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The Left, TikTok, and the World’s Biggest Police State
If you are reluctant to criticize China, you are no friend of social justice.
In 2017, I was in China’s westernmost region of Xinjiang, investigating how China had erected the most sophisticated surveillance state ever with the help of tech companies from both China and America. An estimated 1.8 million people, mostly Muslim Uyghurs, would be hauled away for such thought crimes as praying or showing insufficient loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), a process enabled by AI and camera surveillance that monitored the population endlessly.
Later that year, I heard that a Chinese tech giant called ByteDance had expanded into America with a new app called TikTok. I knew the news was ominous.
The wholesale detention of the Uyghurs is considered the largest internment of a minority since the Holocaust. Uyghur internees in concentration camp conditions have faced systematic rape, forced sterilization, forced labor. In 2021, the U.S. State Department joined governments and human rights groups from around the world in declaring the detentions a genocide—and ByteDance is deeply complicit in it.
Not only did ByteDance sign an agreement with the Chinese Ministry of Public Security promising to promote the ministry’s “influence and credibility”—which it has done with alacrity—but TikTok has actively suppressed news on its platform calling attention to the Uyghurs’ plight. In 2019, TikTok blocked the account of a New Jersey teenager who had shared a video protesting the Uyghur genocide because—as TikTok’s Head of Public Policy Michael Beckerman later told Congressional staffers in a near-perfect parroting of CCP talking points—the video violated rules about posting “terrorism-related content.”
After researching my book on the Uyghur genocide, I settled down in Washington DC, where I found that although everyone from the mainstream left to the right were aghast and wanted to do something, members of the woke left consistently scoffed at my reporting. “I’m about nodding off,” one left-wing fellow from a prominent think tank said to me when I was discussing Uyghurs. “America has to fight its own racism. What China does to its people is none of our business.”
The left appeared to assume that the West, with its history of imperialism, colonialism, slavery, and racial segregation, must be the only place that requires atonement for the past. China gets a free pass, because it is not white. Even well-meaning attempts to insist on some accountability for CCP actions result in the peculiar mental gymnastics of pinning China’s problems on “whiteness.” The CCP “mirrors whiteness,” wrote Australian journalist Stan Grant for Australia’s state broadcaster, ABC. “If whiteness is power, Xi Jinping is its champion.”
Something of these dynamics became apparent in the lead-up to Congressional hearings on TikTok in late March—and in the line of defense that was adopted, in parallel, by TikTok executives and by woke activists.
In August, Dondi West, a TikTok lawyer and former U.S. intelligence officer, tweeted, “Laws and policies driven solely by anti-China xenophobia, with no evidence proving an actual threat, [are] also a threat to national security, and also contribute to anti-Asian hate.” In a “Keep TikTok” rally on the Capitol steps, progressive star and Squad member Rep. Jamaal Bowman used similar language in calling the targeting of TikTok a “red scare,” saying, “Let’s not be racist toward China and express our xenophobia when it comes to TikTok, because American companies have done tremendous harm to American people.” And, in response to the Congressional hearing, Vanessa Pappas, TikTok’s COO, tweeted, “It’s a shame today’s conversation felt rooted in xenophobia.”
In Congress, there seemed to be a general awareness by both Republicans and Democrats of the connection between Chinese tech companies and human rights violations by the CCP, but that understanding has not extended to the woke left. Throughout the controversy around TikTok, the left has struggled to recognize that the CCP might not speak for all Chinese, that it could be possible to criticize policies of the Chinese Communist Party—particularly with regard to Uyghurs—without being “anti-Asian.” What is missed, most dramatically, is any sense that China itself is an empire, with its own history of racism—with Uyghurs, Tibetans, Mongolians and others silenced, and with a steady drumbeat of propaganda emphasizing the superiority of Han Chinese.
In trying to work out why a movement that is so attuned to social justice violations is so indifferent when it comes to those committed by the CCP and its allies, my sense is that the answer has to do with a long history of the left’s superimposing its own culture wars on China.
Woke leftists conveniently overlook the true expanse of empire outside the West. The logic goes that criticizing TikTok or any other Chinese company is racist, because China, as a non-white power, is the victim of Western aggression, not a perpetrator with its own agency.
The reality is that China has its own long history of imperialism. In the 18th century, the Qing dynasty conducted one of the world’s first modern genocide campaigns, exterminating around 80% of the population of the Dzungar Mongols, an ethnic group living predominantly in what is now Xinjiang. And the maintenance of China’s current system requires heavy-handed repression of ethnic minorities who don’t identify with China culturally, linguistically, and historically, and have agitated for their own nations.
The left has long struggled to contend with China’s imperialism and authoritarianism. This failure was perhaps nowhere more pronounced than when it was least defensible—in the era of Mao Zedong.
Far from a fringe idea, Maoism took hold in the mainstream left, with a parade of Western intellectuals condoning or even applauding Mao’s actions. In the 1950s and 1960s, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre served as the editor of no fewer than three Maoist publications. Jean-Luc Godard’s film La Chinoise was a tender, and well-received, treatment of a Maoist cell in France. Maoist ideas spread across college campuses, particularly as student protestors and labor unions became disillusioned with the Soviet Union’s stagnation and turned to a militant radicalism associated with Mao.
Though Maoism revealed itself in due course as a brutal ideology responsible for mass atrocities, Western Maoists consistently downplayed the devastation of the Cultural Revolution in which millions died as a result of Mao’s policies.
Recognizing U.S. leftists’ gullibility, the CCP learned how to exploit Western passions as China opened to the world in the 1970s. CCP officials proved skilled at manipulating Western revolutionaries and academic China experts, stoking their egos in exchange for their political sympathies.
As a senior embassy official explained to a college class in 1990, after he had defected to the United States: “In the early 1970s, when [President] Nixon visited China, his visit was followed by a swarm of China experts from Hong Kong and the West… Surprisingly, these people were the easiest targets of all because they were self-important. They thought they knew everything about China.”
Since then, China has abandoned Maoism and has opened its markets while keeping a tight grip on politics. Prominent leftists, meanwhile, have shifted their perspective from Maoist sympathies to identity and gender politics but retained the same myopia when it comes to China. What connects the perspective of the Western Maoists during the Cold War with the woke left today is a surprising disregard for diversity of perspectives within China. The CCP is seen as the voice of China and criticism of it “racist” or “anti-Asian”—which is a somewhat baffling perspective for people who are themselves Asian and find themselves persecuted or silenced by the CCP’s policies.
This habitual myopia of the left inhibits the West’s ability to grapple with the flagrant human rights abuses of the CCP, the Uyghur genocide prominent among them. In my investigations on abuses against the Uyghurs, I developed the conviction that what happened in Xinjiang was a testing ground for an ambitious surveillance campaign carried out by the CCP with the active complicity of companies like ByteDance. What the CCP discovered was that what they did worked—the voices of the Uyghurs themselves were suppressed over social media and the outside world was far less interested and critical than it should have been. That’s a terrible precedent. Those who dismiss an honest discussion as “xenophobia” fail to contend with the dark lessons of the campaign against the Uyghurs.
Geoffrey Cain is senior fellow at Lincoln Network, a tech policy think tank, and author of The Perfect Police State.
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