China makes the news quite often these days. And for good reason: the Dragon will determine much of our future in the rest of the world for the coming century, whether we like it or not.
Some of what China is doing on the international stage is undoubtedly positive. For example, just as the United States has abandoned its role as global leader in the efforts to combat climate change in the wake of the election of Donald Trump as President, China has swiftly moved in to fill the void. As the world’s premier industrial producer, and soon to be the world’s largest polluter, this is very welcome indeed. Climate change remains the greatest threat to our shared future, and America’s irresponsible response to this has done more to undermine American prestige than anything else.
Chinese investment in infrastructure projects in its regional sphere of influence is also very welcome. Though it has given rise to anxiety in the West, as China is picking off countries which used to be in the American sphere of influence, the fact of the matter is that Chinese investment in countries such as Pakistan, or the central Asian republics, or indeed in Africa, is transforming the lives of ordinary people there for the better. The long term effects of such investment are likely to be increased prosperity, yes, but also stability and security in some of the most precarious regions in the world, from which all of us will benefit.
But our Western anxieties regarding the global rise of China are not altogether unfounded. It is not just a matter of ignorance or xenophobia, or a fear of losing relative power and status in the geopolitical arena. There are aspects of Chinese power which are indeed ominous.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of China to our Western eyes is the Chinese attitude to human rights: they seem to have no interest in them. Case in point, China’s ongoing crackdown on its Uyghur minority in the western province of Xianjiang.
The Uyghurs are a Muslim minority, so naturally the crackdown is advertised as a “War on Terror”. The Chinese authorities seem to have decided, on rather scant evidence, that the Uyghurs pose a threat to its territorial integrity. To be sure, there have been Uyghur separatist groups and movements operating in Xianjiang in recent decades, and there have even been violent clashes between such groups and Chinese security agencies in the past. But such movements have been marginal, and even amongst them, the majority were in favour or more autonomy within the Chinese federal system rather than outright independence.
What is more, this kind of low level separatist trend is common. It happens in European nation-states such as Spain, Italy, Germany, France or the UK, it is common in many areas of the United States, to say nothing of all the post-colonial states. A regional minority asserting its distinctive identity is something that should be expected within any large enough political body, and does not immediately pose an existential threat to the state, nor are they automatically terrorists.
Nevertheless, the Chinese response to any such perceived threat has been as brutal as it is historically consistent. There are currently over 100,000 Uyghur Muslims detained in Maoist-style “re-education camps”, the entire Xinjiang province is in effective lock-down with ubiquitous surveillance and checkpoints reminiscent of the Israeli occupied territories, and any aspect of cultural and religious difference is repressed as a matter of state policy: up to, and including absurd legislation which bans “Islamic” names for new born babies.
China is the longest-lived continuous civilisation in history. That long history has been periodically punctuated by brutal civil wars every few centuries which have led to some of the largest incidents of loss of human life ever recorded. As a consequence, the mindset of China’s central government is extremely sensitive to anything that might threaten stability and “social harmony”. If “re-educating” and entire ethnic population is what it takes to achieve “social harmony”, the government will have no qualms about doing just that.
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But as the Dragon continues to rise, and as it increasingly stamps its influence over the rest of the world, we have every reason to be weary: China does not recognise limits to state power, and does not take kindly to criticism on the grounds of human rights. This does not bode well for anyone’s human rights in the coming century, and the fate of the Uyghurs portends the fate of many of the world’s marginalised groups.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim