Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident and Nobel Laureate, once said “there is no force that can put an end to the human quest for freedom”.
Through its brutal attempts to silence its critics – democrats in Hong Kong, Uighurs in Xinjiang, and dissidents across the mainland – the Chinese Communist Party remains ideologically opposed to that quest for freedom.
In a further crude attempt to silence opposition, it has now added UK parliamentarians to its hit list – with the imposition of sanctions on seven legislators. These sanctions, barring entry to China, Hong Kong or Macau, and prohibitions on interaction with Chinese citizens and institutions, should be seen against the backdrop of genocide in Xinjiang, and the emasculation of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement – all of whose leaders are now in jail, face charges or are in exile.
Yet every time Beijing tries to silence one voice, it ensures that hundreds more are raised in defence of the quest for freedom, democracy and human rights. The sanctions come in the aftermath of this week’s votes on the all-party genocide amendment, which I sponsored to the Trade Bill, and the publication of targeted Magnitsky sanctions against violators of human rights in China.
The sanctions should make us focus not on the sanctioned but on the victims of the CCP’s brutal authoritarianism, and why silence in the face of this can never be an option. Two years ago I was one of the international team which monitored Hong Kong’s last free elections. All of the courageous pro-democracy leaders are now incarcerated in jail, under arrest or in exile.
I have personally interviewed or appeared on platforms with Uighurs who have described what has been named by the parliaments of Canada and Holland, along with the incoming and outgoing administrations in the US and by 50 scholars and lawyers in a 25,000 page report, as an unfolding genocide.
I have worked with dissidents and activists hunted down, intimidated and bullied, by the CCP, including the blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng, who spent four years in CCP prisons, and hosted a visit to Liverpool by the Dalai Lama, who has spent 60 years in exile.
Those who are free have a duty to go on speaking on behalf of those who are not
In the face of the CCP’s return to darker times, the choice for the UK will be to accommodate authoritarianism or to recalibrate our relationship. The CCP assumes that trading with a state credibly accused of genocide will be more important to the UK than defending the values we cherish. But recent parliamentary votes suggest that across the political spectrum the tectonic plates have shifted. The Golden Era is dead and is waiting to be buried.
In targeting and in trying to silence parliamentarians, the CCP has seriously underestimated our passionate belief in freedom of expression and made a grave miscalculation. As democrats, of course we believe in discourse and dialogue, and we should certainly engage with China – but that can never mean unquestioningly kowtowing to the CCP line.
As a pen holder of the Sino-British Declaration, an international treaty signed in our name with Beijing, and illegally trashed by them, we have a clear obligation to defend Hongkongers, now routinely persecuted for supporting the values we share. But there is also a direct link between the UK and Xinjiang – through which we routinely profit off the backs of slave labour and a genocidal state.
While maintaining open communication with an important world power, it cannot be at the expense of upholding our historic, moral, and legal duty to Hong Kong, and to ethnic and religious minorities like the Uighurs. We are signatories to the 1948 Convention on the Crime of Genocide and that brings with its duties to prevent, protect and punish.
If those who breach international treaties and commit atrocity crimes are not held to account, international order will count for nothing and the world will become increasingly safe for authoritarianism. The CCP needs to learn that you can’t silence the whole world. The recent rebuilding of international alliances of like-minded nations is hugely welcome and long overdue.
These sanctions demonstrate the stark contrast between a country in which parliamentarians are free to speak about genocide and gross violations of human rights, and a country which perpetrates such crimes with impunity and then tries to silence anyone who dares to speak out.
Those who are free have a duty to go on speaking on behalf of those who are not. Not only is it an essential part of what Liu Xiaobo called the quest for freedom, he also rightly asserted that “freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity and the mother of truth”.
It is the duty of British parliamentarians to go on speaking truth to power, and truth to tyranny. The CCP is fundamentally mistaken if it believes that sanctions on legislators will deter them from doing that.
David Alton, a crossbench peer, is a member of the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Select Committee, and vice chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Groups on Hong Kong and the Uighurs. He is a patron of Hong Kong Watch