28 June 2016

Is China facing a New Cultural Revolution?

By Fiona Bruce & Benedict Rogers

In January, Chinese blogger Zhang Haitao was jailed for 19 years simply for criticising the Chinese government. Two years ago, Chinese activist Cao Shunli died after being denied medical treatment while in prison. Last December, Hong Kong bookseller and British citizen Lee Po disappeared, believed to have been abducted by Chinese agents from Hong Kong and taken across the border to mainland China. Another bookseller, Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen, was abducted from Thailand and became one of many in recent months to be apparently forced to make a ‘confession’ on national television in China.

A Uyghur Muslim intellectual, Ilham Tohti, whose focus is promoting dialogue and reconciliation, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2015. Writer Liu Xiaobo is serving an eleven-year prison sentence, the world’s only Nobel Peace Prize Laureate in jail. Since 9 July last year, over 300 human rights lawyers and their associates and relatives have been detained, harassed and in some cases charged with ‘subversion’. In Zhejiang province, between 1,500-2,000 Christian crosses on church buildings have been forcibly removed or destroyed by the authorities. Repression in Tibet and Xinjiang continues, the persecution of Falun Gong goes on, new laws further restricting civil society have been imposed and there is evidence to suggest that the barbaric practice of organ harvesting – the forced removal of internal organs from live individuals, often prisoners of conscience, for transplant – is accelerating. Hong Kong’s basic freedoms are being eroded.

These are just some of the many examples we heard in our inquiry on human rights in China, held by the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. We held two three-hour hearings, heard from ten witnesses in person including Chinese dissidents and western China experts, and we received over 30 written submissions. We heard from people as distinguished as Hong Kong’s former Chief Secretary Anson Chan and the founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, Martin Lee, as well as Joshua Wong, the celebrity teenage activist who led Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement, Chen Guangcheng, the award-winning blind human rights defender and Anastasia Lin, a Chinese-born Canadian actress who won Miss World Canada but was banned from the Miss World final in China because she had spoken out on human rights.

Without exception, every single oral and written submission we received detailed a severe deterioration in human rights in China since Xi Jinping became President and concluded that the situation is the worst it has been in many years. Some say it is the worst time for human rights in China since the Tiananmen massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989. The word “unprecedented” occurred frequently in our inquiry. The current crackdown is wider and deeper than any previous crackdown in recent years, impacting not only traditional targets – dissidents and religious minorities – but new targets, such as lawyers and academics. Prison sentences are longer, the threshold of behaviour deemed ‘unacceptable’ by the regime is lower, and new practices are being deployed – such as abducting Chinese activists from outside mainland China, arresting and detaining foreign activists in China as illustrated by the detention for two weeks of Swedish activist Peter Dahlin, and the use of forced televised confessions. According to Dr Christopher Hancock of Oxford House, some in China are talking of a “New Cultural Revolution”. Yang Jianli, a Chinese dissident, told us that this is “the darkest moment” for human rights in China in recent years, and we took his words as the title of our report to be published today.

In light of this overwhelming evidence, we believe the United Kingdom must review, re-evaluate and recalibrate its relationship with China, putting human rights and the rule of law at the centre of our engagement. We believe it is time for the UK to speak out publicly and consistently about human rights in China, to consult with dissidents and civil society in China and outside to explore what steps would be most useful, and to step up our focus on Hong Kong as part of our responsibilities under the Sino-British Joint Declaration. We urge the UK Government to consider initiating an international, independent investigation into the inhumane practice of forced organ harvesting. We urge the Government to be unafraid about meeting the Dalai Lama and other prominent Chinese dissidents. In our 22 recommendations, we set out an action plan for a new approach to our relationship with China.

We are not under any illusions about the importance of China economically and strategically. Of course we must engage with China. But such engagement should put human rights at its very centre. Other world leaders have proven that they can speak out on human rights in China and continue to trade and invest successfully. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has proven this. We hope our report will be studied seriously.

As Sir Malcolm Rifkind, former Foreign Secretary, has said:

“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.”

We do not propose we stop trading, but we do call for a re-think.

In 1949 Chairman Mao said that the Chinese people had stood up. Now it is our responsibility to stand up for the Chinese people. In their darkest moment, it is no time to speak of a ‘golden era’.

The Darkest Moment: The Crackdown on Human Rights in China 2013-2016 will be launched by former Governor of Hong Kong, Lord Patten, at 3.00pm today in Committee Room 12 in Parliament by the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. The report can be downloaded here.

Fiona Bruce is Member of Parliament for Congleton and Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission; Benedict Rogers is Vice-Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.