The Pressure on China

By George Friedman* – Geopolitical Futures

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army has begun minor operations to try to quell the unrest in Hong Kong. This is a step that the Chinese hoped to avoid. For one thing, they wanted to portray the unrest as minor, not requiring their intervention. For another, they did not want issues raised about Chinese human rights violations, which inevitably emerge in such interventions. At a time when China is trying to portray itself as the global alternative to the United States, it doesn’t want other countries, particularly those in Europe, noticing human rights abuses.

This strategy took another huge blow with the leak over the weekend of government documents describing in detail a broad Chinese assault that has been underway for several years on the ethnic minority Uighur community in the western province of Xinjiang. The documents gave detailed accounts of massive detention camps for “retraining” purposes and the separation of families on a scale that is startling even for China. Beijing clearly wants to break the back of Islam in the province.

Chinese detention of Uighurs is not new. We have been hearing about this for over a year. What is startling is the leak of documents so sensitive that they validate claims of mistreatment that the Chinese long denied, for obvious reasons. This raises a key question: Who released the documents? They might have been leaked by Chinese officials, appalled at what is going on in Xinjiang. They might have been released by the Chinese government as a warning to other dissident groups. They may have been released by senior members of the Chinese government who have become disillusioned by President Xi Jinping, hoping to force him out.

All three are possible, but to understand the events in Xinjiang, we need to also consider what’s happening in Hong Kong. The Xinjiang detentions predate protests in Hong Kong by quite a while but demonstrated a turn of the Chinese government away from liberalization. Xi had already taken that turn during his massive anti-corruption purge, which obviously was a cover for a systematic purge of real and potential opponents. The demonstrators in Hong Kong watched the purges and the events in Xinjiang, and realized that the fairly radical extradition bill, which sparked the initial protests, was the cutting edge of an attempt to force Hong Kong to submit to the Chinese framework and to Beijing’s power.

That is what is happening in Xinjiang, a province that is formally part of China but not Han Chinese, the majority ethnic group in China. Han China is surrounded by four buffer states: Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Tibet and Xinjiang. Its eastern coast is dotted by former European enclaves, such as Hong Kong and Macao. Over the years, the Chinese struggled to retain these buffers. Japan seized much of Manchuria in World War II, with less than unanimous opposition. There have been uprisings and resistance in Tibet. Xinjiang was rumbling with Islamist sentiment. And while Macao accepted mildly the redefinition of its status, Hong Kong exploded at what it saw as an attempt to redefine its status prior to negotiated dates.

Tibet’s resistance, led by the Dalai Lama, remains. Manchuria and Inner Mongolia are pacified. But Hong Kong and Xinjiang are the real dangers. They cannot be left to fester, lest Islamist terrorism spread to Chinse cities, or Hong Kong serve as an inspiration to other cities in eastern China. The efforts needed to pacify them, however, carry costs outside of China. The Belt and Road Initiative could turn from being an ambitious Chinese project into a symbol of Chinese repression. This is not an image China wants to project.

For months, riots on the streets of Hong Kong have been broadcast on global television and discussed over social media. Those who have been paying attention have known about the repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang for a while, but it had not entered the global zeitgeist. Until now. Xi, who came into office as the central power that would modernize China and make it a great power, is now facing three domestic problems. The first is the fading memory of the anti-corruption purges. The second was the festering repression in Xinjiang now made virally public. The third is the riots in Hong Kong. In the first two cases, China is made to seem Stalinist and fascist. In the last case, it appears inept, unable to bring the matter to a close. To put it another way, the Chinese clearly wanted Hong Kong to settle down without action from Beijing to drive home the message that China is modernizing despite the Xinjiang affair and the purges. But Hong Kong may not fade away and the PLA might have to enter Hong Kong in force.

China needed to present itself to the world as a burgeoning economic power and a benign political power, overseeing a united mass of people moving forward in history. The purges raised eyebrows but could be dismissed as what they were claimed to be: an anti-corruption campaign. Xinjiang was far away and, for most people, out of focus. But Hong Kong is not far away or out of focus. It forces us to see the other two issues in a different light. Now we see China not as a symbol of progress, but as a fearful nation struggling to repress discordant elements.

This brings us back to the question of who leaked the documents. There are three possible explanations for the leak. First, Xi’s team might have leaked them to show his determination. Second, they might have been leaked by someone in the government who was appalled by what they saw. Finally, they could have been leaked by an emerging anti-Xi faction in the Central Committee, appalled by Xi’s handling of the United States and Hong Kong and using the documents to weaken him.  Of the three, I favor the third explanation. Too many important things are going wrong in China for such a faction, however small at this point, not be forming.

Xi’s incompetence is manifest. The major task of the Chinese president is to handle the American president, and Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were handled. He failed to bring Donald Trump under control with promises of future meetings and postponed studies. As a result, China is in a trade war with its largest customer. In addition, quite apart from the trade issue, the Chinese financial system is unstable and growth is slowing. Now, Hong Kong is out of control, and the global talk is of Chinese concentration camps. This is not what was expected from Xi.

The Central Committee is the ultimate arbiter of what China does, particularly if the president weakens and loses his way. There must be some in the Central Committee who remember Xi’s inauguration and have concluded that China’s evolution has not gone the way they expected and Xi promised. The Central Committee is usually opaque, as it is now, but if there is opposition developing to Xi, and it is hard to imagine there is not, then release of these documents merely turns a known event into a global event, further showing Xi’s incompetence.

All of this is framed by a primordial fear. Before Mao’s victory, regional conflicts tore China apart and allowed the Japanese to seize major parts of the country. Regional conflicts in the future are the single biggest threat that China does not want to face again. The Chinese are suppressing the threat in Xinjiang, and now maybe in Hong Kong. But China does not want to have to suppress regional threats. Xi, however, is doing just that and he also came in suppressing political threats with the purges. Between that and mishandling the Americans, many nerves are being touched. I would bet that the leak came from the Central Committee, and that Xi has enemies. Nov. 19, 2019


*George Friedman (Hungarian: Friedman György, Budapest, February 1, 1949) is  Hungarian-born U.S. geopolitical forecaster, and strategist on international affairs. He is the founder and chairman of Geopolitical Futures, an online publication that analyzes and forecasts the course of global events.



The stunning new evidence of China’s dictatorial repression

By Ishaan Tharoor* – The Washington Post

We have known for some time now that China is carrying out something deeply unsettling in Xinjiang. The restive, far west region of the country is home to a number of Turkic Muslim minorities, including the Uighurs, who in the last half-decade have been swept up in large numbers by the dragnet of the central state. We know that roughly a million or more people have been subjected to a vast system of detention or “reeducation” camps, where they are cajoled to “Sinicize” and abandon their native Islamic traditions. There’s already been a great deal of international criticism: In Washington, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have condemned China’s project of de facto cultural genocide. A report by a United Nations panel of experts warned this month that China’s methods could “deeply erode the foundations” of Chinese society.

But Chinese officials still hide behind the Potemkin villages of their own making. They insist that the camps are actually job-training centers where amenable Xinjiang residents are working to better assimilate into mainstream society through vocational schooling and language instruction. They point to the necessity of such measures to counter the reach of radical Islamist groups in the region. We know now, though, that Chinese authorities don’t actually believe their own party line.

That’s because of the new details surfaced by an astonishing set of leaked documents obtained by the New York Times. The cache includes 403 pages of Communist Party directives, reports, notes from internal investigations and internal speeches given by party officials, including President Xi Jinping. The Times’s story by Austin Ramzy and Chris Buckley, published this weekend, offers a rarely seen window into the deliberations of one of the world’s most opaque governments. And what we see is chilling.

It relays how a flurry of ethnic violence and terrorist attacks in the early part of the decade persuaded Xi to unleash the “organs of dictatorship” — his own words, in a private speech. This apparently involved mass roundups, the construction of a 21st-century Orwellian apparatus of control and surveillance and a systematic assault on the ability of the region’s residents to observe their Islamic faith. As a justification for the draconian clampdown, a top Chinese official in Xinjiang warned of the risks of placing “human rights above security” in a 10-page directive from 2017. The tranche of documents also points to internal disagreement about the repression in the region and was delivered to the Times by a figure from “the Chinese political establishment” who “expressed hope that their disclosure would prevent party leaders, including Xi, from escaping culpability for the mass detentions.”

Perhaps the most striking document is a classified directive issued to local officials in an eastern Xinjiang city on how to talk to Uighur students who return from other parts of China and discover their relatives and friends have been disappeared into detention camps.

They were instructed to tell the students that their relatives had been “infected by unhealthy thoughts,” framing the state’s distrust of Muslim minorities in terrifyingly clinical terms. “Freedom is only possible when this ‘virus’ in their thinking is eradicated and they are in good health,” read the directive.

The Times also reported on evidence of what appears to be a “scoring system” used by officials to determine who gets released from a camp. It incorporates not only the behavior of the detainees, but also the cooperation of relatives outside. “Family members, including you, must abide by the state’s laws and rules, and not believe or spread rumors,” officials were told to say. “Only then can you add points for your family member, and after a period of assessment they can leave the school if they meet course completion standards.”

The new revelations fit into a wider, horrifying story of repression. China makes independent reporting in Xinjiang virtually impossible — and every foreign reporter invested in covering the story has to weigh the risk of endangering local fixers and sources, many of whom may have already been swept into detention. Meanwhile, analysis of satellite imagery led one researcher to conclude that the authorities have demolished 10,000 to 15,000 religious sites in Xinjiang in recent years. The Washington Post’s editorial page director Fred Hiatt declared: “In China, every day is Kristallnacht.”

A Washington Post report looked at the plight of one Uighur woman, Zumrat Dawut, who spent more than two months in a cell that was so cramped that the women there had to lie down in shifts. During the day, they recited propaganda slogans that included praise for Xi.

“When she was let go, she was forced to sign documents agreeing not to practice her religion and not to tell anyone what had happened in the camps,” my colleagues Emily Rauhala and Anna Fifield wrote. “After her detention, she was forced to pay a fine of more than $2,500 for breaking China’s family planning rules by having three, not two, children.”

Terrified by what would happen if she resisted, she complied with a suggestion to submit herself for a sterilization. Dawut, unlike countless of her brethren, managed to escape the country alongside her children and Pakistani husband and made her way to the United States, where she’s hoping to receive asylum. Her troubles captured the attention of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who cited her as a victim of religious persecution.

But Washington’s focus on the horrors in Xinjiang also comes at a time when the Trump administration has made it dramatically harder for refugees and asylum seekers to find sanctuary in the United States. Locked in a trade war with Beijing, President Trump has remained conspicuously silent on pressing matters of human rights, both in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. And, indeed, the protesters in Hong Kong, where clashes with police are turning all the more violent, see China’s unrelenting, unflinching approach taken in Xinjiang as an omen of darker days to come under Beijing rule.

The New York Times report does point to small acts of resistance. In 2017, Wang Yongzhi, a local official in a prefecture in southern Xinjiang, quietly released 7,000 camp inmates of his own volition. As a result, he was stripped of his position, prosecuted and later pilloried as a “corrupt” official. “I undercut, acted selectively and made my own adjustments, believing that rounding up so many people would knowingly fan conflict and deepen resentment,” Wang wrote in a signed confession he may have given under duress. “Without approval and on my own initiative, I broke the rules.”


*Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York. Follow @ishaantharoor