Twenty-four years ago, I went to China to teach English. I was eighteen years old, and it was just three years after the Tiananmen massacre. I fell in love with China, with its people, history and culture; I learned some Chinese; and over the subsequent years I travelled regularly throughout the country. I have lost count of how many visits I have made, but it is several dozen. I lived in Hong Kong for the first five years of Chinese rule, from 1997-2002.
Until very recently, I had hope for China. I subscribed to the belief that as it opened up economically, it had to reform politically. When, exactly twenty years ago, Amnesty International published a report titled No One Is Safe in China, I dismissed it as an exaggeration. My Chinese friends - students, teachers, business people - all seemed 'safe'. While there were, I readily acknowledged, serious human rights abuses, and the tools of repression remained in place, I was optimistic that China would liberalise.
When Xi Jinping became President, many people, myself included, believed he might be the man to advance political reform.
Now, after three years of President Xi's rule, I have radically revised my view. Today, twenty years on from Amnesty's damningly titled report, I conclude that they were right, their report was prescient, the title apposite.
In the past three years, human rights in China have taken a dramatic decline. Some argue that we are witnessing the most severe and extensive crackdown on dissent since the Tiananmen massacre. And that ruthless crackdown is extending beyond mainland China, to Hong Kong and to Chinese dissidents beyond China's shores. Xi Jinping's China is returning to Cultural Revolution practises of national televised forced 'confessions' and North Korean-style abductions.
In July last year, an unprecedented crackdown on lawyers began. Over 300 lawyers, their associates and relatives were arrested and detained. In what became known as the "709 Crackdown" because it began on 9 July, some were jailed, some disappeared, some were released but subjected to constant monitoring and harassment. Since then, at the beginning of this year at least fifteen were arrested and formally charged with subversion. Subversion carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, while incitement to subversion, a charge some face, could result in fifteen years in jail. They include prominent lawyers Wang Yu and Li Heping, and Christian activists Liu Yongping and Gou Hongguo. The youngest was Bao Zhuoxuan, Wang Yu's 16 year-old son, who was kidnapped twice after escaping.
Lawyer Zhang Kai, who has been detained since last August, was paraded on national television last week, giving a "confession" admitting to "disturbing social order", "endangering state security" and behaving in an unprofessional manner. His confession was almost certainly forced.
For international investors, the rule of law is surely important. Investors need to be confident that their investments are legally protected. Yet the rounding up of hundreds of lawyers hardly demonstrates the rule of law. In Xi Jinping's China, the regime is more interested in rule by law - enforcing unjust and repressive laws - than the rule of law by which everyone, including the regime's officials, should be held accountable. And under that "rule by law", two new laws are of particular concern - the new Security Law and the new law on Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), both of which are alarmingly restrictive.
In 2013, the authorities in China's southern province of Zhejiang began a campaign to destroy crosses on church buildings. Since then, more than one thousand crosses have been destroyed, including from official State-sanctioned churches. Christians and lawyers who have spoken up against the destruction of crosses have been arrested, and several pastors jailed.
Perhaps most alarming has been Beijing's treatment of Hong Kong. At least five Hong Kong booksellers have disappeared, believed to have been abducted from the territory by Chinese agents because they sold books critical of Chinese leaders. This, combined with the gradual suppression of pro-democracy activities in Hong Kong, the trial of Joshua Wong and his colleagues, the Hong Kong government's angry warning to the US not to 'interfere', and the total refusal to listen to the demands for universal suffrage expressed by the Umbrella Movement in 2014, indicate that Beijing has torn up the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law, the two documents meant to provide a stable foundation for Hong Kong for the first fifty years under Chinese rule. As Hong Kong's former Chief Secretary Anson Chan says, all these combined spell "the death knell for 'one country, two systems'".
Equally concerning is China's new crackdown on foreign dissidents. Human rights activists have never been welcomed in China, but in the past the worst fate they would face would have been deportation. Yet in January, Swedish activist Peter Dahlin was detained for several weeks, without access to his embassy, and only released after making a televised "confession", admitting violating Chinese law.
Anastasia Lin, who was crowned "Miss World Canada" last year, is not only a beautiful Chinese-Canadian actress, but an enemy of the state in the eyes of Beijing. An outspoken activist who was born in China, she was refused entry to the country to attend the Miss World final, because of her activism. Her speeches, articles and videos on human rights in China are well worth watching.
The continued detention of Liu Xiaobo - the world's only Nobel Peace Prize Laureate currently in jail - and other dissidents such as Hu Jia does not bode well for reform in China. Neither does the case of Chen Guangcheng, the blind human rights defender whose treatment before his escape to the United States in 2012 was shocking. His book, The Barefoot Lawyer: The Remarkable Memoir of China's Bravest Political Activist, should be required reading for anyone wanting to understand China today, as should Bob Fu's brilliant memoir, God's Double Agent: The Story of a Chinese Christian's Fight for Freedom.
On top of all this, there is the emerging personality cult of Xi Jinping, not seen since the days of Mao, coupled with increasingly pervasive propaganda, censorship and suppression of media freedom. Not to mention the continuing repression facing Tibet, Xinjiang and Falun Gong. In an extraordinary move, Xi Jinping banned Muslims in Xinjiang from observing Ramadan last year.
This marked deterioration in human rights in China comes at an awkward moment for the United Kingdom, which declared last year a "golden era" in Sino-British relations and expressed its aspiration to be China's "best friend".
When Xi Jinping visited London on the first State visit by a Chinese president in a decade, Britain didn't just roll out the red carpet, it raised the white flag of surrender and the red flag of the Chinese Communist Party. Lining the streets of the Mall towards Buckingham Palace stood thousands of Chinese - not there to protest for freedom, but instead bussed in and paid by the Chinese embassy to cheer their tyrant and silence dissent. I was shoved out of the way several times when I merely tried to observe the President's carriage. When one paid goon stood in front of me with the Union Jack and the Chinese flag, blocking my way, I muttered to my colleague that it was clearly deliberate. "These flags are not for you," the Chinese agent responded. "Well that one is our flag," I replied, pointing at the Union Jack. He grimaced menacingly, and another Chinese man with an earpiece lingered nearby. That same day, the British police arrested an exiled Chinese dissident, Shao Jiang, a survivor of the Tiananmen massacre, and raided his home. Not content with simply silencing critics at home, China insists on trampling on freedom of speech abroad too. China is, as academic Perry Link put it in an excellent article fourteen years ago, the "anaconda in the chandelier".
The abduction of Chinese dissidents from Thailand and elsewhere is appalling. Yet even more shocking is that it has been met with comparative silence by the rest of the world. Apart from some principled Members of Parliament who spoke out during Xi's UK visit, the silence is deafening. As the Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, Fiona Bruce MP, put it, China has enjoyed the limelight - now it must be put in the spotlight.
On all these human rights questions, the tendency these days is to see the dollar signs and not the human beings, to admire the alluring chandelier and ignore the anaconda lurking dangerously, and to kowtow instead of speak up. As the former Governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten, in the brilliant documentary The Last Governor, put it, there are some in the foreign policy establishment, in Britain and elsewhere, who, if China declared a policy of the slaughter of the first-born, might say: "Well, maybe it is not unreasonable in the circumstances. You know, you have to allow for different cultural traditions.' I mean, do we ever have a bottom line?"
We should have a bottom line. Few people would suggest that we should not build a relationship with China, few would call for an end to trade, few would argue for disengagement. China cannot be ignored, economically or politically. It is of course in our economic and strategic interests to trade and invest and find ways to work with China. But at the same time, when it comes down to it, China is a bully, and bullies need standing up to. As James MacGregor, chairman of the consulting company APCO based in Shanghai, put it on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme: "If you act like a panting puppy, the object of your attention Is going to think they've got you on a leash. China does not respect people who suck up to them." Kowtowing, as the British Prime Minister's former strategic advisor Steve Hilton put it very vocally, is morally wrong and economically short-sighted.
It cannot be in our interests to allow the rule of law to unravel in China and to see hundreds of lawyers arrested, detained, harassed and paraded on national television like hostages held by a terrorist group. It cannot be in our interests to allow severe violations of freedom of religion or expression to go unchallenged. It cannot be in our interests to allow Xi Jinping's thugocracy to buy its way to influence. It cannot be in our interests to surrender all the values we hold dear, just for a few billion pounds of business deals. Furthermore, it doesn't have to be a binary choice. Other countries have shown that it is possible to do business with China and speak up on human rights. When Angela Merkel visited China she spoke up on human rights - and Germany does good business with China. So too did the Dutch King.
The UK says it wants to be China's "best friend" in the west. The question, though, is friendship with whom?
Friendship between the peoples of Britain and China is certainly something to work for, through academic, cultural and economic exchanges. Perhaps such engagement may contribute, in the long-term, towards opening China up politically.
Friendship with those in China who are struggling for democracy, human rights, the rule of law, basic human dignity - absolutely. These are the very people we must befriend. I long to see a China led by the likes of Liu Xiaobo, Gao Zhisheng, Zhang Kai, Ai Weiwei and others in mainland China and a Hong Kong led by Martin Lee, Christine Loh, Emily Lau, Joshua Wong and Cardinal Zen. It is people like Anastasia Lin and Wang Yu and the Dalai Lama who should be our friends, not the gangsters in Beijing.
Friendship between the two governments can never be true as long as Xi Jinping continues his repressive policies which are taking China backwards, not forwards. True friendship is based on shared values. In today's China, lawyers get rounded up, jailed or simply disappeared just for doing their job; Christian crosses are destroyed for no reason; Christian pastors are jailed; dissidents are tortured; human body parts are chopped up and sold to the highest bidder. It's a land of forced abortions, gendercide and human trafficking; a land where women from Burma and North Korea are sold into sexual slavery, children sold into slave labour and political prisoners forced to sell their body parts. It's a land of executions, a land where critics from Hong Kong or dissidents living in Thailand are kidnapped by the regime and never seen again, a land where to be a Tibetan or a Falun Gong practitioner or a Uighur Muslim or a North Korean refugee is to take your life in.your hands, a land of censorship and propaganda where the media is under orders only to promote the image of its President and the ruling Communist Party. And this is the country Britain says it wants to be "best friends" with? This is the "golden era" of Sino-British relations? Are we sure about this? I am not.
You can talk to a bully and a thug, you can try to reason with a gangster or a terrorist, but you cannot ever build a true friendship until they show signs of changing their ways, and especially not if you act like a coward or a supplicant. The same is true of Xi Jinping's regime. It is time to get off our knees, stop kowtowing, stand up and speak out. Like all bullies, China will respect us more if we do so - and perhaps then, there is a chance of China changing. For at the moment, twenty years after Amnesty International's report, no one is safe in China.
Suggested For You
SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements.Learn more