Tearing down China’s internet firewalls would collapse the Communist government within six months, according to blind dissident Chen Guangcheng, who called the regime’s censorship and surveillance system “our Berlin Wall”.
The human rights activist, known around the world as “the barefoot lawyer”, called on the UK and other Western governments to combine technological forces to bring about a very modern revolution.
“China’s Berlin Wall is the internet firewall,” Mr Chen told the Independent through his translator. “I believe if Western democracies can unite in breaking the firewall software then the regime will collapse within six months. That is the power of the internet [in spreading freedom].”
The 43-year-old US-based lawyer spoke out against the stranglehold China’s draconian Golden Shield Project has on its citizens in between protesting against Xi Jinping’s state visit to the UK – the first in 10 years by a Chinese President.
Mr Chen also revealed that the FBI is currently investigating a break-in at his Maryland home last month where an unopened bag of rat poison was left in his kitchen by, he believes, agents of the Communist regime.
Since his dramatic escape from house arrest in April 2012, when he fled during the night to eventually reach sanctuary at the US Embassy in Beijing before moving to New York, Mr Chen has become the world’s most famous Chinese dissident.
The Queen may have toasted China’s President at Buckingham Palace on the new “global partnership” that has resulted in £30bn worth of deals being announced this week, but Mr Chen is scathing of the red-carpet treatment for Mr Xi.
“Is the UK being used? The UK is being bought!” he laughed. “I don’t think all this trade and business should be carried out as the UK sacrifices human rights in exchange for these deals. It’s a golden age for merchandise and trade for UK-Communist Party relations. For the sake of trade human rights are being sacrificed.”
The most controversial trade deal announced during Mr Xi’s four-day visit came with the confirmation EDF Energy had reached an agreement with China’s CGN to build a new nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset. The final cost will be £18bn with CGN paying £6bn for a one-third stake.
Mr Chen echoes the concerns already raised by intelligence experts, as well as the US, that the deal will compromise British security.
“It is regrettable, but not surprising,” he said during our interview at London’s Methodist Central Hall, Westminster. “This is one way of Communist penetration into British society. I think in the future these kinds of deals will have a major impact on other areas of British society, especially regarding security. British citizens should boldly stand up and say ‘No!’,” he said banging the table and spilling his coffee.
Mr Chen has had better experiences of British authority. Following his studies in 2000 he returned to his home village of Dongshigu to confront environmental pollution. Toxic wastewater from a paper will had been dumped into the local river destroying crops and wildlife. The British Embassy in Beijing gave £15,000 towards a deep water will and irrigation systems.
By 2006, having spent more than four years in prison, then Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett put Mr Chen on the front cover of that year’s British government human rights report calling for China “to prove its commitment to building the rule of law”.
Mr Chen expressed disappointment that, in his view, the British attitude towards China has now shifted away from even mild public criticism.
“That support from the UK [in 2000] was not only helpful for the villagers improving their water quality but also Chinese citizens’ perception of the free world,” he said. “There was a dramatic shift around that time when the then British government was emphatic on the value of diplomacy – and now everything is about deals.
“We didn’t know [that it was a Labour government] during those times, we didn’t think about party affiliation. Maybe it’s time for us to think about that!”
Mr Chen said there is “no doubt” human rights have worsened in his home country in the decade since President Hu Jintao’s state visit and believes the UK must publicly criticise the regime if it wants to improve human rights in China.
His profile clearly presents a major headache for the regime. Last month he and his wife Yuan Weijing returned home from a human rights conference in Paris to find somebody had broken in and put a bag of rat poison powder in their kitchen, next to the cooking utensils.
Mr Chen said the break-in at his home was a “strong message” that the Communist regime can threaten him even while living “in complete freedom” in the United States, where he has taken up a position at The Witherspoon Institute, a Conservative think tank. It was the latest in a long line of intimidation by the regime.
“Chinese agents were following me when I came to the UK in 2013,” he said. “At the European Parliament that year we were followed by two people all the way to the toilet. Last December, speaking in Spain at a Tibetan rally, I was robbed and my passport stolen. I may live in a land of freedom now, but the threat against me has never stopped.”
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