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Sanction Stations: Battling Back Against Chinese Oppression

Parliamentarians have re-doubled their efforts after being targeted by Beijing

7 min read

Far from being cowed, those subject to retaliatory sanctions by China remain determined to shine a light on violations against the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and hold China to account.

March marks the one-year anniversary of the decision by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to impose sanctions on parliamentarians, research groups, lawyers and academics over their criticism of China’s genocide of the Uyghur people and appalling record on human rights and free speech.

The move came after the United Kingdom, European Union, United States and Canada levied sanctions on Chinese government officials most closely linked with the imprisonment and mistreatment of more than a million Uyghurs, mainly in the Xinjiang region.

Beijing attempted to justify its response by claiming those sanctioned were involved in ”gross interference in China’s affairs”, banning them from entering China and prohibiting Chinese citizens and institutions from doing business with them.

Conservative MP Nusrat Ghani, one of those targeted by the sanctions, says that beyond the basic restrictions, Beijing’s actions were an effort to “intimidate, undermine Parliament, and scare people away from working with us”.

“Nobody wants to be sanctioned. It essentially is putting you on a red list, stating you are a threat to China’s security,” she tells The House.

“You’re dealing with an entity – the Chinese Communist Party – that day-in-day-out will do everything it can to make life difficult for you.”

Despite quick condemnation from Prime Minister Boris Johnson and then-foreign secretary Dominic Raab, it is clear China’s actions were unexpected, and left UK officials unsure how to respond.

“Nobody was prepared for the sanctions... No 10, wasn’t prepared, the Conservative Party wasn’t prepared, and the MPs and the House weren’t prepared, because it was an unprecedented act,” Ghani says.

“Parliament and the appropriate government departments have to think about offering a different level of support and security for MPs that they have never had to think about before.”

The lack of support Ghani complains of seems to be continuing, with the group of targeted Conservative MPs stating they have had a single meeting with Johnson since the sanctions were imposed, and none with Asia minister Amanda Milling following her appointment last September. (A Foreign Office source says guidance and ongoing support has been provided to parliamentarians in receipt of sanctions, including specialist briefings on cybersecurity.)

Organisations such as the China Research Group say the sanctions have impacted their ability to conduct research, with the prospect of holding public meetings with people from mainland China “completely cut off”.

“That’s not even people linked to the Chinese government; that’s across the board which, for us, is disappointing,” says Chris Cash, a researcher for the group. “That’s off the table completely.”

The opaque nature of the penalties has left those working for sanctioned organisations unsure of the personal implications, with Cash, who has not himself been sanctioned, saying he wouldn’t get on a plane to China because he risked “either being turned back around, or in the very worst-case scenario, being placed in detention”.

“The sanctions have been done so arbitrarily that it could be applied to anyone involved with the group should Beijing choose to go that way.”

All of those involved, either directly or indirectly, say they have faced cyberattacks and often-amateur attempts at cyber-subversion, which they believe to be either directly carried out by the Chinese government or supporters of the communist regime.

In recent weeks, Ghani has seen people creating fake email accounts in her name to elicit information about Uyghurs, while fellow Conservative Tom Tugendhat was targeted in a similar “psyop” campaign where MPs and journalists were sent an email purportedly from him announcing his resignation as chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

“Whether it’s about dealing with potential hacking of people’s computers… it’s a different level of security. You’ve got to think about physical security and online security,” Ghani says.

“When I was talking to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee about slave labour, they [people within the Chinese Embassy] were sending menacing messages online .”

Whether Beijing’s intimidation tactics have been successful in creating a culture of self-censorship among other potential critics of the regime is hard to analyse, but for those directly sanctioned, it has had the opposite effect. Some have described the sanctions as a “badge of honour”, while Ghani says they have created a network across the globe increasingly driven in their work on human rights.

“We’ve got this phenomenal network where we are able to use our contacts and also use our intelligence,” she says. “When we’re working with QCs or UN officials, we are able to do a lot of the legal work to make sure our arguments are sound.”

Driven by the horror of the ongoing genocide against the Uyghur people and concerns the UK’s supply chains are being increasingly tainted by the flow of products created through slave labour in Xinjiang, the sanctions have, if anything, emboldened them further.

“The determination of genocide has been made by the Uyghur Tribunal. This isn’t something that is happening somewhere else – [it impacts the UK] because of the supply chain issue ,” Ghani adds.

“The stuff they make ends up on our shelves. China has made us complicit. By undermining Parliament, they undermine democracy. By attacking parliamentarians, you are in fact attacking Parliament. By attacking select committees, you are in fact attacking Parliament.

“I’m not going to waste my time worrying about the sanctions. I am going to use every moment of my time available to prevent any further abuse and genocide of Uyghur women, men and children.”

Lord Alton, former Liberal Democrat MP for Liverpool Edge Hill and now a crossbench peer, has a long history with China, and a deep admiration and respect for those still within the grasp of the CCP who have spoken out despite knowledge of the risks it places upon them and their families.

Like the others who have been sanctioned, his own family has been swept up in the net of Beijing’s retribution. And while he is hesitant to discuss the implications, he is firm they are as “indignant” about China as he is.

“This should not involve people’s families,” he says “This is about Members of Parliament in both Houses who have used their rights and privileges to speak about things that others are silenced for saying in China.”

After a long political career, Alton is stoic about the risks brought by the sanctions, and despite the “haphazard” support he has received over the last year, believes the blame falls firmly at the CCP’s door.

“There have always been threats, but you have to do the best you can,” he says.

Since being sanctioned, his own advocacy has increased at pace, both in Parliament and in public. Like his colleagues, he is defiant in the face of Chinese aggression and insists Beijing has blundered by failing to anticipate the solidarity and determination it has fostered among parliamentarians and the public.

“If the desired effect was to drive wedges, then I don’t know who is advising the CCP in this particular case, but they should get a new adviser,” he jokes.

“I was brought up in the hard school of Liverpool politics... I had a brick in my face, my constituency offices were burnt out, I had pickets at my home. It made me more determined, not less. A combination of my dad being a Desert Rat and my mother’s Irish antecedence. They perhaps should have checked through my DNA before starting this.

“I am not going to be intimidated or shut up, and for as long as I have the privilege of being able to serve in this place, I will speak my mind.”

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