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.

Benedict Rogers: It’s time for the Government to abandon its ‘cakeism’ on China

23 Mar

Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch, an advisor to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign, and Senior Analyst for East Asia to the international human organisation CSW.  He is a former Parliamentary candidate and author of six books.

There is much in the Government’s “Integrated Review” of security, defence, development and foreign policy to commend it. At least rhetorically. The linguistic focus on human rights, liberal democracy, open societies, and the need to lead the world in defending these values is very welcome indeed.

For too long some in the free world have been shy about promoting freedom, and yet now – when it is under threat as never before – it is good that Britain is stepping up to the plate: in word, if only half in deed.

It is right that if we are to defend freedom, we should exercise it responsibly and exhibit its merits. As the Prime Minister correctly says in his Foreword to the report:

“We must show that freedom to speak, think and choose – and therefore to innovate – offers an inherent advantage; and that liberal democracy and free markets remain the best model for social and economic advancement of human kind.”

For Britain to be, as the review and the Foreign Secretary put it, “a force for good” is also very welcome. The vision of championing human rights, especially freedom of religion or belief and media freedom, is laudable. After all, if we do not have the freedom to choose, practice, share non-coercively or change or religion or belief, and if we do not have a free media to report on violations and hold governments to account, we have no freedom.

These are two of the bedrocks, the pillars, of human rights and it is absolutely correct for the Government to zoom in on them. They are two campaigns for which Jeremy Hunt, the former Foreign Secretary, deserves great credit, and it is excellent that his successor Dominic Raab has developed them further.

The emphasis on multilateralism is right, and the pivot to the Indo-Pacific is superb. As someone who has spent much of my life working in and around Asia, Britain’s new focus on this region and ambition to be, in the words of the review, “the European partner with the broadest, most integrated presence” in the region is very welcome.

And there are so many friends in the Indo-Pacific with whom we should strengthen ties. Established democracies such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan and fragile, emerging democracies who have inspired the world with their transition but who still need a helping hand, such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Long-standing friends such as Singapore whose systems and values may differ but who, through dialogue and relationship, might be encouraged further along the path of openness.

And India, which faces a crossroads between multi-party democracy and democratic nationalism, embracing diversity or proceeding head-long on a path of identity politics, religious fascism and conflict. With all these countries, with whom we share values in some cases and histories in many, it is right that we engage.

The big elephant in the room is China.

To be fair to the Government, there has been a journey of thinking, a change of mindset, or at least a shift in rhetoric and attitude since the ill-fated so-called “Golden Era” of Sino-British relations of five years ago. Now, at least, the Government acknowledges – publicly – the scale of the atrocities committed against its own people by the Communist regime.

The Integrated Review recognizes China’s increasing assertiveness as “the most significant geopolitical factor of the 2020s” and “the biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security”. And the Foreign Secretary has called out the Chinese regime’s “industrial-scale” violations against the Uyghurs, and yesterday rightly imposed targeted sanctions as a result. A very welcome move.

But the Government is still hamstrung by its “cakeism” approach – its desire to have its cake and eat it, to call out China’s violations, stand up for our values… but continue to conduct, and increase, business.

It deserves credit for how far it has moved. Its offer to Hong Kong British National Overseas (BNO) passport holders is courageous, generous and historic and deserves unreserved praise. It has given a lifeline potentially to several million Hong Kongers who yearn for freedom. Raab, Johnson, and Priti Patel – who met with newly arrived Hong Kongers last Friday – should be applauded.

The response from Government to the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission’s new report on China earlier this year also deserves praise: it was well received, and both ministers and officials engaged with it thoughtfully and constructively.

But there’s more to do. Sooner or later the Government will have to make a choice. Does it want to listen to Stanley Johnson and George Osborne, or wiser heads such as Sir Iain Duncan Smith, William Hague, Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Tom Tugendhat?

Osborne describes those who wish to prevent the genocide of the Uyghurs or who oppose the dismantling of promised democracy in Hong Kong, in violation of an international treaty, as “hotheads”. And he accuses them of wanting to “launch some new Cold War” against China.

George, I’m sorry, but nobody wants a new Cold War. If anyone talks about a Cold War, it is in terms of recognizing one which the regime in Beijing may have initiated, not one anyone wanted. And if protesting against genocide or breaches of treaty promises to Hong Kong makes any of us a “hothead”, then I plead guilty – not because I am intemperate, but because I believe mass atrocities should be prevented and treaty promises should be honoured. Don’t you, George?

Sadly, your testimony to the House of Lords International Relations Committee was pitiful. Citing the fact that your mother raised funds for Amnesty International doesn’t provide cover for a policy of complicity and silence with genocide and human rights violations. And saying that the United States government hasn’t declared the Uyghur crisis a genocide is either an act of ignorance or a lie: it has, both the previous and the present administrations.

And as for Stanley Johnson’s recent outburst: as always, the best response to his crazed interventions is a disapproving silence.

At its heart this is a battle of values. Do we defend our values, and our freedoms, at home and around the world, in action as well as in rhetoric? Or do we surrender them and sell our soul? Or do we try to cobble together a mix of the two?

That’s the dilemma facing the Government. The Integrated Review – and yesterday’s sanctions – are something of a step forward, but there’s a very long way to go and a lot more work to do. Do we want to capture the spirit of Winston Churchill, or that of Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain? That’s our challenge.

Benedict Rogers: It’s time for Raab to bring Magnitsky sanctions to bear on those oppressing Hong Kong

25 Aug

Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch, co-founder and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.

It is not often that one sees Iain Duncan Smith, John McDonnell, Natalie Bennett, Andrew Adonis, Alistair Carmichael and the Scottish Nationalists on the same page.

Bringing the former Conservative Party leader and Brexiteer together with the former Labour Shadow Chancellor, the former Green Party leader, the former Labour minister and leading Remainer, the Liberal Democrats foreign affairs spokesperson, and two SNP MPs is an achievement – and as far as I can see it is Carrie Lam’s, the Hong Kong Chief Executive, only achievement.

Last week these politicians, together with David Davis, the former Brexit Secretary, Helena Kennedy, a leading human rights barrister and Labour peer, and 12 other Parliamentarians, wrote to the Foreign Secretary in support of calls for the imposition of targeted Magnitsky sanctions against Hong Kong and Chinese government officials responsible for grave human rights violations and a flagrant breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

Their letter follows a personal appeal to Dominic Raab by Nathan Law, the highest-profile pro-democracy activist to escape Hong Kong since the imposition of the new draconian national security law on 1 July.

In 2016, Law was elected Hong Kong’s youngest ever legislator, at the age of 23, but was disqualified the following year for quoting Mahatma Gandhi when he took his oath of office. He was then sentenced to eight months in jail for his role in leading the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement protests. In his letter, Law writes:

As a party to the legally binding Sino British Joint Declaration, the United Kingdom holds a unique position in advocating for Hong Kong. I earnestly hope that the UK government would take the important step to sanction Ms Carrie Lam and other officials involved, so to send a clear signal –– not just to Beijing, but also to other countries in the free world that we ought to stand firm against an oppressive regime which disrespects both their citizens’ rights and the international norms.  Please safeguard our shared belief in freedom and human rights as well as the pursuit of democracy in Hong Kong. Please stand with Hong Kong.”

Since the imposition of the national security law on Hong Kong by Beijing, Britain has responded robustly, by announcing a generous package to allow Hong Kongers who hold British National Overseas (BNO) passports to come to the UK on a “pathway to citizenship”, and by suspending our extradition agreement with Hong Kong. These are very welcome steps, but there is much more than needs to be done.

Although the new law has only been in place for less than two months, we are already seeing its dramatic impact on Hong Kong. The arrest of several prominent activists, particularly the entrepreneur and media proprieter Jimmy Lai, the police raid on his pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, and the arrest of Law’s colleague Agnes Chow and ITN reporter Wilson Li; the issuing of arrest warrants for six Hong Kong activists outside Hong Kong, including Law; and the banning of slogans, the withdrawal of pro-democracy books from libraries and the censorship of school textbooks; all indicate the end of Hong Kong’s autonomy under “one country, two systems” and the destruction of the city’s fundamental rights and freedoms.

It is right for the British Government to respond to events proportionately, and with a staggered approach. There is no point in firing all our ammunition in one go, and then having nothing left to deploy. But the events in Hong Kong in recent weeks require a response that goes beyond rhetoric. That’s why it is time for targeted sanctions.

The United States has already imposed its Magnitsky sanctions on Lam and other officials, but it is vital that the international community act in as united and co-ordinated a way as possible. Hong Kong must not become – or even be perceived to be – a pawn in a US-China fight, but rather as the front line in the fight for freedom and the international rules-based order.

For that reason, the rest of the free world has a duty to act, and as the co-signatory of the Joint Declaration guaranteeing Hong Kong’s continued autonomy, it is right that Britain should lead the way.

Our Magnitsky sanctions legislation is now in place, and so far 49 individuals from Russia, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and Burma are on the list. Raab is one of the architects of this legislation – dating back to his days on the backbenches when he championed the idea – and he is said to regard it as a legacy issue. So he has every interest in ensuring that this sanctions regime is meaningful.

To do that, those responsible for dismantling freedoms in Hong Kong, once one of Asia’s most open cities, and the violation of an international treaty – as well as those perpetrating some of the 21st Century’s most egregious atrocity crimes against the Uyghurs – must be held to account. If Lam cannot be sanctioned for presiding over a year of shocking police brutality and repression, who can?

So the 19 Parliamentarians who signed this letter are right to declare: “We stand with Nathan in this appeal.” I do too, and I hope that the Foreign Secretary will act soon.