Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, co-founder, Chair of Hong Kong Watch, and an advisor to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign.
Six years ago, when the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission published its first report on human rights in China, titled The Darkest Moment, only two MPs were willing to be publicly associated with it.
Downing Street, the Foreign Office and the Treasury were furious with us; we were treated as a fringe nuisance. We felt somewhat alone.
This week, for the first time, China policy has been a major focus of the Conservative Party leadership campaign, with both candidates trying to outbid each other in how tough they can be on Beijing.
Depending on how you look at it, Rishi Sunak has shown the zeal of a Damascene conversion – or perhaps the eagerness of someone desperate to shed the perception of being pro-Beijing because he knows it could damage his prospects. Liz Truss has long been strong on rhetoric about standing up to the Chinese Communist Party, but more lacking in concrete policy.
Whatever their motives, the fact that China policy is being debated and the candidates recognise the challenge China poses is very welcome. It shows just how far the mood has changed in just a few years.
The landscape has shifted particularly dramatically in the past two years. It began with the parliamentary rebellion over Huawei and 5G in early 2020, and was accelerated by outrage at the mendacious cover-up in the early stages of Covid-19 by Beijing. The dismantling of Hong Kong’s freedoms and the increasing revelations about Uyghur genocide and slave labour further darkened the mood on China.
The establishment of two political groups – the Conservative-based China Research Group (CRG) founded by Tom Tugendhat, who made it into the final five in the leadership race before being eliminated, and the cross-party global Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), founded by prominent Truss backer and former party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith – has clearly made an impact too.
But while this broad focus on China is very welcome, we now need to move to specifics. What is needed urgently is an overall China strategy to defend our national security, our values and our economy.
That means setting out how we would counter the CCP’s transnational aggression, protect cyber security, diversify our supply chains and trading relationships to reduce strategic dependency on China, ban Chinese investment in critical infrastructure, promote human rights, and hold those responsible for atrocity crimes and violations of international treaty obligations accountable.
Both candidates have made a start. Sunak’s proposals to ban Confucius Institutes in our universities, establish an international alliance of free nations to tackle cyber-security threats, and expand MI5’s reach to better support British businesses and universities to counter Chinese espionage are very welcome.
One only has to wonder why he has only just come up with them. One also has to ask what he meant when he said in his Mansion House speech a year ago that “too often, the debate on China lacks nuance” and “we need a mature and balanced relationship”. And why Beijing, through its mouthpiece The Global Times, effectively endorsed him?
Sunak was also unwise to tweet that “China and the Chinese Communist Party represent the largest threat to Britain and the world’s security and prosperity”. It is vital that we distinguish, at every opportunity, between China as a great nation with a great people, and the CCP regime.
We might use ‘China’ as shorthand for the regime, but we should neither confuse the two nor imply that both are a threat. Otherwise, we risk playing into Beijing’s narrative or inadvertently stoking anti-Chinese racism, neither of which is helpful.
Truss has a longer track-record of talking tough on China. Last year it became known she had privately referred to the atrocities against the Uyghurs as a “genocide”, something which the United States has recognised but the British Government still officially refuses to do. She has spoken often of building a “network of liberty”, emphasised the importance of standing with democratic allies under pressure from Beijing (notably Australia and Lithuania), pledged to stand with Taiwan and promised to crackdown on Chinese companies such as Tik Tok.
When I, along with the charity I co-founded, Hong Kong Watch, were threatened by Hong Kong police in March under the draconian National Security Law, she spoke out for us. The values she has consistently signalled in her speeches are ones I enthusiastically support.
But there is more to do.
In particular, we need targeted sanctions. In March 2021, the United Kingdom finally sanctioned four senior officials and the Public Security Bureau of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, in response to the atrocities in Xinjiang. A long-overdue but good start, but not enough.
Chen Quanguo, the notorious former Party Secretary in Xinjiang (and previously Tibet), known as the architect of the intense crackdown, has still not been sanctioned. There is scope for many more officials to be sanctioned for atrocity crimes.
And it is outrageous that two years on from the imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, which tore apart the city’s freedoms in total breach of promises made in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a UN-registered international treaty, no one in either Beijing or the Hong Kong government has been sanctioned.
In May, 110 Parliamentarians from both Houses of Parliament wrote to the Foreign Secretary calling for an audit of assets held in the UK by Chinese and Hong Kong officials, with a view to sanctioning them.
If Beijing and its quislings in Hong Kong are not made to face any consequences for destroying Hong Kong’s freedoms, if they know there is no price to pay for ripping up an international treaty, then they are only going to be emboldened to further intensify repression at home and aggression abroad.
Whichever candidate wins, I hope they will act. If it is Truss, I hope she will be liberated from the constraints of Foreign Office traditionalists, Treasury interests and a No 10 ‘cakeist’ China policy and, taking the keys to Downing Street herself, overrule officials and impose sanctions.
If it is Sunak, freshly emancipated from Treasury shackles and newly converted to the cause of burying Operation Kowtow, I hope he will use the levers of power to deploy sanctions.
The debate on China this week is very welcome. But let China policy be more than a political football between two candidates. Let it now develop into a meaningful strategy for the United Kingdom government.
And at least neither candidate will be encumbered by a father who entertains the Chinese ambassador at his home or embarks on a trip to Xinjiang with a Chinese state television camera crew in tow.