Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and the Insecurity of China’s Leadership

Hong Kong is in chaos, with no sign that the protesters will yield on their demands. Mass incarceration and indoctrination of Uyghurs and other Chinese Muslims has become so widely publicized, and evidenced, that Chinese leaders no longer try to deny that a roundup has taken place, though they dispute the numbers. As China extends its economic reach, its leaders have to confront another reality: Reputation matters, and economic clout will not easily convert to political or cultural influence. International repugnance is widespread over the Xi Jinping government’s flouting of human rights norms and seeming indifference to human suffering.

The larger context here is Xi’s determination to wipe out all sources of resistance to his lifetime rule, foreign or domestic. His government typically cites “three evils” to justify repression: separatism, terrorism, and extremism. Actually, it has several other “evils” in its sights, including organized religion, protest demonstrations, cultural autonomy, activist lawyers, and independent journalists and environmental organizations. In its view, all these forces threaten the one-party state, disrupt economic plans, and unravel the myth of the unified multi-national state. They challenge the Chinese party-state’s security and legitimacy, which have always been far more important to Beijing than spreading a political model abroad.

Naming and shaming can sometimes help mitigate widespread and systematic human rights violations. Bringing the Uyghur repression (which some call cultural genocide) before the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has already produced a joint statement of twenty-two countries, in July, condemning “large-scale arbitrary detention” and other violations. The statement calls on China to allow UN and independent access to the so-called “retraining” camps. Britain has separately urged China to “allow UN observers immediate and unfettered access to the region.” The European Union has also criticized China’s conduct. Possibly more effective than the so-called spotlight effect is boycotting companies that, directly or indirectly, facilitate repression, and sanctioning individuals responsible for it, and blocking international financial institutions such as the World Bank from investing in Xinjiang.

What brings Hong Kong and Xinjiang together is the failure of China’s leaders to accommodate local politics and culture, and instead to impose “stability” through draconian measures—a clear indication of leadership insecurity and blindness to the conditions that prompt unrest. Outside pressure, however, has to be carefully calibrated lest it lead to even more oppressive Chinese steps. More direct US political intervention in Hong Kong, for example, would only exacerbate the situation—and give demonstrators false hopes. As Chen Jian, a distinguished scholar of China-US relations, has written: “It is beyond America’s capacity and mandate to try to impose answers upon the Chinese in American ways. Any attempt to do so will only trigger China’s lingering ‘victim mentality’ and mobilize radical Chinese nationalism centered on an anti-American-hegemony discourse. The biggest beneficiary of such a scenario will, ironically, be no one else but the Chinese ‘communist’ state.”

At times like these we need more, not less, interaction with China. Care needs to be exercised not to feed an anti-China hysteria by, for example, cutting back people-to-people and other exchanges, closing down Confucius Institutes, imposing immigration and visa restrictions, putting Chinese nationals and Americans of Chinese heritage who work in US laboratories and universities under suspicion, or using trade as a weapon. Legislation such as the US Senate’s Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act appropriately sanctions Chinese and Hong Kong officials but also reeks of political posturing about American values and bipartisanship. Donald Trump quietly signed the act, but indicated he would not honor all its provisions. For him, protecting human rights pales in importance beside the prospect, however remote, of a favorable trade deal with China.

One other thing: We should not be self-righteous about repression in China. Few countries are free of religious, political, or social oppression. Few have eschewed violent official responses to mass protest. Fewer still are the governments that have recognized, much less apologized and compensated for, the harm they have done in the name of social stability. The scale of China’s human rights abuses may have no current counterpart—by some estimates, as many as 1.8 million Chinese Muslims have been incarcerated—but it is also part of a global pattern that embraces even the most “developed” and “democratic” countries. The struggle against abuses here is also a struggle against abuses there.

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.