How China succeeds: Repression at home, lies and state capture abroad

How China succeeds: Repression at home, lies and state capture abroad
AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

There are several lengthy stories out today about what China is doing both inside and outside its borders. Individually, they are each worrisome but together I think they paint a picture of a nation that is succeeding based on repression, lies and state (and corporate) capture. First up, CNN has a story about internal repression within China. It started when a group of people held a protest in Beijing last year:

Late in the evening of November 27, demonstrators gathered along the banks of Beijing’s Liangma River to remember at least 10 people killed in a fire that consumed their locked-down building in the northwestern city Urumqi. Public anger had grown following the emergence of video footage that appeared to show lockdown measures delaying firefighters from accessing the scene and reaching victims.

Many in the crowd that gathered in the heart of Beijing’s embassy district that night held up blank sheets of white A4-sized paper — a metaphor for the countless critical posts, news articles and outspoken social media accounts that were wiped from the internet by China’s censors. Some decried censorship and called for greater political freedoms, or shouted slogans calling for an end to incessant Covid tests and lockdowns. Others lit their phone flashlights in remembrance of the lives lost in the enforcement of that zero-Covid policy — the lights reflecting on the river flowing below, according to images and reporting by CNN at the time.

I wrote about these protests when they were happening. Here’s a video of one in Beijing.

Well, a curious thing started happening after that protest. People who participated started to disappear:

When one by one, the friends of a young woman living in Beijing began disappearing — detained by the police after attending a vigil together weeks earlier — she felt sure that her time was nearing.

“As I record this video, four of my friends have already been taken away,” the woman, age 26, said, speaking clearly into the camera in a video recording from late December obtained by CNN.

“I entrusted some friends of mine with making this video public after my disappearance. In other words, when you see this video, I have been taken away by the police for a while.”

The woman — a recent graduate who is an editor at a publishing house — is among eight people, mainly young, female professionals in the same extended social circle, that CNN has learned have been quietly detained by authorities in the weeks following a peaceful protest in the Chinese capital on November 27…

Two of the young women detained, including the editor, have been formally charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” people directly familiar with their cases said Friday — a step that could bring them closer to standing trial, with neither granted bail as of that day.

“Picking quarrels and provoking trouble” is the generic charge brought against anyone the police consider a troublemaker. Each such charge can result in up to a five year sentence and nearly every case that goes to trial results in a guilty verdict. Simply put, if you do something the party doesn’t like, especially expressing public criticism of the government, you get hit with this charge. It’s where the rubber meets the road in the Chinese police state. How did China know who was present at the protest? They used people’s cell phone data which, of course, can be used by the police to target anyone who is “provoking trouble.”

Also today, the NY Times has a story about China’s tactics in the Solomon Islands. They show up offering loans, grants and new construction and in the process they gain control over local politicians.

“At first,” said the chief, Peter Kosemu, 50, as he sat in the shade on Guadalcanal, the largest of the Solomon Islands, “most people just wanted to see what was going on.”

He and many others have watched China rush headlong into seemingly every corner of the economy and politics of this South Pacific nation over the past three years, spurring fears in the West that Beijing is trying to set up an outpost that could play a strategic role in any future conflict with the United States and its allies.

China has opened a large embassy, started construction on a stadium complex and signed secretive deals with the government on security, aviation, telecommunications and more. Many islanders liken it to seeing carpenters waltz unannounced into your kitchen, drawing up plans, tearing down and building, with little explanation.

Not everyone on the island is thrilled with China’s approach but those who oppose it soon find their pro-China opponents are flush with cash. This is state capture happening in slow motion.

Leaked documents point to how the security agreement may have come together. Meeting minutes from the Sogavare government showed that, in August 2021, money from the Chinese government went to 39 of 50 members of Parliament from a “national development fund” previously financed by Taiwan — about $25,000 each.

A signed letter from Mr. Sogavare, 67, explained that the money had come from the Chinese Embassy…

Peter Kenilorea Jr., the deputy opposition leader, said that two government officials had recently offered nearly $2 million to one of his father’s cousins to run against him; a little over a year ago, he added, another relative had been asked to run for about $750,000…

Matthew Wale, the opposition leader, said: “This is state capture, happening in real life.”

Unfortunately it’s not just small island nations that China has managed to capture. There’s a story at Foreign Affairs today walking through the history of China’s treatment of the Uighur minorities in Xinjiang. As the story points out, China mostly got away with it thanks to the UN’s failure to do much about it. Other nations that want to avoid angering China (or being held accountable for their own human rights abuses, took China’s side.

In August 2018, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination forced Chinese officials to publicly explain what was happening in Xinjiang for the first time. A Chinese spokesperson responded two days later by denying the existence of reeducation centers already documented by researchers, including from satellite photos. But after that staunch initial challenge, the UN has tiptoed around the issue. Whenever UN member states have had to take sides over Xinjiang, Beijing has won. Twenty-two nations (18 European countries, and Australia, Canada, Japan, and New Zealand) signed a letter to the UN high commissioner on human rights calling on China to stop the mass detentions in Xinjiang. But Beijing quickly mobilized 37 states to sign a counter-letter asserting that all was well in the Uyghur Region. Last June, 19 members of the UN Human Rights Council voted against a motion to debate the contents of the council’s critical report on human rights in Xinjiang, and 11 members abstained. Only 17 voted to hold the debate.

China’s success in such showdowns exploits the unwillingness of states with their own poor human rights records to condemn human rights abuses elsewhere, and it depends on the fear that angering Beijing might cut off Chinese investment. Cuba voted against debating the report, and even Ukraine abstained. Beijing also exerts intense behind-the-scenes pressure to shape how the UN approaches Xinjiang issues. This strategy was particularly evident, if cloaked, in the activities of the high commissioner for human rights. After a prolonged negotiation, High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet visited Xinjiang in May 2022, on a five-day COVID-19 “closed loop” tour that she stressed was “not an investigation.” In an awkward press conference concluding her visit, Bachelet echoed Beijing’s explanations that the camps were counterterrorism and job training programs. She adopted Chinese terminology, referring to the internment facilities as “vocational education training centers”—even though, according to former detainees, no vocational training took place in the camps. Beijing’s control over Bachelet’s agenda and selection of the people she talked to likely set the parameters for what her short visit could achieve.

The fact that China was clearly lying about what was happening in Xinjiang didn’t matter. But China’s influence isn’t limited to the UN. When the US tried to put together a bill to stop forced labor in Xinjiang, it was heavily lobbied by corporations with an interest in China.

Nike and Coca-Cola are among the major companies and business groups lobbying Congress to weaken a bill that would ban imported goods made with forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region, according to congressional staff members and other people familiar with the matter, as well as lobbying records that show vast spending on the legislation.

The bill, which would prohibit broad categories of certain goods made by persecuted Muslim minorities in an effort to crack down on human rights abuses, has gained bipartisan support, passing the House in September by a margin of 406 to 3. Congressional aides say it has the backing to pass the Senate, and could be signed into law by either the Trump administration or the incoming Biden administration.

But the legislation, called the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, has become the target of multinational companies including Apple whose supply chains touch the far western Xinjiang region, as well as of business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Again, all of these stories came out today and while they aren’t directly connected except in having China as a subject, I think together they paint a picture of a growing tyranny whose ability to repress dissent at home and use their money to capture states and companies abroad ought to be worrisome to a lot more Americans. China isn’t just an economic rival, they are looking to expand their repressive state beyond their borders and right now they are succeeding.

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