Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, co-founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch, an adviser to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign.
Thirty-two years ago today, the true character of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was on full display. Peaceful protesters whose only “crime” was to appeal for democracy were gunned down as tanks rolled across Tiananmen Square and soldiers hunted students in back alleys and universities throughout China. British diplomatic cables reveal the death toll was at least 10,000.
The character of the protesters was on display too, symbolised by “Tank Man”, the brave, unarmed man who stood in front of the tanks, temporarily halting their advance and producing an iconic image.
Three decades on, the regime’s character has not changed. Its tactics have become more sophisticated, weaponising financial influence, economic coercion, technology and multilateral institutions, but it remains the same inhumane, brutal, corrupt, repressive and mendacious regime. What has changed is that it is no longer a danger solely to its own people, but to freedom itself. Last month I spoke in a webinar on the question: “China: Friend or Foe?”. My answer is that it is absolutely essential to distinguish between China as a country and a people, and the CCP regime.
Having spent much of my adult life in and around China for almost 30 years, living there, travelling there over 40 times and graduating with a Master’s in China Studies, I am a friend of China. I speak out for human rights because I want the peoples of China to be free, to comment online or go to a place of worship or criticise a leader without fear of jail and torture.
With decent governance, China deserves to take its place on the world stage as a great nation. So in this sense, like the Prime Minister, I am “fervently Sinophile”. But key to this is the intentions and conduct of the CCP regime – and whether we like it or not, it has made it abundantly clear that it is a foe of everything we believe in: democracy, human rights, the rule of law and the international rules-based order.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a sense that as China opened up economically, it might liberalise politically. From my own visits to China, I witnessed some space opening. Of course the regime was always repressive, but nevertheless, within certain limits there were civil society activists, human rights defenders, citizen journalists and religious believers who could do things that would have been impossible under Chairman Mao. Just over ten years ago, I met Chinese human rights lawyers in a restaurant in Beijing. They talked about their courageous work defending the rights of religious adherents and their hopes that this space that had opened might further expand.
Those hopes of reform have vanished over the past decade under Xi Jinping. Reverting to a cult of personality not seen since Mao, he has ended term limits, seeks to be president for life, added “Xi Jinping Thought” to the constitution and cracked down on all dissent. Those lawyers I met have either been jailed, disappeared or disbarred. That “space”, albeit limited, for dissent, religious practice, legal defence or independent media has evaporated.
On the question of “friend or foe”, let’s not be naïve. In his first speech to the Politburo in 2013, Xi is clear about his ambitions, to build “a socialism that is superior to capitalism” and “have the dominant position.” In a key policy communique – with the Orwellian title Document No. 9 – the regime details its enmity to constitutional multi-party democracy, judicial independence, “universal” human rights, civil society and an independent media, categorised among the seven “don’t speaks”.
And look at the regime’s behaviour.
At home it is committing atrocity crimes against the Uyghurs, recognised by the US Administration, the Canadian, Dutch Parliaments and UK Parliaments and legal experts as genocide. This includes the incarceration of a million Uyghurs in concentration camps, forced sterilisation, slave labour, sexual violence, torture, forced organ harvesting and religious persecution. Today, the Uyghur Tribunal – chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, who prosecuted Slobodan Milosevic – opens. It should not be forgotten that two years ago, the China Tribunal investigating forced organ harvesting concluded that the regime is committing crimes against humanity and is “a criminal state”.
But while the Uyghurs are rightly receiving more attention, let us not ignore intensifying repression in Tibet, a crackdown on Christians which is the worst since the Cultural Revolution, and persecution of Falun Gong.
Let us also remember, as we mark the 24th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong on July 1, this regime’s flagrant breach of an international treaty, the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Beijing pledged to uphold Hong Kong’s freedoms, rule of law and autonomy under “one country, two systems” for the first 50 years of Chinese sovereignty, until 2047. Less than halfway through, Xi’s regime has torn up that promise and rapidly dismantled Hong Kong’s freedoms. Almost all of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy leaders are either on trial, in jail or in exile, and the regime continues to destroy what remains of media and academic freedom.
Hong Kong used to be the only place in China where the June 4 massacre could be commemorated publicly. This year, anyone who does so faces several years in jail. Add to the list the regime’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Whatever the truth about the Wuhan laboratory leak theory – which should be investigated – the regime’s initial response was to suppress the truth and not the virus, silence whistleblowers and threaten those calling for an inquiry. Its irresponsible cover-up caused death and devastation for millions around the world.
Its bellicose “wolf-warrior” diplomacy, attempts to intimidate critics well beyond its borders (including myself), sanctions against Western Parliamentarians, academics and think-tanks, intellectual property theft and threats to academic freedoms in our universities hardly render this regime a friend. Its aggression towards Taiwan and adventurism in the South China Sea complete the catalogue of dangers.
So what do we do?
First, completely review our China policy. Stop naively pursuing “cakeism” and totally recalibrate. Recognise that this is a regime that is committing genocide and crimes against humanity, shows total disregard for international law and threatens our freedoms and the rules-based order, and should be sanctioned. The imposition of “Magnitsky” sanctions by the UK in March is a welcome start, but more is needed. Chen Quangguo, the Party Secretary in Xinjiang, architect of intensified repression against the Uyghurs, should be added to the list, along with enterprises complicit with atrocities and the surveillance state.
We should review CCP influence in our universities, and the activities of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, Confucius Institutes and joint research programmes involving potentially sensitive national security projects. The Government should study Civitas’ alarming new report Inadvertently Arming China, along with Jo Johnson’s, and ask why we have a Chinese military weapons scientist at the heart of a research programme at Cambridge?
Second, build alliances to face this challenge together. When countries act alone, Beijing can play them off against each other. Let’s build a global democratic alliance. We should stand with our friends in Australia and work with President Biden to develop his proposed “Summit of Democracies”. We should pursue the Prime Minister’s “D10” alliance. At the G7 in Cornwall next week, effort should be invested not only in strong joint statements but on a longer-term coordinated policy plan.
Third, keep the memory of June 4 1989 alive. In China the history books have been wiped clean – many Chinese born since 1989 do not even know about it. So it’s up to us to ensure that the truth is never forgotten – and that the regime is one day held to account for its crimes.
Finally, never let this debate be hijacked by any anti-China narrative, for that would be both morally wrong and counter-productive. The regime wants the Party and the country to be one and the same, and we must not be fooled by that. As disgusting, disgraceful anti-Chinese racism is sadly on the rise we should actively counter it, but never allow Beijing to suggest that criticism of the CCP’s conduct equates to racism.
The people of China – those who stood and fell 32 years ago for freedom, took to the streets for democracy in Hong Kong more recently, and languish in concentration camps, torture chambers and slave-labour production lines today – are our friends. We owe it to them, and ourselves, to stand up to the regime that has declared itself our common foe.