In 1982, Chinese citizens who had been forced to move to the countryside under Chairman Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution fled back to China’s urban centers. However, as this mass exodus occurred, one young Chinese official requested a position in Zhengding, Hebei Province, far away from the rapidly growing urban power centers: Xi Jinping. This seemingly strange request from the low-level government worker was the first notable move by Xi, who built his career through shrewd, power-consolidating moves. Thirty years later, Xi has become China’s president and general secretary of the Communist Party, and appears to have grand ambitions for China on both domestic and international fronts. However, as China becomes a dominant player in world affairs, Xi’s oppressive government promotes a vision that disregards basic liberties, rights and international principles, making its ambitions a threat to its own citizens.
The most prominent example of China’s disregard for human rights is the Xi government’s abhorrent treatment of the Uyghurs, a primarily-Muslim minority ethnic group who live in the far western province of Xinjiang. In Xinjiang, the Chinese government has established a surveillance system rivaling the one George Orwell describes in his novel “1984“. In order to keep tabs on the Uyghurs, thousands of video cameras are in place along streets in Xinjiang, and policemen are stationed in front of nearly every major building. China has recently even begun administering “physical exams” in order to non-consensually gather identification information from Uyghur citizens, such as DNA samples, fingerprint scans and retinal scans.
However, surveillance is only the tip of the iceberg in Xinjiang. Under Xi, China has also introduced a policy called “de-extremification,” which includes “re-education” camps, to which over a million Uyghurs have been sent. The camps are designed to indoctrinate Uyghurs through promoting Chinese values and destroying Uyghur culture. Treatment in the camps ranges from things such as forcing Uyghurs to drink beer and eat pork (both of which are forbidden in Islam) to more extreme human rights violations, including torture, the banning of certain Muslim names and extreme political indoctrination. Politically, China has also worked to limit Uyghur rights through the passage of religious regulations and counterterrorism laws.
China’s dedication to denying its own citizens human rights is perhaps matched only by its dedication to denying it has ever done anything wrong. In response to the Uyghur controversy, China initially denied the re-education camps even existed. Once that was proved verifiably false, the government shifted its position, saying the camps were necessary for fighting religious extremism, and likened them to boarding schools (ironically, it’s already illegal for Uyghurs in Xinjiang to not send their children to government-run schools). The Chinese government has also deliberately spread false information about life in the camps in order to make it more difficult to accurately understand conditions there, and at one point dismissed criticism of the camps as the West baselessly criticizing China’s human rights record.
Though this may seem awful, it is hardly outside of the norm for China, a country that has consistently opposed human rights. In addition to cracking down on dissenting journalists, lawyers and activists within China, Xi has also worked tirelessly to weaken the United Nations’ ability to investigate and punish nations for human rights violations. In 2017, Human Rights Watch exposed the Xi government’s attempts to prevent critical actors from contributing to reviews of China’s human rights record. In 2018, China introduced a U.N. bill aimed at limiting human rights oversight, which suggested replacing punishments and sanctions with “dialogue.”
In addition to violating human rights, Xi has also worked to strengthen his personal power as president at the expense of both electoral fairness and previously established rules and norms. After the death of Mao Zedong, China shifted away from focusing on the power of individual leaders, implementing term limits which shifted the focus to party power, a development many cite as a factor in China’s subsequent economic growth. Xi, however, has reverted strongly away from this policy. In 2017, the Communist Party added “Xi Jinping Thought” to their Constitution, putting him on the same level as Mao Zedong. In 2018, Xi’s Communist Party, which controls most of the National Assembly, voted 2,958 in favor (three abstained and two opposed) to remove presidential term limits, allowing him to serve indefinitely. Xi has also engaged in an anti-corruption campaign, which has largely been used to ensure important party positions are held by loyalists. Outwardly, Xi also preaches party loyalty above all else to citizens and had his government issue a directive that all Chinese citizens studying abroad “always follow the Party.”
While these developments may seem disheartening, they reflect a fundamental difference in governmental and geopolitical attitudes between China and the West, something which the West has consistently failed to fully comprehend. Unlike the prevailing Western ideology, which prioritizes individual liberties and freedoms as the essential building blocks of society, China believes that strengthening the state is the highest priority. This cultural difference helps explain why the Chinese government takes such a dim view of human rights — the rights of the individual are not of crucial concern, and they can interfere with the processes that help the state. For Xi, consolidating power is primarily about attempting to run the country as efficiently as possible, something which democratic norms interfere with. Sadly, this state-strengthening approach is incredibly destructive to the rights of Chinese citizens, especially ethnic minorities like the Uyghurs and those who disagree with Xi’s policies.
Ultimately, while China’s economic and political rise has been astonishing, the United States and other nations should be wary about China’s policies. Xi is a politically savvy leader with lofty goals, but those goals must be accomplished without sacrificing human rights or disregarding international law.
Zack Blumberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.