China faces a return to totalitarian rule.
When the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) appointed Xi Jinping as its General Secretary a decade ago, the country’s new trajectory was clear. In his first speech to the Politburo, in January 2013, Xi declared his ambition to build “a socialism that is superior to capitalism” and for China to “have the dominant position” against the West. This built upon the 2011 Communique from the Sixth Plenum of the 17th Central Committee of the CCP which outlined the Party’s plans to tighten control over culture, religion, literature, education, the media, the internet and society.
Over the next few years, the CCP went about refining Xi’s agenda. Perhaps the most important declaration of intent, “Document Number 9” from April 2013, provides an explicit attack against Western democracy, “universal values,” civil society, independent journalism and any questioning of the CCP’s past policies. In 2019, a further document emerged outlining the CCP’s intentions to tighten control of the education curriculum to ensure “feelings of loving the party.” Whatever criticisms one may make of Xi, one cannot deny that he made his agenda plain for all to see.
The problem is, the rest of the world was not listening. Just read the two reports by the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, The Darkest Moment: The Crackdown on Human Rights in China 2013-2016 and The Darkness Deepens: The Crackdown on Human Rights in China 2016-2020. At the time of these reports, especially the first, I and the few others involved in them were fairly lone, marginal voices, regarded as a nuisance by the political establishment in most Western democracies for highlighting human rights concerns which were inconvenient to their bilateral relationships with China.
We cannot afford such blindness any longer. Yesterday, the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) opened in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. This week-long gathering takes place every five years (the last one was in 2017) and brings together 2,296 delegates representing the CCP’s approximately 90 million members. While day-to-day decisions are taken by the CCP’s top leadership, the National Congress acts as a platform for the CCP to showcase its agenda. It will set the direction of travel for the next five years—and it won’t be good. This time, the world needs to pay attention.
First, just how repressive has China become in recent years?
On the mainland, there has been a severe crackdown on dissent among the professional classes, such as the disbarring or imprisonment of many lawyers and human rights defenders. During the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic, the voices of doctors and whistleblowers who tried to warn about the virus were suppressed. Some, like former lawyer Zhang Zhan who traveled to Wuhan to report on the impact of the lockdown measures, are still behind bars. Others, like Dr Li Wenliang (who subsequently died of Covid) were ignored, threatened and detained for “spreading rumors” or “harming stability.”
Another alarming aspect of the intensification of repression in China is the use of surveillance technology. Facial recognition cameras, artificial intelligence, drones and the monitoring and censorship of apps such as WeChat and Weibo—alongside the widespread use of forced televised confessions—have turned China into an Orwellian state. Much has been written about this, but if you want one very readable source to give you an overview, read Kai Strittmatter’s book We Have Been Harmonised: Life in China’s Surveillance State.
Meanwhile, in the western region of Xinjiang, hundreds of prison camps and detention centers have been built, into which at least one million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities have been swept, to endure conditions of horrific torture, sexual violence and slave labor. The atrocities suffered by the Uyghurs are increasingly being recognized as genocide and crimes against humanity. Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo legally recognized this on his last day in office in 2021, a decision which his successor Antony Blinken immediately endorsed. Several parliaments—as well as the independent tribunal set up to investigate the claims—have reached the same conclusion.
Finally, there is the repression of Hong Kong. Over the last five years, Beijing has entirely dismantled Hong Kong’s freedoms, democracy, the rule of law and autonomy, destroying press freedom, civil society and whatever was left of democratic representation. In 2020, the CCP imposed on Hong Kong a draconian National Security Law that is so vaguely and broadly worded that its effect is to silence all dissent. Most pro-democracy activists, including many of my friends, are now either in jail or in exile, and those that are not are keeping their heads down. Hong Kong has been transformed from one of Asia’s most open cities to one of its most repressive police states with alarming speed.
On a small scale, I have had personal experience of Xi’s rule. I was the first foreigner to be banned from Hong Kong when, back in 2017, I was denied entry at the airport on Beijing’s orders. I have received numerous threatening letters at my home, as have my neighbors. I have been threatened with jail by the Hong Kong police for violating Hong Kong’s repressive National Security Law—even though I live in London. My experiences do not remotely compare with the sufferings of people in Hong Kong or China; but they are enough to make me even more determined that we should take the challenge from China very seriously.
Fortunately, compared with ten or even five years ago, we now have a much better idea of how repressive the CCP is at home. This increasingly translates into dangers abroad: as author Elizabeth Economy puts it, “Xi’s ambition, as his words and deeds over the past decade suggest, is to reorder the world order.” With this knowledge, we need to prepare for the next chapter of Xi’s ideological mission.
Unless something truly extraordinary happens during this week’s Congress, Xi Jinping will be confirmed as General Secretary of the CCP and Chairman of the Central Military Commission for a third term. If rumors are to be believed, he may be elevated to the title of “Chairman” of the CCP, a post that has not existed since 1982 and which is currently associated with Mao Zedong. According to China expert Charles Parton, “Xi Jinping Thought” is likely to be confirmed as the “21st century Marxism” and positioned as equal to “Mao Zedong Thought.”
The world needs to watch closely. Governments and ordinary citizens alike need to take the statements, speeches and policy documents that emerge from this Congress seriously. They will give us a glimpse of the continued crackdowns on civil society, media, and religion—as well as atrocities against the Uyghurs and Tibetans, repression in Hong Kong, and increasing threats to Taiwan—that we can expect in China over the next five years.
And we must not just watch—we must act. Citizens must urge their elected representatives to sanction the perpetrators of crimes against humanity and breaches of international treaties. We must urge our governments to diversify our supply chains and reduce strategic dependency on China. We must spread the word on social media. We must press policy-makers to put human rights above trade opportunism. Only then will we have any chance of countering the increasing threat the regime in Beijing poses to us all.
Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is the co-founder and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch. His new book, The China Nexus: Thirty Years In and Around the Chinese Communist Party’s Tyranny, will be published in October 2022.
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