Op-Ed: China’s growing power is a new challenge for civil society

Tibetan exiles attend a protest held to mark the 10th anniversary of a Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule, in New Delhi, India, March 14, 2018. Source: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton

By Andrew Firmin
6th June 2018

IN one of the world’s most powerful countries, merely wanting to speak your own language can be risky.

After spending more than two years in detention, Tibetan activist Tashi Wangchuk was recently sentenced to five years in prison. His crime, in the eyes of China’s authorities: giving a video interview about the eradication of the Tibetan language in schools and public places.

That was enough for him to be abducted, denied access to his family, charged with inciting separatism and sentenced to years behind bars on May 22, 2018.

Also languishing in state detention is Yu Wensheng, a human rights lawyer who was snatched in January this year while walking his child to school and held without access to his family or an attorney. Charged with subversion, his offence was calling for constitutional reform and open presidential elections.

These cases are just two among many that show how the Chinese state, as its global power rises, is ruthlessly repressing dissenting voices at home.

Last year saw a marked increase in the use of detention, show trials and forced confessions, with human rights lawyers notably targeted. New punishments were introduced in late 2017 for such broad offences as disrespecting China’s flag, national anthem and emblem.

This fresh crackdown came as President Xi Jinping moved to consolidate his position at the helm of China’s global power.

In March this year, presidential term limits were removed, effectively enabling Jinping to become president for life. The previous October, at the Chinese Communist Party’s Congress, Jinping packed the party’s key committee with his supporters, and had his political thought written into the country’s constitution.

(File) Chinese President Xi Jinping (front row, center) and fellow delegates raise their hands as they take a vote at the closing session of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, in Beijing, China October 24, 2017. Source: Reuters/Thomas Peter

In his triumphalist speech at the October congress, President Jinping heralded a ‘new era’ of Chinese power in which China would be a global economic and political leader. But it is a global power that rests on domestic repression.

In the weeks before his speech, the authorities ensured there would be no dissent: an estimated 14 activists were detained and two were forcibly disappeared, while the mobile messaging service WhatsApp was blocked.

The authorities continued to prevent people sharing their views online: in November, Skype was removed from Chinese app stores, and ominously, three months later, the government was reported to be building a predictive policing programme that analyses huge amounts of online data to flag people deemed as potentially subversive.

Little wonder then that despite its claims to global leadership, China lurks at the bottom of many of the key global indicators that shed light on the quality of life of Chinese citizens: China is ranked 176 out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index and last on the Freedom of the Net rankings, while it is classed as having closed space for civil society, the worst category, by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online tool that tracks threats to civil society around the world.

Growing global power allows China’s government to resist pressure from international institutions. When Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo died in a Chinese jail last July, he became only the third winner in the prize’s 116-year history to die in captivity.

Prior to his death, the government was unmoved by a wave of international pleas to release Liu on medical grounds. He had been jailed for calling for an end to one-party rule. The last year also saw conditions worsened for international civil society organisations (CSOs) working in China. A new law was passed increasing government control of international CSOs’ funding sources and activities, and another expanding the government’s surveillance powers.

A police officer stands guard next to a chair prop, alluding to an empty chair at late Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize awarding ceremony in 2010, with an image of his wife Liu Xia, during a protest to urge for the release of Liu Xia, outside the Chinese liaison office in Hong Kong, China December 25, 2017. Source: Reuters/Tyrone Siu

With increasing confidence, the Chinese government extended its repression beyond mainland citizens. Hong Kong’s special status was belied by the continuing persecution of its pro-democracy activists and removal of pro-democracy politicians from its legislative assembly.

Last year, the Chinese government said that the 20-year-old Hong Kong handover agreement, supposed to guarantee key freedoms for the territory, was “no longer relevant.” Meanwhile, Taiwanese democracy activist Li Ming-che was jailed for the vaguely defined crime of subverting state power.

With great global power should come great responsibility, but despite some recent fine words about climate change, what these examples suggest is that globally China remains a negative force against human rights.

As a permanent member of the United Nations (UN) Security Council and a growing player in multilateral affairs, China has a responsibility to uphold human rights, one of the pillars of the UN Charter. Yet it has failed to play a positive role with regards to UN Security Council action on chemical attacks in Syria, emboldening Russian authorities’ veto efforts to block investigation of the atrocities in Syria.

At the UN Human Rights Council, the Chinese footprint has focused more on blocking rather than advancing progress on human rights. Last year, China argued for cuts in funding to human rights posts. It also stood silent in 2017 as its neighbour and close ally, the government of Burma, committed unspeakable atrocities against its Rohingya minority.

While it fails to use its global power responsibly, the government of China acts assertively in pursuit of its economic and political interests. Its investments in infrastructure across Africa and beyond are designed to lock countries into the Chinese model, of economic growth without people’s participation in decision-making: development that entrenches elite power rather than expands democracy and human rights.

Its growing global role also means that China offers a source of inspiration to other governments that seek to repress rights, and its allies can be seen to borrow its tactics.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen stand as they hold bilateral talks in Phnom Penh, Cambodia January 11, 2018. Source: Reuters/Samrang Pring

The Russian government detained numerous anti-corruption activists last year, while in China’s staunch ally Pakistan, almost 300 cases of enforced disappearances were reported between last August and October alone.

In Cambodia, the main opposition party was dissolved and its leader arrested on treason charges in the run-up to July 2018 elections, effectively making the country a one-party state, while in Vietnam, at least 25 online activists were estimated to have been detained in 2017.

China’s growing global power is therefore bad news not only for domestic activists like Tashi Wangchuk, Yu Wensheng and many others, but also for those experiencing repression in the many countries seeking to emulate the China model. But it needn’t be this way.

China’s global power would gain legitimacy and credibility if it was seen to use its economic relationships to leverage progress on key international agreements, such as the Sustainable Development Goals.

Realistically, however, that could only happen if Chinese people had more freedom to hold their government to account by being able to exercise their civil and political rights.

Outside China, the response this suggests for those of us who stand for democracy and human rights is to internationalise our efforts and mobilise practical support for embattled activists. This is not easy. As the Civicus 2018 State of Civil Society Report notes, we often become preoccupied with fighting our own battles and struggling to make our voices heard, and fail to see the bigger picture.

But we cannot afford the corollary of growing Chinese power to be the denial of democracy and human rights. We need to encourage China to match its growing global power with growing responsibility, and stand alongside those who suffer when it fails to do so.

Andrew Firmin is Editor-in-Chief with global civil society alliance, Civicus.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent