Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, a former parliamentary candidate, and co-founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch. He works for the international human rights organisation CSW.
Gavin Williamson, the Defence Secretary, is under fire for his speech at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) last week. Some see it as an attempt to undermine rivals, others as self-promotion, while many believe it reflects a lack of co-ordination in Whitehall.
Those still fixated on trade with China at all costs, including our security and values, and who believe the way to do deals with China is to kow-tow as low as possible, are furious that a colleague even mentioned China in the context of the defence of Britain.
Yet whatever the gossip, what should not be ignored is that Williamson has a point.
What was it he actually said about China? After referring to Islamist extremism and Russian aggression, he simply added one sentence: “All the while, China is developing its modern military capability and its commercial power.” Fact.
He went on, more generally and without reference to China, to say:
“Our adversaries are increasingly using cyber-attacks, subversion and information operations to challenge us and the rules-based international order… We and our allies must deter and be ready to defend ourselves. Ready to show the high price of aggressive behaviour”.
He spoke about defending our values of “individual liberty, the rule of law and, of course, the tolerance of others”. And he announced that one naval vessel – HMS Queen Elizabeth – will include in its first operational mission the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Pacific region. And all this sparked fury in Beijing and caused the Chancellor to cancel his planned visit? Seriously?
As John Hemmings writes, Williamson is right. But his words were mild, subtle and understated compared to those of others.
Listen to George Soros at the World Economic Forum, who described China’s Xi Jinping as “the most dangerous” threat to free societies today. Or Mike Pence, the US Vice-President, at the Hudson Institute last October. It is not often one hears the same message from Soros and Pence – so when we do, it should be taken seriously.
For far from being the new defender of the international rules-based system that some still naively believe it to be, Xi Jinping’s regime is increasingly a grave threat to freedom, human dignity, and security around the world.
The list is endless: artificial intelligence; sabre-rattling against Taiwan; aggression in the South China Sea; and Huawei’s potential antics are just the start. Former First Sea Lord and defence minister Lord West warned last year that Chinese investment in 5G technology could threaten “chaos”.
The way a government treats its own people is a reasonable barometer of its reliability as a strategic partner. For over three decades, as China opened up economically, many believed it would inch towards greater political openness. A decade ago there were hopes that the rule of law was developing in China, as space for a growing network of human rights lawyers expanded.
But since Xi Jinping came to power seven years ago, these hopes have been dashed. In 2015 Xi unleashed a massive crackdown against human rights lawyers, their families and associates, imprisoning or disappearing many. As we approach the thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, China is experiencing the worst crackdown since the tanks rolled over the students on June 4th 1989.
This crackdown is most egregious against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs in China’s north-western province of Xinjiang, where at least one million, perhaps as many as three million, have been incarcerated in political prison camps. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has described Xinjiang as:
“…a massive internment camp shrouded in secrecy, a “no rights zone”, while members of the Xinjiang Uyghur minority, along with others who were identified as Muslim, were being treated as enemies of the State based on nothing more than their ethno-religious identity.”
China’s state media has publicly stated that the goal in regard to the Uyghurs is to “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections and break their origins”. As the Washington Post put it in a recent editorial, “It’s hard to read that as anything other than a declaration of genocidal intent.” Earlier this month a group of human rights organisations called on the United Nations to establish an international fact-finding mission to investigate.
But while the crisis in Xinjiang is the most grave, other communities throughout China are facing massive repression too. Christians, for example, are facing the most severe crackdown since the Cultural Revolution, with thousands of crosses destroyed, churches forcibly closed, pastors jailed, children under the age of 18 prohibited by law from going to church, cameras placed on altars to monitor who attends services, and portraits of Xi Jinping being mounted in place of crucifixes or religious paintings.
Tibetans, practitioners of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, bloggers, journalists, and dissidents are facing a similar reign of terror.
An independent tribunal chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, the barrister who prosecuted Slobodan Milosevic, has concluded that China has conducted forced harvesting of human organs from prisoners of conscience on a mass scale.
And in the past five years, Xi Jinping’s regime has dramatically torn up its commitments to ‘one country, two systems’ for Hong Kong, mounting a severe campaign of repression of dissent and erosion of the city’s cherished basic freedoms. Peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators have been jailed, democratic legislators disqualified, Victor Mallet, the Financial Times’ Asia News Editor, expelled, and booksellers abducted. One of those booksellers, Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen kidnapped from Thailand, remains in captivity in China, and recently a bizarre episode involving an attempt by Sweden’s ambassador to China to threaten his courageous daughter, Angela Gui, into silence has been exposed – illustrating the lengths China’s regime is prepared to go to silence its critics, and the reach it clearly already has into western democratic systems.
China’s regime has already extended its tentacles far beyond its borders. It has launched a concerted attempt at the UN to redefine ‘human rights’ and suppress Non-Governmental Organisations. Chinese students have been ‘weaponised’ around the world to shut down critics. And a report into China’s Confucius Institutes, released today by the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, details the threats posed by these outposts of Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda department which are now embedded now in universities and schools in 146 countries. There are at least 29 Confucius Institutes in British universities today, and 148 Confucius ‘classrooms’ in schools around Britain, spreading the love of Chairman Xi.
New Zealand academic Anne-Marie Brady has experienced China’s aggression first-hand. Australian academic Clive Hamilton has documented China’s infiltration of Australian politics in an excellent book, Silent Invasion. The disappearance of several Canadians in China in the wake of the arrest in Canada of Huawei’s chief financial officer is a warning for us all. And while I have not experienced anything on that scale, I have been refused entry to Hong Kong, and received eight anonymous letters – sent to me, my neighbours, my mother and my employers – in a clear attempt to intimidate me. Chinese state television reporter Kong Linlin tried to disrupt a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party Conference last October, and MPs have been lobbied by the Chinese embassy to tell me to stop criticising China.
In June 2016, the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission launched a new report on human rights in China, titled: The Darkest Moment: China’s crackdown on human rights 2013-2016. At the launch, an MP who knows China well expressed agreement with all our findings. His only criticism was the title. It was, he said, premature – it will get even darker.
From what I have observed in the past three years, he was right. And in his passing reference to China, Williamson was right too. My only criticism of the Defence Secretary was that he was too diplomatic.