It is a curious and depressing thing that in this age of hyperactive vigilance against creeping tyranny, the regime running China sits mostly in afterthought. Amid an expansion of dictatorship’s definition to include everything from border enforcement in Texas to court reform in Poland, China’s Xi Jinping — who has made strengthening totalitarianism the explicit purpose of his rule — receives analysis that’s calm and nuanced.
The unjustified moderation through which we conceptualize China’s leaders is a destructive legacy of the 1990s and early 2000s, when Western politicians, intellectuals, journalists, and businessmen chose to believe a string of fantasies about just how much reform the Chinese regime had undergone. A string of truisms became popular to mindlessly spout — China was not really Communist anymore, it was basically an American ally, daily life had become modern and Westernized, and the country was on track to become more prosperous than anyone dared imagine. These conclusions helped rationalize the integration of the West’s commercial economy into the Chinese manufacturing sector, with Congress’s 2000 decision to bestow the country with “permanent normal trade relations” status representing a critical moment of normalization, as Reihan Salam recently noted.
Today, our culture of Chinese normalization has become so smothering that encountering unvarnished information about how the regime actually works can be a jarring experience.
Canada’s Globe and Mail recently published a horrifying exposé on the persecution of China’s Uyghur minority. As Jay Nordlinger summarized for National Review last May, the Uyghur are a Muslim ethnic minority who constitute a plurality in China’s enormous western province of Xinjiang. Beijing considers them an Islamist menace waiting to happen, and perhaps those Westerners who worry about Islamism will be inclined to sympathize. Yet the Stalinist measures employed in response make even the most hardened American Islamophobe look tame.
Citing exceedingly dubious suspicions, the Chinese state has detained, by some estimates, hundreds of thousands of Uyghur for forced indoctrination. The Globe described the testimony of a typical victim:
The woman, whose name is not being used by The Globe and Mail for her protection, was put through regular self-criticism sessions. Part of the content was cultural. “My soul is infected with serious diseases,” she would repeat. “There is no God. I don’t believe in God. I believe in the Communist Party.”
Other content was more explicitly political. Day after day she would say out loud that she was a traitor, a separatist and a terrorist.
“I am so blind not to see the greatness of our strong country’s laws. I am so stupid that I was not thankful for our President Xi Jinping,” she would be told to recite.
The piece describes Beijing’s brainwashing techniques in lurid detail. In cult-like fashion, prisoners are housed in barren conditions and forced to perform grueling, repetitive tasks from morning till night. Surveillance is constant, with the smallest disobedience viciously punished. Sometimes the detainees are drugged into submission.
Anything distinctive about the inmates — which is to say, anything making them more identifiably Uyghur than Chinese — is forcibly sacrificed. Women tell of getting their long hair cut short (“now you are going to have a modern hairstyle,” one recounts being told) or shaved off entirely. Speaking the Uyghur language is forbidden, as is the practice of Islam. Round-the-clock exaltation of the Chinese system and denunciation of its enemies — “Capitalism is evil, wrong, and failed. Socialism with Chinese characteristics is the best” — is the only acceptable pastime. Eventually, people are supposed to break.
Nearly three decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, Beijing still believes deeply in totalitarianism as a workable philosophy of government, in which the state can and must assert crushing power over the individual to mold his mind and micromanage his life.
Assimilating pious Uyghurs into obedient, atheist automatons is but an especially grotesque manifestation of a Chinese political system that remains like nothing else on Earth. Nearly three decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, Beijing still believes deeply in totalitarianism as a workable philosophy of government, in which the state can and must assert crushing power over the individual to mold his mind and micromanage his life. Theirs is not an incidental dictatorship, but rather one forged in the context of a Marxist revolution that continues to chase the dream of a centrally planned paradise.
President Xi pursues this dogma with a zealousness his recent predecessors lacked. In 2013, his administration explicitly identified seven sinister ideas it was most eager to crush. There was no subtlety. Basically everything Westerners take for granted as an essential component of their liberty was framed as a demon to be slain: universalist philosophy, constitutional democracy, independent media, civil society, free markets. All, in turn, are subject to their own targeted campaigns of suppression and destruction, from word bans on state-run social media to tearing crosses off church steeples. A command economy, we were told, was bound to soon resemble our own remains in the bottom tier of global economic freedom.
Because totalitarianism is often imagined as a decidedly 20th-century phenomenon, the notion that it can exist in a place as outwardly modern as China — with its skyscrapers and flat-screen TVs and high-speed rail lines — is sometimes hard to process. Yet the great totalitarian regimes of the past existed in what once seemed impressively futuristic societies, too. Indeed, this was a key element of their appeal.
America’s conservative movement has been historically skilled at articulating its values through contrast with totalitarian alternatives, particularly the Soviet Union and radical Islam. In doing so, it has helped give a sense of purpose not only to U.S. foreign policy, but their own desired form of an ideal society.
The fashionable storyline that our once-dominant liberal-democratic ideals face unprecedented danger today from alternative doctrines is not wrong, but the threat must not be misidentified. It is the powerful Chinese regime governing a billion people, not populist movements in the West, that should serve as a contrast with all who value freedom in the current era.
That Beijing is protected by a powerful coalition of apologists and disinformation only emphasizes the importance of fighting to make this truth prominent in our political conversation.