A love affair with China that turned sour


When I was 18, I arrived in Beijing, found my luggage had been lost in Karachi and, needing a change of clothes, bought a T-shirt that said: “You are not a real man if you have not climbed the Great Wall of China.”

In subsequent years I not only walked along various parts of the wall, but I also slept on it once under the stars.

I never imagined that over a quarter of a century later I would be engaged in a daily war — at least of words — with China’s brutal Communist Party regime.

My love affair with China — the country, the culture, the people — began when I went to teach English for six months in my gap year before university.

I taught in two schools in Qingdao, the east coast former German treaty port famous for the best beer in China.

My students were almost the same age as me, and I made many friends among them and my fellow teachers.

I recall trying to learn the language and getting into terrible trouble with the tones.

I couldn’t understand why my faltering attempt to say “excuse me” to young female shop assistants was met with a stare or an embarrassed giggle until it was pointed out to me that I was actually saying “please kiss me.”

They never did. Instead of telling people, I was an English teacher, I proudly declared that I was “an old English snake”. Thankfully I never said that at the same time as accidentally asking for a kiss.

I recall fondly many evenings being taught to make dumplings.

I impressed my friends with my chopsticks.

I had a tour of the brewery and then had to teach a class afterwards (and I don’t recall how it went).

I caused traffic to grind to a halt at a major junction when bags of oranges bought in the market broke and spilt from my bicycle.

I even scripted and produced a performance of “Alice in Wonderland” — the first school play ever performed in Qingdao’s No.9 Middle School.

For the scenes where Alice shrinks, we cast someone particularly small.

We found a medium-sized girl to play Alice when she was normal size. But the cast was quick to point out that there was only one person significantly taller than everyone else and so, with pantomime humour, I was cast by my cast to play Alice — complete with hairband — when she grows tall. Needless to say, I will not be releasing the pictures.

So much did I love China that I returned to Qingdao twice during my summer holidays as an undergraduate to teach English to doctors and nurses in a hospital. I did a master’s degree in China Studies before moving to Hong Kong for my first job after graduation, working as a journalist in the city for the first five years after the handover.

During my time in Hong Kong I travelled into mainland China regularly.

I was of course always attuned to the human rights situation.

I wrote my master’s dissertation on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime’s policies towards religion. I visited underground house churches. And one of my favourite activities on business trips to Beijing was to walk back in the moonlight from a restaurant I loved, through the Forbidden City and out through the arches beneath Mao Zedong’s portrait into the empty, floodlit Tiananmen Square.

As I did so, I was always conscious both of the rich and beautiful history of this great civilization and of the bloody past that still haunts that square.

But until Xi Jinping came to power, I had few scrapes with the regime.

Only once did one edition of the small China-focused business magazine I edited in Hong Kong get banned on the mainland — and that was because we carried an interview with former Tiananmen demonstrator and labour activist Han Dongfang, headlined “One day workers will take to the streets, warns labour dissident.”

Once, when I was the lead writer on a Hong Kong newspaper, Regina Ip, the city’s secretary for security at the time, complained to my editor about a column I had written.

But generally, I was low-key and continued to travel to the mainland, and back to Hong Kong after I left the city, until about six years ago.

And to be very honest, until Xi Jinping came along, I was cautiously optimistic that as China liberalized economically, it would open up politically.

Indeed, I saw it for myself. About 10 years ago I sat with Chinese human rights lawyers in a restaurant in Beijing and talked surprisingly openly about prospects for reform.

None of us were under any illusions about the repressive nature of the CCP, but they were clear that some space — albeit with limits — had opened up for them to represent human rights cases.

I heard the same when I met with house church Christians, bloggers, journalists, civil society activists. Not that they were without harassment or restrictions, not that they were free, but that the cage that they were in was somewhat bigger and the bars a bit more relaxed.

Then along came Xi.

It would be a mistake to put it all on his shoulders alone — he could not have unleashed the ferocious crackdown that has occurred in the past eight years without the support of other senior CCP leaders.

But nonetheless, under his leadership the space for civil society that I witnessed has all but disappeared and China today is facing the most brutal assault on human rights since the Tiananmen massacre 31 years ago. And in one sphere — religious freedom — the repression is the worst since the Cultural Revolution.

The turning point

And so I knew I could stay low-key no longer. The turning point for me came when Xi Jinping visited Britain in 2015. I remember clearly walking across St James’ Park in London to join a protest on the Mall. From a distance, I saw thousands of people lining the Mall with Chinese calligraphy on their large banners.

Heartened, I thought how wonderful it was that so many people were exercising the freedoms we have in Britain to send Xi a message. But as I drew closer, I realized they were there not to protest but to cheer him. They were Chinese students bussed in — and paid — by the embassy to act as propaganda pawns.

Our tiny protest was completely hidden and drowned out. Indeed, as I tried to watch Xi’s carriage go past, a man holding a Union Jack and a Chinese flag dropped them deliberately in front of my face, blocking my view.

A Chinese man with an earpiece grimaced at me aggressively, pointed at the Union Jack and said: “It’s not for you.” Enraged, I replied: “Well it’s my country’s flag.”

I added, in a not particularly courageous act of defiance, and in the best Chinese I could muster: “Xi Jinping, bu hao” (Xi Jinping not good). He glared and raised his fist. My active fight against the CCP began that day.

My thoughts are with the courageous people of Hong Kong fighting to defend the front line of freedom for all of us — and the Chinese dissidents who struggle to survive in the darkness.

I worked with a British member of parliament to ensure that an urgent question on human rights in China was raised in the House of Commons while Xi was still in the country. It was the only formal public airing of the issue. The British government at the time were furious. The following year, the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission held a major inquiry into human rights in China, resulting in a shocking report titled “The Darkest Moment: The Crackdown on Human Rights in China 2013-2016”. Some in our government were incandescent.

In 2017, I decided it was time to visit Hong Kong again — the city that had been my home for the first five years of my working life — to learn more about the political situation there. I had returned to Hong Kong regularly since I left in 2002 and never anticipated any problem. But this time was different. Beijing decided they did not like me, and I was turned away at the airport, denied entry, in breach of the “one country, two systems” principle on which Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997. The incident drew significant publicity and political attention in Britain, which helped shine a spotlight on the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms. I co-founded Hong Kong Watch two months later because I knew the time had come to establish an advocacy organization to speak up for the city I love.

Since then two things have happened. The first is that I have received a constant stream of abuse and harassment from the CCP’s agents. It started with anonymous letters in the post, to my private home address, my neighbours, my employers and my mother. The first, to every household in my street, came addressed “Dear Resident” with my photograph on the front of it and the words “Watch him”. Dozens of similar letters have come over the past two years, followed by numerous threatening emails, and fake emails sent to members of parliament, BBC and Daily Mail journalists and others in my name. At least four MPs have been lobbied by the Chinese embassy to tell me to stop speaking about China and Hong Kong. I was the initial target of a Chinese state television reporter’s violent outburst at the Conservative Party conference in 2018.

These are nothing at all compared to what Chinese dissidents endure, in China or in exile, or what brave Hong Kongers struggling for their survival face, but they give a small glimpse into the aggression with which the CCP is reaching well beyond its borders to try to silence its critics. The strange thing though is that they don’t seem to realize how completely counter-productive it is.

For the second thing that has happened is that this has only made me more determined. I did not set out to take on every issue that is most provocative and sensitive to the CCP. Indeed, I did not seek a fight with the CCP at all. But the more I learned, the more I realized I could not stay silent. And so over the past five years, not only the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms but the horrific persecution of the Uyghurs — one of the worst mass atrocities of the 21st century — as well as the serious crackdown on Christians, the assault on practitioners of the Falun Gong Buddha-school meditative practice, forced organ harvesting, the imprisonment of bookseller Gui Minhai, the disappearance of lawyers, bloggers, whistleblowers, Tibet and Taiwan have all become my causes.

Each one is important in itself but taken as a whole they have a common thread — the brutality, the mendacity, the inhumanity of the CCP regime, which must rank alongside the Nazis, the Soviet Union and Pol Pot as among the most murderous and barbaric in modern history.

Fight is with CCP, not China

For many years I felt almost a lone voice, crying if not in the wilderness then certainly on the sidelines. Proponents of the so-called “Golden Era” of Sino-British relations found me an irritant. Yet now the world is waking up to the fact that the CCP is not only a danger to its own people but to us all.

Covid-19 began in Wuhan but, because the CCP repressed the truth rather than the virus, it became a global pandemic inflicting death and destruction everywhere. Senior British parliamentarians from Tom Tugendhat to Iain Duncan Smith, from Damian Green to David Davis, are now saying what I have been saying for years: we must completely recalibrate our policy towards the CCP.

But let me very clear: my fight — and ours — is with the CCP regime, not China or the Chinese people. Indeed, I try to be careful to avoid using “China” as shorthand when I mean the CCP. There are three reasons why this is vital.

The first is that anti-Chinese sentiment, like all forms of racism, is abhorrent and should have no place in society. I have repeatedly condemned the rising incidents of abuse and violence towards ethnic Chinese in Britain and beyond, and I will always do so.

It is not hard to distinguish between the CCP and ethnic Chinese people and we must do so. Just as most of us know the importance of drawing a distinction between radical Islamism as an ideology, jihadi violence as an act, Islam as a religion with a variety of traditions and interpretations and Muslims as people, or between criticism of Donald Trump and anti-Americanism, so we must learn to be critical of the CCP while opposing Sinophobia.

Secondly, the people of China are the primary victims of the CCP’s brutal rule. I want my Chinese friends to be liberated from the regime’s repression, not blamed for it.

Thirdly, failure to make the distinction risks playing into the CCP’s nationalist narrative. They want the people of China to see this as a fight between China and the West, but we must make it a fight between tyranny and freedom, lies and truth, barbarity and humanity.

Indeed, I am pro-China — just anti-CCP. It is precisely because I love China that I am engaged in this fight. I would love to see China take its rightful place as a responsible power in the world, a friend and ally able to contribute to the betterment of humanity. The example of Taiwan — a flourishing democracy whose response to Covid-19 has been the epitome of responsibility in stark contrast with the regime across the straits — shows perfectly how this is possible. But only if the CCP is replaced.

I long for the day when I will be able to have dim sum with my friends in Hong Kong again, sleep on the Great Wall of China again, visit Qingdao again and walk at midnight again through the arches of the Forbidden City into Tiananmen Square, with Mao’s portrait removed, honour those who gave their lives for the cause of freedom and celebrate the liberation of a great nation that has taught me so much.

But for now, my thoughts are with the courageous people of Hong Kong fighting to defend the front line of freedom for all of us — and the brave Chinese dissidents struggle to survive in the darkness. And I don’t sleep easy at night without knowing that I and the free world have done our best to defend both.

  • Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is the founder and chair of Hong Kong Watch, the co-founder and deputy chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, and East Asia team leader at international human rights organization CSW. First published in UCANews.com. Republished with permission.
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