Xi Jinping’s leadership of China is now indefinite. No one doubts what his third term will bring: more rigid political controls. The party demands obedience at home. It asserts itself more confidently abroad. A senior official told reporters that Chinese diplomacy would maintain its “fighting spirit”.
That remark came days after Manchester police said that they were investigating the assault of a Hong Kong activist who had been dragged into the Chinese consulate’s grounds when men from the building disrupted a protest on the street outside. Asked about footage of him pulling the man’s hair the consul general, Zheng Xiyuan, denied attacking anyone but also said it was his “duty”. Police have now said they are investigating the full circumstances, and footage shows another man, apparently from the consulate, also being assaulted. What is beyond question is that the protest was peaceful until the officials came out and tore down a poster, and that China’s chargé d’affaires in London has warned that “[providing] shelter to the Hong Kong independence elements will in the end only bring disaster to Britain”.
Days later came a storm over a network of 54 “police overseas service centres” – mostly in Europe – reportedly pressuring Chinese citizens, including dissidents, to return home. The Irish government has ordered one in Dublin to close; the Dutch government and Canadian police are investigating the activities of facilities on their soil. The sites help Chinese citizens with services such as renewing driving licences, but the Safeguard Defenders group, which first reported on them, says that they are also linked to persuading migrants to return to China, including through pressure on family members at home. While most of those involved appear to be suspected of crimes such as telecoms fraud or corruption, such procedures ignore due process and circumvent formal extradition mechanisms, being conducted without even the knowledge of host nations. More concerningly still, dissidents in the Netherlands reported that the facilities were also being used to track them and threaten them.
It has long been clear that Beijing’s repression does not end at China’s borders. In 2016, a Hong Kong bookseller with Swedish nationality, Gui Minhai, disappeared from his holiday home in Thailand and reappeared in custody in China. Hong Kong’s draconian national security law, imposed by Beijing four years later, gives the Chinese government powers to arrest anyone violating it outside the region. Its ambitions to police and limit political expression overseas are growing.
If the west is serious about defending its values, it must live them too. The parliamentary joint committee on human rights has warned that the public order bill, which goes to the House of Lords this week, not only poses an unacceptable threat to a fundamental right, but “risks ... encouraging other nations who wish to crack down on peaceful protest”. A democratically elected government, subject to checks and balances, including an independent media and human rights law, is not exempt from concerns about the erosion of freedoms. It should be more alert to the dangers.
Above all, Britain must make clear that it won’t trade away human rights concerns for economic advantage, as it has in the past. The UK’s response to the Manchester incident has so far been strikingly muted. A prompt investigation into, and the closure of, reported “service centres” in London and Glasgow, and a strong assertion of the British commitment to political freedoms in this country, including peaceful protest, is essential.