Can the Chinese feel free to live abroad?
The global threat to human rights posed by China
No matter where I am or what passport I have, [the Chinese authorities] are terrorizing me everywhere and I cannot fight it.
- Uyghur Muslim with European citizenship, Washington, DC, September 2019
The Chinese government regards human rights as an existential threat. Your response to this perceived threat could become an existential threat to the rights of people around the world.
Apparently out of concern that the granting of political freedoms could jeopardize their retention of power, the Communist Party in China has set up a high-tech Orwellian surveillance state and a sophisticated system of censorship on the Internet that tracks down and suppresses public criticism. In terms of foreign policy, it uses its economic influence to silence critics and promote the most intense attack on the global system of human rights that the world has seen since it emerged in the mid-20th century.
Beijing had long concentrated on building a "Great Firewall" so that the Chinese people would not come into contact with criticism from abroad. Today it is increasingly the critics themselves who are targeted by the government, be they representatives of other governments, employees of foreign companies and universities or people who tread real or virtual paths of public protest.
No government has millions of ethnic minorities detained for forced indoctrination while attacking anyone who dares to criticize its repression. Certainly other governments also commit serious human rights violations. Yet no one flexes its political muscles with such force and determination as the Chinese leadership when it comes to weakening international human rights norms and institutions that could hold them accountable.
If Beijing's course does not meet with resistance, it points to a dystopian future in which no one can escape Chinese censorship and international human rights are so undermined that they can no longer be used as protection against state repression.
As the Human Rights Watch World Report 2020 shows, China's government and Communist Party are not the only threat to human rights today. In many armed conflicts, such as in Syria and Yemen, the conflicting parties openly disregard international rules such as the banning of chemical weapons or the prohibition of attacks on hospitals, the aim of which is to protect civilians from the dangers of war.
Elsewhere, autocratic populists can get into public office by demonizing minorities and consolidate their power by attacking oversight bodies such as journalists, judges and civil rights activists. Heads of state such as US President Donald Trump, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro are reluctant to use the same international legislation that is also being undermined by China. They mobilize their supporters with mock battles against "the globalists" who dare to suggest that all governments should be bound by the same standards.
Many governments, which up to now have been at least partially reliable defenders of human rights in their foreign policy, have largely turned their backs on them. Others, confronted with internal problems, only stand up for them arbitrarily.
In this already unsettling overall picture, the Chinese government stands out for the scope and influence of its anti-human rights efforts. The result is a disaster for human rights: a powerful central state, a clique of like-minded rulers, a lack of leadership on the part of those countries that could stand up for human rights, and a disappointing cluster of democracies willing to sell the rope, on which the legal system they are supposed to stand for is hanged.
The motivation for China's attack on human rights lies in the recognition that rule based on oppression is more fragile than a state that can rely on the consent of its people. Despite the impressive decades of growth that lifted millions out of poverty, the Communist Party is afraid of its own people.
Outwardly, the party presents itself as a successful representative of the people throughout the country, but internally it fears the consequences of public debates and political self-organization. That is why she shies away from the critical gaze of the public.
Beijing is thus faced with the unpleasant task of having to control a huge and complex economy without being able to fall back on the food for thought and debates from the public, which are only made possible by political freedom. The party leadership is aware that, as long as there are no elections, it derives its legitimacy primarily from the growth of the economy. Should economic growth slow, the population could demand a greater say in how they are governed. The government's nationalist campaigns to promote the “Chinese Dream” and self-praise for its questionable anti-corruption efforts do nothing to change this fundamental issue.
As a result, China under President Xi Jinping is experiencing the most pervasive and brutal repression in decades. All developments in the past few years that had indicated an opening up in terms of freedom of expression when it came to questions of the common good have been emphatically ended. Civil rights groups have been closed. Independent journalism no longer exists. The exchange of views on the Internet was restricted and replaced by staged submission. Ethnic and religious minorities are persecuted. In place of the modest steps towards the rule of law, the Communist Party's tradition of viewing law merely as an instrument of its rule has taken the place. Hong Kong's limited freedom as part of the “one country, two systems” policy is currently under massive attack.
President Xi has become the most powerful ruler in China since Mao Zedong. He has built a shameless personality cult, lifted the limitation of his term of office, propagated the doctrine "Xi Jinping's ideas of socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new age" and promoted the grandiose vision of a strong autocratic nation. In order to be able to give its retention of power priority over the wishes and needs of the Chinese people, the Communist Party is resolutely opposed to political freedoms. In doing so, however, they risk the population showing that they are anything but approving of their rule.
The unrestricted surveillance state
Beijing, more than any other government, uses technology as a key tool in its repression. An oppressive control system has been created in Xinjiang, a region in northwest China that is home to around 13 million Muslims, including Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic minorities. It is the most pervasive surveillance state the world has ever seen. The Communist Party has long sought to monitor the population for signs of dissent. The convergence of economic resources and technical skills has now produced an unprecedented system of mass surveillance.
This is supposed to prevent incidents like the one a few years ago when there were a handful of violent incidents by suspected separatists from happening again. But the project goes far beyond any perceptible security risk: a million functionaries and party cadres were mobilized to regularly pay “visits” to Muslim families as uninvited “guests”, ie to move in and monitor them. The task of the “visitors” is to investigate and report “problems”, for example when people pray, show other signs of active practice of the Islamic faith, make contact with relatives abroad or show no absolute loyalty to the Communist Party .
However, personal surveillance is only the tip of the iceberg, the analog prelude to a digital show. In disregard of the internationally recognized right to privacy, the Chinese government has installed video cameras all over the region, linked them with facial recognition technologies, equipped officials with cell phone apps to record their observations, set up electronic checkpoints and systematically evaluated the amount of data collected in this way.
The data is used to determine who should be detained for “re-education”. In the largest wave of arbitrary detentions in decades, over one million Muslims of Turkic descent have been arrested and indefinitely detained for indoctrination. As a result of the imprisonment, countless children have been “orphaned” because their parents are in custody. They are housed in state schools and orphanages, where they are also indoctrinated. Children in regular schools in Xinjiang may also receive ideological instruction.
The obvious aim of these measures is to deprive Muslims of their faith, ethnicity and independent political views. Whether the detainees can regain their freedom depends on how well they can convince their guards that they speak Mandarin, have renounced Islam and worship Xi and the Communist Party. This blatant approach reflects the totalitarian impulse to reprogram people's thinking until they submit to the superiority of party rule.
The Chinese government is building similar surveillance and behavioral control systems across the country. Most notable is the “social point system”, which, according to the official account, is only intended to punish bad behavior such as disregarding a red light or default on a court payment order and reward good behavior. A person's “trustworthiness” as determined by the government determines their access to desirable social goods, such as the right to live in an attractive city, to send their children to private school, or to travel by plane or high-speed train to travel. So far, the system does not contain any political criteria, but they could be added with little effort.
The surveillance state can threateningly also be exported. Very few governments are able to deploy staff to the same extent that China is doing in Xinjiang. However, the technological means are increasingly available “off the shelf” and are therefore attractive for countries such as Kyrgyzstan, the Philippines or Zimbabwe, where the protection of privacy does not play a major role. Not only Chinese companies sell these intrusive systems, but also companies from Germany, Israel and Great Britain. The cheap packages from China are attractive to governments that want to replicate the Chinese surveillance model.
China's template for a successful dictatorship
Many autocrats are envious of China's seductive mixture of economic success, rapid modernization and apparently consolidated political power. Far from being reviled around the world, the Chinese government is courted around the world. You roll out the red carpet for their unelected president, no matter where he travels. The country also hosts prestigious events such as the 2022 Winter Olympics. China presents itself as an open, welcoming and strong nation as it drifts deeper and deeper into an unscrupulous autocracy.
It was once common belief that China's economic growth would create a middle class to claim their rights. This led to the cheap assumption that it was not necessary to put Beijing under pressure because of its repression, and that it was sufficient to trade with China.
Hardly anyone today believes in this selfish logic. Yet most governments have found new ways to justify the status quo. They continue to prioritize economic opportunities in China, but without pretending that they are pursuing a strategy to improve the local human rights situation.
In fact, the Communist Party has shown that economic growth can strengthen a dictatorship by providing it with the means to enforce its rule and by enabling it to pay the cost of maintaining power - from the legions of security forces to the censorship regime towards the all-pervasive surveillance state. The vast resources that underpin autocracy prevent people across China from having a say in how they want to be governed.
These developments are music to the ears of the world's dictators. By referring to China, they want us to believe that their rule leads directly to more prosperity, without the annoying detour via open debates and contested elections. They would love to make us forget that history has countless examples of unaccountable governments leading their country to economic ruin.
For every head of state like Singapore's Lee Kwan Yew, who is often cited as a positive example by proponents of autocracy, there are countless others who have ruined their country such as Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt, Omar al-Bashir in Sudan or Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo in Equatorial Guinea. A government that is not accountable to anyone tends to put its own interests before those of its people. First and foremost, she favors her family, cronies, and her own power. The consequences are neglect, stagnation, persistent poverty, hyperinflation, the state health emergency and the decline of the economy.
The accountless state structure in China denies all those who do not participate in economic growth a voice of their own. The authorities praise economic progress while censoring information about the increasingly unequal distribution of income, discrimination in access to government benefits, selective prosecution of corruption and the fact that one in five children in rural areas is left behind when their parents seek work in other parts of the country . They cover up forced relocations, house demolitions, injuries and deaths from major infrastructure projects. They hide cases where people become permanently disabled from unsafe and unregulated food or medication. And they deliberately underestimate the official number of people with disabilities.
One does not have to look far back in China's history to see examples of the enormous human price that an unaccountable government can ask. The same Communist Party that proclaims the Chinese economic miracle today only recently left the country with the ravages of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap, with tens of millions of deaths.
China's campaign against global standards
In order to prevent an international backlash against the repression at home, the Chinese government is trying to weaken the institutions that protect human rights. The Chinese government has always rejected criticism from abroad as a violation of its sovereignty. However, it has so far made relatively modest efforts to ward off such allegations. Today, however, Beijing is deliberately intimidating other governments and urging them to applaud them in international forums and to participate in their attacks on the system of international human rights.
The Chinese government seems to be systematically building a network of applauders who depend on their help or trade relationships. Those who thwart these plans can expect retaliation, like Sweden, which received threats after an independent Swedish organization presented an award to a Hong Kong publisher with a Swedish passport. He was arrested and kidnapped by the Chinese authorities after his publisher published books critical of the regime.
With this approach, Beijing is attacking the very purpose of international human rights. Where other governments see people whose rights must be defended, China's rulers see possible precedents for the enforcement of human rights that could become a problem for them themselves.China is using its voice, influence, and sometimes veto in the UN Security Council to block United Nations action to protect the world's most persecuted people. The victims are Syrian civilians who are indiscriminately bombed by Russian and Syrian warplanes, Rohingya Muslims who are evicted from their homes by the Myanmar army through ethnic cleansing, murders, rape and pillage, Yemeni civilians who are under the bombing and blockade through Saudi Arabia and its allies, and the Venezuelan people who are experiencing economic decline as a result of the corruption and mismanagement under Nicolas Maduro. In all these cases, Beijing deliberately leaves the people to their fate in order not to set an example for the protection of human rights that could later also be applied to the repression in their own country.
The methods of Beijing leadership are often characterized by a certain subtlety. The Chinese government has signed up to international human rights treaties, but then tries to reinterpret them or sabotage their implementation. She cleverly manages to maintain the appearance of cooperation with the UN when it investigates China's human rights record. At the same time, she spares no effort to prevent any honest discussion. It prevents critics of the regime from traveling abroad, refuses entry to key international experts, orchestrates the praises of its allies, many of whom are themselves notorious oppressors, and often presents blatantly misleading information.
Even with regard to economic rights, Beijing does not tolerate independent scrutiny of its progress, as this would mean examining not its favorite indicator, GDP growth, but also other criteria such as the situation of the poorest parts of the population, including persecuted minorities and those who are left behind in rural areas. Independent evaluations of civil and political rights are by no means desired. Respecting these would mean allowing free elections and establishing accountability to civil rights activists, independent journalists, political parties and independent judges. However, Beijing wants to prevent this at all costs.
China is the driving force behind the global campaign against human rights, but it has willing accomplices. They include dictators, autocrats and monarchs who themselves have a vested interest in undermining the human rights system that could one day hold them accountable. Other accomplices include governments, corporations and even scientific institutions that are ostensibly committed to human rights, but prioritize access to China's wealth.
This situation is compounded by the fact that numerous states, on which up until now one could mostly rely on human rights issues, have disappeared from the scene. US President Trump prefers to hug allied autocrats than protectively face the human rights that violate them. The European Union - distracted by Brexit, hindered by nationalist member states and divided on the issue of migration - hardly found a strong common voice on human rights issues. Despite an impressive global wave of protests that brought people in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq, Bolivia, Russia and Hong Kong to the streets for democracy, the rule of law and human rights, many democratic governments reacted only with cautious and selective support. Given this inconsistent behavior, it was easy for China to present criticism of its human rights record as a matter of political position rather than a matter of principle.
There were rare exceptions to this silence about China's oppression. In July, 25 governments in the UN Human Rights Council adopted a joint statement expressing their concern about the exceptionally tough crackdown on China in Xinjiang. This was the first time foreign governments had spoken out in such large numbers on the situation in Xinjiang. However, the fear of the anger of the Chinese government was evidently so great that none of the delegations was prepared to read the statement to the council, as is usually the case. Instead, they sought the group's protection and only made the statement in writing. This changed in October when Great Britain read out the declaration of a similar coalition drawn up in parallel at the UN General Assembly. The initial reluctance shows the reluctance to stand up to China, even on the part of the most committed states. This fear forms the basis that China now enjoys impunity internationally, despite the far-reaching nature of its human rights violations.
Other governments willingly sought proximity to Beijing. In response to the two cases of collective criticism of China, the Chinese government organized joint statements shamelessly praising China's "anti-terrorism and deradicalization measures in Xinjiang". The measures had created "a greater feeling of happiness, fulfillment and security," the statements said. Up to 54 governments joined, including such notorious human rights abusers as Russia, Syria, North Korea, Myanmar, Belarus, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. This gallery of repressive governments may not be credible, but the sheer number shows the fierce struggle the few countries that are ready to confront China with its human rights violations are facing.
It would have been desirable that the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), an association of 57 predominantly Muslim countries, would campaign for the protection of the persecuted Muslims in Xinjiang, as it had done in the case of the ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. Instead, the OIC published a humiliating eulogy praising China's “care for its Muslim citizens”. Pakistan supported these efforts although, as the OIC coordinator, it is responsible for openly addressing crimes against Muslims.
The OIC member states Turkey and Albania, however, joined the call for an independent UN investigation into the situation in Xinjiang. Qatar withdrew its support for China's counter-declaration. Overall, around half of the OIC countries refused to sign China's euphemistic declaration on Xinjiang. This is an important first step. In view of the tremendous injustice, however, it is only a drop in the ocean.
The Chinese authorities organized propaganda trips to Xinjiang for OIC member states and other governments that showed no interest in confronting Beijing. The tours were intended to counter the criticism of the imprisonment of Muslims. The Chinese authorities erected a "Great Wall" of misinformation such as the absurd claim that the massive imprisonment was for "professional development." They arranged visits to the “trainees” for the delegations made up of diplomats and journalists. However, the few occasions when it was possible to speak openly with the Muslim prisoners exposed the official account as misleading. The staging was often so grotesque that it exposed itself, for example when a group of prisoners was forced to sing the English nursery rhyme "If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands!" In fact, the aim of these staged tours was not to convince the foreign governments, but rather to provide them with a justification for not criticizing Beijing. The visits should serve as a fig leaf and give indifference an alibi.
The appearances of foreign heads of state who traveled to Beijing, including those who see themselves as advocates of human rights, were less convincing. French President Emmanuel Macron traveled to China in November without publicly addressing the human rights situation. State guests usually justify their public silence by saying that they raise human rights issues in private discussions. However, there is virtually no evidence that this approach is making any progress.
Quiet diplomacy alone is not enough to expose a government that seeks to be accepted as a legitimate and valued member of the international community. The photo ops of smiling officials and the official silence on the human rights violations signal to the world - and above all to the Chinese people, the most important potential engine of change - that the prominent visitors are indifferent to the oppression in China.
Elements of Chinese power
The Chinese authorities manage their action against criticism on human rights issues by using their economic influence from a central point. No Chinese company can afford to ignore the dictates of the Communist Party. If a company learns that a certain country should be punished for criticizing China - for example by boycotting its goods - it has no choice but to submit. Foreign governments or companies interested in trading with China are therefore not confronted with a number of individually decisive companies when they publicly criticize the repression of the Beijing leadership, but with a single central authority. In doing so, they are jeopardizing access to the entire Chinese market, which makes up 16 percent of the global economy. When the manager of the US basketball team Houston Rockets angered the Chinese government by expressing sympathy for the democracy movement in Hong Kong on Twitter, all eleven official Chinese business partners of the basketball league put their cooperation on hold, including a travel portal, a milk producer and a fast food chain.
The US administration under Donald Trump was one of the few willing to stand up to China. The clearest evidence of this was provided in October when it imposed sanctions on the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau and eight Chinese technology companies for engaging in human rights abuses. However, the clear words of some US officials about the human rights violations have been weakened by Trump's praise for Xi Jinping and other allied autocrats such as Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt and Mahammad bin Salman in Saudi Arabia. Arabia, not to mention Trump's illegal actions at home such as the cruel and inhumane practice of separating children from their parents on the Mexican border.
This volatility provides China with a blueprint to discredit Washington's criticism of its human rights record. Trump's misguided withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council also gave China the opportunity to exert increased influence on this central institution for the protection of human rights. The US withdrew from the council because of concerns about Israel.
Another important instrument of Chinese influence was Xi Jinping's “New Silk Road” or “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), a billion dollar investment and infrastructure program that is supposed to give China better access to markets and raw materials in 70 countries. Often favored by the lack of alternative investors, the Chinese government's project has garnered considerable sympathy in developing countries. At the same time, Beijing managed to pass a large part of the costs on to the supposed beneficiaries of its support.
China's approach mostly strengthens authoritarian tendencies in the supposedly beneficiary states. The projects, known for their unconditional lending, largely ignore human rights and environmental standards. People who face disadvantages as a result have practically no say. Many projects are negotiated behind closed doors and are therefore prone to corruption. Sometimes they provide advantages to the ruling elites and consolidate their power while burdening the population with huge mountains of debt.
Some Silk Road projects are downright notorious, such as the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota, which fell back to China for 99 years after difficulties in paying off debts, or the Mombasa-Nairobi railroad in Kenya, where the government tried to use freight transport despite cheaper alternatives to force the rails to be able to pay off the Chinese loans. In Bangladesh, Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan and Sierra Leone, the governments have begun to withdraw from projects that are likely to be uneconomical. In most cases, the beleaguered debtors tried to stay in Beijing's favor.
The Silk Road loans thus in no way prove to be unconditional, but instead created a number of political dependencies in practice and obliged the borrowers to support China's anti-human rights agenda. In doing so, China secured silence at best, and at worst the applause of the governments concerned and their involvement in undermining international institutions for the protection of human rights.
Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan, whose government is one of the main recipients of funds from the Silk Road program, did not mention the situation of his fellow Muslims in Xinjiang during his visit to Beijing. At the same time, its diplomats showered China with praise for its "care for Muslim citizens." Cameroon made similarly flattering praise after China forgave the country millions in debt. With regard to Xinjiang, Kamerum praised the Chinese government for "fully protecting the exercise of legal rights by ethnic minorities", including "normal religious activities and beliefs".
China's development banks, such as the China Development Bank and the Ex-Im Bank of China, have a growing global reach, but they lack important mechanisms to protect human rights. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, founded by China, does little better. Its guidelines contain social and ecological standards and demand transparency and accountability from the projects it finances. However, they do not oblige the bank to identify and address threats to human rights. Many of the Bank's 74 member states claim they respect human rights, including Canada, Australia and New Zealand, as well as much of the EU, including France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK.
Decomposition of the United Nations
We thought this institution could protect our rights if the government violated them. But it is no different.
- Chinese human rights activist on the UN, Geneva, June 2016
The Chinese government is allergic to foreign pressure because of its human rights problems at home. She does not hesitate to use leverage to protect her image in international forums. Since the protection of human rights is one of the central tasks of the UN, this has become a key goal. The Chinese pressure can be felt up to the highest levels. For example, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres avoided publicly calling for an end to the mass imprisonment of Muslims of Turkish origin, while he praised Beijing for its economic skills and the New Silk Road project.
At the UN Human Rights Council, China regularly votes against any initiative that criticizes an individual country, unless the text is watered down to such an extent that the government concerned also agrees. In recent years, China has opposed resolutions condemning human rights violations in Myanmar, Syria, Iran, the Philippines, Burundi, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Yemen, Eritrea and Belarus. China is also trying to influence the international legal framework so that economic progress is always given priority over respect for human rights. Beijing also advocates “mutually beneficial cooperation” (formerly “win-win cooperation”), which portrays human rights as an object of voluntary cooperation, not as a legally binding obligation.
As China's human rights record came under routine review by the UN Human Rights Council in 2018 and 2019, Chinese officials threatened critical delegations and encouraged their allies to express their praise. Beijing flooded the list of speakers reserved for civil rights groups with state-sponsored organizations tasked with praising the government's work. Meanwhile, Chinese diplomats blatantly misinformation to the review body, threatened delegations with consequences if they attend a panel discussion on the crimes in Xinjiang, and tried to prevent an independent organization working on Xinjiang from appearing before the council.The influence culminated in the fact that the Chinese authorities displayed large-scale photos in front of the UN conference rooms showing happy Uyghurs who were grateful to the government.
At the UN headquarters in New York, one of the top priorities of the Chinese government was to prevent any discussion of its actions in Xinjiang. In the UN Security Council, where China has a veto, Beijing has pursued an increasingly backward-looking strategy, often side by side with Russia. Beijing made it clear that they would not approve of any leverage against Myanmar. A UN fact-finding mission had previously come to the conclusion that Myanmar's top military officials should be investigated for genocide. Together with Russia, China wanted - albeit in vain - to prevent the Security Council from dealing with the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. In September, when 3 million civilians were exposed to indiscriminate bombardment by Russian and Syrian fighter jets, China joined Russia's veto on Security Council calls for a ceasefire.
We monitor ourselves ... Everyone [attending the student salon] is scared. The mere fear, that is, to scare us, actually works.
—University Student, Vancouver, June 2018
Beyond traditional practices such as censoring foreign media, restricting foreign donations to civil rights organizations in China, and banning visas against academics and others, Beijing leveraged corporate profit-making to extend its censorship to critics overseas. In recent years, a worrying number of companies have submitted to pressure from Beijing when they were accused of alleged wrongdoing or attacked for statements made by their employees critical of China.
The Hong Kong airline Cathay Pacific threatened to dismiss employees who participated in or supported the pro-democracy protests last year. VW boss Herbert Diess told the BBC that he was “unaware” of reports of internment camps in Xinjiang where thousands of Muslims are being held, even though VW has been operating a factory there since 2012. Hotel company Marriott fired a social media manager who liked a tweet praising the company for designating Tibet as a state. The company promised to "ensure that such mistakes are not repeated". The management consultancy PwC distanced itself from an advertisement in support of the democracy movement, which was allegedly placed in a Hong Kong newspaper by employees of the so-called Big Four (Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG, PwC). Hollywood is increasingly censoring its films to accommodate Beijing's sensitivities. For example, in the most recent sequel to the 1986 film “Top Gun”, the Taiwanese flag was retouched from Tom Cruise's bomber jacket.
These incidents are telling. On the one hand, they show how small and insignificant the alleged insults are that attract the anger of various voices in China. Although the "Great Firewall" prevents most of the Chinese population from knowing about it, and although the Communist Party devotes enormous resources to censoring and distributing its propaganda on social media domestically, it resolves criticism from overseas by influential actors outrage in China. In view of these sensitivities, companies that want to do business with China subject themselves and their employees to self-censorship, even without instructions from Beijing.
The collapse of many companies also shows that Chinese censorship has become a global threat. It is bad enough that companies adhere to censorship guidelines when doing business within China. But it is far worse when they also impose this censorship on their employees and customers in the rest of the world. The idea that the suppression of independent voices ends at China's borders is obsolete.
Freedom of expression problems have also surfaced in universities around the world. Many universities have been too happy to avoid awkward questions in order to secure the influx of Chinese students, who often pay full tuition fees. In Australia, Canada, the UK and the US, government-loyal Chinese students wanted to prevent the human rights violations in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet from being discussed on campus. In other cases, Chinese students avoided debating ideas that are taboo in China because they feared being reported to the Chinese authorities. In these cases, universities made little public effort to uphold the right to freedom of expression.
This tendency is compounded by China's deliberate attempts to recruit Chinese citizens abroad to promote the official line, monitor each other, and report any criticism of Xi Jinping's governance. For example, employees of the Chinese Embassy in Washington invited a group of students to a meeting and praised them for their reprimand against a student at the University of Maryland who had criticized the Chinese government in a speech to graduates.
To silence dissidents living abroad, the Chinese authorities routinely threaten their relatives in China. A Vancouver technology consultant said, "If I publicly criticize the [Chinese Communist Party], my parents' health insurance and retirement benefits can be taken away." A Toronto-based journalist for a Chinese-language newspaper whose parents were harassed in China for their work said: “I don't have the feeling that there is free speech here. I cannot report freely. "
Censorship also becomes a problem when Chinese technology spreads overseas. WeChat, a social media platform and news app widely used in China, censors political messages and bans user accounts for political reasons, even if users live outside of China.
How we can master the challenge.
An exceptional threat requires an appropriate response. Much can still be done to defend human rights worldwide against Beijing's frontal attack. While the Chinese government is powerful and hostile to human rights, its rise to a global threat is not unstoppable. Meeting this challenge requires a radical break with the prevailing complacency and the “business-as-usual” approach. It calls for an unprecedented response from those who still believe in a world order where human rights matter.
Governments, corporations, universities, international institutions, and other stakeholders should help people in China and out Stand by China who are fighting to protect their rights. The first principle should be never to equate the Chinese government with the people. Because in this way one blames a whole people for the wrongdoing of a government, in whose appointment the people had no say. Instead, foreign governments should back up critical voices in China and publicly emphasize that until there are real elections, Beijing will not represent the Chinese people.
Just as many governments have abandoned the cheap idea that trade alone can improve the human rights situation in China, should they abandon the reassuring but false view that quiet diplomacy alone is enough. Dignitaries who travel to Beijing and claim they are bringing China's human rights record up there should be asked to what extent the Chinese people - the main engine of change - can even hear them. Do people feel empowered or disaffected by their visit? Do you hear a voice of compassion and caring or are you just seeing a photo opportunity to sign more economic deals? By regularly and publicly confronting Beijing for its oppression, one increases the price of injustice and empowers its victims.
The Chinese model of repression and economic growth can be exposed as a wrong turn if one shows the dangers of an unaccountable government: From the millions of Chinese who have fallen by the wayside to the devastation that rulers like Mugabe in Zimabwe or Maduro in Venezuela caused. It is also important to note how dictators around the world claim they are serving their people - and are actually serving themselves.
Governments and international financial institutions should offer coherent and legally compliant alternatives to China's “unconditional” loans and development aid. They should use their membership in organizations like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to push for the highest possible human rights standards, rather than participating in a global race to the bottom.
Human rights concerns governments should be vigilant as the double standards of “Chinese exceptionalism” creep into their actions and allow China to get away with offenses that poorer and less powerful governments face consequences. If they are trying to hold Myanmar officials accountable for their inhumane actions against Muslims, why not Chinese officials as well? If they are vigilant about Saudi Arabia and Russia's efforts to buy legitimacy, why not look at China too? If they stimulate debates about human rights violations by Israel, Egypt or Venezuela, why not also about China? Many governments have rightly condemned the Trump administration for separating families on the Mexican border. Why don't you also criticize the fact that the Chinese government in Xinjiang is separating children from their parents?
Governments around the world should specifically fight against the strategy of "divide-and-conquer" with which China ensures that its oppression is often kept silent. As long as each government is left alone to choose between economic opportunities in China and open criticism of China's oppression, many will choose to remain silent. But when many states join forces to counter China's disregard for human rights, the balance shifts. If, for example, the OIC were to protest against China's suppression of Muslims of Turkish origin in Xinjiang, Beijing would have to strike back against 57 states. But even the Chinese economy cannot compete with the rest of the world.
Businesses and universities should develop and promote codes of conduct for dealing with China. Strong common standards would make it difficult for Beijing to exclude those who stand up for fundamental rights and freedoms. Such standards would also anchor questions of principle more strongly in the public image of the institutions. This would make it easier for customers to insist that these institutions do not give in to Chinese censorship requests in order to buy access to the Chinese market and that they never benefit from or contribute to China's human rights abuses. Foreign governments should strictly regulate the technologies that fuel mass surveillance and repression in China and strengthen privacy protection in order to stop the proliferation of such spy systems.
Universities must provide a space where students and scholars from China can study and criticize the Chinese state without fear of surveillance or reporting. You must not allow Beijing to restrict the academic freedom of its students and faculty.
Governments that regard themselves as advocates of human rights should not only publish declarations, but should rather approach states from all regions of the world even more than before and jointly submit a resolution to the UN Human Rights Council to create a mission to investigate Xinjiang so that the world can find out what there is really happens. In the UN Security Council, too, they should force a debate about Xinjiang and make China's officials understand that they must answer for their actions.
It is even more essential that the member states and officials of the UN advocate maintaining the UN as an independent voice for human rights. Until a UN fact-finding mission is set up, the reports of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the experts of the Human Rights Council are indispensable. If China succeeds in turning the UN into a toothless tiger, it will affect us all.
Human rights advocates should also stop treating China as an honorable partner. Whether the red carpet is rolled out to Chinese officials should depend on real progress on human rights. State visits should be combined with official requests to allow independent UN investigators access to Xinjiang. Chinese officials should be made to feel that as long as they persecute their people, they will never be seen.
For more targeted measures, Chinese officials directly involved in the mass detention of Uyghurs should approve Personae non gratae declared and their bank accounts abroad are frozen. They should fear prosecution for their offenses. Chinese companies that build and operate detention centers in Xinjiang, and all companies that exploit the inmates as labor or provide the surveillance state with infrastructure and data processing, should be exposed and urged to stop these activities.
Ultimately, the world should realize that Xi Jinping's lofty rhetoric about creating a "shared future community for humanity" is in truth a threat, a vision of human rights around the world that Beijing defines and tolerates . It is time to recognize that the Chinese government is working to reject and reshape the international human rights system. So far, this has been based on the conviction that the dignity of every single person deserves respect and - regardless of which state interests are at stake - there are limits to what a state can do with people.
If we do not want to go back to a time when people are being pushed around like chess pieces or taken out of the game, as the rulers want, then we must resist the Chinese government attacking international human rights standards. It is time we took a clear position. Decades of advancement in human rights are at stake.
If we do not want to fall back into an era in which people are manipulated like pawns according to the whims of their rulers, we must repel the Chinese government's attack on the system of international human rights. It is time to take a stand as decades of human rights advancement are in jeopardy.
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