On Oct 12, 2022, shortly after he was appointed the UK government’s minister for Asia, Lord (Zac) Goldsmith received a congratulatory letter from a fellow parliamentarian, Lord (David) Alton, who had an ulterior motive. Alton announced that the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong (APPG), of which he is a vice-chairman, was “calling on the UK Government to utilize its sanctions powers, via Magnitsky-style sanctions, or alternative means, to target those Chinese and Hong Kong officials who are most responsible for human rights violations”.
This request should not have surprised Goldsmith, as Alton (like the former governor, Chris Patten), is a patron of the UK-based anti-China propaganda outfit Hong Kong Watch, operated by the serial fantasist Benedict Rogers.
Earlier, on Sept 15, 2022, Alton, who also belongs to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (that Hong Kong Watch helped establish in 2020), had also put his name to the “communique” it issued in Washington, DC, and which called for “targeted Magnitsky-style human rights sanctions against PRC and HKSAR officials”.
A sanctimonious, if peripheral, figure in British politics, Alton served as a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Commons from 1979 to 1997, and was then appointed to membership of the House of Lords, the upper house of the UK Parliament, by the outgoing prime minister, John Major, in 1997. Under Britain’s anachronistic patronage system, he is now a legislator for life, and can claim various perks, including a daily attendance allowance, travel expenses and subsidized restaurant facilities (not for nothing is the House of Lords called “the best club in London”).
Although Alton attends Parliament regularly, where he is well-known for his incessant criticisms of China, the electors cannot remove him, no matter how sick they may be of him. This, however, has in no way inhibited him from complaining about the state of democratic politics in Hong Kong, oblivious to the hypocrisy of his own position (and that of his 770 colleagues in the unelected House of Lords, the only upper house of any bicameral parliament in the world to be larger than its lower house, with the elected House of Commons having only 650 members). He has now, at taxpayers’ expense, been an unelected member of Parliament for no less than 25 years, accountable to nobody but himself, yet he shamelessly accused Hong Kong, in 2020, of having a “democratic deficit”, and, in 2021, of making “a mockery of any concept of free and fair elections”.
In Hong Kong, Alton is probably best remembered for his role in the notorious APPG inquiry of 2020, into alleged brutality by the Hong Kong Police Force during the insurrection of 2019-20. With Alton, as APPG vice-chair, playing a leading role, the inquiry mimicked legal procedures, but was quickly exposed as a sham, with its personnel being found to have prejudged the very issues they were supposed to be determining. The APPG’s credibility was sensationally blown apart once it was revealed that the inquiry was being covertly funded by “Stand with Hong Kong” (SWHK), an anti-China grouping with close ties not only to Next Digital founder Jimmy Lai Chee-ying and Hong Kong Watch, but also to Alton himself.
Indeed, an intrepid researcher discovered, in Parliament’s “Register of Members’ Interests”, that, when Alton visited Hong Kong as what he called an “election monitor”, from Nov 23-25, 2019 (five months before he participated in the APPG inquiry in March 2020), his “travel and accommodation” were paid for by SWHK, clearly awash with funds. And yet, despite the conflict of interest, he nonetheless participated in the inquiry, which, to nobody’s surprise, condemned the Police Force (the very result that SWHK, having footed the bill, expected to receive).
Indeed, Alton, who has been sanctioned by Beijing for his activities, hitches his wagon to any cause he imagines can harm China. After, for example, the “Uyghur Tribunal” (subsequently exposed as a kangaroo court) was launched on Sept 3, 2020, under the chairmanship of Sir Geoffrey Nice QC (another of Hong Kong Watch’s patrons), it disclosed it had received “assistance from a nongovernmental organization, the Coalition for Genocide Response” (CGR).
Although largely unknown, the CGR was co-founded by a Hong Kong Watch advisory board member, Luke de Pulford (who also has links to SWHK), with, yet again, Alton’s involvement, this time as a joint patron (together with Nice, who, 10 months before his tribunal was established, attended the CGR’s launch ceremony on Nov 4, 2019, in the House of Lords). It was as CGR patron that, on Sept 23, 2020, Alton got up in Parliament to ask if the government would “welcome” the initiative to set up the “Uyghur Tribunal”, and “cooperate” with it, clearly anticipating, given that Hong Kong Watch was pulling the strings, another China-critical report was in the offing (as, indeed, it was).
It would, of course, be strange indeed if somebody like Alton, given his addiction to mischief making, did not also jump onto the Taiwan bandwagon. It is known, again from parliamentary records, that he visited Taiwan from Oct 1-5, 2019, and that, while there, he met “government ministers and officials”, with the Taipei government paying for his “flights and accommodation”. Although it is not known what, if anything, he was asked to do by Taipei in return, what is now public knowledge is that he has used the Taiwan card this year to try to harm UK-China relations.
On Feb 3, 2022, Alton asked in Parliament if the UK government might provide a “lead by suggesting to its partners that we join an informal and temporary coalition of countries to simultaneously recognize on the same day the sovereignty of Taiwan”. He added that the “time for mass recognition of Taiwan’s sovereignty by the free nations of the world is now”. His move, of course, was somewhat incongruous, given that the UK and China are this year celebrating 50 years of ambassadorial diplomatic relations, and the foreign office minister, Lord (Tariq) Ahmad, replied that “the government’s position has not changed”.
This message, however, was lost on Alton, and, on March 3, 2022, he informed Parliament that he had “urged the government to lead other democracies in recognizing Taiwan”. Once again, Lord Ahmad patiently responded that “the United Kingdom’s long-standing position on Taiwan has not changed”, and that it still supported “the status quo”. Alton, however, is unlikely to let the matter drop, particularly as Hong Kong Watch wants to up the ante.
As Alton must know, his proposal violates the one-China principle, and would result in the termination of diplomatic relations between China and Britain. It would also lead more generally to the decoupling of the two countries, such being the hope of many of the UK’s neo-McCarthyites. Since he regularly represents Hong Kong Watch’s policy positions in Parliament and regurgitates its prejudices, he will presumably have cleared his attacks on the one-China principle with Rogers first.
However tempting, Alton cannot simply be dismissed as just another ideological crank. He is one of those politicians who will stop at nothing to disrupt the West’s relations with China, and would happily sacrifice the one-China principle, consequences notwithstanding. On March 4, 2022, moreover, the day after Alton made his call in London, and in what appears to have been a coordinated move, the former US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, announced that Taiwan should be offered “America’s diplomatic recognition as a free and sovereign country”.
Although he has been described as America’s “worst-ever” secretary of state, Pompeo is idolized by Hong Kong Watch, with Rogers even having declared he would “love to see (Pompeo) run for the White House one day”.
If this ever happens, Rogers will presumably also be backing US (Republican) Senator Marsha Blackburn (who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee) as Pompeo’s vice-presidential running mate. When she visited Taipei on Aug 16, 2022, she told Taiwan’s leader, Tsai Ing-wen, that “we look forward to continuing to help and support Taiwan as they push forward as an independent nation”.
When, however, China’s state councilor and foreign minister, Wang Yi, met the British foreign secretary, James Cleverly, on Sept 20, 2022, it was a different story. After Wang emphasized that the UK should honor its one-China policy and unequivocally oppose “Taiwanese independence”, Cleverly assured him that the UK’s stance on the Taiwan question remained unchanged, and it was committed to forging mutually beneficial and effective relations with China that would boost growth and promote peace and security. He added, moreover, that the UK applauded China’s great achievements in poverty alleviation, and wanted to strengthen cooperation through dialogue and exchanges, a message that must have incensed Hong Kong Watch and its outriders.
As the UK’s new prime minister, it must be hoped that Rishi Sunak will prioritize improved relations with China. In his previous role as chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister), he worked hard to deepen trading ties between the two countries, and the onset of a severe recession means Britain must place the welfare of its people before the hang-ups of its bigots. The UK has always been at the forefront of Western exchanges with China, and, if it does not seize its opportunities now, they will be grabbed by its rivals, including those in the European Union.
The author is a senior counsel and law professor, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
HONG KONG NEWS