Does the Chinese Communist Party understand how our parliamentary democracy works? The evidence from the last 24 hours suggests not. Along with some of my Conservative colleagues in the House of Commons – Sir Iain Duncan Smith, Tim Loughton, Tom Tugendhat and Neil O’Brien – as well as two peers, a QC and an academic, I have been banned from entering China, had any assets in China frozen (not that I have any there) and have had Chinese citizens and institutions prohibited from doing business with me. All because I have voiced well-evidenced concerns about the persecution of the Uyghur Muslim minority by the Chinese government.
The Beijing authorities, in retaliating against measures taken by the UK government on Monday over these human rights abuses, have made a serious miscalculation. Perhaps they believe that our democracy is some kind of bourgeois conceit – that MPs ultimately work for capitalist big business, who will tap the pencil and order us to be silent. Or they believe, even though we are all backbenchers, that Government ministers will take us to one side and tell us to stop criticising China so that we don’t lose out on foreign investment. If so, these sanctions dramatically illustrate the fundamental incompatibility of our two systems of government, and the vast cultural chasm between them.
What the Chinese Communist Party fails to realise is that MPs don’t work for big business, or for ministers, even when we are in the same parliamentary party. Ultimately, we work for our constituents, the people who elected us to office. An attack on us is therefore an attack on those voters. Secondly, the CCP fails to appreciate that MPs on all sides of the house – no matter what political disagreements we may frequently have in open debate – consider each other to be colleagues and friends. An attack on any one of us, in our role as Members of Parliament, is an attack on all of us – and the institution itself. That is underlined even more by the targeting of Baroness Kennedy and Lord Alton, fellow members of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China. Parliaments all over the world are in the CCP’s crosshairs.
Which is why, since 7am this morning, my phone has been ringing non-stop from parliamentary friends in all political parties offering their heartfelt support. Not one person has suggested that we go quiet on the issue of the abuses being inflicted on the Uyghur population. Quite the reverse: more MPs today than yesterday are interested in finding out what is going on in Xinjiang province. Like me, they want to know: what more is being hidden from the world?
Far from ministers being pressured into silencing us, they too have offered open support. The Prime Minister’s tweet today is a vital and very welcome intervention: ‘The MPs and other British citizens sanctioned by China today are performing a vital role shining a light on the gross human rights violations being perpetrated against Uyghur Muslims,’ he wrote. ‘Freedom to speak out in opposition to abuse is fundamental and I stand firmly with them.’
It should be noted that none of the censured MPs have been any more critical of China than, for example, the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who has spoken out strongly against the abuse of the Uyghurs from the Despatch Box. The targeting of backbenchers should then be seen for what it is – a move calculated to silence those who don’t have the support or shield of Government office.
What comes next? It is difficult to respond with complete freedom to an emerging economic and military superpower. But in my view the response from the UK should consist of three parts. First, we have to continue recovering our self-confidence. Perhaps to the surprise of some, the Government since Brexit has been more outspoken, and more agile, in voicing justified criticism of foreign powers. After a crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists, we invited hundreds of thousands of people to make the UK their home. We must not be afraid to call out wrongs and move faster than some institutions have been doing on China – including the UN and EU.
Secondly, we must learn to call things what they are. It was notable when Mike Pompeo, the former US Secretary of State, discussed China with Dominic Raab, the UK Foreign Secretary, at a Policy Exchange event in London last year that he consistently referred to the ‘Chinese Communist Party’ and the ‘People’s Republic of China’ by their full names, not using ‘China’ as a shorthand – as if 1.4 billion people are fully signed up to the actions of the one-party state.
Lastly, we must consider as a nation whether it is wise to allow China to continue to invest in our economy as much as is presently the case. The National Security and Investment Bill, currently going through Parliament, offers an opportunity for further scrutiny here. The scrapping of the Huawei 5G deal was unique because of its security dimensions; but we would be wise to consider what other deals should be re-examined. After all, this attack on parliament is unlikely to be the last.
There is a positive side to all this. The reaction from the Chinese Communist Party shows that some of the work going on in Parliament is having an effect – and is reaching the ears of those who matter in Beijing. Twelve months ago, the abuse of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang was only whispered about in Parliament. There was no sense that the UK’s supply chains might be affected, or that we could bring about real change. Now the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, of which I am a member, has held an inquiry into forced labour in UK value chains, and we have found ‘compelling evidence’ of Chinese slave labour links to major brands.
This is a breakthrough moment and Beijing’s anger only confirms that. A possible next step for Parliament should be to question whether British judges like Lord Neuberger should continue to sit in the Court of Final Appeal of Hong Kong. We have perhaps the most respected judiciary in the world, with a reputation for excellence, incorruptibility and independence. Is that reputation being enhanced, or undermined, by this association?
It is not for me to answer that here. But the Chinese authorities should realise that their actions today have laid down a challenge for Parliament. They have essentially told MPs to stop asking questions and to mind their own business. Throughout its history, our Parliament has never much liked that attitude. I can assure the Chinese Communist Party that I and my fellow MPs will continue to shine a light on their activities, and that Parliament – more than ever – stands behind us.