McCuaig-Johnston: We thought China could become more democratic. Instead, it is becoming totalitarian

Good commentary:

China’s regime is often called authoritarian.  It certainly has been that under Xi Jinping.  But its recent programs of surveillance and repression show the characteristics of a totalitarian state, with technologies of which Hitler and Mussolini could only dream.

This is shocking given the expectation that decades of economic reform would bring liberalization and some democratic attributes. But Xi has turned his ship of state around. In the Economist’s 2019 Democracy Index, China’s regression resulted in a fall of 23 places in the ranking in one year. It is now near the bottom, below Iran, at 153 out of 167 countries.

An attribute of totalitarian states is a single party, intolerant of differing opinions and controlling citizens’ lives. The Chinese Communist Party is exactly that, injecting itself into the justice system whenever it wishes. Its Social Credit System monitors all WeChat and Weibo exchanges through algorithms that identify those discussing June 4 or May 35, which mean the Tiananmen massacre, or referring to Winnie the Pooh, whose walk is similar to Xi’s. Not taking out the garbage, paying your loans late, getting traffic violations and not adhering to birth control regulations will also give you a bad social credit score. Chinese can lose their jobs or the right to send their child to a good school. Tens of millions have not been permitted to fly or take trains due to their low scores. Citizens understandably fear the blacklists and are self-censoring, which is what the regime wants.

Corporate Social Credit System now applies to domestic and foreign companies and organizations operating in China. If they do not comply fully with every regulation or if they speak out against government policies, the company will not have access to grants, procurement contracts, land or lower taxes. If their employees or suppliers have poor scores, the company is punished. Both credit systems will be tightened over time, and party committees in each company ensure that corporate decisions advance the party’s interests.

Another attribute of totalitarianism is a guiding ideology. In China, that is Xi Jinping Thought, a three-volume book that each citizen must study on an app that knows when they are scrolling through quickly without looking.

Totalitarian regimes have low tolerance of religions, and we have seen this in Tibet and Xinjiang incarcerations, mass sterilization, voice pattern telephone surveillance and forced labour that implicates the foreign firms for whom the products are made. Uyghurs able to return home are assigned a young Han man or woman to live in their house to ensure that they and their children are speaking Mandarin and not practising their religion. In a nod to 1984, they are called Big Brother and Big Sister, and the Han in this “family program” are encouraged to marry Uyghurs to thin the genetic stream.

Christian churches have had their crosses torn down, Xi’s photo and Xi Jinping Thought placed prominently in sanctuaries, and senior appointments approved by the party. House churches are regularly closed and clergy incarcerated.

Citizens speaking out on issues such as free speech, environmental degradation, and expropriation without compensation have been subjected to daily interrogations in a metal tiger chair with wrists and ankles in vises, often in freezing conditions.

Hundreds of thousands of websites have been shut down for inappropriate content, particularly regarding Xi and the party. The Great Firewall is thickening, VPNs have been banned, and party control of all media ensures that citizens see themselves as ruled by a benevolent leader. Those who could pose competition to Xi’s leadership have been imprisoned under cover of his anti-corruption campaign.

Hong Kong’s democratic leadership has been arrested en masse, and recently citizens found they were no longer able to access certain websites. Under the National Security Law, the government can force websites to remove any information that could “endanger national security.” Schoolbooks are being edited and teachers’ roles circumscribed. It is possible that Kong Kong could see even more repression as the regime uses its tools of surveillance to quash any thought of independence.

In the ultimate measure of extraterritorial control, the National Security Law provides that any person who speaks out against the Chinese regime anywhere in the world can be extradited and prosecuted in China. Two Danish politicians were recently named for extradition for helping a former Hong Kong legislator seek asylum in Denmark. Fortunately, Denmark does not have an extradition agreement with China, nor does Canada – but many do. Members of the Chinese diaspora are threatened with harm to their relatives in China to prevent them from criticizing the regime.

We must call China as it is: an emerging totalitarian regime with no regard for rights. Western democracies have been meeting to decide how to push back collectively against China’s actions. Our governments must now deal with China as it really is, not as they wish it were.

Margaret McCuaig-Johnston is Senior Fellow, Institute of Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa.


About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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