The UK should put the rights of activists at the heart of its China strategy

The arrest of an activist outside the Chinese embassy in London may be part of a much bigger problem of dependency on Beijing

August 11, 2022
The Chinese embassy in London. Photo: Jeffrey Blackler / Alamy Stock Photo
The Chinese embassy in London. Photo: Jeffrey Blackler / Alamy Stock Photo

During the Tory leadership campaign, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak have emphasised the importance of liberal democracy and the rule of the law in the face of China’s increasingly aggressive authoritarianism. Just four days before they spoke about exactly this issue in the second leadership debate, both ideals were undermined on the streets of London outside the Chinese embassy. Twenty-three-year-old Drew Pavlou, an Australian human rights activist, was staging a peaceful demonstration in defiance of China’s continued persecution of Uighur people in the northwestern region of Xinjiang when he was arrested by Metropolitan Police.

Adhesive in one hand, and with Taiwanese, Tibetan and Uighur flags in the other, Pavlou attempted to glue the flags to the Chinese embassy. Soon after, the Metropolitan Police arrested him, put him in the back of a police van and held him at Charing Cross police station. He was unable to contact anyone on the outside for 23 hours. Pavlou was treated like a terrorist over what he saw as a small act of civil disobedience—his devices were seized and only later released under investigation. He remains unable to leave the country without breaching his bail conditions. 

Why? The Chinese embassy had forwarded a suspicious looking email to the Metropolitan Police which claimed Pavlou had threatened to “bomb” the building unless Beijing stopped its policies in Xinjiang. The email specified which time Pavlou had planned to be there with friends—information he had only communicated over text message. Pavlou said his communications have been hacked in the past, and alleges this is proof the email was fraudulent. 

If true, police officers may have fallen for a trick.  

Activists and researchers have said there has been an ongoing, sinister campaign of intimidation and harassment directed at critics of the Chinese Communist Party around the world for years. Freedom House, an NGO specialising in democracy and human rights advocacy, defines this campaign of harassment as part of China’s “united front system,” in which a “network of proxy entities” under the guidance of the CCP are involved in the harassment of party critics. It’s a system that “offers the regime plausible deniability on the one hand, while accomplishing the goal of sowing fear and encouraging self-censorship far from China’s shores, on the other,” one report says.

What’s different about Pavlou’s case is that although critics have been smeared and harassed in the past, this is the first known case of an activist being arrested for something as serious as a bomb threat in a foreign country.

Benedict Rogers, chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, began to be harassed in a similar way in 2018, when he started to receive a steady flow of anonymous, vaguely threatening letters at his home address, postmarked and stamped from Hong Kong.

Since then, Rogers says the Chinese embassy has lobbied up to four British MPs to tell him to stop his work and has been threatened by Hong Kong’s National Security Bureau. His neighbours and own mother have been told to “watch him” in anonymous letters addressed to them.

In a detail which echoes Pavlou’s case, Rogers has also experienced a deluge of fake emails going out in his name. “I certainly think there is a clear pattern to these emails,” he says: some are “faintly ridiculous,” while others he believes are “designed to damage the reputation of the individual whose name is attached to it.” But all of them, in some way, carry Beijing’s mark. 

“I don’t think the CCP are involved in the content of the emails. It’s more likely they have paid wolf warriors to go and do it under a general instruction,” he said.

If Rogers’s suspicions are correct, Pavlou’s arrest is a gross abuse of the British criminal justice system. Far from upholding law and order, the Metropolitan Police have aided China in a conspiracy to intimidate and harass a fierce and committed critic, who now faces exorbitant legal fees and a police investigation. 

While there are multiple issues that divide Tory leadership candidates Truss and Sunak, there is one that seems to unite them: China. In a tense leadership race, both candidates have used the opportunity to flaunt their China-hawk credentials, in an attempt to court favour with undecided voters and show they could stand up for Britain’s interests on the international stage.

Despite this, China’s harassment and intimidation of critics in the UK doesn’t seem to have caught the attention of either candidate, and there has been scarce mention throughout the leadership debate of an effective strategy to combat the threat it poses to British civil society.

In a cynical move to appear tough on China, Sunak recently branded China as the “biggest long-term threat to Britain” and committed to remove Confucius Institutes from UK universities, as well as setting up a “Nato-style” alliance. The ex-chancellor’s credibility was soon damaged however by a document obtained by the Times, which appeared to suggest Sunak was close to signing a new economic agreement with China this year, making the UK the “market of choice” for Chinese companies. Only last month, a joint address by the FBI and MI5 in London warned against China’s industrial espionage activities, and the use of special purpose acquisition companies to steal western technology.  

Truss appears more confident on her tough-on-China record, claiming a consistent hardline approach throughout her time as foreign secretary. She was able to claim economic engagement in the Indo-Pacific, as well as using the G7 as a forum to criticise China’s abuses in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and the South China Sea.

As tensions between China and Taiwan mount, it is clear the “golden age” of engagement with China is over. But if both candidates are serious about developing a robust China strategy, they must abandon hollow rhetoric and take China’s pernicious impact on British civil society into account, including the recent abuses of the criminal justice system assisted by the Metropolitan Police’s handling of Pavlou’s case. 

Britain remains one of the few places in the world where foreign and diaspora activists can criticise the Chinese Communist Party’s international and domestic transgression—the safeguarding of their rights should be a top priority for an effective China strategy. 

A first step would be to ensure British police are properly trained and briefed on how to spot signs of nefarious Chinese influence campaigns, and better protect those who most need protection.