China's World Order Doesn't Play Well with Democracy

China's World Order Doesn't Play Well with Democracy
AP Photo/Vincent Thian
China's World Order Doesn't Play Well with Democracy
AP Photo/Vincent Thian
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The Hong Kong protests began in opposition to a controversial extradition law but have evolved into broader pro-democracy demonstrations. Along the way, they have served notice that U.S. leadership in promoting democratic principles abroad is fading while China’s assertiveness on the global stage is increasing.  

In the 22 years since Great Britain returned Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China, civil liberties and political rights have declined dramatically. Freedom House attributes this erosion to Beijing’s prolonged interference with government institutions and the free press. 

Meanwhile, Beijing is unaccustomed to this level of defiance. On the mainland, efforts to control the Chinese people are virtually unopposed.  A recent reportdetails the developing Orwellian surveillance infrastructure that feeds a citizen database to help authorities in Beijing monitor and control the population. 

Xinjiang province, home of the Uighurs -- a persecuted Turkic, Muslim minority -- has been the primary laboratory for this system’s implementation. Under the guise of counter-terrorism, an estimated 1 million Uighurs have been interned in so-called re-education camps. They receive political indoctrination and are discouraged from practicing their culture, observing their religion, and speaking their language. 

The Communist Party of China’s zeal for silencing dissent doesn’t stop at China’s borders. There are allegations Beijing has threatened members of the Uighur diaspora in Australia, Europe, and the United States. According to these reports, Chinese authorities have used expatriated Uighurs’ families in Xinjiang like hostages to lure the diaspora back to China, extract personal data, and silence criticism. 

Likewise, recent reports suggest that Chinese diplomats have pressured universities in Australia and New Zealand to discourage pro-Hong Kong student rallies. Meanwhile, students from mainland China are being mobilized abroad to counter-protest. In one incident in New Zealand, officials from the Chinese consulate seemed to applaud a group who physically confronted a pro-Hong Kong student.

China’s brashness in intimidating and coercing people beyond its borders is alarming. U.S. interests are served by having healthy, robust relations with Beijing, but not at the cost of undermining democratic values and free societies. 

Whether it’s Hong Kong protests, the Uighurs, or something else, China is doing just that. 

Controlled by the Communist Party, Chinese Confucius Institutes -- whose stated purpose is to spread Chinese language and culture -- reside on more than 100 college campuses across the United States. However, a bipartisan report from the House Subcommittee on Investigations found these institutes have used their financial clout with schools to quash free speech and expression. Discussion of topics such as the Uighurs, Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen Square become taboo, and Institute officials -- who answer to the Party in Beijing -- harangue those who think otherwise.  

Given this example, it’s not fantastical to wonder how else Beijing is using its economic might to undermine liberal democratic values. 

Italy has become the first G7 nation to sign on to the Belt and Road initiative – Chinese President Xi Jinping’s multi-billion-dollar effort to link China with Africa, Asia, and Europe. No one is suggesting that Rome is now a Manchurian candidate within the club of democracies, but it will be worth watching how Beijing leverages that relationship. After all, we know China is attempting to create an army of sympathetic advocates within the European Union.

There are also serious concerns about Chinese technologies affecting free countries. With companies like Huawei answering to the Communist Party of China and the Chinese military, much has been made about the security of their customers’ data. Also, the surveillance infrastructure being employed ruthlessly against the Uighurs is being exported to Ecuador.

And for film buffs, it’s also worth noting that Chinese influence is manipulating your favorite movies. From education to technology to entertainment, China’s world order seeks to undermine our freedom of expression. 

Xi touts China’s authoritarian capitalism as a competitor to liberal democracy. With China consistently ranked by Freedom House as one of the least free countries in the world, that should be unappealing to anyone who values basic rights. 

This reality speaks to an urgent need for the United States and its allies to develop an integrated strategy emphasizing freedom, democracy, and human rights in their foreign policies and relations with Beijing. 

There are opportunities for the United States to revitalize its standing as a champion of liberty. It starts with the administration and the U.S. Congress voicing support for democracy movements worldwide, including the peaceful protests in Hong Kong. It continues with the condemnation of human rights abuses everywhere, such as Uighur internment camps. Then buttress those words with action. 

We should continue foreign aid that supports good governance structures, alleviates poverty, expands education for all demographics, and improves healthcare. Simultaneously, U.S. leaders should use their bully pulpit against all tyrants - offer incentives for liberalizing and serious consequences, such as targeted sanctions, for not.  Encouragingly, Americans support this type of engagement with the world. 

Lastly, the United States and its allies must demonstrate that free markets and enterprise are still the best way to lift people out of poverty and expand opportunity. They must develop policies extending the benefits of economic growth to broader, more diverse populations. Anything less allows Beijing to capitalize on the crisis of confidence surrounding democracy, while driving the world toward dystopia.

Chris Walsh is Senior Program Manager for the Human Freedom and Women's Initiativeat the George W. Bush Institute. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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