Boris Johnson now has a hefty majority in Parliament. He can reshape Britain. He can redefine the Conservative party. And he can – to use a well-worn phrase – 'get Brexit done'. Which also means that after more than three years of being engulfed with Brexit, the government can now begin to turn its attention to the UK's relationship with China, and in particular our responsibilities for our former colony, Hong Kong.
The Prime Minister could potentially go in two directions. He may prioritise trade deals, even if that means sacrificing our values, our conscience and our reputation. Or he could say that 'Global Britain' will be a nation that, yes, trades with the world but also stands up for its values and defends others struggling for them. A Global Britain that not only wishes, in the words of the Brexit campaign, to 'take back control', but also champions freedom, human rights, human dignity and the rule of law around the world.
Either way, Boris Johnson should commission a comprehensive, wholesale review into Britain’s relationship with China. Such a review would cover trade, investment, security and human rights and ask tough questions: is trade with China really benefiting our economy? Do we have to be pusillanimous about our values in order to trade? Is it necessary to appease the Chinese Communist Party? What is the level of influence, infiltration and intimidation by the Chinese state within our own borders? And what should be our response to the human rights crisis in China today?
Simultaneously, there are four other steps the Prime Minister should take.
First, he should prevent the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from developing our core strategic 5G network – or at least postpone the decision until a comprehensive review into the company has been completed.
It's not just that Huawei poses a serious threat to our own national security. Research by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) and others has argued that Huawei is directly involved in the development of the Chinese regime’s tools of repression in Xinjiang:
“'Huawei provides the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau with technical support and training... In early 2018, the company launched an "intelligent security" innovation lab in collaboration with the Public Security Bureau in Urumqi. According to reporting, Huawei is providing Xinjiang’s police with technical expertise, support and digital services to ensure "Xinjiang’s social stability and long-term security".'
A second ASPI report released last month claims that Huawei developed the Xinjiang public security cloud which may aid the control and repression of Uyghur Muslims, and has a partnership with the Xinjiang Broadcasting and Television Network to enhance state propaganda. A Huawei director has said: 'Together with the Public Security Bureau, Huawei will unlock a new era of smart policing.' Is this really the company we want developing our 5G network?
Secondly, the Prime Minister should lead an international campaign against the atrocities in Xinjiang.
As the recent leak of over 400 pages of the Chinese regime's internal documents show, the incarceration of over a million Uyghur Muslims is one of the late 21st century’s most serious human rights crises. A UN Committee has described Xinjiang as 'a massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy, a sort of a no rights zone… members of the Uyghur minority, along with others who are identified as Muslim, are being treated as enemies of the State based solely on their ethno-religious identity.' A comment piece in China’s state media has publicly stated that the aim is to 'break [the Uyghur's] lineage, break their roots, break their connections and break their origins.' As the Washington Post said in a recent editorial, 'It’s hard to read that as anything other than a declaration of genocidal intent.'
Thirdly, an independent tribunal chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC (who prosecuted Slobodan Milosevic), found that it was beyond reasonable doubt that the Chinese state has been forcibly extracting human organs from prisoners of conscience for the transplant industry. The tribunal concluded that this amounts to a crime against humanity and that anyone engaging with the Chinese state should do so in the knowledge that they are 'interacting with a criminal state'. What is Britain’s response to this judgment?
Finally, and most importantly, the Prime Minister must speak out for Hong Kong. As the region's former colonial power and as a signatory to the Sino-British Joint Declaration, Britain has a moral and legal responsibility to act. Until now, perhaps because he has been focused on Brexit and the general election, we have not seen the Prime Minister tackle the crisis in Hong Kong. Now he must speak. He must reassert Britain’s leadership on the issue internationally.
While Britain should lead on Hong Kong, it cannot do it alone. The UK should work with like-minded allies to establish an international contact group at the UN. We should also protect Hong Kongers who are British citizens and hold British National Overseas (BNO) passports. They currently do not have the right of abode in the UK and this must change. Work must also be done to coordinate an international solution to offer sanctuary to young activists who might not be BNOs but who are in danger and need a place to flee from the Chinese state.
And, both for Hong Kong – and indeed for Xinjiang – Britain must implement Magnitsky-style sanctions and apply them to officials perpetrating or complicit in torture and other human rights abuses, whether they are the Chinese or Hong Kong authorities. There must be accountability for violations of international and human rights laws.
A year before the handover, the prime minister at the time Sir John Major, visited Hong Kong and promised that 'Hong Kong will never have to walk alone'. Britain now has a duty to speak up for the brave people of Hong Kong who only want what was promised to them – their basic rights, autonomy and way of life. They are on the new frontline of freedom and if we want to preserve our freedoms, we must defend theirs.
Benedict Rogers is East Asia Team Leader at the human rights organisation CSW, co-founder and chair of Hong Kong Watch and co-founder and deputy chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.