Political tensions between the United Kingdom and Beijing have intensified in recent weeks, as the UK continues to push back on China’s policies.
The UK’s most recent point of contention surrounds China’s newly-passed national security law, which some critics say will effectively curtail freedom of speech. The law came into effect on June 30, bypassing Hong Kong’s local legislature.
Some believe offenses are so broadly defined under the new law that they can become blanket charges for political activists, with potentially heavy penalties.
In a Tweet posted on July 3, the United Nations human rights office denounced the legislation, describing the law as “vague and overly broad, which may lead to discriminatory or arbitrary interpretation and enforcement.”
Amid the uncertainty, one of the UK’s more outspoken members of Parliament, Tom Tugendhat, has revealed a series of letters sent to his home under the guise of a “plea to God,” in which he believes the palpable message is, “I know where you live.”
“The message from Ambassador Liu Xiaoming’s Ministry of State Security friends is clear,” Tugendhat said, claiming that the anonymous letters sent from Hong Kong are a bid by Beijing to intimidate him.
This wouldn’t be the first time the Chinese government is thought to have used intimidation tactics against political opponents.
In July 2018, British activist Benedict Rogers, founder of the Hong Kong Watch (HKW) group, wrote in HuffPost that he and neighbors in London had received two anonymous letters, along with one sent to his mother, advising him to take down HKW’s website.
Rogers believed these were attempts to silence him over his advocacy work for the city.
A similar series of anonymous threatening letters were sent to the staff of the Hong Kong-based English language publication Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) accusing them of spreading “hatred and dividing Hong Kong, China society.”
The “warning” letters – the first of which was received on August 25, 2017 by airmail from Hong Kong – stated that the HKFP co-founder and chief editor Tom Grundy should “tread carefully” and be wise about his actions and their consequences.
The news of Tugendhat’s alarming letters comes only weeks after the arrest of Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai, who was detained earlier this month on suspicion of colluding with foreign forces to endanger national security, conspiracy to defraud and intention to incite succession.
Lai founded the popular newspaper Apple Daily, a publication that is widely-known to favor Hong Kong’s pro-democratic population.
The evidence presented by officers during his 40 hours in custody included television interviews with international media in which Lai called for China to be sanctioned. Under China’s new national security law, this could be interpreted as collusion with a foreign force.
Tugendhat, the chair of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, believes the letters he is receiving are, likewise, in response to his own political stances.
The Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) recently published a five-point plan for confronting what he deemed “the biggest challenge to the liberal world since the end of the Cold War,” including reducing access to UK universities for Chinese students, protecting British firms from Chinese takeovers and setting up a new international trade alliance to safeguard e-commerce from dominance by Beijing.
Backed by Tugendhat, UK government officials were suspected to have begun drawing up plans to phase out the Chinese-controlled mobile phone network, Huawei, despite initially agreeing to its being involved in the development of Britain’s telecoms systems.
The MP regularly cautioned the UK government about the inclusion of Huawei on security grounds, prior to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recantation of his decision and move to ban the Chinese tech giant from its 5G network in July.
Tugendhat has also avidly spoken out against China’s expansion of detention camps for Muslim Uighurs in the western province of Xinjiang. It is reported that at least one million Uighurs have been held in the over 85 identifiable camps within the region.
In response to the UK’s recent plans to distance themselves from China, Beijing has reportedly threatened to punish British bank HSBC and to break commitments to build nuclear power plants in the UK unless London allows Huawei to build its 5G network.
In a press statement on June 9, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized China’s coercion of the UK, stating, “The United States stands with our allies and partners against the Chinese Communist Party’s coercive bullying tactics.”
While the anonymous letter – signed “In Love and Christ, Hong Kong and China” – did not make any direct threats against him, Tugendhat states that “This is a pretty crude form of intimidation and it won’t work on me but for some – Hongkongers or Chinese here in the UK, or those with family who could be subjected to the kind of violence the Communist Party uses on its own citizens – this would be the kind of warning that would silence.”
He goes on, “If we’re going to defend our liberties and democracy we need to call out these attempts to bully. This kind of foreign interference by Chinese Communist Party security forces is wrong and must stop.”
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