China’s crackdown another step toward ‘digital totalitarian state’?


The Economist

China’s crackdown on human rights activists is the most severe since the Tiananmen Square democracy movement 25 years ago, according to a new Human Rights Watch report. Beijing is systematically undermining international rights groups in a bid to silence critics of its crackdown on such rights at home, it said, criticizing the United Nations for failing to prevent the effort, and at times being complicit in it, The New York Times reports.

Chinese authorities are also targeting virtual private networks (VPNs) and other tools that are used to circumvent the so-called “Great Firewall,” NBC News reports:

Along with the crackdown on VPNs, researchers say there is a more concerted re-tooling of the Great Firewall. Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto-based group studying internet censorship, has found evidence of images of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo blocked in mid-transit during chats on WeChat, a popular Chinese platform. This followed the death of the human rights activist from cancer while in police custody. Citizen Lab’s report describes this as “the first time we see image filtering in one-on-one chats, in addition to image filtering in group chats and WeChat moments.”

Authoritarians, in China and elsewhere, normally have preferred to dress their authoritarianism up in pretty clothes, notes China specialist Perry Link.* Lenin called the version of dictatorship he invented in 1921 “democratic centralism,” but it became clear that centralism, not democracy, was the point. That dictators avoid candidly describing their regimes shows that, at least in their use of words, they acknowledge the superiority of freedom and democracy, he writes for The New York Review of Books:

Though euphemisms continue to be useful to China’s rulers, it has now become increasingly obvious that their use is declining. In the era of Xi Jinping, repression is often stated baldly, even proudly. ….In 2013, his government’s “Document Nine” warned Party members about the dangers of “universal values,” “Western-style journalism,” “civil society,” and other such ideas. Document Nine was technically classified, but it was distributed within the Party to millions of people and eventually was leaked outside the Party. In July 2015, a nationwide crackdown on human rights lawyers was similarly bald. Face-saving references to the lawyers as “thugs” or “swindlers” hardly mattered; the real message, which everyone understood, was: Here comes the Party’s power.

“Just in the past few weeks, Beijing has engineered a series of steps that some would regard as astonishing for a government that seeks — indeed demands — the respect of the world, and that bristles when critics point to its acts of repression,” notes Arch Puddington, Distinguished Fellow for Democracy Studies at Freedom House. “Yet even as observers object to the incidents themselves, the world’s disapproval is rarely directed at the regime and its leader.”

After Cambridge University Press briefly agreed to Chinese authorities request to remove over 300 articles from their China Quarterly journal from access by China-based users (a decision that the world’s oldest publisher swiftly reversed), the Association of Asian Studies announced that their Journal of Asian Studies, also published by CUP, had received a similar request, notes China Digital Times:

JAS immediately chose not to comply with the requests, and voiced their opposition to all forms of censorship. The Association of Asian Studies has since released a full list of the 94 articles and book reviews that Chinese authorities requested to be removed from their website in China. CDT Chinese editors classified the list by topic and found that, similarly to the China Quarterly articles requested for deletion, the majority of articles targeted (see below) focused on the Cultural Revolution and Tibet.

In July 2015, Chinese police rounded up and interrogated about 300 rights lawyers, legal assistants and activists across the country, a campaign widely seen as a rupture in China’s rule of law development, notes Harry Hummel, Associate Policy Director of the Netherlands Helsinki Committee. This repression of rule of law advocates is known as the “709 crackdown” for the July 9 date of the 2015 roundup, he writes for Open Democracy.

Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who died recently in Chinese imprisonment, was not allowed to speak or write to the outside world from 2008 until his death, so we don’t know what he thought about the Xi Jinping clampdown, Link adds. But in a 2006 essay he reflected on how the Communist dictatorship led his country during the Cultural Revolution into a hysterical frenzy that ended in disaster. Comparing it to the virulent nationalism of current times, he wrote:

If the Communists succeed once again in leading China down a disastrously mistaken historical road, the results will not only be another catastrophe for the Chinese people but likely also a disaster for the spread of liberal democracy in the world. RTWT

The National Endowment for Democracy this week hosts a memorial symposium honoring the legacy of Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo.


*Perry Link, University of California, Riverside

Xiaorong LiScholar

Xiao Qiang, China Digital Times

Louisa Greve, National Endowment for Democracy

Andrew Nathan, Columbia University

Moderated by

Carl Gershman, President, National Endowment for Democracy. RSVP

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