Credit: Anastasia Lin
This year there have been two big campaigns which have gripped hearts and minds: the EU referendum in Britain, and the presidential election in the United States. Yet as the year draws to a close, there is one race that, for me, trumps both (no pun intended), and that is the Miss World final, which begins at the end of this week.
I am a human rights activist, a writer, a former and potentially future parliamentary candidate, a bookworm and a Catholic who usually hasn't the slightest interest in beauty pageants. Not that I don't appreciate beauty, of course - I do. It's just that I tend to think more about human suffering, injustice, conflict, spirituality, philosophy and politics or, when I am relaxing, about literature, poetry, music and cuisine, than dresses, hair-styles and make-up. Until this year, that is.
Somewhere towards the end of last year, I became aware of the winner of Miss World Canada 2015, Chinese-born Canadian actress Anastasia Lin, and China's absurd decision to deny her entry to the Miss World finals held in Sanya, Hainan Island, China. Immediately, I felt empathy with Anastasia because I have been deported not once, but twice, from Burma by its military dictatorship and chased by the police in China. I lived in Hong Kong for five years and have travelled in and out of China dozens of times over the past two decades. I have written widely about China's rapidly deteriorating human rights record, including on this site.
Then, in February, I stumbled across her remarkable speech at the Oxford Union, on social media. I listened, enthralled. This, I instantly realised, was a quite extraordinary young woman. Not only stunningly beautiful - and yes, I am a man, and I am not shy to acknowledge what is blatantly obvious - but captivatingly intelligent, enchantingly principled, inspiringly courageous.
At the time I saw her Oxford Union speech, I was in the midst of organising an inquiry on human rights in China for the UK's Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. Together with a few brave Members of Parliament, we were already challenging Britain's policy of kowtowing to China, and we needed more ammunition. When I watched Anastasia's speech, I had renewed fire in my belly.
I then did what seems the craziest of things. I wrote to Anastasia, on the spur of the moment, to ask if she would testify at one of our hearings in London just a few weeks later. Crazy, because who was I to write to a stunning actress and Miss World Canada? Crazy, more to the point, because we had absolutely no budget whatsoever to fly her to London. She'll never come, I thought. She'll be booked up months in advance. She'll charge a fee we can't afford. She'll want to fly first class and we can't even pay economy. What the heck, I thought. Nothing to lose by asking. So I wrote. Within minutes, I got a reply. "I'm interested," she said. A few more messages followed, explaining details, and she replied: "I'll come".
She came, she testified, and she conquered.
I then wrote the Commission's report, after an inquiry process involving two three-hour hearings, receiving oral evidence from ten witnesses, and reading through over 30 written submissions. To my surprise, Anastasia offered to come to speak at the launch of the report - titled The Darkest Moment: The Crackdown on Human Rights in China 2013-2016. Alongside the former Governor of Hong Kong Lord Patten, and Angela Gui, daughter of abducted Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai, Anastasia spoke about her courageous efforts to use her platform as an actress and a beauty queen to speak up for those who could not speak up for themselves. Her father has been threatened as a result, and Anastasia receives constant abuse from the Chinese Communist Party's online trolls, the 50-cent army, but she valiantly soldiers on. And she came to London, once again, at her own expense in order to speak out.
Two days after the launch of our report, our Commission held a hearing on forced organ harvesting in China, and Anastasia stayed on in London in order to testify again.
The next time we saw each other was in September, when I helped organised a screening for the film The Bleeding Edge, which depicts China's forced organ harvesting and in which Anastasia stars. The Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow, whom I had introduced to Anastasia in March, offered to host the screening in his official residence, Speaker's House. Members of Parliament from all parties and both Houses attended and were shocked by what they saw. A few weeks later, MPs tabled a debate on organ harvesting in China, and an Early Day Motion. A campaign is underway to urge the British government to support an independent, international inquiry.
A month later, Anastasia again came to the United Kingdom, this time to speak at an event alongside the former President of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed, a human rights hero himself, as well as David Burrowes MP and myself, at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham. In what was one of the best attended fringe meetings of the entire conference, Anastasia challenged delegates to stand up to China over human rights. "When you get too close to a panda, one day, it's going to bite your finger off," she said.
Within just over seven months, Anastasia has come to the United Kingdom four times, each time without expenses being paid. Each time she has spoken with incredible courage, in the knowledge that the threats her father faces may intensify. Each time she has spoken out, she has done so knowing that as an actress, she is risking her dream of a life in Hollywood, as China's influence rises. Yet she has not once shrunk from the vision she has or the task she has set herself.
I admit I am a novice in commenting on Miss World pageants. Yet from what I have learned, the philosophy the founders Eric and Julia Morley have established is summed up in the phrase: "Beauty with a purpose". I have never met anyone in life who more epitomises that phrase than Anastasia Lin.
Born just after the Tiananmen massacre and raised until she was 13 in Communist China, she moved to Canada and the scales fell from her eyes. The truth about the values of freedom, human dignity, human rights dawned on her, and she realised she had been lied to. More than that, she resolved to challenge those lies. Her transformation from Communist student leader to Canadian democrat within just a few years must be recorded as one of the most heroic stories of our age. And at still only 26, she has so much to learn - yet so much also still to teach us.
I may never follow another Miss World pageant so closely, but in 2016, a year which has seen so much division and conflict, I cannot imagine a more worthy recipient of the crown than a young woman who has struggled through her own journey from repression to freedom, and has done so with a grace, humility and peace that is, to use her favourite term, "awesome". Her campaign platform is focused specifically on drawing the world's attention to the horrific allegations of forced organ harvesting in China, human rights more widely, and to the simple belief that every small act of human kindness can contribute to changing the world. Recently she posted on Facebook what she said was one of her favourite cinema quotes, the words of Gandalf in JRR Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings: "Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love." When I shared with her these words of the former Chief Rabbi in the UK, Jonathan Sacks, in his book To Heal A Fractured World, she adopted them almost as her own: ""Against the fundamentalisms of hate, we must create a counter-fundamentalism of love ... 'A little light', said the Jewish mystics, 'drives away much darkness'. And when light is joined to light, mine to yours and yours to others, the dance of flames, each so small, yet together so intricately beautiful, begins to show that hope is not an illusion. Evil, injustice, oppression, cruelty do not have the final word."
As the pageant commences in a few days time, there's a people's vote in Miss World, so make Anastasia the people's choice. And I urge the judges to make her the overall winner. You can also support her by donating. If she wins it would be a victory for the values of human rights, peace, compassion and love, and a rebuke to the thugs in Beijing who denied her the chance a year ago. As a Christian, I believe in the ultimate Comeback Kid, the man who the world thought they'd killed and who then rose again. Let the same be true of Anastasia Lin, whose name, after all, means "Resurrection". Vote Anastasia, for beauty with purpose.