President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the United Kingdom in October 2015 was a landmark moment for the country’s relationship with China. It marked the first time a Chinese president had visited the UK in a decade, and resulted in business deals estimated to be worth almost £40 billion. The UK’s Conservative government described the visit as a “golden era” for relations and showed itself to be one of China’s closest friends in the West.
These joyful declarations of friendship and close relations were not as warmly welcomed by human rights observers however, who quickly highlighted that while the UK government is treating Xi Jinping as royalty, he is unleashing an unprecedented crackdown in his own country, the likes of which has not been seen since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
One of the most public displays of this crackdown began in the same month as the state visit, when between October and December five staff members of the publisher Causeway Bay Books disappeared. At least two of from mainland China, one from Thailand and one appeared to be taken in Hong Kong.
One of these booksellers bravely defied the Chinese authorities after his release, by revealing the details of his detention in front of television cameras in Hong Kong. Lam Wing-kee described how he was blindfolded and handcuffed at Hong Kong’s border with mainland China. He was then taken to a cell where he spent five months living in solitary confinement under constant observation, before being forced to confess to a historical crime on state television.
“It can happen to you, too,” he warned fellow Hong Kong residents. “I want to tell the whole world: Hong Kongers will not bow down to brute force.”
These illegal renditions were a very public example of the seriousness of what is taking place in China. It was also a wakeup call for the UK where, fresh from declaring the golden era in relations, it was now faced with their new partner publicly breaching the Sino-British Joint Declaration, without any regard for the UK’s interests.
The Joint Declaration came into force on 1 July 1997 after Hong Kong was returned to China and is the basis for Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which says that China agrees Hong Kong will be given autonomy for 50 years and its political and economic systems would not be changed. Britain is in the unique position of being able to speak out against China’s policies in the city until 2047.
One of the booksellers, Lee Po, is a British citizen, placing the UK in a position where it could no longer justify its own gushing rhetoric on the UN’s Human Rights Day in December 2015, when it praised China for protecting the civil and political rights of its citizens.
The government was forced to speak out, and in February foreign secretary Philip Hammond MP strongly criticized China in a public statement: “I am particularly concerned by the situation of Mr Lee Po, a British citizen. The full facts of the case remain unclear, but our current information indicates that Mr Lee was involuntarily removed to the mainland without any due process under Hong Kong SAR law. This constitutes a serious breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong and undermines the principle of “One Country, Two Systems” which assures Hong Kong residents of the protection of the Hong Kong legal system."
The abductions also became the catalyst for the Conservative party’s human rights commission to begin an inquiry into human rights abuses in China since Xi Jinping came to power.
The result of that inquiry is a comprehensive report titled The Darkest Moment. It is a nearly overwhelming catalogue of abuses, which take many different forms and across many different regions of the country. Former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind said that it “highlights the urgent need for reform in China”.
An early section of the report examines cases of state intimidation, abductions and propaganda. It lays out the abundance of power that Xi Jinping has amassed, comparing it to a level not seen since the rule of Mao Zedong. In a submission from Andrew Nathan, writer for The Economist, he writes Xi Jinping has “reinstated many of the most dangerous features of Mao’s rule: personal dictatorship, enforced ideological conformity, and arbitrary persecution.”
This great degree of power is enforced through the threat of arrest, imprisonment and torture, along with three new techniques since 2013: the intimidation and harassment of relatives, the abduction of dissidents from outside mainland China, and the introduction of televised confessions.
Following his abduction, Lam Wing-kee was paraded in front of state media to ‘confess’ for his role in a fatal 2003 hit-and-run car accident but later said his confession was forced. “I had to follow the script. If I did not follow it strictly, they would ask for a retake.”
There have also been cases of human rights lawyers being forced to take part in televised confessions. According to the report, Beijing lawyer Zhang Kai, who was detained after defending Christian congregations against the removal and destruction of crosses, appeared on state television in February 2016 to confess to disturbing social order and endangering state security.
These televised confessions are believed to be a way for Beijing to justify unlawful or extreme actions to the public.
Meanwhile, the two brothers and a sister of Chinese dissident Chang Ping were detained by Chinese police after he wrote an open letter in the German publication Deutsche Welle in which he called for Xi Jinping’s resignation. This method of abuse was, according to Ping, a way for the authorities to pressure him to withdraw his comments.
While these human rights abuses are extremely serious, they are significantly restrained when compared to the methods used in more isolated regions of China. Through evidence submitted from a variety of NGOs, news organizations and witnesses, the report found that people living in these regions face extensive, extreme and brutal persecution.
One of the most shocking examples of this is Tibet. At the report’s launch event at the Houses of Parliament on 28 June, Tim Loughton, a Member of Parliament and chair of the All Parliamentary Group for Tibet, described the situation as "deeply troubling" and said it has "never been worse". He went on to detail a wide range of human rights abuses touching on almost all aspects of Tibetan life, including the suppression of freedom of speech, language and culture, massive environmental destruction and the demolition of UNESCO World Heritage sites. He described the capital city of Lhasa as “Orwellian” with Tibetans constantly under intensive surveillance.
In a particularly honest and ominous warning about Beijing’s influence within Westminster and the international community, Loughton added that "people should not underestimate the tentacles that China extends throughout the world."
Since Chinese forces rolled into Tibet in 1949 to “liberate” the nation from what China said was an old feudal system, an estimated 1.2 million Tibetans have been raped, tortured and murdered, and thousands imprisoned, according to a submission from Yeshe Choesang, editor of Tibet Post International.
"Every aspect of Tibetan life is under siege and Tibetans have even fewer civil and political rights than Chinese people also ruled by the Communist Party," reads Choesang’s submission. "The regime enforces its control over every aspect through the threat and use of arbitrary punishments, at times including severe violence."
The shocking brutality inflicted on Tibetans is rarely reported, particularly since 2008 when large demonstrations in Lhasa led to a massive crackdown which has been in place ever since. Part of this crackdown involves isolating Tibet from the world by banning almost all foreign journalists, international observers, human right activists, and NGOs.
In a report released in 2016 by the US-based NGO Freedom House, it placed Tibet as the second worst place in the world for political rights and civil liberties.
This means that, even today, China is able to freely arrest, imprison and torture Tibetan writers, musicians, artists, environmentalists, and religious figures for the simple act of posting a blog, writing an essay, sending information by text message, or singing songs that express the suffering of the Tibetan people. These prisoners are later tried in secret without independent legal representation and the evidence used against them is extracted by torture.
These imprisonments are further detailed by Choesang, who claims that there are currently a total of 2,081 Tibetan political prisoners, and that they are frequently subjected to extreme forms of torture and denial of medical care. This has led to a number of cases where prisoners have died in detention.
In December 2014, a 33-year old Tibetan health worker and environmentalist Tenzin Choedak, who was arrested in 2008 on suspicion of leading a protest, died after being released to his family on ‘medical parole’. As a result of torture while in prison he suffered loss of vision, chronic diseases and had every bone in his feet broken and his jaw dislocated.
In a more widely publicized case, prominent Tibetan monk Tenzin Delek Rinpoche died in prison in July 2015. The authorities gave no clear reason for his death, and requests for the return of his body were rejected. His death prompted protests in his village and the Chinese police responded by firing on the protestors.
The NGO Free Tibet states in their submission: “a number of political prisoners escaped from Tibet between 2013 and 2016 and provided testimonies about their treatment in prison in the years immediately before 2013, including beatings by police and other security services during interrogation sessions, mock executions, receiving electric shocks during interrogations and being locked in cells that were pitch black or so small that they could not move around.
“There are also several clear indications that these practices continue. For example, several former political prisoners reported being shackled to a device known as an iron chair, which forces the detainee to bear their entire weight on their wrists and legs. They would be hung from this chair for periods of up to four or five hours at a time, sometimes accompanied by electric shocks and intervals when they are removed from the chair and beaten.”
Perhaps the most harrowing details found in the commission’s report comes from submissions from witnesses to China’s forced organ harvesting, a practice the commission said was “so disturbing” that they decided to conduct a further study in the future.
One group who are reportedly a target of organ harvesting are practitioners of the Falun Gong faith, who have been persecuted since the late 1990s when Communist Party leadership declared they should be eradicated.
The commission heard that former Falun Gong prisoners were subjected to medical examinations and blood tests which appeared to indicate they were being assessed for potential transplants.
Actress and Falun Gong practitioner Anastasia Lin said during the commission’s first hearing: “Concern stems in part from the significant discrepancy between the number of organ transplants performed and the known sources of organs: even when we include death row inmates, the number of transplants performed in China is far too high.”
She added: “The short wait times achieved by transplant hospital suggest that people are killed on demand for their organs.”
In September 2015 Ethan Gutmann, who has spent several years investigating the practice, summed up the history of practice to the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China, saying that he believes it began in 1994 with the first live organ ‘harvests’ coming from death row inmates in Xinjiang. By 1997, he said Uyghur Muslim prisoners in the region were being used for organ transplants to high-ranking officials in the Communist Party, and by 2001, Chinese military hospitals had begun using Falun Gong prisoners. In 2003, the practice was also being used on Tibetan prisoners.
“By the end of 2005, China’s transplant apparatus had increased so dramatically that a tissue-matched organ could be located within two weeks for any foreign organ tourist with cash,” he said.
These examples barely scratch the surface of what is found within the 70-page report, but they demonstrate the stark reality of life under the current Chinese leadership. The report is also refreshingly honest and in-depth, defying the silence that so many others have demonstrated regarding China.
Its 22 concluding recommendations could influence a change in the UK’s policy, which it notes has been noticeably weak since 2013: “economic interests appear to be overriding other important concerns in our relationship with China.”
An attitude which is simply not correct and must be eliminated, according to former Governor of Hong Kong Lord Patten, who attended the launch of the report. "We must raise these issues without fear of failure or that we are commercially shooting ourselves in the foot, because we are not,” he said.
How the UK proceeds from here is sure to raise many challenging issues for the future Conservative government once David Cameron steps down in September, particularly as the UK’s exit from the European Union would mean that countries such as China will become more important for trade and investment. Brexit may make it less likely that the government will take notice of the commission’s recommendations and gain the confidence to act.
The commission report quotes Lord Patton who, in 2014 during a hearing in the US Congress, spoke of the impact foreign governments can have: “In the days of the Soviet Union, when the Soviet Union was locking up dissidents … we used to say to dissidents sometimes when they were let out, ‘Was it a help or was it a hindrance when Western countries raised your case?’ … The dissidents themselves would always say it made a difference when you raise their cases publicly, when you raised the ante for the authorities. I think it is exactly the same with dissidents in China. I think it is exactly the same with those who are arguing for democracy in Hong Kong. I am quite surprised, I have to say, that we don’t raise the questions about dissidents as much as we used to or about religious freedom as much as we used to, when we talk to Chinese officials. I think we should do it more.”
Steve Shaw is a freelance journalist living in Manchester, England. He has worked internationally for The Tibet Post International and The Shan Herald News Agency; his work has focused primarily on human rights, injustice and conflict. He is also a contributor to the Bhutan News Agency and the business publication P1.