The Great China Exception
The magazine Commentary once published an article titled, “Has There Ever Been Anything Like the Soviet Union?” The piece appeared during the last decades of the Cold War, and the title was meant to convey the message that in the long and sordid annals of despotism, the USSR was unique—in the completeness of its totalitarian scheme, in the staying power of its mechanisms of control, in its global reach, and in its determination to assemble a terrifying arsenal even as its domestic economy lay in ruins. Eventually, of course, the Soviet Union succumbed, but for over 70 years it survived and even thrived as a model of anti-freedom that inspired regimes ranging from East Germany to North Korea.
If today we were to pose an updated version of the Commentary writer’s question, we would no doubt ask, “Has There Ever Been Anything Like Communist China?” As with the Soviet Union in its time, China today is sui generis, though for very different reasons. Its leaders have erected a structure of control that is flexible and nimble, combining harsh repression of select targets with the openness that has enabled China to grow into an economic powerhouse. Having set aside policies that caused decades of mass poverty and isolation, the regime has been able to thoroughly integrate itself into the global economy without abandoning the core principles of Leninism, which enshrine the guiding role of the highly centralized Communist Party in all aspects of life.
More than anything else, it is this calibrated economic integration, and the opportunities it represents, that has allowed China’s government to evade international opprobrium for its acts of repression. To be sure, the regime’s crimes are not entirely ignored. Human rights organizations regularly denounce the jailing of dissidents, the mistreatment of minorities, and the lack of anything resembling the rule of law. Occasionally, foreign governments are compelled to speak out, as when Beijing launched a campaign against the Nobel committee after jailed democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo was given the peace prize. But in an age when Hungary, Ukraine, and Turkey are rightly chastised for breaches of democratic standards, China usually gets a pass for policies that have brought pain and misery to millions. The separate category that China has carved out for itself goes beyond the usual double standard that has historically been applied to “progressive” dictatorships—to Cuba, or Nicaragua under the Sandinistas, for example. Instead there is a kind of stand-alone China Exception, under which repression and autocracy are quietly acknowledged but actual objections are seldom voiced.
There are many, many examples of this China Exception. I’ll mention just two of the more egregious cases—egregious both because of the ugliness of the policies themselves, and because of the world’s decision to ignore or even condone Beijing’s actions.
The first example is the one-child policy. The very fact that I take issue with this, a pillar of the post-Mao era, will itself draw furrowed brows. The policy, most seem to agree, is a settled issue, a hard but ultimately justified measure required by uniquely Chinese circumstances.
But why should the world treat the one-child policy with such tolerance? I’m not aware of any scheme of rights, liberties, or universal values that justifies the state’s intrusion into the most personal and important decisions of human life. Regimes that prevent their citizens from travelling abroad are routinely criticized as oppressive, not to say anachronistic, as are states that deny girls an education or women a job. Is the denial of travel abroad as outrageous a violation of liberty as a law that imposes fixed limits on reproduction?
There is no shortage of evidence of forced abortions and compulsory sterilizations of women who became pregnant in violation of the law. Regulations in more than half of China’s provinces explicitly endorse mandatory abortions, and officials risk disciplinary action if they fail to meet birth and sterilization quotas. And, of course, it is by now well established that the one-child policy has led to an epidemic of sex-selective abortions and infanticide by parents who prefer boys. The central authorities, ignoring the thoroughly institutionalized nature of coercive enforcement tactics, sometimes blame them on overzealous local officials in order to deflect criticism. Indeed, the Communist Party leadership seems more focused on the public image of the population-control policy than on the details of its implementation. For example, it recently urged officials to use less menacing slogans, phasing out “old fashioned” examples like “If you don’t receive the tubal ligation surgery by the deadline, your house will be demolished!”
It’s bad enough that foreign governments have remained silent about what should be treated as one of the great human rights atrocities of our time. But to make matters worse, some commentators have extolled the Chinese authorities for their supposed contribution to the global environment. Thus a columnist in Canada’s Financial Post once wrote that “despite its dirty coal plants,” China “is the world’s leader in terms of fashioning policy to combat environmental degradation, thanks to its one-child-only edict.”
A second glaring example of the China Exception is the treatment of the Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking and mostly Muslim people who live primarily in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
In recent years there have been a number of incidents of unrest fueled by Beijing’s repressive policies toward the Uighur community. The authorities, justifying mass arrests and other harsh security measures, have accused Uighurs of mayhem and terrorism. But with strict censorship and media blackouts in place, the facts surrounding such incidents are often difficult to ascertain. Clearly, Uighurs, like Tibetans, deeply resent Beijing’s strategy of cultural suppression, which includes encouraging the mass migration of Han Chinese into Xinjiang and efforts to assert state control over the practice of Islam. On this latter point, the authorities have in recent years initiated a campaign to prevent Muslims from observing the holy month of Ramadan. Officials have forced restaurants to remain open, and compelled Uighur cadres to sign “letters of responsibility” in which they promise to avoid fasting, evening prayers, and other religious activities. The government has made a point of providing free lunches to Uighur schoolchildren during Ramadan, and punishing Uighur adults if they refuse to eat lunches provides by their employers. Beijing also controls who can and cannot participate in the pilgrimage to Mecca by refusing to issue passports to those regarded as politically unreliable.
The restrictions placed on Uighurs’ religious freedom is not secret. Yet hardly anyone aside from Uighur advocacy groups and a few human rights organizations has seen fit to voice much more than a faint murmur of outrage. Certainly not the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Or the governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or Pakistan. Or religious leaders in the world’s Muslim-majority countries. Indeed, the governments in some countries, including Pakistan, have sent asylum-seeking Uighurs back to China. An offensive cartoon published in Scandinavia is enough to trigger protests and boycotts across the Muslim world, yet a Chinese government directive to prevent millions of Uighurs from observing Islam’s holy month is largely overlooked. Unfortunately, this gap is not filled by Buddhist and Christian defenders of religious freedom, who tend to focus on the plights of their coreligionists in Tibet and eastern China.
The one-child policy and the persecution of the Uighurs are but two in a long roster of odious practices that, taken together with the world’s indifference, make up the China Exception. This indifference is a choice, often by people who hope for economic gain, or fear economic losses. Others mute their criticism because they believe that protest will only provoke Chinese authorities into harsher crackdowns. But if the response to Beijing’s aggression and economic power is always deference and accommodation, there is a real risk that on a broad range of trade, human rights, and democracy issues, transgression could become the global rule, and accountability the exception.
Michael Larkin assisted in preparation of this post.
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.