October 18, 2015
(Chinese flags fly side by side with union flags on the Mall ahead of Xi Jinping’s state visit. Photograph: Lauren Hurley/PA)
Eighteen years ago, I stood at dawn in the driving rain and watched with dread as the tanks and trucks of China’s People’s Liberation Army rolled into Hong Kong, reclaiming sovereignty over the British colony. It was clear at once that Hong Kong’s fledgling democracy was doomed. To escape Big Brother’s gaze and retain the freedom to think and write, I moved to London.
On Tuesday I will stand by the Mall and watch the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, and his wife glide towards Buckingham Palace in a state carriage. There will be no army tanks or trucks in this procession, but my feeling of dread will no doubt be deeper. Big Brother has arrived once more on British territory. This time, however, he is being welcomed by the UK government not with a frosty handshake but with open arms and shameless sycophancy.
Had Xi’s state visit been a reward for a modest improvement in China’s human rights, perhaps the pomp and ceremony would have been more palatable. But the disgraceful truth is, his visit coincides with the most severe crackdown on Chinese civil society in a generation. According to Amnesty International, at least 245 human rights lawyers and activists have been targeted since July, and at least 30 are still missing or in police custody.
Among those in secret detention is Wang Yu, a fearless defender of feminist activists and victims of rape and religious persecution. The torture inflicted on such detainees is well documented. Another human rights lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, who defended Christians and members of the Falun Gong movement, has described in horrific detail the three years he spent in solitary confinement, telling an AP journalist how, when tortured with an electric baton to his face, the sound of his screaming “was almost like a dog howling when its tail is stamped on by its master”.