China has been in the news a lot this summer. From the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre to the recent protests in Hong Kong, which are aimed at resisting Beijing’s creeping and oppressive influence over the island nation, China keeps cropping up. For centuries, it has been a fascinating country for people in the West, alluring for its long history and yet rather frightening for the rumors regarding its present situation: social credit systems, human rights violations, and complete censorship of the media.
I lived in China for a total of about seven years, and I can
say for certain that it is a terrifying place, and it gets more terrifying each
year. In the West, we talk about “freedom” so much that it sort of loses its
meaning, but if you want to really know what it means, take a look at China and
you will see by its absence just what it is. This is a country where you not
only lack the right to say what you wish, but you are subject to the most
extraordinary brainwashing from the youngest age. You have no right to an
opinion that does not jibe with the party line, and even if you did have that
right, a lifetime of education that involves only rote memorization of invented
facts based on party dogma would surely have robbed you of the critical
faculties required to do that.
In China, you are watched at all times. The country is
covered by a network of surveillance cameras that track your every movement.
Last year, I was taken to get a new visa and shown pictures of myself from all
over the country, captured on CCTV cameras in the streets or in train stations.
Immigration officers had vast dossiers of information on me that could only
have been obtained through close monitoring of my activities, and they knew
where I was at all times because I needed my passport just to get on a bus or
train. I am no one to them, yet they made it their business to watch me
constantly, and compile significant documents on my political beliefs, personal
relationships, and religious affiliations.
The society there is set up to encourage grassroots spying
among the citizens. As a foreigner, I was watched by everyone around me. If I
went to the pharmacy, my bosses would know that I had had stomach troubles.
When I took a trip to a nearby mountain, the office staff at my university soon
saw videos of me there online. In my case, it was pretty innocuous: Just casual
racism, really. But knowing that you are being watched nearly every minute, and
that they are monitoring your online activities, is frightening. Even in the
middle of sunflower fields in countryside miles from any city, there are CCTV
cameras that monitor the faces of passersby and inform the government of their
China famously censors its internet. The people living there
need to use a VPN to find out anything even vaguely true because the Chinese
internet is awash with propaganda, and any reputable websites are blocked. In
the run-up to the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre,
almost every news source and factual resource in any language was blocked to
avoid the people finding out what their government had done in 1989. Even on
most typical days, the majority of foreign news outlets are blocked just in
case they report on Taiwan or Hong Kong. The government cannot afford to be
A few weeks ago, dozens of Chinese celebrities took to the
internet (or someone took to the internet on their behalf) at roughly the same
time to share government propaganda over the Hong Kong protests. Even a number
of overseas Chinese joined in, stating their support for the Hong Kong police,
who have reacted violently to the peaceful protests, and Beijing, which has
sponsored gangs to beat and stab people associated with the pro-democracy
movement. Most Chinese only see these messages, and have no idea that there is
little to no violence perpetrated by the protestors. They are fed a steady
stream of nationalist propaganda, and view Beijing’s dominance over Hong Kong
as a matter of national pride.
Most of us look at this sort of censorship and propaganda
with perplexity. “How can they tolerate that?!” we ask. Some smug folks suggest
that we in the West are no different. “Most Americans think that Christopher
Columbus was a hero who discovered America!” Yet while some people do think
this, and some people do believe idiotic fake news stories, at least we also have truth. You can still report
facts, you can still read things that are true in an encyclopedia (or
Wikipedia), and you can still go to a university and learn how to think for
yourself. It may seem that we are living in dark days, but we are a long way
from living in a Chinese dystopia.
Or are we?
Recently, China has begun to expand its insidious influence
out upon the world. Taiwan was a founder of the United Nations, yet China had
it expelled in 1971 after its economy and political power eclipsed that of its
smaller neighbor. This is a behavior that has repeated itself with disturbing
frequency. Nowadays, no country can have diplomatic relations with Taiwan
without turning its back on China, and China is simply too rich to ignore. If
you choose to do the right thing and side with a small, bullied, democratic
country, you will be shut off from all trade with China. Few nations or
companies are willing to make that sacrifice.
Whenever a company acknowledges the independence of Taiwan
or Hong Kong, or asserts any support for Tibet or the Dalai Lama, they are
immediately taken to task by the Chinese government. Soon after, millions of
angry citizens invariably bay for blood and apologies are, of course, soon proffered.
We in the West have become utterly spineless in the face of this predictable
and yet abhorrent tactic. Chinese money is worth more than any sense of decency.
In the past few months alone, Versace, Gap, Delta, McDonalds, Marriot, and Zara
have all been forced to issue apologies and reaffirm their support for
Beijing’s one-China policy. This is utterly appalling, and it shows the extent
to which China has successfully imposed its own version of reality on the
Since the turn of the century, those countries who once protested
Chinese human rights violations have gone silent as China’s star has risen. It
is now the second biggest economy in the world and its military grows in power
every day. It has perpetrated reprehensible deals in Sri Lanka, Cambodia,
Pakistan, and all over Africa in order to secure land for itself abroad. It is
little more than a 21st century colonial power, as it sends its own
people (only the Han ethnicity, of course) to populate these regions. It
bullies its neighbors in the South China Sea, knowing that no one will stand up
to it and militarily confront it over its absurd territorial claims. Most of
Asia is now completely powerless as China grows increasingly confident and
asserts its own ridiculous views on the world.
China recently incarcerated more than a million Muslims in
its western province of Xinjiang. A few mutterings came from western
governments and media outlets, but not much considering that the world was
witnessing a dictator with unchecked powers utilizing concentration camps to
get rid of a minority group. It is a familiar story. When Hitler rose to power
in the 1930s, the world dithered before confronting him. Right now, we are
dithering again. This time, though, the West is so divided that it is hard to
imagine we will muster the courage, willpower, or strength to stand up to a
force that is easily as terrifying as the Nazis. Yet while China rapidly eats
up Asia and spreads its influence into Africa, it is already eroding Western
democracy and undermining our way of life.
In the universities of the West, Chinese students are so
valuable that their incorrect views of history and politics must go unchallenged.
Our leaders must not tread on the toes of Beijing’s propaganda masters by
meeting with the Dalai Lama (who is, to a billion and a half Chinese, a
terrorist) or referring to any objective truths about Asian geography, history,
or politics. We must all be very careful or else the Chinese will stop doing
business with us, our economies will go haywire, and we will be the target
(more than usual) of Chinese digital espionage. If China invaded Hong Kong
tomorrow (and it very well might), could you seriously imagine any Western
power doing more than wagging a finger and muttering as tanks rolled through
the streets, crushing students underneath their tracks as happened in Beijing
in 1989? If China invaded Taiwan and slaughtered their population in order to
pacify that “renegade province,” would anyone step in put a halt to the
bloodshed? It seems unlikely, given that the price of an iPhone would surely
double, along with most other electronics and household goods.
The future is, of course, uncertain, but as China rises and
no one stands to check their vile behavior, it begins to look increasingly
bleak. If they want to live in a surveillance state that would shock even
Orwell, so be it, but their influence is moving rapidly beyond their own
expanding borders, and we need to be very careful with how we deal with them.
The time for courage is at hand, but can we muster it?