Luke de Pulford, the activist confronting his government on human rights

Luke de Pulford, the activist confronting his government on human rights
Image: Illustration by Ricardo Santos & Daniel Lee
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Luke de Pulford is a human rights activist active and coordinator of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), a group of legislators that see the rise of China as a challenge that democracies must tackle together. 

Since 2019, de Pulford has carved out a niche as advisor to the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement and to anti-China politicians in the UK. He is a fellow of Hong Kong Watch and an advisor to the World Uyghur Congress, an umbrella group that aims to represent Uyghurs who live outside of China. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Quartz: Why did you become an activist?

de Pulford: My father was a senior civil servant within the Home Office. He was in charge of the human rights department during the formulation of the Human Rights Act1. And he was on loan from the UK government to try to reform the police service [in Lesotho, a country in southern Africa]. So I was brought up between [the UK] and Lesotho.

If I were to chart my interest in human rights, they probably begin in that time in Lesotho when I was 12. I went from what was a very insular environment in Canterbury, where I had almost never seen anybody with a different skin color to me, to one where I was the only white person. And it was a complete shift of perceptions, both about the way that other people in the world were living, but also about my place in it.

Where did China come in?

de Pulford: I have been involved in China-related advocacy for just over 10 years and it [started with] the persecution of Christians in China. It’s intensified over the years and I would say it’s as bad now as it’s ever been, despite the Sino-Vatican Pact2. It’s probably worse, if truth be told. But what really precipitated the desire to do more on the China front was Hong Kong, which isn’t so much, ‘There are human rights abuses going on in China,’ [but rather], ‘Here is what the problem of China presents to the rest of the world.’

You’ve been a vocal supporter of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, especially on Twitter. How has the National Security Law 3 changed that?

de Pulford: Social media in Hong Kong is much more difficult now. [Apple Daily owner and pro-democracy movement supporter] Jimmy Lai was questioned about following me on Twitter. Me and seven others were named as people that, because he followed them, it was evidence of him colluding with foreign forces. I’m sure that’s done to try to dissuade people from being so active. There are politicians who could not retweet me now in Hong Kong. So they don’t.

The truth is that Twitter is far too powerful when it comes to shaping the public discourse. Because if politicians get lots of traction on Twitter around a particular issue, it spurs them on to do more on that issue. The Hong Kong campaign knew that at an early stage. They’ve got loads of Telegram channels and they will promote tweets on it, so if a politician in Lithuania mentions Hong Kong, they’ll go from one retweet to 1,000 all of a sudden.

Now we’re much more of a voice of the Hong Kong movement in exile than anything else, because it’s very difficult to get information from the ground in a way that doesn’t imperil them. So I use it to try to influence journalists and politicians, and I use it to try to give voice to people who don’t have as much of a platform as I do on Twitter.

Have you ever been to China?

de Pulford: Not mainland China. It’s sad, actually. I love it there and I love the people and I feel at home there, weirdly enough, because I don’t know it that well. I feel accepted there, I suppose, and liked. It’s quite a nice feeling.

Do you consider yourself to be a China hawk?

de Pulford: Yes. And I don’t really have much of an objection to it. If they mean somebody who is watching out for the stuff that China’s going to do next and try to stop it from doing that stuff, then the answer is yes. There are loads of people around who are bending over backwards to try and avoid this label and it’s like, what’s the problem? Is China a threat or not? Do you want to stop it being a threat to the international order or not? If that’s what a China hawk is, then, yeah, I’m a China hawk.

You have been especially outspoken about the treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. What do you think is happening there?

de Pulford: In the absence of a judicial opinion, and from my reading of the evidence, I believe that there is the intent to destroy in whole or in part the Uyghur and other ethnic Kazakhs in northwest China. It’s a belief. I don’t know it because it hasn’t been proven beyond reasonable doubt by judges, but I believe it.

What should the UK do about it?

de Pulford: The UK argument, which is one that I find persuasive, is that genocide is very serious and you don’t want to misuse the word. And if people start throwing it around for geopolitical reasons, which was the accusation leveled at the US after their declaration of genocide, then you devalue the crime, you diminish the objectivity of the way that people can view it, and you also undermine the international system which seeks to deal with it. At the same time, the argument that you have to have a judgment in order to act or call it genocide really precludes genocide prevention, and that was never the intention [of] the Genocide Convention 4.

We’re now at a stage where the convention is on life support and needs something which is between those two posts but enables nations to act in the absence of a definitive court judgment to prevent.

You’ve criticized the UK government for not doing enough on Xinjiang, but last month, it sanctioned CCP officials in Xinjiang. What did you think when you heard that?

de Pulford: “Finally” was what I thought, and what a shame that they had to be embarrassed into it. I think that the sanctions the previous week from the US on Hong Kong officials for [violating the Sino-British Joint Declaration], a treaty that Hong Kong has with the UK, was humiliating. The UK has dragged its feet over [imposing] sanctions.

I am very confident that [UK foreign secretary] Dominic Raab actually wanted to impose sanctions in January and was blocked from doing so. The language and the rhetoric that he has been using has been exceptionally strong. It just doesn’t correspond to any of the policy. And that’s because he can’t get the policy signed off. I have been a very outspoken critic of him because he is the minister responsible. But the truth is, we know that Raab agrees.

Who is blocking him?

de Pulford: Responsibility does lie with Boris [Johnson]. We really need to act on this in a serious, meaningful way, and he’s being advised not to do that by a lot of people around him. There are a lot of voices within the Tory Party which are obsessive market worshippers and which see that the only way that the UK is going to maintain its position as a strong economy is to hitch our fortunes to China.


de Pulford: [Advisor to the prime minister]Edward Lister, and I would put [former UK chancellor of the Exchequer] George Osborne in that camp. I think that their advice on China has been consistently poor, consistently exposed the UK to unnecessary risk, and consistently neglectful and negligent towards minorities who are suffering in China, and to our treaty obligations.

Number 10 and a number of other Cabinet ministers think that people like Raab are out-on-a-limb hawks—like, ‘This is the post-Brexit period, we have got to be open for business. We can’t go around trying to lecture the world.’

It’s a very difficult thing to argue against, particularly when they feel [your arguments] are selectively directed towards China. ‘What about Saudi Arabia? What about the other countries?’ You have to make a special case as to why this huge economy should not be enabled, and that’s not an argument that a certain constituency of the Tory Party has much sympathy with.

Well, what about other countries? There are other governments engaged in human rights violations and the UK trades with them.

de Pulford: I would argue for the same approach because it’s a consistent approach, but I’m not aware of any other country that has a million Uyghurs in concentration camps.

Other countries have been accused of forced labor, though.

de Pulford: Definitely, and there are scales and degrees when it comes to these things. I wouldn’t be arguing that we shouldn’t trade with any state that is committing human rights abuses. But I would argue that when it is clear that a state is perpetrating genocide, that is your tipping point.

Would you have the UK government stop trading with China?

de Pulford: Personally speaking, I’m not comfortable trading with genocidal states. And if they are proven to be genocidal, I think there needs to be a wholesale review of every trade relationship we have with China.

If you bleat about human rights while at the same time negotiating trade deals, which mean a more open market for this nation that you’re accusing of being a human rights abuser, then you’re not really that serious about human rights, and the Chinese Communist Party knows that.

It sounds like you’re talking about the EU, which recently agreed on an investment agreement with China. 

de Pulford: What’s interesting about the [EU-China Joint Comprehensive Agreement on Investment] is that [China] called out Europe on it. Like, ‘Do you really mean it? You don’t care that much. You want your deal.’ And they were right. It’s only after a number of MEPs and organs of the European Union had been sanctioned by China, in a massive overreach, and a terrible misjudgment on their part, that there’s been a pause for thought. That doesn’t mean CAI is dead. People are going too far with that. But it’s damaged.

But the EU is China’s number one export market. The UK is nowhere near that significant for China. So even if the UK did decide to not trade with China anymore, that wouldn’t have much of an impact on the Chinese economy.

de Pulford: Yeah but the UK is a place of great geopolitical importance and it’s not like the US. When the US does something, it’s characterized as a big showdown between two great powers. When the UK does something, it feels to the rest of Europe like it’s being done from a place of principle. When the UK moved on Huawei, it meant a hell of a lot more to Europe than when the US did. And I would argue that it was more influential as a result.

You wear a lot of hats and have a lot of power, but unlike MPs, you’re not elected. Do you see any issue with that?

de Pulford: It would be wrong to characterize me as somebody who is powerful. It doesn’t feel like that. Influential, maybe, but only because I’ve worked to build up trust and relationships with people. Politics ultimately is the economy of relationships. But also, I know how to feed politicians, keep them in the newspaper, and keep them on the order paper.

Would you ever want to be a politician?

de Pulford: Yeah, I’ve thought about it, and it’s been on the agenda for some time. There are good arguments either way. You lose a lot of voice when you’re elected. At the moment, I’m pretty free to say what I think and that’s a luxury. In addition to that, I’m also pretty free to be entrepreneurial about the way this is pursued. Party discipline really precludes that.

But I also think I’ve pissed off so many people in the government now that any attempt to try to be selected for a Tory seat would almost certainly end up failing. In terms of Parliament, the only hope for me would be to stand and to be elected, and it probably wouldn’t be possible over the lifetime of this government. They are very angry with me.

To be fair, you spend most of your time calling them out.

de Pulford: I’m behaving in a way that I would hope that most parliamentarians would, which is to hold their government to account. The Conservative Party is a very broad church. There are some things this government does that resonate with my general views and there are things that don’t. China is too important, and our policy is too wrongheaded, too short sighted, too selfish, and doesn’t adequately reflect my understanding of what Conservative Party policy should be.

You just wrapped up a big battle with the genocide amendment. What’s next?

de Pulford: A vote declaring that what’s happening in northwest China is a genocide 5. There’s a lot more to be done.