Whenever such sensitive topics pop up, authors are tempted to start an article with a highly nuanced first paragraph, usually one which explains how complex and open to interpretation from various angles a certain topic is. When it comes to this article, in the spirit of being blunt to the point of brutally honest, we will start with a clear answer which leaves little room for interpretation: no, today’s China cannot and will not respect human rights by Western standards.
Simply because “today’s China” or if you will, China as envisioned by the Communist Party of China would most likely not survive if the proverbial foot were taken off the pedal in terms of authoritarianism. To put it differently, the Communist Party of China in general and the Xi Jinping administration in particular see human rights as not just a nuisance but rather an existential threat, for a wide range of reasons such as:
- The fact that in light of not being a democracy, the government does not have the “blessing” of the population or to put it differently, the average citizen does not feel like he or she is contributing to the rule of the country, even if only through a vote that matters. As such, blame cannot exactly be shared between voters and politicians like with a democracy for the simple reason that extreme centralization of power inevitably brings about just as extreme centralization of responsibility. For this reason, frustration is bound to become systemically risky once let’s say a sustained period of economic slowdown is experienced and the authorities believe that inhibiting human rights at least enables them to keep thins under control… a very risky supposition but the status quo one nonetheless
- The fact that there are no let’s call them release valves for the proverbial negative social energy that accumulates, release valves which would at least enable public anger/outrage to be eliminated from the system in a somewhat orderly manner. In the absence of such release valves, the first meaningful social crisis experienced by an administration such as the Xi Jinping one risks… well, being the last
- The authorities, at least since the Deng Xiaoping days, believe in unleashing the productive capacity of China’s 1.4 billion population but don’t believe in unleashing the freedom of expression of the citizens in question (a topic covered through another article) due to fears pertaining to the potential of things spiraling out of control
- It being difficult for China to keep everything in check as it is, despite the authoritarian surveillance state that has been built. Simply put, a wide range of citizens have proven to be more than creative enough to (relatively) easily bypass roadblocks such as the Great Firewall of China
For these reasons and many others, not only is China not willing to tone it down a notch (or two, or three!) but the exact opposite is valid, with the Xi Jinping administration imposing measures which make it clear that the preservation of authoritarianism represents a top priority, for example:
- Eliminating term limits and enabling Xi Jinping to remain the paramount leader indefinitely
- Creating a textbook cult of personality around Xi Jinping and “Xi Jinping thought”
- Shutting down domestic critics, while rewarding domestic media outlets as well as “influencers” who play by (Communist) Party (of China) rules
- Going after foreign critics as well, while also working on creating a strong external network which facilitates propaganda
- Minority oppression, for example the 1984-worthy system that has been implemented in Xinjiang, where approximately 13 million Muslims (primarily Uyghurs, Turkish minorities and Kasakhs) are persecuted through anything from constant monitoring to “re-education camps for extremists”
Once again, the list of examples can continue but the bottom line is this: not only is today’s China in no way able/willing to take its foot off the pedal with respect to human rights, the exact opposite is happening.
Can this status quo persist indefinitely?
No, which is why we have chosen to hedge by using the term “today’s China” rather than limiting ourselves to broadly referring to China.
It is important to understand that no matter how powerful an authoritarian regime may be, change is oftentimes forced upon it by the population. In this respect, China’s increasingly educated population represents a force to be reckoned with and the authorities find themselves between a rock and a hard place: on the one hand, the already slowed-down economic growth of China would risk grinding to a halt in the absence of proper progress in the education department but on the other hand, an increasingly educated population becomes far less willing to tolerate an authoritarian status quo.
At the end of the day, nothing is set in stone.
Might the political system of China end up changing pretty much overnight, as a result of a (geo)political or economic black swan event?
Might there be a “velvet revolution” or if you will, a peaceful transition to a more human rights-oriented system at one point or another in the future?
The ChinaFund.com team strongly hopes reality will bring about a path closer to the latter, one that enables China to embrace a system more in line with Western values in a peaceful manner. As hard to believe as such scenarios may be, pragmatism might end up prevailing once or if the authorities decide that there is no other way. Unfortunately, this hasn’t exactly been the norm when it comes to authoritarian regimes of the past but in light of the fact that we are in a 21st century framework with all that it encompasses, we have more reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the future, even if the present is anything but stellar from a human rights perspective.