Benedict Rogers: In China, we see the Tyranny of Tech
Georgia: Please explain a bit about yourself, and how you came to work on human rights, especially in China?
Ben: I first went to China when I was 18 years old in my gap year before university, and went to teach the city of Qingdao on the east coast of China. That’s how my interest in China began. I travelled widely in China ever since then until up until 2017 when I was denied entry to Hong Kong.
My involvement with human rights began when I was at university shortly after my time in China. I heard a speaker on my university campus, who spoke about a number of human rights issues, and I just got very, inspired and engaged. Over the years have been involved, with a number of different issues, particularly Burma or Myanmar, North Korea and other parts of Asia, but have also stayed involved with the China issue.
In 2014 when the umbrella movement took place in Hong Kong where I had lived previously after graduating from university I realized, things were significantly changing there. And so started to get involved in speaking out for Hong Kong, and co-founded Hong Kong Watch in 2017.
Georgia: How would you characterise the Chinese government’s attitude towards human rights?
Ben: Te Chinese communist party regime has, of course always been repressive and has always violated human rights. But I think that what we’ve seen under the current leadership of Xi Jinping over the last 10 years, has been the most, intense crackdown on human rights in China, since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, and in some respects, particularly towards, religion, it’s probably the most serious crackdown since the cultural revolution in the days of Mao,
It’s in quite stark contrast from the period in the late nineties and early 2000swhen I was travelling in China most regularly when there was a certain amount of space for some degree of independent media, bloggers, citizen journalists, and some limited space for religious minorities.
There were even Chinese human rights lawyers who were working and who were able within certain red lines, to take on cases. but what’s happened under Xi Jinping is that basically almost all of that space has been shut down. Many people have either literally disappeared or been arrested and it’s a really severe crackdown on human rights.
This is a regime that has never respected human rights, but it is particularly violating them at the moment. And the most egregious illustration of that is that it now stands accused by a very credible, independent tribunal of committing genocide and crimes against humanity against the Uyghurs.
Georgia: Why do you think the Chinese government has chosen to toughen its approach to human rights in recent years?
Ben: One explanation is that it seems that in the late 2000s in the few years leading up to Xi Jinpingtaking over the party, it seemed to be becoming more and more nervous of the space that they had allowed previously.
I think they felt that it had gone too far and was starting to turn into something that they couldn’t control. I think the one thing about the Chinese communist party that defines it is that it wants to be able to control everything. And if something is happening, if a group of people emerges, or if there are gatherings of people, it feels that it doesn’t control them and sot starts to get nervous.
Georgia: Are the regime’s tools of oppression always deliberate, or is a lot f it about incompetence?
Ben: I think to a large extent, through the 80s and 90s, the focus was very much on economic liberalization, and there was a sense that the regime was prepared to accept a certain amount of political and social liberalization as well in order to achieve the economic growth- within certain limits.
And obviously, we saw, for example, in 1989, there were certain limits. They weren’t prepared to tolerate them. That’s why we saw the crackdown in Indiana man, but overall, I think they were prepared to allow a certain amount of space to open up to allow for the economic opening and then thought from their point of view that it had gone too far.
Georgia: What is it that you feel most westerners misunderstand about China?
Ben: I think people are more and more waking up to this, but I think many people so not see what a threat China is. I think there’s still a tendency to see only its short term economic growth and its significance as a trading partner.
Whereas in reality, not only have they become more and more repressive to their own people, and more and more aggressive to international media, I think China is emerging as a real threat to the international rules-based order, and ultimately to our freedoms as well. Not enough people have woken up to this yet.
Georgia: How do you think western governments ought to approach China going forward?
Ben: I think liberal democracies should, first of all, be much, much more cautious and should review and adjust our relationships with China. They need to actually have a China strategy and China policy, which I think many countries don’t have. They need to move their position, from one purely focused on economics to a more balanced approach that factors in national security interests, values, and, reduces strategic dependency on China.
We should be diversifying our supply chains. We should be looking for ethical investment. Hong Kong Watch recently published a report that showed a significant number of pension funds are invested in Chinese companies that are complicit with atrocities against the Uyghurs.
The second thing I think liberal democracies should do as much as possible is to act together. When individual countries sort of taking on China, it is easy for the regime to retaliate and to divide and rule and play countries off against each other. Currently, Lithuania has been very brave in standing up to China and is feeling the heat as a result. Australia has also been in the same situation. We should be standing very strongly with Lithuania and Australia, not just rhetorically, but also economically. I remember this time last year, there was a big campaign, which I helped promote, to buy Australian wine in the run-up to Christmas while Australia was facing a kind of trade war with China. All Australia had done was to call for an international inquiry into the causes of COVID. Lastly, I would say in addition to reducing our strategic dependency and diversity diversifying supply chains, I think we also need to hold China to account for, genocide and crimes against humanity for dismantling Hong Kong’s freedoms in total violation of an international agreement.
I think that should mean targeted sanctions, not sanctions against the country or the people, but targeted sanctions, both Magnitsky style against officials, but also against Chinese entities, corporations that are complicit with this. Countries should impose, coordinate and impose such sanctions together because that’s when they’ll really have more of an impact.
Georgia: Do you think the likelihood of liberal democracies enacting such policies to hold China to account is high or low?
Ben: We’ve still got a lot more work to do on that, but I do think that there have been some encouraging signs over the last, year or two. Some countries are acting in a more coordinated way and within the United Nations for example and the G7 and the five eyes alliance really speaking out on China, the new Aukuscoalition.
Just recently the US hosted a summit of democracies, which is a welcome first step. However, if it just stays as a talking shop then obviously there’s a limited effect, but it ought to be built to a meaningful Alliance.
Although there is some disparity in approaches between different democracies I think there is a growing convergence. The US has taken a strong line in recent years. The UK is becoming a bit more robust, and certain extent Australia and Canada are similarly. Perhaps the new government in Germany may be more robust too.
I’ve spoken about Western countries, we shouldn’t forget also, the importance of cooperating with Japan, which seems increasingly concerned about China and its pressure on Taiwan. India has faced military hostilities with China on its borders, earlier this year.
Georgia: What threat does academia pose in fencing in China given the powerful influence of Chinese corporate funding across the world?
Ben: It’s an important question and this threat should be taken very seriously. On several occasions, I’ve spoken at universities and mainland Chinese students in the audience who have asked me questions that are perfectly courteous but that are clearly of pro-communist party.
By which I mean, questions founded on the regime’s propaganda. But then after the event is over, and as people are leaving, I’ve had other Chinese students coming up to me privately saying, “Thank you so much for what you’re saying, we really appreciate what you’re doing, but we didn’t feel safe enough to say so, or to ask a question in the formal Q and A, in front of other people.” This is very alarming that they felt in a British university that the arm of the Chinese communist party stretches there.
There’s been a number of reports on how academic research is, potentially compromised. A Civitas report from earlier this year gives a lot of examples of Russell Group universities that are wittingly or unwittingly involved in research projects with institutions in China that are either directly or indirectly part of the People’s Liberation Army.
So we may be either transferring knowledge and technology, that’s going to help the Chinese military or empowering the regime in various other ways. One of the first things that should be done would be to diversify sources of funding for universities to make sure that universities don’t become dependent on Chinese money and that Chinese money isn’t allowed therefore compromising academic freedom.
I would never, ever want to be in a situation where we don’t welcome Chinese students to the UK, and I certainly wouldn’t want to have a policy of abandoning students based on nationality or race that would be appalling, but I do think we should better background checks on individual students and researchers, particularly those who are coming into potentially sensitive disciplines. We should also be looking at other ways that we can strengthen protection for academic freedom, by the activities of the Chinese embassy and groups that are affiliated with tit on our university campuses.
Georgia: So from your extensive experience, what role does technology play in suppressing design descent in China and Hong Kong?
Ben: Technology plays an absolutely crucial role. China is
very much a surveillance state. So Xinjiang in particular is full of facial recognition, and various other ways of checking people, monitoring their mobile phones, the use of GPS to monitor people’s movements, plus old fashioned surveillance as well. There are checkpoints and roadblocks on every corner.
In Hong Kong, I think it’s certainly increasing. There are surveillance cameras, facial recognition, cameras, artificial intelligence, and the monitoring of online activities. In the rest of China, all these things are increasing as well, and particularly the use of the so-called social credit score.
Depending on what websites you’re looking at, if you are looking at websites that the party doesn’t approve of, that can result in a reduced social credit score, which can then affect basic day-to-day activities, like buying a train or a flight ticket. So it’s absolutely at the heart of the system of repression., and the other concern is that, of course, China is exporting this technology to other dictatorships around the world.
It’s not just a question of the repression in China, they’re facilitating repression in other regions as well, such as in Burma or Myanmar which has included a transfer of surveillance technology. It has also worked closely with North Korea.
Georgia: Why do you think so many western governments still approve contracts with Chinese tech companies such as Hikvision for CCTV contracts, despite their role in human rights abuses?
I’m asking the same question. It was amazing to see the debates over Huawei’s potential involvement in 5gjust before the pandemic. It took a huge effort by parliament to get the government to rethink. I mean, the government was determined to go ahead, but right up until the last moment, and I think it was only because of both parliamentary pressure and pressure from some of our allies, the US and Australia in particular, that they then back down and sort again and, and the same issue with vision and the reason, some concerns, I don’t know the details on this, but some concerns that, potentially some Chinese made cameras in government buildings are there.
It just seems an extraordinary naive national security risk to haveHikvision or other Chinese made cameras in government buildings. I think people are becoming more aware of this, and I certainly hope the government will move, to protect national security, as well as basic freedoms and privacy by, being much more careful about what technology we use.
Georgia: Have you noticed western governments taking more of an authoritarian approach in recent years?
Ben: I think it’s definitely something to be concerned about. I certainly think the use of technology particularly during COVID with vaccine passports and, various other apps that we use. Although there may be a case for them in the specific context of a pandemic, we need to be very careful about how they’re used and what is done with the information that’s held on them.
It’s also quite concerning that many people point out the harsh way China has dealt with the pandemic as an example for us in terms of the use of technology and restrictions and lockdowns. We do have to be extremely careful that we don’t go down more authoritarian routes, longer-term.
Georgia: Feel free to explain a bit about your upcoming book & when it will be out.
Ben: I’m writing it really because I felt that although there are thousands of books on China, there were very few books that really put together, in some depth, all its regime’s different human rights issues in one volume.
It is not intended to be a personal story, but I’ll use some of my personal experiences to add a bit of colour to the narrative. It should come out sometime late next year.
Benedict Rogers is the co-founder and deputy chairman of the Conservative Party’s human rights commission and the co-founder of the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea. He is also the East Asia Team Leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide and the founder of Hong Kong Watch. He is also a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and an advisor to the World Uyghur Congress.
Georgia L. Gilholy is a journalist and a Young Voices contributor.