Benedict Rogers: How Parliament, and Tower Hamlets Council, are leading the way on standing up to China

15 Sep

Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is the co-founder and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch, Senior Analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organisation CSW, co-founder and Deputy Chair of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and a board member of the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign.

All too often we take our institutions of democracy for granted, all the way from the Houses of Parliament to our local councils. Worse, we often mock them, regard them as an annoyance or regard them with disdain. Sometimes with good reason.

But once in a while, some of their office holders surprise us by standing up for principles and values, defending the integrity of their institutions, and displaying considerable courage.

Yesterday was one such day. It was a good day for Britain and our democracy – and a poke in the eye for the world’s most insidiously dangerous threat to freedom, Xi Jinping’s mendacious, criminal and brutal Chinese Communist Party regime.

And the heroes of the story? An unlikely, incongruous band. The Speakers of both Houses of Parliament, Sir Lindsay Hoyle and Lord McFall of Alcluith, and a cross-party group of councillors from Tower Hamlets.

Just after 4pm yesterday afternoon, the news broke that the Speakers of the House of Commons and House of Lords had banned the Chinese Ambassador, Zheng Zeguang, from entering the Parliamentary estate to address a reception of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on China tonight.

The rationale? Of course ambassadors of many countries attend meetings in Parliament, including those of repressive regimes that abuse human rights. But the Chinese regime – in addition to committing genocide against the Uyghurs, dismantling Hong Kong’s freedoms in breach of an international treaty, perpetrating atrocities in Tibet, intensifying persecution of Christians, forcibly harvesting human organs from prisoners of conscience, silencing Covid-19 whistleblowers, shutting down civil society, independent media outlets and citizen journalists and disappearing or jailing human rights defenders – has sanctioned five Members of Parliament and two peers.

At least two of those sanctioned Parliamentarians – the former Conservative Party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith MP and the cross-bench peer Lord Alton of Liverpool – not unreasonably objected to the idea that the Chinese ambassador should be feted in the very Parliament his regime had assaulted. They raised questions in both chambers publicly, and wrote to both houses’ Speakers too.

At the eleventh hour, Sir Lindsay Hoyle and Lord McFall stepped in.

“I regularly hold meetings with ambassadors from across the world to establish enduring ties between countries and parliamentarians,” said Sir Lindsay. He went on:

“But I do not feel it’s appropriate for the ambassador for China to meet on the Commons estate and in our place of work when his country has imposed sanctions against some of our Members. If those sanctions were lifted, then of course this would not be an issue. I am not saying the meeting cannot go ahead. I am just saying it cannot take place here while those sanctions remain in place.”

Some of Beijing’s quislings claim it’s an affront to freedom of expression – ironically, given that Beijing is silencing all dissent. But that’s nonsense. No one is stopping the Chinese ambassador speaking, no one is censoring him and no one is even denying him a platform. The APPG can hold their reception tonight anywhere they like – just not in Parliament, while some of its members are sanctioned by Beijing.

And not only sanctioned – but routinely threatened, intimidated and pressured.

Over the past four years, for example, I know of at least four different MPs who have been directly lobbied by the Chinese embassy to tell me to shut up. On all occasions the MPs concerned, to their credit, politely explained that they were in no position to instruct me, and that even if they tried it would be to no avail, though they did relay the information to me.

Of far greater significance, however, is the fact that the Chinese ambassador overtly attempted to press the British government to silence the Uyghur Tribunal, which concluded on Monday. To actively pressure the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to terminate an entirely independent civil society initiative is a direct threat on our freedoms and an insult to our intelligence.

The tentacles of the Chinese regime have reached too far, too deep, for too long in our political system – and it is so right that the two Speakers have defended Parliament and called time on this criminal gang’s infiltration.

But the other heroes of the story are, if you like, at the other end of the political pole.

The Chinese regime has bought the old Royal Mint, in case you didn’t know, and intends to turn it into its new embassy fortress. Presumably they chose the site for a few reasons – the symbolism of purchasing our former money printer opposite the Tower of London, and the security of hiding away in east London.

What Beijing didn’t realise is that the potential new embassy site lies at the end of Cable Street – where, in 1936, East Enders battled to defend the Jewish community against Oswald Mosley and the fascists. When one considers what Xi’s regime is doing to the Uyghurs, Christians, Tibetans, Falun Gong practitioners and Hong Kongers, there’s a certain resonance.

That’s why a group of councillors from Tower Hamlets – initiated by the inspiring Liberal Democrat Rabina Khan, alongside the leader of the Conservative group on the council, Peter Golds, and Labour councillors – initiated a motion to name streets around the potential new Chinese embassy as “Uyghur Court”, “Tibet Hill” and “Hong Kong Square”.

The motion passed, and yesterday evening, within an hour of the Chinese ambassador being banned from Parliament, a group of Uyghurs, Tibetans, Hong Kongers and British supporters gathered outside the Royal Mint to demand that this be implemented. Planning permission for the new embassy construction still has to be approved, so it’s not a done deal.

But if it goes ahead, you can be sure of one thing: in the future, every visitor to the Chinese embassy will have to go through either Uyghur Court, Tibet Hill or Hong Kong Square, a constant reminder of the atrocities committed by the regime represented behind those walls.

So Britain’s fightback against the Chinese regime is underway. These two episodes – within an hour of each other – illustrate that, whether or not our Government is catching up, our elected representatives, civil society and general public are increasingly fed up with Xi’s regime’s appalling repression of peoples within China’s territory and aggression against its critics abroad.

There’s much more to do – especially in instilling some backbone in Whitehall and the City of London. But Parliament and Tower Hamlets are leading the way, and I salute them for that.