Written by Benedict Rogers.
As China intensifies its crackdown on human rights – the most severe since the Tiananmen massacre thirty years ago and many would say since the Cultural Revolution – and as it encroaches ever more seriously on freedoms in Hong Kong, eroding the principle of “one country, two systems” upon which the city was handed over to China 22 years ago, and as Xi Jinping’s regime becomes ever more sabre-rattling in its threats to Taiwan, it is impressive that Taiwan’s current government has taken up the promotion of democracy and human rights ever more boldly.
This year marks several key anniversaries. Seventy years ago this year, the People’s Republic of China was established; thirty years ago this month, the guns and tanks of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) were turned against thousands of peaceful protesters in Tiananmen Square and around the country; twenty years ago this July, the regime unleashed its full force against practitioners of a peaceful Buddha-school meditative practice known as Falun Gong; and on 1 July, we remember the 22nd anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China.
Over the past seven years since Xi Jinping came to power, China’s regime has repressed and regressed in every sphere. Less than ten years ago, I sat in a restaurant in Beijing with a group of Chinese human rights lawyers openly discussing prospects for liberalization in China. Now, most of those lawyers have either disappeared, are in jail, under house arrest or have been disbarred, disqualified and driven out of practice.
I first went to China in 1992, to teach English as an eighteen year-old in my gap year. Although it was only three years after the Tiananmen massacre, I found an atmosphere that, within limits, gave me some cause for hope. I was welcomed by the students I taught and the teachers I worked with. I spent many evenings learning to make dumplings and drinking Qingdao beer with my friends.
In September 1997, I moved to Hong Kong soon after graduating, just two months after the handover. I lived in the city for the first five years’ of Chinese sovereignty, and although there were some very subtle signs of self-censorship, by and large the concept of “one country, two systems” was working well. I worked as a journalist on publications that remained outspoken, and when I left in 2002 I stopped following Hong Kong because I felt that there was little to worry about. If you had asked me then, or even up until about 2014 when the Umbrella Movement began, I would have said that “one country, two systems” was working well.
Over the two decades when I travelled regularly in China, I visited Christians worshipping in small groups in apartments in different cities in China. While there was never religious freedom, and we all knew that large gatherings of unregistered Christians might face a crackdown, generally if the gathering was small it was left alone. I met prominent house church leaders in Beijing, Guangzhou and other cities, and although persecution continued in places, I was hopeful that gradually things would continue to relax.
So until Xi Jinping came to power, I was of the mindset, like so many, that continued economic liberalization would bring with it, however faltering, some political and social liberalization too. It might be two steps forward and one step back, there might be periodic crackdowns, but on the whole the trajectory – I thought – was clear.
The last seven years have proven me completely wrong. Xi Jinping has taken China back to the days of Mao Zedong. The only difference is that he is armed with better technology and far more prosperity, which he deploys for his cause.
Over the past seven years we have seen the most severe persecution of Christians since the Cultural Revolution, with churches forcibly closed, crosses destroyed, some church buildings dynamited, children forbidden to attend church, cameras placed on the altars of registered churches to record those who attend, pictures of Xi placed alongside – or instead of – Christ, and pastors arrested and jailed.
We have seen continued repression of Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong practitioners, and further allegations of forced organ harvesting.
We see today at least a million Uyghur Muslims rounded up and detained in prison camps in Xinjiang, with reports of Han Chinese officials moving into the homes of those Uyghur families not in the prison camps to monitor their activities. Muslims with beards are forced to cut them, Muslims who fast during Ramadan are forced to eat, Muslims who abstain from pork or alcohol for religious reasons are forced to consume them. It is an all-out assault on their religious practices.
And now today we see the crackdown in Hong Kong. Over the past five years, Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy have been steadily eroded. Pro-democracy protesters have been jailed, pro-democracy legislators and candidates disqualified, booksellers publishing books critical of China’s leadership kidnapped or detained in the mainland, foreign journalists and activists including myself and the Financial Times’ Asia News Editor Victor Mallet expelled, a law that will criminalise perceived insult to the national anthem, and threats to press freedom and academic freedom intensifying.
More recently we have seen the crisis over the proposed extradition law, which – if implemented – would allow for people in Hong Kong, a city that prides itself on the rule of law, to be extradited to mainland China, a jurisdiction based on rule by law. The bill would allow for suspects to be transferred to a judicial system that is not independent at all, where torture is widespread, forced confessions the norm, and televised confessions increasingly frequent.
The extradition bill drew more opposition than any other single threat to Hong Kong’s freedoms in recent years. Business leaders, publicly and privately, spoke out. The International Chamber of Commerce, the American Chamber of Commerce and others opposed it. Over 100 businesses closed to allow their employees to march in protest. Lawyers and judges demonstrated. Over a million people took to the streets. And globally, the European Union issued a demarche, the United States Secretary of State made a statement, as did the British Foreign Secretary and his Canadian counterpart and Parliamentarians and lawyers from around the world.
After protests which were met with violent police brutality, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam finally announced on 15 June that she would suspend indefinitely the introduction of the legislation – a small victory for liberty, the rule of law and common sense in an ongoing wider war for the survival of those values.
The international community has a responsibility to speak out, both at the grave human rights violations in mainland China, and the increasingly serious erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy. Hong Kong is, after all, “Asia’s world city” and a vital international financial centre.
Britain has a particular responsibility for Hong Kong, moral and legal, under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, an international treaty signed in 1984, lodged at the United Nations and valid until 2047. Until recently Britain has been alarmingly quiet, and only now is it beginning to find its voice. In the past few years its six-monthly reports have become more robust, but there is much more it can and should do.
Taiwan, already increasingly vulnerable to threats from mainland China, has in contrast shown remarkable courage in recent years. This year it has hosted not one but two conferences specifically on freedom of religion or belief, both opened by the President. Taiwan has appointed a special ambassador for freedom of religion or belief and made a contribution to an international fund for this issue. President Tsai Ing-wen met survivors of the Tiananmen massacre prior to the thirtieth anniversary, and has recently been tweeting robust statements in support of Hong Kong. Taiwan warned that if the extradition law in Hong Kong was implemented, not only would Taiwan not wish to use it, but it would issue a travel warning to its citizens about the dangers of passing through Hong Kong. It is no surprise that one of the Hong Kong booksellers, Lam Wing-kee, has fled to Taiwan for fear of the dangers of the extradition law, which he described as a “death sentence” for Hong Kong.
In October 2017 I was denied entry to Hong Kong, an incident that drew international attention. This year, I visited Taiwan twice, where I was warmly welcomed. The contrast was palpable. The difference between Taiwan and mainland China is like night and day. In mainland China, Xi’s regime is cracking down on freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression and all basic liberties in the most ruthless repression in decades. In Taiwan, there is a new awakening to the values of freedom, human rights and democracy, not only in protecting these for the people of Taiwan but promoting and defending them for others around the region and the world too. On Radio Taiwan International I was asked if Xi’s China is night and Taiwan is day, what is Hong Kong? “Dusk”, I replied. I can only hope that the sun will rise again in Hong Kong, that daylight will emerge in mainland China, and that all of us who cherish freedom and democracy will defend Taiwan.
Benedict Rogers is a writer and human rights activist working at the international human rights organization CSW. He is also founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch, co-founder and deputy chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission and author of the Commission’s 2016 report “The Darkest Moment: The Crackdown on Human Rights in China 2013-2016”.