Lawyer Paul Powlesland wins global praise for scathing remarks about David Cameron’s welcome for Chinese president
David Cameron mentioned it gently, George Osborne wouldn’t, and even Jeremy Corbyn was fairly muted. But human rights did get one frank airing during Xi Jinping’s visit to the UK after a young British lawyer was filmed politely but firmly confronting a group of Chinese students on the subject.
Paul Powlesland’s discussion about human rights and democracy with a group of young Chinese nationals holding banners to welcome their president to London has gone viral after it was filmed and posted on the Facebook page of a Tibet protest group.
The 29-year-old civil law barrister has received messages of praise from around the world, with more than half a million people watching the video since it was posted on Wednesday. He has been particularly feted in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and has been interviewed by one Hong Kong newspaper.
Powlesland said he was pleasantly surprised by his unexpected and unsought fame. “It’s gone quite mad,” he told the Guardian. “I’ve been emailed and messaged from people all over the world saying, congratulations, thank you for standing up for human rights and freedom of speech.”
Ever since Xi arrived in the UK for his state visit on Monday his presence has beenmet by huge crowds of Chinese nationals, many bearing identical banners of welcome in a campaign at least in part orchestrated by the country’s diplomats.
Powlesland said he was cycling through the City of London on Wednesday afternoon on his way to his chambers after a court case when he saw a crowd of Xi supporters gathered before the president’s arrival at a state banquet.
On a whim, Powlesland said, he decided to stop and challenge some of the crowd about China’s human rights record. Unknown to him, a member of the Free Tibet campaign was filming.
The video shows him saying to the crowd: “You’ve come here to express your right, your freedom of speech. Do you think that right should be extended to everyone, all around the world – in Tibet, in Beijing, everywhere?”
The answers are partly inaudible, but one person appears to ask Powlesland about Scotland’s independence. He answers: “The Scottish people are allowed to vote – why don’t you give the vote to Tibetan people?”
Asked why he is asking such questions, Powlesland replies: “Because I care about human rights and democracy around the world, for every single human being. Every single one.”
Calling Xi “one of the greatest abusers of human rights in the world”, he adds: “So many English people are frankly disgusted at the welcome your president has got in our country, that our prime minister will roll over and frankly do everything your president tells him for money.”
Powlesland told the Guardian his questions appeared to flummox the students. “They didn’t really know how to answer them. They haven’t really got an answer, as far as I can see,” he said.
As he left on his bike, Powlesland was asked by the Free Tibet campaign member who filmed the interaction if he could post it on Facebook. “I said, ‘Sure, go ahead,’ not thinking any more of it,” Powlesland said. “Then I was sat in the office and got messages from my friends on Facebook saying, ‘Well done, you’re a legend.’ I said, ‘What are you on about?’ They referred me to the Free Tibet group, and already it was taking off.”
Powlesland said he believed the reception to the video was in part because people felt let down at the minimal official British challenge on human rights issues to Xi, who returns to China on Friday.
“A lot of ordinary British people are disgusted by the actions of our government and David Cameron, rolling over and welcoming the head of this regime just for any sniff of cash,” he said.
“It’s becoming a very British thing, to bring out the red carpet to any dictator who’ll give us a bit of money, whether China or Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. It’s pretty appalling, and very hypocritical when we also like to say we export democracy around the world, and talk about British values.”