Britain must put human rights back at the centre of our engagement with China

By Benedict Rogers

China is currently experiencing the worst crackdown on human rights in many years – some say it is “the darkest moment” since the Tiananmen massacre of 1989.

Later today the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission will publish a report – aptly named The Darkest Moment: The Crackdown on Human Rights in China 2013-2016. The title is taken from the words of one Chinese dissident who gave evidence to our inquiry – one of more than 30 written submissions we received.

The former Governor of Hong Kong and a previous Chairman of the Conservative Party Lord Patten will speak at the report launch, alongside Angela Gui, whose father Gui Minhai is one of five Hong Kong booksellers abducted by the Chinese authorities last year and is still missing, and Anastasia Lin, a Chinese-born Canadian actress and Miss World Canada, who was banned from entering China for the Miss World final last year because of her outspoken human rights work.

The Conservative Party Human Rights Commission – a body established in 2005 by the then Shadow Foreign Secretary Liam Fox and embraced by his successor William Hague – exists to be a voice within the Conservative Party for international human rights, conducting inquiries and publishing reports to inform and influence Conservative foreign policy. It is currently chaired by Fiona Bruce MP.

We decided to hold this inquiry on China following the State visit of President Xi Jinping to the United Kingdom last October and the increasing talk of a ‘golden era’ in Sino-British relations. We wanted to establish the truth about the human rights situation in the country, and examine whether British foreign policy towards China gives enough attention to these concerns. Our conclusion is that it does not, and that it needs to be radically reviewed and recalibrated.

Our inquiry involved two three-hour hearings, in which we received first-hand oral evidence from Chinese exiled dissidents as well as scholars and human rights activists specialising in China. These included one of China’s most prominent lawyers, Dr Teng Biao; a former Tiananmen activist who specialises in religious freedom, Bob Fu; and Anastasia Lin who will join us again today. We also heard from representatives of Human Rights Watch, Christian Solidarity Worldwide and a former China researcher at Amnesty International, as well as academics such as Dr Eva Pils from King’s College, London.

Among the written submissions were those from Hong Kong’s veteran democracy leader Martin Lee and the former Chief Secretary of Hong Kong, Anson Chan; the young student who led Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement, Joshua Wong; and the blind Chinese human rights defender Chen Guangcheng.

We heard evidence of a severe crackdown on human rights lawyers, involving the arrest of over 300 lawyers and their associates and relatives; the destruction of 1,500-2,000 Christian crosses in Zhejiang province; the abduction of dissidents and booksellers from outside China, particularly Hong Kong and Thailand; the severe restrictions on freedom of expression and the media; the increasing use of propaganda; the continuing persecution of the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong practitioners; the barbaric practice of organ harvesting – the forced removal of internal organs from live individuals, often prisoners of conscience, for sale, often to foreigners for transplants; the continuing incarceration of writer Liu Xiaobo, currently the world’s only jailed Nobel Laureate; and the steady erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms.

Without exception, every single submission we received detailed a severe deterioration in human rights in China since Xi Jinping became President. The current crackdown, it is claimed, is wider and deeper than any previous crackdown in recent years, targeting more people, penalising more acts of dissent and imposing more severe sentences. The new practices of abductions of Chinese dissidents from outside China and forced televised confessions are particularly concerning. There is even talk of a “New Cultural Revolution”.

Our report concludes that, in light of this overwhelming evidence, Britain must put human rights and the rule of law back at the centre of our engagement with China. We are not under any illusions about the importance of China. We know that we cannot ignore China. Of course we must engage, on a range of global strategic issues. Of course we must trade. But we do not need to kowtow. Other countries, notably Germany, have proven that it is possible to trade with China while being outspoken on human rights. Yet Britain over the past three years has adopted a policy of timidity at best and appeasement at worst, which must now be reviewed. We should speak out publicly on human rights in China, and leave the Chinese in no doubt of the importance of these concerns.

We put forward 22 recommendations, including calling for an increased focus on the situation in Hong Kong, regular meetings between British ministers and the Dalai Lama and other Chinese dissidents, and the establishment of an international, independent inquiry into organ harvesting in China.

Other Conservatives share our views. The Prime Minister’s former strategy adviser Steve Hilton was outspoken during Xi Jinping’s visit. Lord Patten’s views are well known, and he describes our report as “a comprehensive and well researched analysis of China’s increasingly deplorable human rights record” and says “the British Government must take account of this first class piece of work.”

The former Conservative Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind says: “I very much endorse this report and its recommendations. It is an excellent, professional and well researched study. Its recommendations are spot on. As Foreign Secretary I had to negotiate with the Chinese Foreign Minister over the future of Hong Kong. When I pressed the need for the rule of law to be respected in China he responded that the Chinese Government believed in the rule of law. In China, he said 'the people must obey the law'. I had to remind him that the Government must obey the rule of law as well. This report highlights the urgent need for reform in China. It deserves to be read and implemented.”

One China scholar, Dr Christopher Hancock, director of Oxford House, endorsed our inquiry, saying: “This report represents an important contribution to our understanding of China in 2016. For the British government not to take on board its findings would be as much a denial of academic honesty as it would an expression of political naivety and a loss of personal integrity. China is not what it was five years ago. It has undergone a 180-degree turn in its political ethos. Outsiders should not attempt - and will always fail - to change China's political and social behaviour: however, British citizens can, and must, attempt to change their government's hitherto mis-guided response to it.”

We urge the Government to listen to such voices, to study our report, and to rethink their approach. It is right that Britain should seek to be a friend to China. But our friendship should be with the Chinese people suffering under a brutally repressive regime, and not the illegitimate, corrupt, cruel cabal that rule China today.

Benedict Rogers is a writer and human rights activist, and member of Bright Blue's human rights commission