It’s time to talk about the Uighurs again. Despite a harrowing Panorama programme and this header, last December no-one was much bothered, beyond some token expressions of concern. What a difference 7 months, a Made in China pandemic, a security law obliterating HK’s freedoms and news of Huawei’s active involvement in the security apparatus used for Uighur persecution make. 25 years after the Srebrenica massacre by Serbs of 8,000 Muslim Bosnian men and boys – the inevitable murderous conclusion of a campaign of ethnic cleansing and hate – the West has noticed China’s brutality to another little known Muslim community. There are Holocaust and Bosnia echoes with recent revelations of organ-harvesting, prisoners’ hair sold, rape of women and blindfolded prisoners being loaded into trains. Now there is to be a Parliamentary debate on sanctions against China over this (following the indefatigable Maajid Nawaz’s campaign).
What effective steps can be taken are less clear. There will certainly be no NATO bombing or UN supplies to trapped communities. Speaking up may be all we can do. Do not, though, underestimate the power of protest when wrongdoers would prefer silence. It was, after all, the entire raison d’être of Amnesty’s prisoners of conscience campaigns.
How about taking steps here to stop or limit the laundering of reputations that often goes hand-in-hand with the money-laundering the authorities claim to be worried about? All states and persons with a questionable reputation do it: the Russians, Ukrainians, Saudis, Qataris, Chinese. The higher echelons of British society, so very well used to polishing rough diamonds in return for their money (think of all those penurious aristocrats with ideas above their bank balances bestowing their titles on American heiresses) provide lots of ways for the laundering to happen.
- Property purchases – of prime property, mostly in London and in the fashionable countryside. So much of it is simply a bank for those with money to hide or keep safe. This ecosystem is the “trickle down” effect in action: at least to all those providers of services to the rich foreigners and the middle classes, watching the prices of their houses rise even as they find themselves pushed out from central London. Anyone can buy if they have the money. Even Switzerland – famous or infamous (according to taste) for its discretion about money – imposes some requirements on those wishing to buy property.
- Buying residency. Britain is not quite as notorious as Cyprus or Malta. But its Tier 1 Investment Programme allows those with £2 million for a mere 3 months before application to get residency (and later citizenship) in double quick time; the more you have the quicker it is to get citizenship. The “investment” needed is not particularly onerous. In theory, the wealth needs to have been properly earned though quite how the necessary due diligence can have been done properly given the speed of the applications is a mystery. Due diligence is often a fancy way of describing a tick box process devoid of any serious investigation. Why wouldn’t it be, given the money being dangled? Why no fuss about this type of FoM, selling British citizenship and its advantages to the highest bidder?
- Investment. A good thing, of course, but let’s be realistic about what dependence on Chinese or Russian or Qatari investment means in reality. When those jobs and tax revenues are dependant not just on that investment but on not criticising the governments of the countries from whence it comes, it becomes so much easier to persuade yourself that those investing companies really have nothing to do with their governments, even in the face of all the evidence. Or that economic considerations will prevail or that the investing companies will be changed and adequately controlled by British laws and culture. Comfort is taken in the belief that commerce can be divorced from politics or security, a very recent British view, one not shared by states such as China or Russia. Or, frankly, the US or EU or, indeed, Britain itself when it was top dog. Commerce and politics cannot be divorced as Britain’s former colonies know only too well. Money talks – as China has tartly reminded Britain in recent days.
- The charitable foundation: the first refuge of a scoundrel these days. If it can be linked to art, say, with all its many opportunities for hobnobbing with the great and the good, so much the better. Get an obscure art critic on the Board, perhaps one linked to a senior politician through family connections, get the right doors opened to London society, be photographed at parties with Prime Ministers and their coterie and away you go. Most will assume that you must be ok because, well, someone else has checked you out, haven’t they? You don’t need to look far to find people with the most questionable histories and backgrounds in positions of influence or advantage to themselves. A little more curiosity about their past, why they are here and what they are doing would not go amiss.
- Flattery – Board positions (see Huawei’s Board members) or dialogue councils for senior (meaning retired but still self-important) politicians, academics and others: the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, linked to former members of Russian Intelligence, for instance. Or the 48 Group Club with its array of British luminaries keen to bring China and Britain closer together.
- Political donations: an area ripe for abuse, requiring reform and unlikely to get it, not in any meaningful way. Do politicians really think that large donations are given without thought of any quo for the quids being showered on them?
- Education: until recently the Saudis and other Middle Eastern governments were some of the biggest philanthropists to British universities, usually for departments focusing on Islam and Middle Eastern history. There is much to learn about both: free inquiry is badly needed. Perhaps one of the first inquiries might have been whether being funded by governments with a very particular view on both topics and with little regard for free inquiry of any type is entirely sensible. Even Gaddafi got in on the act with the LSE, which had to rely on the guidance provided by the moral compasses of Shami Chakrabarti and Howard Davies. It did not end well – for Gaddafi, the LSE or Davies (resigning for his errors of judgment). Ms Chakrabarti went on to more whitewashing as Corbyn’s Shadow Attorney-General in the Lords. Davies now advises various Chinese banking and securities regulators and chairs RBS. The LSE’s experience did not put off other universities from chasing Chinese money and students, so much so that it is reported that 9 of them face bankruptcy if China stops its students coming to Britain. More worryingly, there have been reports of China putting pressure on British universities to eliminate criticisms of it, cancel speakers or permit spying on anti-China protestors. So much for British academic freedom when it comes up against China’s iron determination to get its own way.
All of these things: investment, dialogue, study, charity etc can be forces for good. Exposure to British freedoms, intellectual inquiry, rule of law, democratic norms, vigorous debate, cultural life, the wisdom of British thinkers and achievers can – in theory and maybe sometimes in practice, for some at least – open cracks in otherwise closed societies and minds, show an alternative way, a better future, help win the battle of ideas.
They can. But have they? Or has Britain been woefully naïve? Has it been too willing to sell itself to those who care nothing for our strengths, save other than how they can seize or use those strengths for themselves? Has it really been using its soft power? Or has it just been treated as a useful idiot, desperate and needy, hawking what’s left of its honour and the family silver to ruthless, ambitious competitors, nasty, unfriendly authoritarians willing to spend lavishly on PR and those with an eye for a bolt hole if life turns nasty at home?
Realpolitik dictates that Britain needs to deal with nasty countries. But there is a difference between supping with a long spoon and sitting in someone’s lap. The government’s recent Magnitsky law sanctions and HK actions are a welcome dose of realism. A start. Now Britain needs to use its UN vote against Xi Xinping’s wish for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, if the concept of “human rights” is to have any worthwhile meaning, that is.
Morality cries out for some sort of action for HK, the Uighurs and other victims. Protest, exposure and a home for some may be the limit of what Britain can and will do. It is something. As Elie Wiesel (Holocaust survivor, Nobel prize winner and the man who publicly begged President Clinton to act over Bosnia at the opening of Washington’s Holocaust museum) said: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”