Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch, an advisor to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign, and Senior Analyst for East Asia to the international human organisation CSW. He is a former Parliamentary candidate and author of six books.
There is much in the Government’s “Integrated Review” of security, defence, development and foreign policy to commend it. At least rhetorically. The linguistic focus on human rights, liberal democracy, open societies, and the need to lead the world in defending these values is very welcome indeed.
For too long some in the free world have been shy about promoting freedom, and yet now – when it is under threat as never before – it is good that Britain is stepping up to the plate: in word, if only half in deed.
It is right that if we are to defend freedom, we should exercise it responsibly and exhibit its merits. As the Prime Minister correctly says in his Foreword to the report:
“We must show that freedom to speak, think and choose – and therefore to innovate – offers an inherent advantage; and that liberal democracy and free markets remain the best model for social and economic advancement of human kind.”
For Britain to be, as the review and the Foreign Secretary put it, “a force for good” is also very welcome. The vision of championing human rights, especially freedom of religion or belief and media freedom, is laudable. After all, if we do not have the freedom to choose, practice, share non-coercively or change or religion or belief, and if we do not have a free media to report on violations and hold governments to account, we have no freedom.
These are two of the bedrocks, the pillars, of human rights and it is absolutely correct for the Government to zoom in on them. They are two campaigns for which Jeremy Hunt, the former Foreign Secretary, deserves great credit, and it is excellent that his successor Dominic Raab has developed them further.
The emphasis on multilateralism is right, and the pivot to the Indo-Pacific is superb. As someone who has spent much of my life working in and around Asia, Britain’s new focus on this region and ambition to be, in the words of the review, “the European partner with the broadest, most integrated presence” in the region is very welcome.
And there are so many friends in the Indo-Pacific with whom we should strengthen ties. Established democracies such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan and fragile, emerging democracies who have inspired the world with their transition but who still need a helping hand, such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Long-standing friends such as Singapore whose systems and values may differ but who, through dialogue and relationship, might be encouraged further along the path of openness.
And India, which faces a crossroads between multi-party democracy and democratic nationalism, embracing diversity or proceeding head-long on a path of identity politics, religious fascism and conflict. With all these countries, with whom we share values in some cases and histories in many, it is right that we engage.
The big elephant in the room is China.
To be fair to the Government, there has been a journey of thinking, a change of mindset, or at least a shift in rhetoric and attitude since the ill-fated so-called “Golden Era” of Sino-British relations of five years ago. Now, at least, the Government acknowledges – publicly – the scale of the atrocities committed against its own people by the Communist regime.
The Integrated Review recognizes China’s increasing assertiveness as “the most significant geopolitical factor of the 2020s” and “the biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security”. And the Foreign Secretary has called out the Chinese regime’s “industrial-scale” violations against the Uyghurs, and yesterday rightly imposed targeted sanctions as a result. A very welcome move.
But the Government is still hamstrung by its “cakeism” approach – its desire to have its cake and eat it, to call out China’s violations, stand up for our values… but continue to conduct, and increase, business.
It deserves credit for how far it has moved. Its offer to Hong Kong British National Overseas (BNO) passport holders is courageous, generous and historic and deserves unreserved praise. It has given a lifeline potentially to several million Hong Kongers who yearn for freedom. Raab, Johnson, and Priti Patel – who met with newly arrived Hong Kongers last Friday – should be applauded.
The response from Government to the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission’s new report on China earlier this year also deserves praise: it was well received, and both ministers and officials engaged with it thoughtfully and constructively.
But there’s more to do. Sooner or later the Government will have to make a choice. Does it want to listen to Stanley Johnson and George Osborne, or wiser heads such as Sir Iain Duncan Smith, William Hague, Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Tom Tugendhat?
Osborne describes those who wish to prevent the genocide of the Uyghurs or who oppose the dismantling of promised democracy in Hong Kong, in violation of an international treaty, as “hotheads”. And he accuses them of wanting to “launch some new Cold War” against China.
George, I’m sorry, but nobody wants a new Cold War. If anyone talks about a Cold War, it is in terms of recognizing one which the regime in Beijing may have initiated, not one anyone wanted. And if protesting against genocide or breaches of treaty promises to Hong Kong makes any of us a “hothead”, then I plead guilty – not because I am intemperate, but because I believe mass atrocities should be prevented and treaty promises should be honoured. Don’t you, George?
Sadly, your testimony to the House of Lords International Relations Committee was pitiful. Citing the fact that your mother raised funds for Amnesty International doesn’t provide cover for a policy of complicity and silence with genocide and human rights violations. And saying that the United States government hasn’t declared the Uyghur crisis a genocide is either an act of ignorance or a lie: it has, both the previous and the present administrations.
And as for Stanley Johnson’s recent outburst: as always, the best response to his crazed interventions is a disapproving silence.
At its heart this is a battle of values. Do we defend our values, and our freedoms, at home and around the world, in action as well as in rhetoric? Or do we surrender them and sell our soul? Or do we try to cobble together a mix of the two?
That’s the dilemma facing the Government. The Integrated Review – and yesterday’s sanctions – are something of a step forward, but there’s a very long way to go and a lot more work to do. Do we want to capture the spirit of Winston Churchill, or that of Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain? That’s our challenge.