China’s Greater Leap Backward

globe illustration

Part of Oliver Munday’s illustration for The Atlantic.

James Fallows’ recent cover article for The Atlantic, entitled “China’s Great Leap Backward,” is an important and timely piece. In it the veteran China writer describes how repression in the PRC has grown under Xi Jinping, and considers the implications for the United States. His article is especially significant because it arrives during a time of potential upheaval for America’s China policy under the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump, which has already deviated from long-standing diplomatic precedent by accepting a congratulatory phone call from Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan.

To briefly summarize his points, Fallows notes an increasingly hard line being taken in a number of key areas: communication, where China’s censorship of the internet and press grows ever stricter; civil society, where the Party is turning the screws ever tighter on religious groups, NGOs, and unions; extraterritorial actions, where attempts to enforce Beijing’s will outside the borders of the PRC grow ever bolder; failed reform, where the political climate grows ever darker; anti-foreign sentiment, where foreigners living inside China and foreign companies doing business inside the country are viewed with ever more suspicion; and the Chinese military, which grows ever more aggressive as territorial disputes with a dozen neighboring countries continue to fester.

These are all serious issues, and Fallows lays them out with the care and insight that comes from his long experience with China. Reading the article, though, I couldn’t help but to think that another crucial factor had been omitted: Increasing repression in Tibet and East Turkestan. The way China treats “minority nationalities” serves as an essential indicator of how committed it is to using violence and repression to stay in power. If you want to know how far the Party might go to control Chinese citizens tomorrow, you need only look at what they’re doing to Tibetans and Uyghurs today.

Including the Tibetan and Uyghur experience in his article would only strengthen Fallow’s case, too. Take his first category, communication: As bad as things are in China proper for internet usage and journalism, they are far, far worse in Tibet and East Turkestan. Tibet remains largely closed to foreign journalists; in recent years they’ve been chased out by police and government officials, denied entry, and forced to sign a document promising they wouldn’t try to return. Other journalists successfully reported from Tibet only after entering through subterfuge (in one case incurring subsequent blowback from Chinese embassy officials who harassed the writer in multiple countries), or after bypassing police checkpoints by hiding in the backseat of a car (this happened multiple times). In 2008 foreign journalists in Tibet faced mass expulsion, and since then reporting from inside the Tibet Autonomous Region has been limited to Potemkin tours arranged by the Communist Party.

Chinese snipers

Chinese snipers disappear from their usual positions on Lhasa rooftops when foreign journalists visit the TAR.

On the internet front, too, struggles with finding a good VPN might seem quaint to some people in Tibet and East Turkestan. Chinese authorities have taken to pulling the plug entirely and removing all internet access when they feel the need arises; they did so most famously in East Turkestan. The entire area, which has a population of 22 million, went without internet access for ten months in 2009. The BBC reported that those who needed to get online were forced to travel hundreds of miles to neighboring provinces to do so.

Chinese police raid

Hooded and armed Chinese police raid an internet café in northern Tibet.

The plug has been pulled repeatedly in Tibet as well, inspiring one New Republic writer to visit the Tibetan region of Ngaba to take a look at life behind China’s ‘cyber curtain.’ A few years ago one resident of Tsoe, a city in Gansu’s Kanlho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, complained to me about the unpredictability of these outages. The internet would disappear after a protest or before a sensitive date, and the entire area would remain offline for days, or weeks, or months. Beijing may be more comfortable doing this to Tibetans and Uyghurs than to the inhabitants of well-to-do Chinese megacities like Shanghai, but we should be mindful of the fact that they’ve developed these tools, and that they’re willing to use them.

In reviewing the repression of civil society, Fallows mentions restrictions on religious practice and the demolition of churches in China. The flattening of churches is cruel, but today it’s hard to read the word ‘demolition’ without thinking about the campaign of destruction at Larung Gar in Tibet, the largest Buddhist institute in the world. More than 9,000 monks and nuns have been expelled since the demolitions began in late July, according to the latest reports from Radio Free Asia. In broader Tibetan civil society, the case of Tashi Wangchuk is illustrative of how little room non-Chinese grassroots activists are afforded in the PRC: He now faces up to 15 years in prison for his efforts to support the implementation of truly bilingual Tibetan and Chinese education systems in Tibet.

Finally, no account of China’s growing use of extraterritorial repression could be complete without a look at Nepal:

Nepal is a case study in how a rising China has come to exert itself over its neighbors. Landlocked and impoverished, with a chaotic political system and recovering from natural disaster, Nepal has capitulated easily to Beijing’s will — and nowhere has that been more strongly expressed than in the fate of would-be immigrants from Tibet.

Responding to demands from China, the Nepalese have installed heightened security on the border. A phalanx of undercover police and informants now makes it almost impossible for Tibetans to cross into Nepal, except by extraordinary means such as the zipline.

Tibetans already in Nepal — many of them born here — are facing new restrictions on getting refugee certificates, jobs, drivers licenses and even exit visas to leave the country.

In all of these categories, the Party’s political crackdowns are hitting Tibetans and Uyghurs harder and more regularly than the average Zhou in China. The results can be deadly, as in these cases where Tibetans were tortured to death in Chinese prisons over the last few years. Another high-profile case is that of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, a beloved Tibetan religious leader who died in custody last year while serving an unjust sentence. Just last week the number of Tibetan self-immolation protests against Chinese rule reached 146 when a man named Tashi Rabten set himself on fire and died. His wife and children were detained and beaten by the police when they asked that his body be returned to the family. The situation in East Turkestan is no better; a Times reporter who visited earlier this year found the region seething with anger under a sustained crackdown. The recent transfer of Communist Party official Chen Quanguo from the Tibet Autonomous Region to East Turkestan is another bad omen; the man distinguished himself by developing and applying innovative new techniques of repression.

Heavily armed police

Heavily armed police, a constant presence in the heart of Lhasa and in towns across Tibet, would be considered a very unusual sight in Chinese-populated regions of the PRC.

Fallows notes that the United States still has the power to shape the realities in which China chooses its future course. It is vitally important for this power to be used to make concrete improvements in the human rights situation in Tibet and East Turkestan. As the next administration shapes a new China policy, prominent writers like James Fallows can play an important role in ensuring that the human rights concerns of Tibetans and Uyghurs aren’t overlooked. He starts his piece with a question: “What if China is going bad?” I might answer that with another question: Looking at how it treats ‘ethnic minorities,’ how can we say that it hasn’t already gone bad?

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John N

John N is an advocacy officer at the International Campaign for Tibet.