Tim Loughton is MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, and is a former Education Minister.
What adjective do you use for a group of nine democrats calling out human rights abuses by the world’s largest totalitarian state? We have the Famous Five and the Magnificent Seven and After Eights even, but nine seems to be a particularly under-appreciated digit. Nine pins doesn’t really cut it.
Thus it was that I woke up on Friday morning – or, rather, was woken up by my Twitter feed going berserk in the early hours to find that I have been included on the list of nine Britons sanctioned by the Chinese Government for spreading ‘lies and disinformation’ about the epitome of benevolent paternalism that is the Chinese Government.
I am in good company with four other Conservative MPs, two members of the Lords, an eminent lawyer and an academic together with some random mostly Tory-minded research groups.
As apparently no other Britons have been personally sanctioned before, it is not clear exactly what it entails. I have received no formal letter from Comrade Xi. Should I be awaiting a DHL speedy delivery bearing an official ‘certificate of debarment’? From what I read on social media, it would appear that I and my family will be barred from entering mainland China, Macau and Hong Kong, all my assets and business interests in China will be seized and Chinese officials will be prevented from engaging with me.
Fortunately, I have no plans for a holiday home in Wuhan and resisted the lure of investing in Uighur forced labour sweatshops in Xinjian, so I am not going to lose too much sleep. But if the Chinese Government thinks it can apply to British Parliamentarians the same level of censorship and suppression of free speech that pervades their own citizens, most recently extended to Hong Kong, they have badly miscalculated.
Indeed, given the tsunami of supportive emails and comments from around the world and everyone from Joe Biden to Boris Johnson, the move appears to have backfired badly for the Chinese Government. Instead, its actions are acting as a recruiting sergeant for those coming forward to call out China’s ‘industrial scale’ human rights’ abuses, as our Foreign Secretary rightly described it.
This week, Government ministers, acting in unison with EU states and our American and Canadian allies, applied Magnitsky sanctions to certain Chinese officials, complicit in human rights abuses. The seven Parliamentarians now sanctioned warmly and vociferously welcomed this move, and have urged the British Government to go further. Bizarrely, it is we ‘Nonentity Nine’ who are now the target of Chinese reprisals, not members of the Government itself nor Government officials.
The action lays bare the Chinese Government’s complete lack of understanding of how democracies work. The ‘crime’ of British Parliamentarians is to call out what many see as constituting genocide against the Uighur people by the Chinese Government, on top of 62 years of suppressing the people of Tibet resulting in deaths of more than a million Tibetans.
But that is what democratically elected MPs should do, without fear or favour, yet in return we are now sanctioned by China. We call out genocide; they actually carry it out. These moves are a breach of Parliamentary privilege, and so a challenge to the people who elect our Parliamentarians.
Frankly, I have surely been on borrowed time for a while now. For several decades, I have championed the cause of the Tibetan people. It was the first ever political march I went on as a spotty teenager, to the Chinese Embassy bearing Tibetan flags.
I Chair the All-Party Parliamentary Group For Tibet, and have had the privilege of welcoming the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Sikyong (President) to Parliament several times, despite the now notorious attempts of David Cameron to kow-tow to the Chinese Government, and ban ministers from meeting them.
At times, standing up for the Tibetan people, the most peace-loving and put-upon people in all the world, has been a rather lonely vigil. But the international focus on the extraordinary atrocities inflicted on the Uighur minority in Xinjian province from satellite images of corralled prisoners in detention camps to accounts of forcibly sterilised Uighur women, has put Chinese human rights’ abuses firmly on the international radar. We are no longer voices in the wilderness.
This latest inept measure by the Chinese regime will be hugely counter-productive. For too many years, they have got away with it because condemnations by Governments of all colours amounted to strong words, with little follow through. But this act is a wake-up call to all democratic nations and freedom loving people everywhere. We sanctioned MPs are more determined than ever to make sure the Chinese regime faces serious consequences for its atrocities, and our voices will now be louder and heard further afield.
In the last few weeks, the Government has been emboldened to bring forward significant practical measures. Key officials have been sanctioned, but not nearly enough. British businesses are prevented from dealing with Chinese companies complicit in Uighur forced labour factories, though not yet widely enough.
Whilst we did not persuade the Government to go all the way in making genocide a key consideration of the Trade Bill, it moved a long way, and genocide and the Chinese regime are words now regularly occurring in the same sentence in regular parlance. This is a good start – but only a start.
The international allegiances that are being formed between foreign ministers and the cross-border scope of Parliamentarians striking common cause through the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) are making a difference, and clearly China is getting riled. If they want to be treated as twenty-first century major power there are basic global standards they need to adopt, and not trying to crush the culture of inconvenient minorities is pretty basic.
Hand in hand with abuse of its people goes China’s abuse of the planet too. As the world’s biggest polluters, where their contribution to global warming is melting the glaciers in the Tibetan Plateau which water over a quarter of the world’s population, the Chinese need to be held to account environmentally too, and we must make sure that happens at COP26.
So, as Iain Duncan Smith said, I will wear my inclusion on the sanctions list as a ‘badge of honour.’ If it means more people more focused on standing up to the world’s biggest human rights’ abuser, even if I personally will be denied access to the delights of a Wuhan wet market, I will happily take one for the team.