By Patrick Brogan
China often comes across as an exotic land full of mystery to us Westerners. Indeed, even in the 21st Century, it clings on to some of this mystique and that is partially down to the regime that runs the country. Internet access is severely restricted in the country and this is known as the Great Firewall of China. This has stopped information going out, which limits our view of the nation to that of the official line, but this was largely set-up to stop outside information reaching the ordinary Chinese citizen. China is not a free country and is far from it.
The Win-Win Policy
While China is authoritative at home, it seems to follow the opposite policy on the international stage. While US citizens enjoy freedom at home (sometimes greatly exaggerated, but there none-the-less), abroad, US foreign policy is responsible for a great deal of instability and just plain murder. China is following a win-win policy whereby they are not inferring in other countries’ domestic policies and where both sides gain something. This is not to say that China is only dealing with democratic and progressive nations, far from it, but China’s way is offering far more stability than the US course and some real tangible positives are coming out of this. This current state of affairs is akin to Bismarck’s Germany using diplomacy (China) and Victorian Britain using an aggressive expansionist policy (the US).
Last year, we covered the Chinese (and Italian) backed plan to help solve the humanitarian crisis in the Lake Chad region. Matt also wrote about how China is developing a New Silk Road which involves cooperation with various other countries that will benefit their economies. That said, it is not all rosy. Britain, through Taiwan, is raising tensions in the South China Sea, but even here, as Britain heads towards a post-EU society, they will need trade deals with China leaving China with the upper hand.
The main reason for China’s growth and increasingly obvious stature on the global stage is to gain leverage over the US. This is because it wants power for itself, but it also fears the US. There is good reason for this; history. There is one major issue that just may be China’s undoing and that is how it treats its own citizens.
The Century of Humiliation
Before we go into this, it is important to understand Chinese history and the paranoia its ruling class has about not the just the Western powers in general but also of its own people. This might go some way to explaining why Chinese human rights standards are so low when viewed through our Western eyes.
The 100 years between 1840 and 1940 is known as China’s century of shame or century of humiliation. China, even as far back as Roman times, was a global superpower. Just as an example of China’s long-held status as a trade power, Rome and Britain had a similar problem when it came to the eastern kingdom and that is both ran a massive trade deficit against China. Britain’s response to this, or maybe that should be the British East India Company‘s response, was extreme and sowed the current seeds of Asian paranoia against the West. Britain took control of Hong Kong. Under the old system, trade could only be done through the port city of Canton. Britain now had its backdoor into the mainland and through this, they pumped the once proud country full of opium. Hence, Chinese people being associated with the substance ever since.
Britain would only accept silver for the drug and as the people became more and more addicted, Britain went from a trade deficit to a massive surplus. Job done. It was not just Britain and the other Western colonial powers that led to a collapse of the Middle Kingdom. Social problems within the country became worse and worse with rebellions becoming commonplace. Across the sea, the powers that be in Japan were taking note of what was happening to their neighbours and so, after centuries of isolation, they decided to open up to trade with the West. In just a few years, they became very industrialised and became a massive military power in the region, and globally, which led to the invasion of China and in part to WWII.
Chinese civilisation basically collapsed and into the vacuum came the Communist Party of China (CPC). They distrusted Western “capitalism”, so the obvious choice for the Chinese people was the rising tide of the Communist system. And the new regime was not willing to make the same mistake as the old one. China, for so long a driving force in trade, closed itself off to the rest of the world. Part of this was a clampdown on its own people. They feared a repeat of the opium addiction in the past. And this leads us into the modern era.
Chairman Mao’s China was based on collectivism. A united China is a strong one. This is something common under Communist regimes. However, one of the main players in the CPC hadn’t the same ideals as Mao and this led to his exile from the inner structures of the party. This isn’t a surprise if we look at the early life of Deng Xiaoping. He was from a landholding family before he went abroad to study. When he returned to China and went on the “Lifelong March” with Mao some of the old individualism he learnt as a youngster stayed with him. Mao banished him out to rural China, but he would later return and create the modern state we know today.
As de facto leader of the party, he instituted wide-sweeping social and economic reforms. Xiaoping’s policies lifted millions of people out of poverty, 800 million according to The World Bank. In essence, it is Deng who has his fingerprints all over modern China, not Mao. Indeed, Deng Xiaoping increased the nations military capability, but he also helped create its modern authoritative regime including advanced surveillance techniques. He was the at the helm during the Tiananmen Square massacre after all. This is something many Chinese are still not fully aware of because of the restrictions on the flow of information there.
From Mao, through to Deng, and now on to Xi Jinping, China is paranoid of enemies both abroad and domestically. Who are the enemies at home? Well, given China’s massive size and population, there are a number of groups Beijing are scared of. The Uyghurs, the Tibetans and the spiritual group Falun Gong, to name just a few.
Xinjiang; Where most of the Uyghurs live
We’ll start with the Uyghurs first. They are a group of people that live in Xinjiang in the North West of China. They are more closely related to Central Asians than they are to Han Chinese. They are also largely Muslim. Despite briefly declaring independence, they were brought under Communist Chinese rule shortly after and it has remained this way ever since.
The Government in Beijing says the Uyghur population within its borders is over 8 million, but the Uyghurs dispute this and say the number is nearly double that. Whatever the actual number, tension between the two has simmered and often breaks out into full-on violence, like the street protests in the 1990s, before the Beijing Olympics and the clashes in 2009 in which over 200 people died.
The Muslim issue is a huge factor in the tensions. Chinese security forces have pushed a narrative the those living in Xinjiang are allied to al-Qaeda since 9/11, even though very little evidence actually exists. This resulted in 20 members of the community being detained in Guantanamo Bay. These were later released. In July 2014, the Beijing Government banned fasting during the sacred month of Ramadan. Many commentators believe that painting Uyghurs as extremists and then putting restrictions on religious rites is inflaming tensions and this then “justifies” Chinese military action in the region. China has moved a massive number of Han people into the region to dilute the Uyghurs. This is a tactic they are using elsewhere, as we’ll see later.
In 2016, we wrote about Ilham Tohti, the writer and economist imprisoned for separatism. Ilham went to Beijing to study. While he lived there, he started to write about the plight of his people in Xinjiang. He was critical of the Beijing Government, and inevitably, this got him into trouble. Even though he is a pacifist and wants better relations between the two sides, he was put on what was described as a show-trial.
Many human rights organisations were disgusted at his treatment and Human Rights Watch said; “The authorities alleged that Tohti’s expressions and writings have “subversive intent.” The indictment gives no evidence or precise details about how these articles, interviews, or meetings constitute “separatism.” His lawyers said that none of these writings incited violence or terrorism.” In 2016, he was awarded the Martin Ennals Award for defending human rights.
He is not the only Chinese person to receive this award. Harry Wu was the original winner back in 1994. He spent time in a forced labour camp and dedicated himself to human rights upon his release. It’s a finalist from 2014 that has an arguably even more harrowing story and a better indicator of how brutal the Chinese regime can be.
Cao Shunli died after being detained by the Chinese authorities after she tried to board a plane to Geneva. The police only made this official a month after the event, so essentially she was kidnapped. While being detained, she fell into a coma and later died.
She blew the whistle on the corruption in the housing department, in which she worked, and was a thorn in the side of the Chinese authorities from then until her death over a decade later. She campaigned for increased human rights in China and her fellow campaigners, known as Petitioners, said they and she are more than entitled to do so under articles in the Chinese constitution.
Cao Shunli was detained in work camps on two previous occasions. When we look at how the Petitioners are treated, it becomes clear that the writing was on the wall for this poor, brave women. The Communist party view them as having mental disorders, regularly end up in mental hospitals and are arbitrarily detained.
Her death was a brutal one. Nobody should have to suffer the abuse she endured, let alone someone who was trying to make the world a more tolerable place. Cao Shunli was force-fed through her nose, even though she told friends she was not on hunger strike. She suffered dramatic weight loss and was covered in black marks because of the abuse she endured when she died.
Tibet as a region is huge. This is probably the most known example of Chinese hegemony. Tibet has been under Chinese rule since the 1950s and although they said they would allow the citizens to enjoy cultural and religious rights important to them, the Mao administration failed to honour this promise. The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, fled and has been living in exile in India ever since.
China’s fears about the Dalai Lama border on extreme paranoia. A big part of choosing the next Dalai Lama is a process of verification by the Panchen Lama. The current Panchen Lama, who the Dalai Lama chose, was kidnapped by China and has not been seen in more than 20 years. For more details, watch the below video;
Tibet is hugely rich in resources and is the source of most of the water that flows in China’s largest rivers. It also acts as a buffer between India and China. Areas like Qinghai and Sichuan are being planted with Han Chinese to dilute the native Tibetan Buddist population. Meanwhile, the immolations continue.
Pic courtesy of Lori Blaja on WikiCommons
Falun Gong isn’t so much a religion as it is a spiritual philosophy. For this reason, it is very decentralised in nature. The practitioners use it as a form of self-betterment. In other words, everything the CPC isn’t and they hate that. The Government started cracking down on the movement in 1999. By that time, there were already over 70 million members.
When the crackdown came, it came hard. A propaganda war was waged and many thousands of people were imprisoned. This has also led to many deaths. Maybe the most worrying aspect of this is the harvesting of organs. Sometimes the people are still alive when it happens. As many as 65,000 Falun Gong are estimated to have had their organs forcibly removed and then sold on the black market. Many of these forcibly removed organs found their way to the US and Europe.
Improving Human Rights?
While China has claimed it has made moves to improve human rights, many are still understandably sceptical. In 2016, legislation was brought in to overturn wrongful convictions and discrimination based on sexual orientation. However, much of the anti-corruption laws are politicised and human rights lawyers and activists are still detained. Some of these are described as a criminal gang. Cybersecurity laws strangle online freedom and anonymity. The number of executions is a state secret, but many believe they run into the thousands every year. For a more complete list of Chinese human rights violations read here.
The South China Sea is becoming increasingly militarised and this is to some degree understandable as it was the enemies that came over the sea, and not over land, that helped cause the chaos. That’s how the Chinese political world portrays it, but what they also understand is that many Chinese citizens wanted the then Chinese system toppled. Authoritativeness is the real problem. Although China has made some small movements towards becoming more liberal, it is still way, way behind the West, and that’s not to say the West is perfect. Which is the real China, the one of the win-win foreign policy or the brutally oppressive domestic one? Perhaps it doesn’t matter as this disdain of its own people will come back to haunt them in the end.
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