The New York Times’s scoop on the treatment of China’s Uyghur population is an eye-opener, even to those of us who suspected the worst.
The students booked their tickets home at the end of the semester, hoping for a relaxing break after exams and a summer of happy reunions with family in China’s far west.
Instead, they would soon be told that their parents were gone, relatives had vanished and neighbors were missing — all of them locked up in an expanding network of detention camps built to hold Muslim ethnic minorities.
The authorities in the Xinjiang region worried the situation was a powder keg. And so they prepared.
The leadership distributed a classified directive advising local officials to corner returning students as soon as they arrived and keep them quiet. It included a chillingly bureaucratic guide for how to handle their anguished questions, beginning with the most obvious: Where is my family?
”They’re in a training school set up by the government”. If pressed, officials were to explain that the parents were not criminals, but were nevertheless not free to leave the “schools”.
The question-and-answer script also included a barely-concealed threat: students were to be told that their behaviour could either shorten or extend the detention of their relatives. “I am sure that you will support them, because this is for their own good”, officials were advised to say, “and also for your own good”.
Lots more in that vein.
So why are Western countries still treating China as a proper member of the international community? (The answer is that one has to play nice with a superpower, I guess.) And what will it take to change things? Answer: probably only a brutal Tienanmen-style suppression of the protests in Hong Kong would have that effect.
On the other hand, it’s not that long ago that the UK had a system of interning people without trial in Northern Ireland. But at least it had the excuse of a genuine emergency. As far as one can see, the Uighurs don’t pose any threat to the Chinese state.
From the Atlantic Council. Headlines are:
- The unipolar world of the 1990s, when the United States was the world’s sole superpower, is definitively over and will no longer be a realistic option for any president.
- An absolute United States’ decline is not inevitable, but an open conflict with China increases those risks considerably.
- A deep economic reversal in China could trigger a widespread economic meltdown that leads to a worst-case scenario of slower growth and a return to protectionism and political destabilization.
No real surprises, really.
Full report (pdf) here
Well, well. This from Times Higher Ed Supplement:
Despite rolling out the red carpet for Chinese President Xi Jinping last week, India seems to be pulling away from China when it comes to science and research. Indian universities have been informed that all academic cooperation with China must be approved by the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of External Affairs, “in addition to other clearances”. Analysts speculate that the growing distance between the countries’ scientific achievements and economic power has made India more tentative about sharing its talent.
Not sure I’d like a government department to be deciding what kind of research I can do and with whom, but this is an interesting straw in the wind.
From the Washington Post:
BEIJING — The Chinese Communist Party appears to have “superuser” access to the entire data on more than 100 million Android-based cellphones through a back door in a propaganda app that the government has been promoting aggressively this year.
An examination of the coding of the app used by phones running the Android operating system shows it enables authorities to retrieve messages and photos from users’ phones, browse their contacts and Internet history, and activate an audio recorder inside the devices.
“The [Chinese Communist Party] essentially has access to over 100 million users’ data,” said Sarah Aoun, director of technology at the Open Technology Fund, an initiative funded by the U.S. government under Radio Free Asia. “That’s coming from the top of a government that is expanding its surveillance into citizens’ day-to-day lives.”
Apple said that, while the app could be downloaded on its devices, this type of “superuser” surveillance could not be conducted on Apple’s operating system.
My Observer review of Kai Strittmatter’s remarkable new book.
Kai Strittmatter is a German journalist who writes for Süddeutsche Zeitung and is currently based in Copenhagen. From 1997 until recently, he had been a foreign correspondent in Beijing. Prior to those postings, he had studied sinology and journalism in Munich, Xi’an and Taipei. So he knows China rather well. Having read his remarkable book, it’s reasonable to assume that he will not be passing through any Chinese airport in the foreseeable future. Doing so would not be good for his health, not to mention his freedom.
We Have Been Harmonised is the most accessible and best informed account we have had to date of China’s transition from what scholars such as Rebecca MacKinnon used to call “networked authoritarianism” to what is now a form of networked totalitarianism. The difference is not merely semantic. An authoritarian regime is relatively limited in its objectives: there may be elections, but they are generally carefully managed; individual freedoms are subordinate to the state; there is no constitutional accountability and no rule of law in any meaningful sense.
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Totalitarianism, in contrast, prohibits opposition parties, restricts opposition to the state and exercises an extremely high degree of control over public and private life…
I’m reading an extraordinary book by Kai Strittmatter, a German journalist who has lived in, and studied, China for many years. It’s a sobering account of how the Chinese Communist Party is making the transition from what Rebecca Mackinnon christened “networked authoritarianism” to networked totalitarianism. Digital technology is their tool of choice for enabling this transition, and the book provides some graphic insights into its potential for such a project.
The recent remarkable demonstrations in Hong Kong — which caused the territory’s Chief Executive to make a humiliating climb-down over a proposed extradition law — have led some people to wonder if this might prompt a reversal of Xi Jinping’s remorseless progress to totalitarian power. Tyler Cowen doesn’t think so, and neither do I. Here’s the money quote from his latest Bloomberg Column:
It’s also worth thinking through exactly what changes Chinese democracy is supposed to bring. China’s urbanization has been so rapid — it has had more urban than rural residents for less than a decade — that a national election might well reflect the preferences of rural voters, which after all most Chinese were until very recently. If you belong to the Chinese upper class or even middle class along the eastern coast, you may end up asking yourself the following question: Who is more likely to protect my basic economic interests, the current Chinese Communist Party, or a democratic representative of Chinese rural interests? China is also growing rich during a time of extreme economic inequality, which may make many Chinese elites think twice about democratization.
Sadly, I think he’s right. Besides, I can’t see Xi having any truck with ‘democracy’.
This morning’s Observer column:
We need to update Marx’s famous aphorism that “history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”. Version 2.0 reads: history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as an app. Readers with long memories will remember Mao Zedong, the chairman (for life) of the Chinese Communist party who, in 1966, launched his Cultural Revolution to preserve Chinese communism by purging remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society and reimposing his ideas (aka Maoism) as the dominant ideology within the party. One propaganda aid devised for this purpose was a little red book, printed in the hundreds of millions, entitled Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-tung.
The “revolution” unleashed chaos in China: millions of citizens were persecuted, suffering outrageous abuses including public humiliation, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, hard labour, sustained harassment, seizure of property and worse…
Apart from the fact that the Chinese economy seems to be faltering and collateral damage from Trump’s ‘trade war’ what the slide signals is that the smartphone boom triggered by Apple with the iPhone is ending because we’re reaching a plateau and apparently there’s no New New Thing in sight. At any rate, that’s Kara Swisher’s take on it:
The last big innovation explosion — the proliferation of the smartphone — is clearly ending. There is no question that Apple was the center of that, with its app-centric, photo-forward and feature-laden phone that gave everyone the first platform for what was to create so many products and so much wealth. It was the debut of the iPhone in 2007 that spurred what some in tech call a “Cambrian explosion,” a reference to the era when the first complex animals appeared. There would be no Uber and Lyft without the iPhone (and later the Android version), no Tinder, no Spotify.
Now all of tech is seeking the next major platform and area of growth. Will it be virtual and augmented reality, or perhaps self-driving cars? Artificial intelligence, robotics, cryptocurrency or digital health? We are stumbling in the dark.
Yep. Situation normal, in other words.