What to say when a Chinese colleague you admire tells you he is barred from traveling abroad since, as the border guard explained to him, the government believed he might “threaten national security.” This indignity followed a ban on his work. The injustice to him—an advocate of peaceful reform, not counterrevolutionary violence—is great.
But the embarrassment for what purports to be a great power should be even greater. What does President Xi Jinping’s government so fear from someone who even when free to write was obscure in China and abroad? Could the slightest sign of dissent really destroy a putative global hegemon?
Sadly, authoritarian injustice is not new to China. A better question is, when in that nation’s lengthy but tragic history have people been free? Only the form of oppression has changed.
Once a great empire, China turned inward, dominated by status and hierarchy. The regime later fell victim first to the Europeans and later to the Japanese, who occupied “concessions” and seized territory. In the early twentieth century the emperor was ousted, but much of the country fell under the control of competing warlords. The later authoritarian Nationalist government enjoyed only incomplete authority. Then the country was ravaged by a brutal invasion by Japan, followed by a barbarous civil war.
A revolutionary communist regime took power in 1949 and proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Dissent disappeared as the new rulers focused on consolidating control and punishing enemies, real and imagined. Then, in 1956, Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong announced his Hundred Flowers Campaign. He explained: “The policy of letting a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend is designed to promote the flourishing of the arts and the progress of science.” Alas, the leadership quickly reversed course after complaints flooded in. Critics suffered and the crackdown intensified as part of the Anti-Rightist Campaign.
Mao then concocted the Great Leap Forward to transform the rural nation. Millions perished as even senior CCP officials were afraid to tell the chairman the truth about his disastrous policies. Eventually the Red Emperor was criticized, and he launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution to destroy his enemies and restore his influence. Anyone suspected of harboring traditionalist or capitalist heresies faced humiliation, prison and even death. The madness, which triggered a veritable civil war in some regions, came to a full stop only after Mao’s death.
The country had been ravaged. In 1981, after the new leader Deng Xiaoping shifted the PRC onto a reform course, the CCP officially concluded that the Cultural Revolution was “responsible for the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the Party, the country, and the people since the founding of the People's Republic.”
Market-oriented reforms resulted in a very different China. Not free, but substantially freer. Then the 1989 slaughter of pro-democracy protestors in Tiananmen Square and subsequent purge of political reformers within the Chinese leadership ended hopes of substantial political liberalization. Nevertheless, some space remained for dissenting thoughts. Over the years academic conferences were held and exchanges were arranged. Western books were published. Organizations formed to push reform. Journalists reported on official misdeeds. Censorship was tough but not complete. Although open opposition to the CCP was verboten, the Chinese leadership appeared to accept the need for an intellectual safety valve to help dissipate popular dissatisfaction.
Many Americans, myself included, hoped that the PRC's immersion in the international economic system would encourage further expansion of the freedom of Chinese to debate ideas and ultimately control their political future. Although the CCP showed no willingness to relax its control, intellectual space appeared to grow a bit and liberty expanded in some important areas, such as religion. Even if progress was slow, measured against the Maoist era China had liberalized significantly.
Then President Xi Jinping took over in March 2013. His overriding objectives have been to assert China's power internationally and the CCP's authority internally. As such, he challenged the West and liberal ideas.
To many American policymakers, the PRC's increasingly aggressive foreign policy poses the greatest threat. China's neighbors and even more distant countries around the world, including in Europe, also are nervous about Beijing's intentions. However, the PRC threatens not fundamental American security, but long-standing influence in East Asia, a very different issue. Moreover, far from being a grandmaster of geopolitics, Xi blundered badly: China's aggressive overreach and malign meddling encouraged its neighbors and others to cooperate against it. They should bear the greatest responsibility in constraining its behavior.
In dealing with Xi’s government the Trump administration focused on economic issues. The PRC has taken advantage of open Western economies, but Washington needs to seek a better balance without blowing up a mutually advantageous relationship—and which creates powerful incentives for both sides to eschew military conflict. Although core security concerns require effective redress, the U.S. is not going to be able to fundamentally transform domestic Chinese economic policy. The trade deficit is a foolish distraction, which Beijing would much prefer to focus on.
Then there is increasing assault on human rights. Xi tagged Western liberalism as a threat and insisted that constitution and law must be subservient to the CCP. He broke down internal party constraints, jailing former politburo members and initiating a broad, though politically-oriented, assault on corruption. He removed the two-term presidential limit, opening the possibility of life-time rule. And he wrote his “thoughts” into the constitution, a privilege previously accorded only Mao.
President Xi used his steadily accumulating power to crush the slightest dissent. Cameras make the PRC an open surveillance state. A “social credit” system is being used to reward and punish citizens for their loyalty, or lack thereof, to the communist system; those who fail the test could be barred from purchasing air or train tickets. Academic exchanges have been curtailed, with higher approval required for universities to invite foreigners to events.
NGOs have been closed and websites have been deactivated. Internet censorship has been tightened. Those voicing unacceptable thoughts on social media are admonished by a call or visit from security officials. Publications have been transformed or closed and the media has abandoned any attempt at independence. Oversight of book publishing has gone from the government to the CCP’s propaganda department. Religious persecution has risen as Beijing seeks to forcibly “Sinicize” different faiths. Party cells are being established in businesses and political education is being reinstated in schools. A million or more Uighurs and members of other groups have been forced into harsh reeducation camps. Beijing is slowly squeezing the civil and political freedoms long accorded residents of Hong Kong.
Taken together, these actions suggest an extraordinary agenda, seemingly recreation of the sort of totalitarian state last seen under Mao. This is a dramatic retreat for the Chinese people, at least those not at the pinnacle of Chinese politics. People know everything they communicate on WeChat, the Chinese messaging service, is monitored. Foreign visitors take “burner” laptops and phones to protect against hacking. Visitors in some cities have been warned to exercise care in what they say in their hotel rooms. To build up their social credit people participate in exercises praising the CCP. People exhibit greater wariness in any conversation that veers toward sensitive subjects, which have multiplied under Xi.
In short, the Chinese mind is closing.
The harm to individuals is clear. The opportunity to learn, understand, judge, explore and decide is denied to most everyone. Acting on one's beliefs in wide swaths of life is now verboten. At its worst, Xi's system would turn Chinese citizens into government automatons, economically productive but intellectually empty.
The cost to the Chinese system also is great, though harder to measure. Far from being confident and assured, the PRC's leaders evidently believe they are at risk from even the most modest criticism. Sharply restricting people's access to information and opportunity to debate may help shield the regime from attack, but probably increases popular cynicism. Repression also restricts access to information and inhibits creative thought, a likely drag on future economic and technological innovation. Such controls also encourage China's best students, entrepreneurs, academics, and others to seek study, work, and refuge abroad.
Moreover, every time the regime tightens the screws it sows the seeds of future disobedience, undermining the very party authority Xi desires to strengthen. For instance, use of Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs, is forbidden but widespread; college students, at least, are well aware of what they are officially forbidden to access. Moreover, censorship has moved far beyond the political. Beijing closed websites viewed as raunchy and in poor taste. Such creeping totalitarianism may well antagonize people who had reluctantly accommodated regime restraints on political discussion and activity.
Xi’s attacks on religion are particularly problematic from the PRC’s perspective. There are more Christians than CCP members, demonstrating that religion meets a need the party cannot address. No serious believer will allow his or her faith to be “Sinicized.” Left alone, most Chinese Christians would be unthreatening citizens, focused on family, church, and community. Bar them from worshipping God as they believe necessary, and they will become active and hostile. In this way religious Chinese, whose faith transcends any claim by any CCP official, may pose the most serious long-term threat to communist hegemony. Yet repression will only inflame resistance.
Closing the Chinese mind would be tragic at any time. But especially now, since the end of Maoism had offered hope of a new and better future. The Chinese people deserve the opportunity to think for themselves.
Of course, despite the assumption that Xi is forever, his rule will end and his changes might not be permanent. He appears to be simultaneously on the summit and at the precipice. The PRC faces significant demographic, economic and political challenges. The ongoing economic slowdown may significantly complicate the task of Xi and the other residents of Zhongnanhai.
At the same time the West's ability to forcibly open the Chinese mind is minimal. Proposed sanctions would be a feel-good policy, unlikely to cause a rising power to yield. Nevertheless, Xi and other top officials should consider the instructive experiences of Hong Kong and Taiwan: Greater repression instills hatred rather than affection. In those lands Beijing's attempts to suppress dissent increased people's determination to protect their liberties and values.
The PRC's economic and military strength ensures a growing share of global leadership. However, its assault on intellectual freedom demonstrates Beijing is not yet fit to lead. Washington's best policy remains engagement with China, avoiding economic war and military conflict that could devastate both sides. But Americans should remember the nature of the regime which they currently face.