President Xi Jinping of China (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

An anaconda in the chandelier?

Benedict Rogers’ new book maps the vast network of repression propped up by China’s regime

Artillery Row Books

The latest book covering China’s human rights violations hit the shelves just days after Manchester’s Chinese Consul-General and a band of his colleagues brutally attacked peaceful Hong Kong protesters, which perhaps demonstrates the mammoth task the author had before him.

Rogers lays bare the naivety of international institutions

Hong Kong Watch founder Benedict Rogers’ seventh book begins in media res with Rogers finding himself interrogated by the Hong Kong Border Police whilst attempting a visit in 2017. He had already been forewarned by a Chinese diplomatic contact that his entry might be barred due to his pro-democracy activism. With some last-minute legal help, he was able to board a flight back out of the city, knowing it was likely the final time he would ever set foot in the territory he once called home. Rogers’ revelation that he was removed from a Conservative Party general election candidate shortlist following the deportation will surprise no lucid observers of that institution. 

The China Nexus: Thirty Years in and Around the Chinese Communist Party’s Tyranny, Ben Rogers (Optimum, £25)

Rogers, who worked as a journalist in Hong Kong around the turn of the millennium, offers his account of the profession following the fallout from Britain’s 1997 handover to Beijing. He noted the Milgram-Esque manner of many editors, including one from his own then-employer The Hong Kong iMail (now The Standard). They rushed to self-censor and kowtow to China over a decade before harsh legislation such as the National Security Law would force them to. 

He admits that British rule, despite key drawbacks, offered Hong Kong the “scaffolding” that permitted the role of law and light-handed government to flourish in the city for a time. No wonder one seemingly pro-Beijing local was eager to express his glee at “the tear-stained faces” of the last governor Chris Patten’s daughters’ at the official handover ceremony. 

Alongside his array of personal memories, Rogers’ work draws from a solid base of secondary material, from think tank reports to newspaper articles. Scores of powerful first-hand testimonies, including an exclusive interview with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, also adorn the narrative. A sizeable chunk of interviewees wished to remain anonymous, another testament to the urgency of Rogers’ mission as the country experiences its most severe repression since Mao’s cultural revolution.

Whilst Rogers suggests that “freedom of worship remains intact”, his other evidence suggests this is not exactly the case. Certainly, most people do not risk arrest for attending registered places of worship, but suffocating restrictions are in place. Children are prohibited from officially belonging to any religion before the age of 18. This means they cannot be baptised, which is often a requirement to partake in the act of communion — a compulsory rite in most mainstream Christian denominations including Catholicism. Teachers are flat-out banned from being registered with any faith. In Xinjiang, observant Muslims may be hauled into “re-education” and forced labour camps for having long beards, wearing veils or maintaining a halal diet. It is deeply problematic that the Party demands religions be officially “registered” with its aggressively atheistic apparatus to begin with. 

Yet more bizarre to the average secular western readers will no doubt be China’s Christians, who despite heavy persecution, continue to grow in number as did their ancient forebears to the initial chagrin of Imperial Rome. Even during the height of China’s tyrannical Covid restrictions, authorities were still demolishing and effectively ransacking churches. One Xinjiang Church was permitted to stay open after initial plans to demolish the building were scrapped, but it can no longer operate after authorities cut off its heating and electricity supplies.

Rogers also lays bare the naivety of international institutions to the Chinese regime. Take the example of the Vatican where a key official, “chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo”, has described Beijing as the “best implementer of Catholic social doctrine. In 2017, he hosted a conference on “forced organ harvesting”. Who was the only invited speaker on China’s billion-dollar black market in harvested body parts? Former deputy health minister Huang Jiefu, who has himself been alleged to be responsible for this diabolical crime. It is difficult to know where ignorance ends and complicity begins.

Some of the chapters will make familiar reading to those well versed on the various horrors of the Chinese regime, but they offer compelling summaries for the general reader of the key quandaries — from the Uyghur genocide to Beijing’s deep ties with the equally blood-thirsty regimes in Pyongyang and Naypyidaw.

Mirroring the infamous predator, Beijing simply waits

The book could be a companion to 2020’s Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World, also released by Optimum Publishing International, in that it hones in on the CCP’s domestic and regional repression as opposed to its coordination against overseas rivals.

Nestled between the grim analysis of a civilization’s descent into dystopia are countless episodes from Rogers’ extensive travels. One amusing scrape involves a young Rogers being forced to play the part of the titular character whilst staging a production of Alice in Wonderland with his class of English students, given that no one else was tall enough to pull off the character after she grows to an unusually large height after consuming a suspiciously labelled cake. An interesting number of encounters, including a meeting with East Timor resistance leader Xanana Gusmao and his family, involve Mcdonald’s food — a suitable backdrop to China during the dizzying heights of its globalising epoch.

Most British readers will take to this book with the lingering question: what can we do about this, if anything? With poor growth and a Prime Minister more interested in “strategic ambiguity” rather than any long-term planning concerning China’s security threats, the outlook seems bleak. 

As former British diplomat Charles Parton tells Rogers, the British establishment is not just lacking the financial and human capital to approach the issue; it has simply not “grasped” the extent of it.

Rogers, whose love for Chinese history and culture is abundant throughout the slim volume, makes it clear: the goal should never be hostility towards individual Chinese citizens, but the authoritarianism they endure. Yet building an “alliance of democracies” against Beijing will be no simple feat given its vast economic links with free countries, not to mention the motley crew of repressive states, from Baku to Abu Dhabi, that remain strategic partners for the West.

Sinologist Perry Link once coined a metaphor of “the anaconda in the chandelier” to summarise the self-censorship that grips China’s civil society in fear of the consequences of any perceived missteps. Rogers aptly employs it against the West. As if they too were facing a deadly beast silently coiled about some suspended ceiling lights, institutions — state and private alike — adjust their behaviour based on ad hoc cowardice rather than the realist logic that would better help us promote our interests. Meanwhile, mirroring the infamous predator, Beijing simply waits. One is playing the long game; the other has failed to admit that any game has begun. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover