The Democracy Virus: China’s authoritarian political system enables a level of social surveillance and control that liberal democratic societies cannot match. The Chinese Government makes full use of the latest digital technology to both punish – and reward – its citizens. The plans it formulates cannot be challenged, or hindered. Where else could a million human-beings be “re-educated” into sullen obedience? Where else can whole cultures be rendered invisible? (ABC Image)
“A MINOR RELIGIOUS INFECTION”, no statement captures more succinctly China’s problem with world – or the world’s problem with China. The words themselves appear in a leaked document setting forth in grim detail the reasons for the detention of 300 Uighurs and other Muslims in China’s benighted Xinjiang province. Other justifications for incarcerating an estimated one million Uighurs in China’s very own “Vocational and Educational” archipelago include: “used to wear a long beard”; and, “used to wear a veil”. Tellingly, not even the past tense can save you in Xinjiang.
Does the Chinese Communist Party leadership in Beijing understand how poorly the idea that religious belief constitutes a form of “infection” is likely to be received by the overwhelming majority of human-beings belonging to one or the other of the world’s great faith communities? Reading these words in the context of China’s ongoing struggle against the COVID-19 viral epidemic is certain to amplify global displeasure.
When people of faith around the world discover that the Chinese authorities regard the guiding principles of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam as dangerous diseases, whose followers must be isolated from the uninfected population, restored to ideological health, and only then released; they will be dumbfounded. But, not for long. This news will generate rage and resentment on a scale no rational political regime would willingly countenance.
And yet, the Chinese Government remains adamant that its Uighur policy is not only fully justified, but also politically effective. It will not hear a word spoken against its Xinjiang strategy – or, at least, not by those whose opinions it is in a position to monitor – and contain. That this refusal to respond to world opinion might threaten such cherished Chinese initiatives as One Belt, One Road, does not appear to have occurred to those in charge of the Uighur policy. Nor has the mounting evidence of attitudes towards China hardening, all across the world, been sufficient to prompt a regime change of heart.
What is it, exactly, that Beijing fears? What is of more concern to them than the world’s increasingly negative opinion of the Chinese Government? The answer is brutally simple: what the Chinese Government fears most; and certainly much more than global public opinion; is losing control.
China has witnessed the extraordinary derangement of American politics which was set in motion by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Accordingly, it is determined to dry up the waters of religious extremism in which terrorist organisations like Al Qaida and ISIS floated.
They have also observed, in the EU countries and Britain, the dangerous socio-political pressures produced by mass immigration, along with the divisive multicultural policies it generates. In the People’s Republic, it is the Han Chinese who migrate en masse to the territories of their nation’s ethnic minorities – not the other way around. Cultural homogeneity is both the short and long term objective of the Chinese Government. China’s future is envisaged as monocultural, not multicultural. It is national unity that the Chinese Communist Party seeks – not cultural diversity.
These goals, like the Party’s militant and uncompromising atheism, sit uncomfortably with the expectations of Western elites. It was, for many years, their fond expectation that free trade and free-markets would set up the conditions in which China’s transition to liberal democracy became inevitable. Few now believe that such a transition is imminent. The Chinese looked on grimly as the former Soviet Union was stripped and humiliated by the West. If these were the consequences of embracing liberal democracy, then the West could keep it.
In truth, the Chinese Communist Party has made a high-stakes historical wager. It’s betting everything China has achieved since 1949 that liberal democratic excess will undermine the social, political and cultural cohesion of Western Capitalism long before it overturns “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”.
This is not as risky a wager as Westerners might think. China’s authoritarian political system enables a level of social surveillance and control that liberal democratic societies cannot match. The Chinese Government makes full use of the latest digital technology to both punish – and reward – its citizens. The plans it formulates cannot be challenged, or hindered. Where else could a million human-beings be “re-educated” into sullen obedience? Where else can whole cultures be rendered invisible?
Yes, all these policies put China off-side with the rest of the world. The thing is: China doesn’t care.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 21 February 2020.