Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer, and a former parliamentary candidate. He is East Asia Team Leader of the international human rights organisation CSW, co-founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch and co-founder and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.
Iain Duncan Smith was right when he said that “for the past two decades, we have cosied up to China in a way that is becoming an embarrassment”. He argued that “the UK needs to stand shoulder to shoulder with its allies. China is not an ally.”
What he didn’t say is that there are also two myths about China. The first is that it is the forthcoming superpower, a strong and stable force in the world. The second is that in order to trade with China, we need to kowtow.
The coronavirus has not only exposed millions of people to a public health crisis, it has exposed the fragility of the Chinese Communist Party. A strong, secure government would not hide the truth about a new virus, it would act immediately to prevent its spread. Yet when Dr Li Wenliang first warned about the outbreak, the response of the authorities was to silence and threaten him. He was forced to sign a confession, apologising for spreading rumours and disturbing public order.
Only when the virus was so obvious did the authorities take some steps to deal with it – but too late. At least 2,000 people in China alone have died, and it has become a global emergency – caused in large part by a regime based on lies and fear. Even now, citizen bloggers reporting the truth disappear.
A self-confident government does not expel Wall Street Journal reporters because of a headline. A self-confident government does not incarcerate at least a million Uyghur Muslims, just because they have beards, wear veils, or surf the Internet. A self-confident government doesn’t destroy thousands of crosses and dynamite churches.
A self-confident government does not deny foreign activists, academics, and journalists entry to Hong Kong, branded “Asia’s world city”. In October 2017 I was one of the first westerners refused entry on Beijing’s orders, exposing the erosion of the much-vaunted “one country, two systems” principle. My incident became a diplomatic one, with the Foreign Secretary at the time – Boris Johnson – issuing a statement, the Foreign Office summoning the Chinese ambassador, and questions being raised in both Houses of Parliament. Since my case, others have faced a similar fate, including the Victor Mallet, the Financial Times’ Asia Editor; Dan Garrett, an academic; and Michael Yon, a journalist.
A self-confident government would not invest so much effort in trying to silence western critics. Over the past two years I have received numerous anonymous letters posted to my home address, my neighbours, and even my mother. More recently I have received daily emails either harassing me or, using fake email addresses in my name, impersonating me to others in an attempt to discredit me. And I am not alone.
Furthermore, a self-confident government would not lobby parliamentarians about a British activist. Yet I know several who have been asked by the Chinese Embassy to shut me up, and at least two who, in meetings with the Chinese Ambassador about global issues like trade or climate change, have faced as the first agenda item a specific request to silence Benedict Rogers. A self-confident government would have better things to do.
So stop thinking that the Chinese Communist Party is this confident power that we should not cross. It exhibits all the characteristics of a bully, and bullies are by definition insecure, fearful and weak. They may show aggression, but their aggression only works if we kow-tow to it.
That leads to the second myth: that we can’t afford economically to lose China, and thus we must do deals whatever the cost.
The record shows that, though it may huff and puff, the regime in China will still sell goods and purchase products based on demand, not politics. Germany’s Angela Merkel has, among western leaders, been one of the most consistently outspoken about human rights in China, yet Germany remains China’s largest trading partner in Europe.
When Xi Jinping visited the UK in 2015 an American businessman in Shanghai, James Macgregor, told the BBC: “If you act like a panting puppy, 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.” The Chinese regime might not like it when you stand up for values, but they are more likely to respect you than if you kowtow.
But how important is China, really? As Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong, put it in his recent Paddy Ashdown Memorial Lecture on the city:
“The truth is that behaving in a way that corresponds with our traditional values does not threaten economic catastrophe. The idea that you can only do business with China if you say and do what Beijing wants has always been nonsense … Whatever became of the cornucopia that was supposed to come with the “golden era” of Britain’s dealings with China? This is the usual self-serving guff.”
In our post-Brexit era, we must carve out a role for global Britain. But that means what it says. Global. What about India? Brazil? What about the democracies of Asia – Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia – who, however imperfectly, are far closer to our values than Xi’s China? And what about our allies in Hong Kong, who share our values and are, as a new report by Hong Kong Watch launched next week shows, trying to save the world’s third most significant financial centre and the UK’s third largest trading partner in Asia?
To sign a cheap deal that allows a corporation, Huawei, which is closely aligned with the Chinese regime and is complicit with grave human rights violations into our national telecommunications infrastructure, potentially undermining our closest relationships with allies who share our values and intelligence, is madness. To allow the perception to prevail among those who struggle courageously to preserve the rule of law and basic freedoms in Hong Kong that Britain, despite its obligations under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, has abandoned them, is tragic.
And for the Chinese ambassador in London to be declaring, unchallenged, that the Prime Minister wants to “work with China [and] … elevate the relationship to a new level” when that regime stands accused of crimes against humanity, cultural genocide, the most severe crackdown on human rights since the Tiananmen massacre, an increasing breach of its promises to the people of Hong Kong, the worst repression of religion since the Cultural Revolution, an increasingly grave threat to our own freedoms and security and – despite its charade of confidence – an increasingly unstable regime, seems unhinged.
The UK’s China policy needs a wholesale review. We didn’t “take back control” from Brussels only to surrender it to Beijing.
I am deeply pro-China, as a country and a people. I have spent much of my adult life in China. I want China to take its rightful place on the world stage. But I want it to do so as a friend not an enemy, a force for good and not a threat. It can only do so if it is free of a deceitful, repressive and insecure regime. And that requires us to have the courage to stand up to that regime which the British barrister Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, who chaired the independent China Tribunal on forced organ harvesting, describes as “a criminal state”.