By Tom Kingsbury | Political Editor
On November 26, the Cardiff University Conservative Association welcomed Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, Hong Kong Watch founder Benedict Rogers, UK Project Director for the World Uyghur Congress Rahima Mahmut and founder of Keyboard Frontline Glacier Kwong to a discussion on China and ‘the fight for freedom’.
Kwong introduced herself first, discussing life as a Hong Kong citizen and political activist. She mentioned the recent national security law passed in Hong Kong, saying it illustrated how desperate the Chinese government had become, and noted that she had technically infringed it in her activism, as have many Hongkongers.
Hong Kong, she said, was a proxy for China and the rest of the world; a “battleground for freedom”. Hong Kong’s protests were threatening President Xi Jinping’s legacy, Kwong stated, hence the strong reaction to the protests.
The world, she argued, saw Hong Kong as a way to open up China, but this was not working. She said China was “a bully in the international community”, adding:
“The world cannot keep both its conscience and its money.”
Next to introduce themselves was Mahmut, who gave an account of her exit from China following the 1997 Ghulja Massacre.
She said she had hoped then that one day things would improve in China, but that this has not become a reality.
“Being Uyghur is now criminalized”, she said, referring to the highly controversial so-called Chinese “re-education camps” in the region of Xinjiang, which have received widespread accusations of being more akin to concentration camps, and have been internationally condemned.
Rogers spoke next, highlighting that this was a cross-party issue. He described his experience living in Hong Kong for years and speaking out against Chinese threats to democracy there, and later being barred entry to Hong Kong in 2017.
He described his work with Mahmut to raise money to help ‘Stop Uyghur Genocide’, a fundraiser which has received over ten thousand pounds so far.
Lastly, he criticised China’s “mendacious repression of the truth” regarding the coronavirus pandemic.
Tugendhat was last to speak, and said that the ‘fight for freedom’ was fundamentally “a Conservative fight, not just a British one”.
He added that the 2010s’ ‘golden era’ of Sino-British relations was “a mistake”.
Questions from the Conservative Society
How should we react to the threat of Chinese foreign policy?
Tugendhat replied that the strength of Britain was its international allies, so it should work together with international partners to establish a framework of rules and norms to combat China.
How do we balance trade and morals?
We are “genuinely dependent” on China, Tugendhat said. He argued that the silence from Arab states has been ‘deafening’, and came because they know the economic implications of speaking out against China. If it was the US making the same actions as China, he claimed, they would not be silent.
Has the UK response to China been sufficient?
Mahmut said the answer was no – she observed that the US has implemented sanctions on individuals and organisations in response to Uyghur human rights abuses, and argued this was the most realistic way to hurt China.
Kwong claimed that the UK seemed like it had “just woke up from a nap”. It is only now starting to respond to China’s actions, she said, which included China “obviously committing genocide”.
Rogers noted that the Cameron administration was primarily to blame for the weak response to China, pointing out that the UK declared a ‘golden era’ whilst serious human rights abuses were going on.
The government “rolled out the red carpet” for Xi’s visit to the UK, Rogers said, during which one MP was “surrounded by whips” after tabling a question about human rights abuses.
He argued the Chinese government would respect a nation that pressures them on issues more than one that ‘rolls over’.
Tugendhat pressed the need to demonstrate that there are lines that we will not let China cross. We stopped Huawei (from involvement in 5G networks in the UK), he said, but we need to stop the proposed China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN) nuclear station being built in Essex.
“Every time we roll over, the price we have to pay for saying no gets higher and higher.”
Questions from Gair Rhydd
Gair Rhydd also had the opportunity to ask some questions to the group.
Asked whether the west was in a new cold war with China, Kwong said that it was, adding that whilst the chances of it igniting were low, they were increasing.
She cited China’s threats to states such as Taiwan and demonstrations of military strength, and said that places like Taiwan were being used as a proxy for China in international affairs.
Next, we asked Mahmut about what can be done to hold the Chinese government accountable for their actions when they flatly deny certain activities, even presented with evidence.
The number one action to take is sanctions, she said, and boycotting goods and events such as the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics would also be effective.
She added students can help by making a lot of noise about issues, talking to people around them and otherwise raising awareness about issues such as the treatment of Uyghurs in China.
In his consideration of boycotting the Beijing Winter Olympics, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab stopped short of calling Chinese treatment of Uyghurs a genocide. Asked for his stance, Tugendhat said this was wrong, and that it is a genocide. He noted that the intention to commit genocide was there, and that people were being cautious of what they said because of the trade implications.
Finally, we asked whether China should be considered a significant electoral threat, given recent events.
Tugendhat said China was not a serious electoral threat, adding that ‘left wing agitators’ had supported China for being a Communist state regardless of its human rights abuses.
He said our democratic systems were safe, despite a recent report revealing significant Russian interference attempts and a lack of scrutiny over the extent to which the 2016 EU referendum and 2019 General Election had been interfered in.
Rogers agreed that China was not an electoral threat to the UK, but said it was at least interested to some extent in influencing politics, noting that at least four MPs had come to him saying they had been lobbied to tell him to keep quiet about China.
He acknowledged that although in the past the Labour shadow cabinet had not been tough on China, the new shadow cabinet – especially Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy and Shadow Minister for Asia Stephen Kinnock had been doing a good job confronting China.
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