Just what galvanized 2 million people, over a quarter of Hong Kong’s population, to protest in the streets? And why are so many of them still out there?
If Hong Kong loses rule of law, what would be the broader implications?
What are some of the most egregious abuses occurring in China today to people who refuse to be subservient to the ruling regime?
And how does all this impact Americans and freedom-loving people around the world?
This is American Thought Leaders 🇺🇸, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Today we sit down with Benedict Rogers, a prominent British human rights activist who specializes in Asia. He is the founder of Hong Kong Watch and the co-founder and deputy chairman of the United Kingdom Conservative Party’s human rights commission. Because of his activism for the Chinese people, he has been harassed, and his family and neighbors have been sent bizarre anonymous letters.
We discuss the watershed protests in response to the Hong Kong extradition bill, the Chinese communist regime’s ongoing persecution of faith groups and human rights defenders, including forced organ harvesting from Falun Gong practitioners, Christians, Uyghurs, Tibetans, and other prisoners of conscience, and the importance, in Rogers’ eyes, of recognizing that doing business with China equates to engaging with a “criminal state.”
Jan Jekielek: Benedict Rogers, wonderful to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Benedict Rogers: Thank you. Good to be with you.
Mr. Jekielek: So you’re here in Washington, D.C., and you’ve got a really, really busy week happening. I just grabbed you from Congressman Yoho’s office. You were the keynote speaker at the Captive Nations Summit for the Victims of Communist Memorial Foundation. You’re going to be, tomorrow, at the 20th anniversary, sadly, of the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners. I think you’re the first speaker. And you’re also the chairman and founder of Hong Kong Watch. You’ve got your hands in a lot of areas. And I wonder if you could outline the situation in Hong Kong today as we speak. It’s been getting a lot of headlines, and it’s very serious.
Mr. Rogers: It’s extremely serious. I would say that Hong Kong is now the new front line in the battle between freedom and repression or tyranny. And the situation in Hong Kong is the worst it’s been since the handover 22 years ago. We’ve seen over the last five years, a steady erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms. We’ve seen pro-democracy legislators and candidates disqualified, pro-democracy protestors jailed. I, myself, was denied entry to Hong Kong. The Financial Times Asian news editor was expelled from the city. We’ve seen threats to academic freedom and press freedom, but more recently we’ve seen this proposal of an extradition bill, which, thankfully, now has at least been put to one side. But that generated up to 2 million people–
Mr. Jekielek: Two million people in the streets. Why does an extradition bill get people in that number? And that’s a massive portion of the whole Hong Kong population. It’s unbelievable almost. Why are they so riled up about this in a nutshell?
Mr. Rogers: I think, in a nutshell, it’s because Hong Kong has always prided itself on being a city based on the rule of law. It’s ranked 16th in the world for rule of law. And under this proposal it would allow for the extradition of basically anyone that Beijing doesn’t like. From a city whose judicial system is based on the rule of law into a judicial system that is rule by law, not rule of law, widespread torture, forced confessions, executions, and so on. And I think Hong Kong people saw this as the final straw and many people would say that the bill destroyed the firewall between Hong Kong and mainland China in terms of the judicial systems. And that’s why people were so outraged by it.
Mr. Jekielek: It sounds incredible. You actually lived in Hong Kong for a number of years, at the beginning, right after the handover, and so you’ve seen this kind of a slow erosion of freedoms. How did that work?
Mr. Rogers: That’s right. So I lived from 1997—I moved there in September, just two months after the handover—until 2002. And I worked as a journalist there. And I would say that during that time, one country, two systems was working pretty well. And when I left in 2002, I left really not having any big concerns for Hong Kong’s future. I thought it was in a good place. But it was really since the Umbrella Movement in 2014 that things have dramatically changed.
Mr. Jekielek: So the Umbrella Movement, again, basically seeking greater freedoms at a moment where people are feeling threatened with becoming [part of] the Chinese judicial system or lack thereof.
Mr. Rogers: That’s right. And particularly demanding universal suffrage, which in principle was promised to them at some point, once they’d been handed over to China. And they were demanding this … Beijing made a proposal that they could have universal suffrage, but Beijing would choose the candidates. And as Martin Lee, the founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, put it, if we’re choosing between Beijing-picked candidates, it’s like choosing between a rotten apple, a rotten orange, and a rotten banana. What’s the difference?
Mr. Jekielek: They didn’t have the right to vote at that time,and throughout.
Mr. Rogers: So this was universal suffrage for the election of chief executive of Hong Kong. So they do have the right to vote for the legislature. Although even that is limited because the legislature is comprised partly of directly elected seats, but partly of what they call the functional constituencies, which are seats that are chosen by different professional sectors, the banking sector, the engineering sector and so on.
Mr. Jekielek: So it’s basically highly structured and, increasingly, Beijing is extending its heavy hand.
Mr. Rogers: Exactly. Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: So you mentioned a few of the reasons why, as a human rights activist, you’re not so thrilled with Beijing or the Chinese Communist Party. Tell me more about the reality in China right now.
Mr. Rogers: I think we can honestly say that the situation in China for human rights across the board is the worst that it has been—certainly since the Tiananmen Massacre 30 years ago. And some would say since the Cultural Revolution, particularly in terms of religious freedom, a major crackdown on Christians in the country, the incarceration of at least a million, maybe up to 3 million Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, terrible abuses against the Uyghurs, continuing persecution of Falun Gong, the continuing persecution in Tibet.
But then even beyond religious freedom, I remember about 10 years ago I was in China and I met with a group of human rights lawyers, Chinese human rights lawyers in a restaurant in Beijing. And I was really struck at that time by the space that they had to operate, human rights lawyers, civil society. Of course it was limited space, but nevertheless they were able to function. Now there is no space at all. Those human rights lawyers are either imprisoned or disappeared or disbarred from legal practice or in hiding. And the same is true of civil society groups and dissidents under Xi Jinping. The smallest expression of dissent is punished very severely.
Mr. Jekielek: I want to jump back to religious freedom just for a second. There is this Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. The Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, I think, and Ambassador Brownback, they were saying this is the biggest event of its kind, certainly, at the State Department, and I think even globally as a religious freedom event. You’re involved in this as well.
Mr. Rogers: Yes, I’ve been attending the last couple of days. It’s an incredible initiative. It was started last year for the first time. It’s even bigger this year. And I was very impressed that the secretary of state came and opened it. Ambassador Brownback has delivered some very powerful remarks. They had a session yesterday with the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and the former congressman Frank Wolf who was the architect of the religious freedom legislation in this country that created the position of the ambassador for religious freedom. So, yes, it’s a very exciting initiative.
Mr. Jekielek: And what does this hope to accomplish? Of course it’s a great opportunity for folks of different faiths who are active to discuss the issue. But can this actually lead to change?
Mr. Rogers: I certainly hope it will. I hope it will inspire other governments to follow the lead of the United States in prioritizing religious freedom as a human rights concern. I know that on Thursday of this week, foreign ministers from, I think, over a hundred governments are meeting, without NGOs, sort of meeting together. And I hope they will come up with a plan of action that they can implement to promote religious freedom.
Mr. Jekielek: Excellent. So, speaking of Thursday, on Thursday you’re going to be speaking at an event that’s basically commemorating the 20th anniversary of the persecution of Falun Gong. You actually have the, I think, introductory speech. Can you tell me a little bit about what you’re going to be doing there, what you’re going to be saying?
Mr. Rogers: Well, I will make just some fairly brief remarks at the start of the event. I was very keen to accept the invitation. As you mentioned earlier, my week is pretty full, and I wasn’t sure initially whether I’d be able to, but we’ve been able to make it happen. And I wanted to be there in solidarity with Falun Gong practitioners and indeed others, anybody who cares about religious freedom and human rights because the persecution of the last 20 years of Falun Gong has been truly shocking. It’s staggering to me how such a totally peaceful, totally inspiring belief system based around truthfulness, forbearance, and compassion, how that can generate such a brutal response from the regime. And I think it’s important that we stand together to remember how it began 20 years ago, to remember the fact that it’s ongoing and to call for it to stop.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s always been remarkable to me that these stories of the Falun Gong practitioners in the prisons and so forth. They’re being tortured to try to reeducate them, and they’re telling their guards, there’s multiple, multiple stories [about how practitioners say] don’t do this, this is really bad for you, for your future. These are the kinds of dialogues and guards even, in some cases, just saying, OK, I can’t do this anymore. This is the kind of inspiration that you’re talking about? You mentioned that it’s an inspiring group. How is that?
Mr. Rogers: I think it’s inspiring because , I mean, I’ve got to know a number of Falun Gong practitioners in recent years, and I’ve never met a single practitioner who doesn’t really exhibit those values of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance. And I think for me, I happen to be a Christian, so those values really resonate with me. I think there’s a lot in common between Christians and Falun Gong practitioners around values. And I see similarly inspiring courage in Christians facing persecution. And I think that brings us together and, yeah, it’s very inspiring.
Mr. Jekielek: So I’ve been following this very, very serious issue of forced organ harvesting in China. … It’s been described by one of the people who initially documented it, Canadian lawyer David Matas, as an evil that has yet to be seen in the world … people basically being in labor camps, blood typed, tissue typed, and this sort of thing, and then being used in quick order as unwilling organ donors for people with a lot of money, wherever they come from. It’s a hard-to-fathom level crime against humanity. I know you were talking about this issue earlier than a lot of people were even willing to accept it. And this is something also that’s been developed, that this whole organ—let’s call it organ transplantation regime—in China has grown essentially alongside the Falun Gong persecution. So they’ve been kind of a major source of these. Can you kind of outline a little bit for us how you see this forced organ harvesting piece right now?
Mr. Rogers: Yes. I mean, I first became aware of this a number of years ago, but I became deeply involved about three years ago. And I became involved. I wasn’t really looking for another issue to take up. I had a fairly full plate of human rights issues to deal with. But I was so appalled by what I heard that I felt it was important to be talking about it.
And one of the things that has happened recently is the China Tribunal chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice, a very prominent lawyer who had prosecuted Slobodan Milosevic. And he agreed to lead a tribunal, looking into this. They’ve come out with a judgement. And it’s important to keep in mind that the tribunal panel, seven members of them, none of them had any previous connection with the issue of organ harvesting. None of them had any connection to Falun Gong. And only one of them was a China expert. The others had no prior agenda with China, so they can’t be dismissed as a sort of anti-China group. They came out with a judgment saying that based on the evidence they have seen, it is beyond reasonable doubt that forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience has been taking place on a widespread scale, that there’s no evidence to suggest that it has stopped, and that it amounts to a crime against humanity.
I think one of the key pieces of evidence—because obviously as a crime, it’s actually difficult to get the evidence because by definition the victims are no longer there, the witnesses are complicit with the crime—but one of the key pieces of evidence is the huge disparity between the number of organ transplant operations that hospitals around China are carrying out and the known bank of donors. And so the key question is where are the organs coming from? China hasn’t answered that question, and it’s pretty clear to us that it’s coming from prisoners of conscience.
Mr. Jekielek: So very, very difficult to fathom how something like this could be happening in this day and age. Oh, and you also, you mentioned how, very carefully earlier how, you made sure to say none of these people were connected with … they weren’t human rights activists to China. They weren’t Falun Gong practitioners. They had no connection. It seems to be that the Chinese Communist Party, their only response to these things is, that’s propaganda, something like this. Is this, and I wanted to ask you, is this pretty much their response to everything? Or how does that work? You’ve been on the receiving end of some of this, I think, yourself.
Mr. Rogers: Yes, yes. Their response is pretty much, it’s propaganda, it’s lies. It’s people who have an anti-China agenda or in the case of organ harvesting, it’s Falun Gong. Yeah, I mean their response is always to dismiss it in that way.
Mr. Jekielek: How have you been on the receiving end? I’ve read a little bit about it, let’s call it Chinese Communist Party propaganda or vitriol or so forth.
Mr. Rogers: Yes. Well, in a number of ways, first of all I’ve received over the course of the last year, something like 10, maybe more than 10 anonymous letters coming from Hong Kong that have come to, not only to me but to some of my neighbors in the street I live in London, and also three letters sent to my mother. All asking my mother to tell me to stop talking about these issues, telling my neighbors to keep an eye on me. The first letter that came, came with my photograph on it—obviously taken off the Internet—and the words, “watch him,” which went to all my neighbors. So I’ve had that. I’ve also had at least three different British members of Parliament telling me on three different occasions that the Chinese Embassy has either telephoned them, or in one case actually met with them, to specifically ask them to tell me to stop talking about these issues. And to be fair to the members of Parliament, they didn’t tell me to stop. They just let me know that they’d had these approaches from the Chinese embassy.
And then we also had this incident that you may be familiar with it, the Conservative Party conference last October where we had a panel on Hong Kong. We had some very prominent Hong Kong activists, and a woman who turns out to be a reporter for Chinese state media started shouting, initially, at me. And the thing she was particularly shouting at was I had just made the comment that I am not anti-China. Indeed, I am pro-China as a country and as a people. I’m, of course, critical of the regime and the way the regime treats its people. But I think it’s important to draw a distinction between the Chinese Communist Party and China, the country.
So I made that point, and she then started shouting at me that I was a liar, I was anti-China, I was trying to destroy China as if I could do that singlehandedly. And then she ended up hitting one of our volunteers three times after he had asked her to sit down. … I’ve also had some emails in more recent weeks, some of which were just rather silly emails. But some of which were a little bit threatening. The most recent email that I received listed the names of the two Canadians in prison in China, the two Michaels. And then it said who will be next? Ben Rogers will be next.
Mr. Jekielek: Who did this email come from?
Mr. Rogers: It was, again, anonymous. So I don’t know.
Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating. And so just for the benefits of our audience, I’m familiar, [but] maybe you can just give us the thumbnail. Why are these two Canadians in prison in China?
Mr. Rogers: Essentially, they were detained fairly soon after the arrest of the chief financial officer of Huawei in Canada who was detained in Canada at the request of the United States for extradition to the United States for crimes that the U.S. is to investigate, and in retaliation China picked two Canadians to jail in response.
Mr. Jekielek: So rule of law on one side and rule of political interest on the other side?
Mr. Rogers: Exactly. Yes, absolutely.
Mr. Jekielek: So this actually brings me to this point that I think is really important. We’re talking about China here, actually, we’re seeing China kind of reaching out and basically threatening you in various ways or trying to make your life uncomfortable by having all your neighbors watch you. And at least I can just imagine what people in China must feel. But why is this also significant for the typical American or the typical Canadian, like myself. We know about these two Canadians, right, that have been arrested seemingly for purely political reasons as kind of leveraged to get this Huawei chief out. But can you give us a broader perspective of what this means for freedom for America, for the world, for Canada?
Mr. Rogers: I think that’s a really important question because what China is doing now is not just about the human rights and the freedoms of people in China. They are now a threat to our own freedoms as well in a number of ways. Firstly, through technology. I think the controversy around Huawei’s role in 5G technology which will allow them to really encroach on our privacy and freedoms in our own countries. I think their efforts to … I mean, I’ve experienced it in a small way, but I know it goes on around the world, their efforts to lobby and to intrude into democratic systems in order to influence people and situations to intimidate and silence their critics.
I think Hong Kong is an important front line in this because Hong Kong is such an important international financial center and has been one of the most open cities in Asia. And if that is lost, I think that’s a great blow to freedom around the world.
And I think that also the issue of organ harvesting is something that ought to be of concern to us. And the general public in Western countries need to be made aware of it and need to either be encouraged or, if possible, actually have legislation to prohibit people going to China for organ transplants. So there’s a whole range of both our own freedoms in our society and being made aware of the ethical dangers of activities in China. The China Tribunal concluded its judgment by saying that anyone who is engaging with the Chinese state needs to be aware that they are engaging with a criminal state.
Mr. Jekielek: So the thing that strikes me is there’s all these things: You’ve mentioned torture, we’ve mentioned reeducation, forced organ harvesting, obviously, probably one of the most egregious things … Is this a completely amoral regime? To me that strikes me as something to consider, especially since people are saying that China’s going to be the dominant power in the world sometime. Or maybe it was even close to that. I don’t believe that. But that’s what people are saying, that’s how China is seeming to position itself.
Mr. Rogers: Yes, absolutely. I mean, the Chinese regime is an amoral regime. It’s a regime that’s only real interest and value is holding onto power and holding onto power at all costs. And it has no regard for human life, for human dignity, for human freedom.
Mr. Jekielek: And so we’re going to have to finish up in a little bit, but any final words you’d like to share with our audiences? About religious freedom in general, communism, these are the themes of the events that you’re here around or about Falun Gong?
Mr. Rogers: So, certainly. I mean, I think I would say that religious … I believe in all human rights and human rights come together as a set in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You can’t sort of pick and choose, and there’s no hierarchy of human rights. But if there is a foundational right, I think that the freedom to choose and practice and share non-coercively and, indeed, change your religion or belief. And that includes, incidentally, the freedom to not have a religion or belief, is a fundamental right for all of us. What we do with our own minds and souls ought to be our own right. And so it’s a right that we must champion. I believe very strongly in defending that right for everybody, not only for one particular community. And so in that context, I’m very passionate about defending the rights of Falun Gong, of the Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and Christians and others in China. And I would encourage listeners to get involved in doing that because if we lose the fundamental right to decide for ourselves what we believe and to practice those beliefs then we’ve really lost everything.
Mr. Jekielek: Benedict Rogers, powerful words to end up with. Thank you so much.
Mr. Rogers: Thank you very much.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.