Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is the co-founder and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch, Senior Analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organisation CSW,co-founder and Deputy Chair of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and a board member of the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign. He is the author of six books, including three books about Myanmar, especially his latest, “Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads”. His new book, “The China Nexus: Thirty Years In and Around the Chinese Communist Party’s Tyranny”, will be published in October 2022 by Optimum Publishing International. In this interview, he talks about the new book and his insights on the Tibet issue.
Could you please tell us something about your much awaited book, ‘The China Nexus: Thirty Years In and Around the Chinese Communist Party’s Tyranny’ which is set to be released in October 2022? What is the significance of the title of the book?
The book, which will be launched in London on 25 October, aims to tell the story of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime’s repression and human rights violations across the board, looking at the crackdown on civil society, lawyers, media and dissidents throughout mainland China, the persecution of Christians, the barbaric practice of forced organ harvesting particularly targeting Falun Gong, the atrocities in Tibet, the genocide of the Uyghurs, the repression in Hong Kong, the threats to Taiwan, and the CCP’s complicity with crimes against humanity in the two neighbouring countries whose dictatorships it props up, Myanmar (Burma) and North Korea. The book ends with a chapter on what the international community should do to confront this challenge.
Woven into the book are my own personal experiences of living, working and travelling throughout China and Hong Kong. I first went to China when I was 18 to teach English for six months in Qingdao; I went back several times as a student; I lived and worked as a journalist in Hong Kong for five years; and I travelled regularly throughout China up until I was denied entry to and banned from Hong Kong in 2017.
The title, The China Nexus, reflects the fact that China is the connecting point that brings all these different elements together, it has been a connecting point for me personally in my life, and it is, I would argue, the central challenge for the rest of the world today. However, I also want to emphasise that I am not anti-China – indeed, I love China, have many Chinese friends, and it is because I love China that I advocate for human rights for all the peoples of China. It is the CCP regime I oppose. It is important to draw that distinction, between the CCP and China and its peoples, and I hope that message comes through in the book.
It has been 24 years since a UN Human Rights Commissioner visited Tibet and no investigation has taken place regarding the treatment of Tibetans, while arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances have become a regular affair in Tibet. Why is the world largely silent on the Tibet issue?
I am very concerned that Tibet has rather fallen off the international agenda. I think it is due to a combination of reasons.
Firstly, the atrocities faced by the Uyghurs and the crackdown in Hong Kong have, understandably, gained more attention in recent years. That is good and they need that attention, and their plight reflects another dimension of the same problem which Tibet faces – CCP repression – but there is a danger that as the world focuses more on Uyghurs and Hong Kong, it forgets Tibet. We must not let that happen.
Secondly, for many years Tibet was in people’s minds, thanks to the international role of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the work of Hollywood celebrities such as Richard Gere. However, now His Holiness is less able to travel internationally, and at the same time world leaders, due to pressure from Beijing, have been more reluctant to engage with him, and China’s influence in Hollywood has grown so film stars are less willing to take up the cause of Tibet, and this has meant Tibet has received less attention.
Thirdly, it has become much harder for people to get in or out of Tibet, and therefore the ability to receive timely, up-to-date information is made much more difficult. But it is vital that we overcome these challenges and keep reminding the world what is happening in Tibet.
Since the Chinese government’s introduction of “Management Measures for the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism” in 2007, CCP has consistently misused the authority to recognize reincarnation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama for its political interests. What are your thoughts on the same?
It is completely absurd that a Communist Party regime which is officially – and avowedly – atheist, and which seeks to suppress religion and spirituality, thinks that it can take upon itself the role of determining the reincarnation of His Holiness. It is a completely contradictory and ridiculous position. I am in no doubt that Tibetan Buddhists will never accept it. When the time comes for the Dalai Lama’s successor to be identified, I am sure that the Tibetan Buddhist community will be able to do this in the way that Tibetan Buddhists have always done, according to Tibetan practice, and that the international community will accept and respect their decision. Beijing may well try to identify an alternative Dalai Lama, one that suits their political agenda, and so we may have a situation where there are two Dalai Lamas. But only one of them will be legitimate.
How has His Holiness the Dalai Lama influenced your life?
His Holiness inspires me enormously. Over the years I have read his works and watched some of his speeches. I especially love his friendship with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who is another of my heroes and whom I have had the privilege of meeting. I love the book they wrote together, The Book of Joy, and their televised conversations. Their humour is especially wonderful. His Holiness’ wisdom, compassion, courage and humour is a great inspiration. Beijing could not have asked for a more reasonable, sensible, wise, compassionate interlocuter, and Beijing is mad not to have seized the opportunity to enter into a dialogue with him and reach a sensible and mutually acceptable compromise over the status of Tibet. The CCP leaders could learn so much from His Holiness if only they opened their ears, minds, hearts and souls.
Tell us something about the process of researching for and writing this book, in particular the Tibet chapter. Did you face any challenges and if any, how did you overcome them?
For the book as a whole, I conducted over 80 interviews, with Chinese dissidents, including Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan, Hong Kongers including Nathan Law, Uyghurs including Wu’erkaixi, Nury Turkel, Dolkun Isa and Rahima Mahmut, Tibetans, Taiwanese, North Korean escapees, experts on Myanmar, and policy experts on China from the US, UK, Canada, India, Japan and beyond, including the former senior advisor to the previous US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the former US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, the former US Representative to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, US Congressman Chris Smith, the former spokesperson for the President of Taiwan, the former US ambassador to Myanmar, the former British ambassador to Myanmar (who later served as Consul-General in Hong Kong), the former British ambassador to North Korea and many others. I also read very widely – I read over 50 books on different aspects of the topic, as background, and many human rights reports and newspaper and magazine articles. And I dug out my old diaries and letters from my times in China and Hong Kong, which I had kept in boxes all these years.
For the chapter in my book on Tibet, I interviewed several Tibetans, including some who have escaped in recent years, and I was able to interview His Holiness in writing, for which I feel deeply honoured and grateful. I also interviewed several politicians who have met His Holiness and visited Dharamsala or Tibet, including Tim Loughton MP, the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Tibet in the UK, Lord Alton of Liverpool and the Canadian Senator Con Di Nino. In addition, I did a huge amount of background reading – I read Sam van Schaik’s book Tibet: A History, Michael van Walt van Praag and Mike Boltjes’ Tibet Brief 20/20, Alexander Norman’s biography of His Holiness, as well as His Holiness’ own memoir Freedom in Exile, and many human rights reports by Human Rights Watch, the International Campaign for Tibet, Tibet Action Institute, the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, and Tibet Watch. I also watched the film Seven Years in Tibet which, surprisingly, I do not think I had previously seen. I learned so much in the course of researching the Tibet chapter of the book, and I felt deeply moved especially by the interviews I did with Tibetans, whose stories I will carry in my heart forever. It made me determined to increase my own efforts in support of Tibet. I believe everyone facing the CCP’s repression – Tibetans, Hong Kongers, Uyghurs, Chinese Christians, Falun Gong practitioners, Chinese dissidents, lawyers, bloggers, civil society activists, Taiwanese – all need to stand together in this fight for freedom.
Two more self-immolations took place in Tibet this year, taking the total number of cases to 159 since 2009. Why are Tibetans deciding to use this particular form of protest against the Chinese government?
Clearly, this is a sign of real desperation. As one Tibetan whom I interviewed for the book, Wangden Kyab, told me, “they are not drunk”, and nor are they crazy. Because they have no other way to protest or to express their opinions or their wishes, they resort to this extreme action. “They feel they are burning themselves for their forefathers and future generations. Even when their whole body is on fire, they are shouting ‘Free Tibet’,” Wangden said.
CCP has always tried to silence dissent and attack anybody who have gathered the courage to talk about the crimes it is committing in Tibet, East Turkestan, Taiwan and Hong Kong. How do you think CCP would respond to your book?
I have no doubt the CCP will not be at all happy about my book, because it hates anything that tells the truth or shines a light on its behaviour. Given that they have already banned me from Hong Kong, threatened to jail me in Hong Kong, sent many threatening letters to my home, my neighbours and to my mother, and lobbied UK Members of Parliament to try to silence me, I am curious to see what they will do in response to the book. But undoubtedly they won’t like it. It is the book that Xi Jinping does not want you to read.
The Third Pole is melting and the climate crisis in Tibet has gotten worse over time. Do you think the world has largely failed to understand the key role Tibet should ideally play in any climate change discourse?
Until I started researching the Tibet chapter of my book, I myself was unaware of this aspect of Tibet’s situation. I interviewed one Tibetan researcher, Tenzin Choekyi, who really helped me to understand the severity of this crisis, and I read several reports. I devote two pages of the Tibet chapter to this issue. I think definitely the world has failed to understand the key role Tibet plays in the climate crisis, and why Tibet should absolutely be part of the discourse. As Tenzin Choekyi told me, and I quote her in the book: “The Third Pole is melting, it will affect two billion people, but there is no Tibetan representation in climate change talks”. We must work to change that.
The recent Human Rights Watch report has revealed terrifying details about mass DNA surveillance underway in Tibet. China's digital tools are serving as all-seeing instruments of repression in Tibet. How do you think surveillance and censorship are being used in CCP’s Sinicization of Tibet?
Undoubtedly Tibet, along with Xinjiang, has been the CCP’s ‘laboratory’ for developing its surveillance state, which it is now rolling out throughout China and into Hong Kong. It is chilling. Chen Quangguo, who was Party Secretary in Tibet and then Party Secretary in Xinjiang, is the architect of this. As the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy put it in a very important report on surveillance and censorship in Tibet in 2020, “the changes in Tibet over the last decade represent a systemized social control mechanism that ignores human rights … Online surveillance, CCTV cameras, bugged homes, and checkpoints provide simple instruments of observation and monitoring to expand the influence of the State”. Professor Dibyesh Anand, a Tibet expert at the University of Westminster, told me that there are “cameras observing every house”. In particular, the CCP seems intent on Sinicisation of religion – all religions, throughout China, including Tibetan Buddhism.
CCP has been trying to rewrite and misappropriate history of Tibet and disinformation warfare is stronger than ever today. How do you think this needs to be countered?
We need to seek more platforms for the truth about the history of Tibet to be told. Historians and experts should be given more opportunities to tell the truth about Tibet, and Tibetans themselves should be given more opportunities to tell their story. I hope my book, in its own small way, will make a contribution towards helping people understand the truth about the history of Tibet, the truth about the CCP’s crimes, and the truth about the challenges Xi Jinping’s regime in Beijing poses to all of us today.