Lord David Alton Is Not Remaining Silent on China and Human Rights

K.V. Turley

K.V. Turley is the Register’s U.K. correspondent. He writes from London.

Lord David Alton
Lord David Alton (photo: Courtesy photo / Lord David Alton)

LONDON — On March 26, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) imposed sanctions on the British Catholic parliamentarian Lord David Alton. 

The reason? He had highlighted widespread human-rights abuses in the Chinese province of Xinjiang.

The Chinese authorities imposed these measures on Alton and eight other British citizens, as well as on four institutions, all deemed critical of China’s human rights’ record. Alton told the Register April 20, “These sanctions have been imposed as a crude attempt to intimidate and silence parliamentarians.” 

He added, “Those who have been sanctioned have been shining a light on genocide in Xinjiang, the destruction of democracy in Hong Kong, military threats against Taiwan, and systematic persecution of religious minorities — all committed by the Chinese Communist Party.”

Lord Alton, an independent member of the House of Lords, the upper house of the U.K. Parliament, sees this latest action by the CCP as not insignificant, followed on from the British government’s recent imposition of sanctions on China as a result of its treatment of its Uyghur Muslim minority.

“[The Uyghurs] have been turned into slave labor,” explained Alton. “I have visited Western China. I have taken evidence from Uyghurs who have escaped. They have described torture, sterilization and forced abortion. They have been subject to mass incarceration, to propagandistic ‘reeducation’ to renounce their religious and cultural beliefs.” 

Since 2014, without any legal process, the Chinese authorities have pursued policies leading to more than 1 million Muslims (the majority of them ethnically Uyghurs) being held in state-run internment camps. The Chinese government has defended this policy of mass detention and reeducation as an appropriate response to terrorism. However, this view is not shared by other countries. This year, on Jan. 19, the United States was the first country to declare such human-rights abuses “a genocide.” This month, the U.K.’s House of Commons unanimously passed a non-binding motion recognizing the ongoing Chinese actions as genocide.

With regard to the Chinese treatment of the Uyghurs, Alton sees worrying historical parallels. He points out that the British Board of Jewish Deputies has drawn a parallel with the sufferings of the Uyghurs today and those experienced by European Jews during the Holocaust. Yet, for many in the West, Alton senses that, just as in 1930s Europe, it is a case of “business as usual.” The public, he says, “should be telling their governments and multinational companies that they must stop doing business based on slave labor in Xinjiang and recalibrate their over-dependency on a country that is responsible for the crime above all crimes: genocide.” 

Such references to genocide and the Holocaust are shocking, but given China’s other well-documented human-rights abuses in recent decades — for example, the “one-child policy” — perhaps not unexpected. Does Alton view these latest human-rights abuses as yet another outgrowth from the ideological culture of death now deeply embedded within Chinese society? 

“The CCP’s one-child policy turned China into the only country where it was illegal to have a brother or a sister,” said Alton, “and where women have been routinely subjected to forced abortion.” He suggests that the state control of reproduction and family size has resulted in “a demographic time bomb,” resulting in, he says, an estimated 30 million more men than women. But, he claims, “[China’s] culture of death extends beyond even that.” [The China] Tribunal has found, he states, “credible evidence of the forced harvesting of organs from minorities and dissenters [who were] killed in the process.”

One suspects that any reluctance on the part of Western powers to speak out on Chinese human-rights abuses is closely linked to China’s economic power. In 2020, for example, when Australia criticized China for the spread of COVID-19, Beijing halted or imposed curbs on Australian imports, including beef, barley, sugar, coal, and timber. When exporting to China the Australian wine industry alone was saddled with a 212% increase in taxes. While it is difficult to quantify the cost of such a trade war, research by the Perth USAsia Center at the University of Western Australia stated that the total annual value of exports to China from the seven industries affected, through declared and undeclared sanctions, totaled around $47.7 billion worth of business.

Concerns have been raised that now China is far too embedded in the West — in commerce and education, for example — for the Western governments to deal with that country objectively. “The CCP has embedded itself in our strategic industries, our international institutions and our universities,” confirms Alton. “It has used economic coercion, control of supply chains and the ‘Belt and Road’ projects — a global infrastructure development strategy adopted by the Chinese government in 2013 to invest in nearly 70 countries and international organizations — to extend its power.” Alton sees the Chinese objective as ultimately to displace the United States as the major global power, thereby replacing liberal democracy through imposing the CCP communist ideology on the world. “It’s late,” he added, “but not too late, for the West to see this for what it is and to break our [economic] dependency on China.” 

How concerned should the West be about this ongoing global rise in Chinese economic power? “We have been completely indifferent to the nature of the CCP’s ideology,” said Alton. “I love China and the people of China. But that’s very different from loving the ideology of the CCP that gave us the Cultural Revolution, mass starvation of its people, the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and the suppression of religious freedom.”

Lord David Alton
Lord David Alton holds a #StandwithHK sign.

David Alton has been in politics since becoming a Liverpool city councilor in 1972. By the end of that decade he was a member of Parliament for the same city, remaining so until he stood down at the 1997 British general election. Although he had been elected as a Liberal and then Liberal Democrat MP, when he took up his seat in the House of Lords, he sat in that chamber as a “cross bencher” (an independent) so disillusioned was he with his former party and in particular with its policy position on abortion. 

Lord Alton is one of the U.K.’s highest profile Catholic parliamentarians. Catholic social teaching shapes his worldview, especially so on issues such as the plight of the Uyghurs. “The ultimate failure of politics is when countries go to war,” explains Alton. “It is our duty to seek peaceful resolution of our differences — but that is never achieved through a position of weakness, through appeasement, through silence or by deluding yourself about the nature of the threat. That simply emboldens the aggressor: You don’t deal with a dangerous crocodile by allowing it to eat your neighbors, hoping it will then be satisfied and go away.”

Any opposition to an “aggressor” has to be organized, says Alton, and it also has to be vocal. “When we fail to speak out, it simply signals a lack of resolve; an unwillingness to defend our beliefs; a loss of nerve,” he says, before quoting St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), the 20th-century saint murdered by the Nazis: “Those who remain silent are responsible.”

The recent Chinese sanctions imposed on Alton and others are intended to silence, especially so when it comes to a Chinese audience. All those sanctioned are forbidden from entering China, Hong Kong and Macau. Furthermore, Chinese citizens are equally forbidden to do any form of business with Alton and the others. 

At 70 years old, Lord Alton has been fighting on behalf of the most vulnerable for five decades. How does he keep going? “One day,” he replies, “I will be asked, ‘How did you use the platform and the opportunities which you were given?’ I need to have a good reply to that question.” That said, he admits to feeling “too often like Sisyphus, who kept pushing boulders up the hill, only for the boulders to keep rolling back down on him!” 

At times he admits to feeling discouraged, adding, “but in discouragement I have always been blessed by the encouragement of the amazing friends who have worked with me.” One should “never underestimate,” he says, “the importance of a word of encouragement.” Alton then recounts just such a “word” he has received recently, an example that encourages him to persevere.

Two days after he had been sanctioned by the CCP, Lord Alton received an email from a former constituent in Liverpool. Attached to the email was a photograph of the constituent as a child. At the time David Alton was his MP. “His grandmother had come to see me,” Alton explains, “and told me that the boy had never learnt to speak. With a few letters to the relevant authorities, I was able to get him some professional help. In his email, he told me that ‘you gave me my voice and that he had wept when he saw that an attempt was being made to stop my voice from being raised on behalf of the Uyghurs.”