China and human rights: A global problem

A year ago I sat on a panel in a House of Commons committee room, alongside the former Governor of Hong Kong Lord Patten and Angela Gui, the daughter of the missing Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai, to launch a major new report on China’s human rights record. Britain’s former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind described it as “an excellent, professional and well-researched study” with recommendations that are “spot on”, and I agree.

Members of Parliament of all parties crowded into the room to hear the report’s authors, members of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, explain their research and recommendations. The only person to demur was one MP with China expertise who disagreed with the report’s title, The Darkest Moment: The Crackdown on Human Rights in China 2013-2016. He disagreed, however, not because he believed the situation was better, but because he fears it will get even worse.

My engagement with the Commission’s inquiry began in March 2016 when I was invited to testify at a parliamentary hearing. I came to London, gave evidence, and had meetings with Parliamentarians. I discovered a group of people who are increasingly rare in Western democracies today: Parliamentarians and political activists bold enough to challenge their own establishment and China itself.

They called on the British government to put human rights at the centre of relations with China, to speak out publicly as well as privately about human rights concerns, and to champion individual cases of dissidents, lawyers or religious adherents jailed and tortured. They urged a “thorough, comprehensive, open and radical review of British foreign policy towards China” and benchmarks to measure progress in dialogues with China. They recommended a review of Confucius Institutes, China’s “soft power” propaganda apparatus now embedded in universities around the world. And they called for an international, independent inquiry into forced organ harvesting in China, and a ban on organ tourism.

The Darkest Moment details the crackdown on human rights lawyers, the destruction of Christian crosses in Zhejiang, the abduction of the Hong Kong booksellers, the increasing assault on civil society, the media and Internet freedom, the continuing persecution of Falun Gong practitioners, Uighurs and Tibetans, the erosion of Hong Kong’s liberties and the shocking practice of forced organ harvesting. It did not win the authors any friends in either Whitehall or Beijing – because it told the inconvenient truth.

In the year since the report’s publication, what has changed? Britain has a new prime minister, foreign secretary and chancellor of the exchequer. While continuing to emphasise the importance of relations with China, the enthusiasm appears to have cooled under the new administration. Gone is the talk of a ‘Golden Era’ in Sino-British relations, and that is for the better.

But the present British government – and indeed all western governments, including the European Union, Canada, Australia and the United States – should take note of the findings and recommendations in The Darkest Moment report. For what has certainly not changed in a year since the report’s launch is China’s human rights record. Indeed, it has continued to deteriorate.

Take the case of Sun Qian, a 51 year-old Canadian citizen who was arrested in February this year in Beijing simply because of her Falun Gong spiritual practice. Sun Qian was born in China but obtained Canadian citizenship in 2007. She continued her business ties with China as vice-president of Beijing Leadman Biochemistry, a company valued at over $1.1 billion. On 19 February police stormed into her home without a warrant, blindfolded her, and took her to a detention centre. Since then she has been tortured, locked in a small, dark room and pepper-sprayed in her face and eyes. On 28 March, she was formally charged with violating article 300 of China’s criminal code – a vaguely worded provision that prohibits “using a heretical organisation to undermine the law”. Several thousands of Falun Gong practitioners have been imprisoned under this law simply for practising their beliefs.

I have launched a petition for Sun Qian’s release, and last week I spoke about her case at the United Nations. The Chinese delegation responded angrily, thumping the table, objecting to my testifying, and claiming that China is “helping” Falun Gong practitioners through extrajudicial imprisonment and torture.

Yet in the face of China’s continuing human rights violations and its increasingly aggressive behaviour around the world, too many Western democracies have failed to take a stand. Indeed, they have done the opposite: they have crumpled, compromised and kowtowed. In March, only seven EU member states signed a statement about the torture of human rights lawyers in China. Earlier this month, Greece blocked an EU statement at the UN on China’s human rights record. The Dalai Lama is increasingly shunned in western capitals. Canada’s Justin Trudeau is mute on human rights even when a Canadian citizen is detained.

Such weakness in defence of our values of democracy and human rights is not only immoral, it is profoundly counter-productive. The Chinese regime does not respect weakness. As James Macgregor, Chairman of the consulting company APCO in Shanghai, 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”. Or, to put it another way, if you try to hug a panda you are likely to get bitten. Policy-makers in the new British government, and in capitals around Europe and North America, should read The Darkest Moment, reflect carefully on its findings, and abandon the policy of appeasement that has gripped the West for too long.

Anastasia Lin is the current Miss World Canada and human rights advocate