when Peter Humphrey, a former Reuters journalist-turned-corporate investigator, filed a complaint last Friday with Ofcom. At a press conference after filing the complaint, Mr Humphrey was joined by Swedish human rights activist Peter Dahlin to launch a new report on China’s use of forced televised confessions, titled Trial by Media: China’s new show trials and the global expansion of Chinese media.
Humphrey and Dahlin have first-hand experience of the CCP’s most brutal behaviour. Both have been imprisoned in China – Humphrey and his wife for 23 months in a Chinese jail, Dahlin for 23 days in secret detention. Humphrey was forced to confess on television twice.
“They drugged me, locked me to a tiger chair, and placed me and the chair inside a small metal cage,” he says. “CCTV journalists then aimed their cameras at me and recorded me reading out the answers already prepared for me by the police. No questions were asked.” His confession was broadcast on CCTV, before his case had even come to trial.
Humphrey was subjected to a catalogue of abuse: an overcrowded cell, poor sanitary conditions, meagre food rations, sleep deprivation, separation from family, denial of legal representation or consular access for part of the time and denial of medical treatment for cancer. “The aggregate of these different types of duress adds up to what the UN would describe as torture,” he says.
Complicit in this torture was CCTV. In his complaint to Ofcom, Humphrey writes: “CCTV was working in active collusion with the police and the Chinese state”. Under duress, Humphrey was paraded on CCTV’s domestic and international broadcasts, “confessing” to crimes he had not yet been convicted of.
Seven years ago, Ofcom ruled that Iran’s Press TV was in violation of Britain’s Broadcasting Code for airing a forced televised confession. Press TV’s license in the UK was revoked. It was this precedent that prompted Humphrey to file a 17-page complaint with Ofcom, detailing 15 violations of the Broadcasting Code by CCTV.
Dahlin was subjected to psychological torture in secret detention. His organisation Safeguard Defenders has published two previous books – The People’s Republic of the Disappeared and Scripted and Staged: Behind the scenes of China’s forced televised confessions. Their new book, Trial by Media, provides analysis of CCTV’s key role in China’s apparatus of repression.
Forced televised confessions, filmed and broadcast by CCTV, are now commonplace in China. Typically, Dahlin explains, confessions fall into three categories – “defend”, “deny” or “denounce”. The person giving the statement must defend the CCP, deny any mistreatment, and denounce their own ‘crimes’ and the regime’s critics. Chinese-born Swedish citizen Gui Minhai, who was abducted from Thailand in 2015 and continues to be held in China, was forced to read a statement denouncing Sweden.
My own experience pales into insignificance compared to the trauma which these two men endured, and the even worse treatment to which Chinese detainees are subjected. All I have experienced is being denied entry to Hong Kong on Beijing’s orders, receiving seven rather absurd anonymous threatening letters to me, my neighbours, employers and mother, and a woman screaming at me. I didn’t even get slapped.
But what I have experienced gives me a glimpse into CCTV’s character and its relationship to the CCP, and what I have heard from these two brave men leaves me in no doubt that allowing CCTV to build its media centre in London without reference to our Broadcasting Code would be an appalling surrender of our values. When I asked Peter Humphrey what he made of Kong Linlin’s behaviour, he responded with stark clarity: “Kong Linlin’s conduct reminds me of the woman who interrogated me while I was strapped to a tiger chair in a small metal cage – a total viciousness that is in the bloodstream of the CCP.”
Yet it is important to emphasise that at the heart of this are the values that make Britain different from China. We believe in a free press. Strangely, after Kong Linlin was arrested by West Midlands Police, the Chinese Embassy tried to portray her as a victim, suggesting that her right to freedom of expression as a journalist was denied. In the next sentence, the Chinese Embassy demanded that the organisers of the meeting apologise, because apparently we have no right to discuss Hong Kong.
Without a hint of irony, the CCP defends the freedom of its representatives to assault people, but denies the freedom of expression of the co-signatory to the Sino-British Joint Declaration to discuss Hong Kong.
The truth is, if she had asked a question or made a comment, however hostile, in an appropriate manner, she would have been welcome to do so. And Dahlin is clear that the Ofcom complaint is not about trying to drive CCTV out or to “silence them,” even though most western media is banned in China. “This is not about revenge or retaliation,” he said. “On the contrary, we want them to participate in the conversation – but on the same rules as everybody else. We want this to influence their behaviour”. China, he adds, “should not be afforded special treatment”.
That is all that Humphrey and Dahlin seek. They want Ofcom to enforce its own Broadcasting Code, and act according to precedent. I hope Ofcom will respond accordingly. Broadcasters cannot be accomplices to torture.