It is over a decade ago that I first heard the dire warning from exiled Tibetan and Uyghur activists: “Today it is us, tomorrow it is you.”
Truth be told, even as a staunch defender of their cause, their warning on how the Chinese Communist Party(CCP)’s plague of oppression would have spread around the world, from the heights of Lhasa to the flat countryside in Flanders, sounded a bit far-fetched to my ears.
But, ever since that May 2009 meeting in a deserted European Parliament, their writing on the wall has slowly transformed in an eerie reality and one can only lament the fact that their urgent and timely call went – and continues to go – largely unheeded.
It is the same message many Hong Kongers have been conveying over the past years when they warned us to beware the long arm and aim of the CCP. Yet, notwithstanding the scale and velocity by which Hong Kong was transformed from a vibrant international environment into a symbol of oppression, political terror and fear, much of the Free World remains dormant.
Just a few weeks ago, Hong Kong Watch published the report Red Capital, demonstrating how the mainland’s whole-of-society approach was activated after the 2014 democracy protests to buy and subdue critical parts of society in view of the full-scale crackdown we have witnessed over the past months. Just last week, Jamil Anderlini reported on the Financial Times how Western companies have developed a Stockholm Syndrome while operating in China. Rather than blaming the CCP for its cult of repression of the values that allowed them to develop and grow in their home markets, they blame those standing up for freedom, democracy and the human rights many of these companies tout under their Corporate Social charters.
Exactly as in Hong Kong, the use of its economic leverage is already creating a very dangerous cult of submission to the CCP through the Chinese consumer market: from Ericsson’s lobbying for Huawei in Sweden, to VolksWagen’s repeated refusal to examine its dangerous liaison in Xinjiang or the big fashion brands reluctance to adhere to the Better Cotton Initiative.
Yet, as a prime example of democracies’ failure to see this structural weakness, it was only the CCP’s miscalculation of imposing unilateral individual sanctions on individuals and organizations within the EU that torpedoed the political ratification process of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment – at least for now.
And while the European Commission’s proposal for a Regulation on foreign subsidies distorting the internal market launched last week signals a very important step in countering direct internal interference, the CAI debacle shows how awareness on the bigger risks of economic over-exposure to CCP China remains shockingly low.
But not only. While most of the attention was – rightly - spent on the European Council’s second-time failure to put a discussion on sanctions over Hong Kong on the agenda, a second question continues to be largely ignored: the expansion of China’s extra-territorial criminal justice system, through both the National Security Law in Hong Kong but also the mainland’s criminal code, and the fundamental risk the many bilateral Extradition Treaties with the mainland pose to exiled activists and not only.
The little-noted case of Belizean citizen Lee Henley Hu Xiang, little noted in the West, stands as a prime example. Persecuted and condemned to eleven years in prison for his presumed support to Hong Kong activists while in the United States. A fully legal act, not only under US laws but under the sacred principles of international human rights conventions.
There is hardly a more clear-cut example of how on point that decade-long warning on the spreading plague of oppression was. Today everyone stands at potential risk of persecution for exercising their fundamental freedoms within the very heart of Europe: speech crimes, crimes of support to dissidents… Nothing is out of reach for the Chinese Communist Party regime.
And while Western Governments seem confident their due process procedures are able to tackle distortions for political prosecution under extradition agreements, the severe limitations that may be imposed on personal freedom of movement while such a judicial review goes on – suffice it to recall the two-year long detention in Poland of Falung Gong adherent and Swedish national Li Zhihui before exhaustion of judicial proceedings under an extradition request – are already creating the very chilling effect we witnessed in Hong Kong as the direct warning by Danish intelligence services to two Members of Parliament and two activists confirm.
It is five past midnight. Our reluctance and slowness in recognizing the threat posed by China’s regime and the continuing error by policy-makers to treat the Chinese Government as a reliable partner even on issues that go to the heart of fundamental rights and freedoms, has effectively begun to spread its political terror abroad. With Hong Kong fallen in part due to our continued inaction, it is high time to recognize the frontline in standing up to the CCP has now moved directly to our homes.
And on this new frontier, we need a whole-of-society approach as well. We cannot remain blind to the distortions the unbalanced game of engagement has provoked. We must all stand up for a concrete and immediate action to which all contribute and faint excuses exposed. From Governments hiding their reluctance to recede from bilateral treaties due to a third state’s veto to companies defending their complicity under the guise of economic win-win.
They will tell us the cost of such a coming to terms is too elevated. Remind them that maintaining freedom is never free. Remind them of the cost so many are already paying. And then remind them that the cost of reclaiming freedom lost is infinitely higher.
(Laura Harth, A human rights activist, she coordinates activities with the Global Committee for the Rule of Law “Marco Pannella” (GCRL). She also acts as a regional liaison for the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC).)
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