Headline on Foreign Policy Magazine summed up the status quo – “The World’s Most Technologically Sophisticated Genocide Is Happening in Xinjiang”. Amnesty International confirmed that “everyone on the planet” are subject to arrest and prosecution if they ever set foot in a China jurisdiction “even in transit”. In Galwan Valley in India, China took in 23 square miles beyond a Line of Actual Control (LAC), and engaged in a deadly fight before being pushed back. All of these in the last three months.
On Tuesday, US authorities ordered a shutdown of Chinese Consulate in Houston in 72 hours, embassy workers were seen burning documents in the open in the hours after. Under the spotlight were alleged subversive activities from the Consulate. Among other things it was harboring a fugitive Chinese scientist from American laws, diplomats from the location threatened a former US Governor with consequences for sympathies with Taiwan. China has threatened retaliation, though not clear how at the time of this writing.
And by the way there was this little thing called a Coronavirus pandemic going around, it started inside China’s border, and, cost almost 625,000 lives worldwide to date, almost all of it outside of China.
Faced with such tales of evil doing, you will expect Chinese emissaries to be circumspect. Not these wolf warriors. Cui Tiankai, China’s Ambassador to the United States could pierce you with his icy gaze. Population of Xinjiang doubled in 40 years, how can there be a genocide? He thundered in a TV interview – never mind Government data shows 85%+ drop in Uyghur population growth since 2015. “One Country, Two Laws” demands one country first, he scoffed about Hong Kong, never mind there is only one law as interpreted by Beijing alone and enforced by an elaborate apparatus and a pliant Chief Executive. I must thank him for not calling his interviewer a “gum stuck on the sole of China’s shoes”, as Australia was recently called for having the audacity to call for an inquiry into origins of COVID-19, another Chinese diplomat conjectured a movie shoot going on when presented with video of thousands of Uyghur men on their knees, dressed in black, heads bowed, hands tied behind their back, waiting to board cattle trains for destinations unknown. The World must learn to live with a strong China, they declared as if we had problems with an economically resurgent Japan or the technology powerhouse of Germany after World War II.
Observers still high on the Kool-Aid of China’s “Peaceful Rise to Great-Power Status” will do well to ask the question – rise of what? Throughout its really long history, China never really had a meaningful move towards democracy’s founding pillars – viz., universal suffrage, freedom of press, multi-party system, and, independent judiciary. After the dissolution of Qing dynasty, governance was in effect a “political tutelage” program, even that was driven out to Taiwan where a single party system ruled under martial law till 1987, real democracy started in Taiwan only after that. In the mainland, the Communist Party of China as never had any desire to impose anything but the dictatorship of the proletariat since it wrested control in 1949. Researchers frequently note a general skepticism against Western-style democracy as being incompatible with Chinese values – the Government is legitimate, as the saying goes, not when it reflects peoples’ wills but when it reflects their better interests. That may be why China’s rise to middle-income status was never supposed to cause a move towards democracy. Even if we buy into a promise of a peaceful rise, what will rise will, likely, not uphold democratic values within its borders.
Through Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen and beyond, China’s history is marked by a lack of respect for human life. Mao was quoted as saying “China is such a populous nation it is not as if we cannot do without a few people” when asked about atrocities. You can still see shades of that when it comes to organ harvesting from prisoners or to health hazards posed by wet markets, among others. Beijing cannot comprehend, nor can it accept, a heritage of open dissent in Hongkong. The Security Law is the first move in that long game, days of bloodbath will surely follow as soon as Mandarins will themselves for economic and diplomatic fallout of a forceful crackdown. Arithmetic is easier in Xinjiang and visuals of concentration camps mean not a thing to politburo members who grew up during the Cultural Revolution. If recalcitrant Uyghurs cannot be brought into submission through mass-incarceration, round-the-clock mass surveillance, denial of opportunities and basic human rights, genocide is only the next natural step; western observers allege it started already. In the Chinese mind, progress is nothing but a cycle of “perpetual revolution” that necessitates a sacrifice in the blood of the newly vanquished – even now!
Deng Xiaoping’s slogan of “Hide your strength” was never a call for restraint when one is dealt a difficult hand. More than ever, a battle for supremacy with the west is an existential battle for the Communist Party and therein lies the rub. Enviable economic successes through decades, even an exemplary track record of lifting 850 million out of poverty, do not give apparatchiks training on how to cope when old tricks – demographic dividends, access to cheap credit, infrastructure largesse, rampant IP abuse – die young; letting the market decide is exactly what these ideologues were brainwashed against. Decades of one-child family means dependency ratio is at its worst in decades, and getting worse, thus robbing the system core sustenance – fuel for economic growth. One Belt One Road policy has not proved to be a crowd-puller as it was initially projected to be, buying favors in Africa and South Asia or Middle East mostly ended up making new enemies – tales of trickery and betrayal are not easy to cover up outside of one’s border. As the Party hits wall internally and walls close in outside, it is searching for easy wins – skirmish on Indian border was exactly that. It is up to the free world is to deny China these easy wins as they do nothing but prolong misery, especially for Chinese citizens.
We have seen the movie before, in Soviet Russia. There were years where the existence of the free world was legitimately threatened. At times there were military conflicts, if by proxy, with missiles at the ready. Other times it was economic, with Soviet technologies denying access into large geographic footprints. Most often it was political, explicit and implicit collaborators were lured into fold with Soviet lies and glossy paper booklets. [I have argued the so-called “Non-Aligned Movement”, to which India was a member in high standing, was a cover for not having the guts to choose the right path.] Through these years China fought Russia’s battles, or otherwise just waited for its time to come. Now that Russia is a mere shadow it its past, it does not even have a working aircraft carrier, China sees itself a rightful successor.
If China claims its position in a new bipolar world, it must be ready to face the consequences. The Western world needs to be ready too.
It starts with the acknowledgement of reality as is. No sweet-talking yourself into thinking China is nothing but a clear and present threat to the world order and to the free world founded on the principles of a functioning democracy, free press, functioning independent judiciary and a market-based economy; all of which are clearly anathema to Chinese ideals just as they were to Soviet Russia. As an identified threat to the West, it must not be allowed to benefit from open access to its markets – especially not in future technologies like 5G, solar, AI and so on. Likewise, we must provide incentives for US manufacturers to leave China’s shores, rebuild factories inside friendly shores and train workers – essentially reverse the clock. We cannot simply ask them to leave, we are not China after all, but we can induce them so they are not high on Chinese opium, nee cheap labor. It would have been unthinkable for American companies to develop, and depend critically, on an elaborate supply chain inside Soviet Russia, the same mindset should apply with China. Athe height of East Block, some of their technologies were genuinely better than available western ones, but that did not lure us into opening our own markets for their benefit, this time is no different. Globally, we must use our influence and goodwill to keep doors open for our products and services, in preference to Chinese, just as we were good at doing in olden days – we did not pretend enemies were partners. Western universities, especially in US, must stop being so enamored by the assembly line supply of Chinese students; at its most benign they are training their competitor of tomorrow. More likely, they are abetting theft of IP. There shall be beautiful examples of cooperation; even at its worst of Cold War, ISS was built as a shining showcase for collective intellect, we may do the same for vaccines tomorrow.
As importantly US, and the west, must not close doors to refugees of the Chinese system, just as it welcomed thousands from Soviet Block over decades. We have refused to equate an individual with the machine, a worthy point of departure from the Chinese Communist Party and their client-states. This time shall be no different, even as we expose, protest, shame, block and tackle acts of Chinese aggression and abuses.
We must start by standing up for victims in Xinjiang and in Hong Kong. Today. History will judge us harshly if we fail.
[Partha Chakraborty is an Indian-born immigrant; a naturalized US Citizen since 2018. Educated in India and at Cornell University, Partha is currently an entrepreneur in water technologies, Blockchain and wealth management in the US and in India. The views expressed are his own].