China is not known for its protection of civil liberties. More widely known is the government’s system of suppression on multiple fronts, including restricting accurate information, preventing freedom of speech, and the detention of dissenters. In fact, China’s score with Freedom House for access to civil liberties is only 10 out of 100, with a designation of “not free,” the lowest possible category. While China’s repressive tactics have been in practice for many decades, starting well over thirty years ago, the situation has only become more critical in recent years.
With the COVID-19 crisis beginning in China last year, the state has been criticized for not reporting accurate case numbers and not warning the international community early enough. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has also brought China’s tactics of suppressing political dissent to light. This has been on display in the past in regions such as Hong Kong, where demonstrations over an extradition law have turned into a movement and initiated a Chinese crackdown against protestors. Yet, the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed China to increase its repressive tactics among many groups and regions, as the government has intensified censorship in recent months under the guise of national security measures.
Repression across China is not merely isolated to within China’s borders. Rather, the Chinese state exerts heavy influence across both its autonomous regions and independent nations. From threats to Taiwan’s sovereignty, which China claims as its own, to repression in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang, China has developed a blueprint for smothering dissent and pushing the party line. Different forms of repression apply to different regions and ethnic groups. However, technological surveillance and suppression have been constant and reliable methods for the Chinese state.
Hong Kong has been one of the most visible examples of China’s increasing reach and repression. The 2014 “Umbrella Movement,” in which millions of Hong Kong citizens protested against a bill that would require the Chinese state to approve any candidate for office in Hong Kong, was a key moment. In 2018, Chinese interference in the region intensified as the Chinese detained pro-independence figures and disqualified government candidates including the Hong Kong National Party from running for office based on their support for independence. In 2019, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam attempted to pass a law allowing for individuals convicted of a crime in Hong Kong to be extradited to the mainland. This began a massive protest movement, where almost two million out of Hong Kong’s seven million citizens took to the streets.
China’s attempts to stifle dissent and bring key institutions of the Hong Kong government under the control of the Chinese state, including the judiciary, are a major part of China’s playbook for cracking down on dissent. Hong Kong’s long history of freedom of speech and civil liberties prior to the 1997 handover of the territory from British to Chinese sovereignty gave rise to the “one country, two systems” view of Hong Kong. Previous attempts to stifle freedoms of speech and assembly garnered protest after a 2003 sedition bill allowing the government to ban free speech and certain organizations. Hong Kong’s history with civil liberties and their politically active and engaged citizenry, however, has prevented China’s attempts to completely control the territory due to the territory’s constant vigilance against tyranny and history of relative freedom.
Taiwan has also been a hotbed for China’s attempts at control. China claims Taiwan as part of the Republic of China, yet Taiwan continues to emphasize their status as an independent state. China has used more hard power tactics on the region, repeatedly breaching the median line separating China and Taiwan with warplanes and conducting military drills around the island. In a show of resistance, the United States has sold arms to Taiwan multiple times and conducted multiple military drills in the region as well. China has not yet attempted to seize full control of the island; however, the state has never ruled out the use of force to attempt to “reunify” Taiwan with the Chinese mainland.
Tibet and Xinjiang, two of China’s autonomous regions, are more interconnected with China than either Taiwan or Hong Kong and therefore are more vulnerable to their repressive tactics. China has enacted a massive detention campaign against Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region, building potentially well over a thousand camps and detaining potentially up to two million Uighurs. Technological surveillance and intensive military presence are other hallmarks of China’s presence in Xinjiang
In both Xinjiang and Tibet, severe surveillance and restriction of freedoms are key to China’s strategy. Tibet has long been under tight control for purposes of “stability.” The Chinese government has passed several laws to restrict the religious freedoms of Tibetan Buddhists, including searching monasteries without cause and threatening the families of Tibetan Buddhists going to hear the Dalai Lama in India. Opposition is not tolerated, and detentions are not uncommon. As in Xinjiang, technological surveillance and heavy-handed political education are key to China’s tactics.
COVID-19 has made it easier for China to execute their repressive policies—and even repress information on the pandemic itself. Restrictions on movement in Xinjiang and surveillance via COVID-19 contact tracing apps were two methods the Chinese government developed during the pandemic. Back in February, WeChat, a texting app widely used in China, was suddenly shut off, news articles on Wuhan removed, and social media posts from Chinese citizens sick with the Coronavirus disappeared. After Chinese COVID-19 whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang died, the hashtag #iwantfreedomofspeech trended on Weibo, a Chinese social media app similar to Twitter, until it was taken down. Chinese companies also were instructed to conduct surveillance for COVID-19-related “sensitive information or illegal content.” This broad definition allows the government to deem many types of content illegal.
China’s playbook for repression has a long history. The Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 is the most famous incident of the Chinese government quashing dissent. Repression since then has increased along with a major growth in technology and the economy. Current president Xi Jinping has made anti-corruption and stability two major goals of his administration. This has allowed him to pursue suppression on multiple fronts, including for national security reasons and for optics on the world stage.
Ultimately, China and Xi’s goal of being the preeminent world power have led to the country and party seeking stability above all else. The repression is not merely restricting freedom of speech, movement, and association. National security laws, including one passed recently in Hong Kong, put dissenters and their families at risk of long jail sentences. Chinese technology companies also work closely with the government in order to suppress information deemed inappropriate or threatening the stability of the Chinese state. Multiple forms of suppression are generally enacted at once.
International response to repression in China also has a long history. While the Chinese government has a long history of denying freedoms to its citizens, multiple rounds of sanctions and condemnations, including more recent rounds for repression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, have not made much of a difference. Military drills, including the ones earlier between the United States and Taiwan, have also not deterred the Chinese military from performing their own drills and stunts from Taiwan to the South China Sea. China’s economic power, however, is immense. The state is now powerful enough on the world stage, including in their military, alliances, and economy, to allow their system of suppression to go unchecked.
The image featured in this article is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. No changes were made to the original image, which was taken by Thomas Au and can be found here.
Julianna Rossi is a third year Political Science major and Human Rights minor. Originally from Los Angeles, California, she spends her time on campus as the Chair of UChiVotes and as a communications intern for the IOP. Besides that, she loves cooking and baking, reading the news, and exploring Chicago.