It is not just the external challenges that China must face up to in the post-COVID times, the internal fault lines too have galvanized and become sharper. The recent arrest of Xu Zhangrun, a professor of law at Tsinghua University by Chinese authorities’ is one of the many dissenting voices that are confronting the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Xu is accused of publishing a contentious political essays in which he criticized President Xi Jinping, labeled the CCP as totalitarian,and urged introspection to “turn wrongs to rights and return to the path pursuing a modern constitutional democracy and a people’s republic.”A few months earlier, in April, Ren Zhiqiang, the former Chinese property tycoon,was investigated for an anonymous articlebelieved to have ben authored by him. Apparently, the article denigrated the country’s leadership as a “clown with no clothes on who was still determined to play emperor.”These scathing criticisms aresome of the many issues of the current socio-political discontent in China.
At the time of the outbreak of COVID-19, President Xi Jinping had anticipated and prepared for a blitzkrieg of criticism from the western countries particular the US who he believed could foment unrest within China. He mobilized the Chinese diplomatic corps but they were not so sophisticated and were accused of “Wolf Diplomacy”.
President Xi Jinping was also acutely conscious of the internal criticism over the handling of the pandemic at home. The government set up a special law enforcement task forceto focus on maintaining social order and to contain risks at the city level. Thereafter, another group was set up to focus on political security. At their recent meeting, the group reiterated “protecting the safety of the political system” and that “safeguarding the regime’s security” should be the first priority.The officials vowed to take “strict precautions against and crackdown on activities including infiltration, subversion, terrorism, ethnic secession and extreme religious activities”
Perhaps the most potent tool in the armoury of the Chinese Communist Party to keep an eye on the Chinese people isthrough surveillance networks.The Chinese national surveillance system is known to be highly intrusive and helps the government in ‘social control’by monitoring mobile devices, social media accounts, travel itineraries and even when they go to stores to purchase groceries. Apparently there are nearly 200 million security cameras installed across the country and eight out of the top 10 cities in the world which are most-surveilled are in China. Alibaba and Tencent, the Chinese technology giants have developed a software to enable tracking people and Mobile Apps such as WeChat and Alipay continuously track people as also identify who were in their close proximity of or traveling with. This mechanism served a double edged sword and a sure way to not only track people to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as also to keep a close watch on those suspected of fermenting social unrest.
While the integration of cameras with 4IR technologies such as Artificial Intelligence has helped China to manage the pandemic, it used these sophisticated and intrusive technologies to further clamp down on civil liberties particularly in regions on its periphery.
In Tibet people are being barraged through propaganda or being made to believe that the government information on the coronavirus situationis the only truth. Chinese authorities introduced new laws in Tibet to punish those who disobey government regulations for COVID-19; there wascrack down and at least 10Tibetans were arrested. Besides, Chinese wanted to curb a highly sensitive political anniversary event connected with the failed 1959 armed rebellion against Chinese rule commemorated as Tibetan Uprising Day. China also put out a new narrative in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) that many of their brethren living in India and Nepal were keen to return to China recognizing “measures taken in the past months” by the Chinese government.
China has long been wary of unrest in Xinjiang Autonomous Region (XAR), and in 2009, nearly 200 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured in riots. Since then China has continuously maintained tight surveillance over the Uighurs, the ethnic Muslim minority group. A recent report ‘Genocide in East Turkistan’ by the Campaign for Uighurs, an organisation that works for the Uighur community has noted that “despite the Covid-19 pandemic, the Chinese government continues its oppression and persecution of Uyghur Turks and other Muslim communities for its own political and economic interests”.
Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is burning and early this month, Chinese President Xi Jinping signed into law the Hong Kong National Security Bill. The 66 articles in the law will help the Chinese government to respond to through legal instruments anti-national activities i.e. “secession - breaking away from the country; subversion - undermining the power or authority of the central government’, terrorism - using violence or intimidation against people’ and collusion with foreign or external forces.But critics note that the law could shut the city’s freedoms which they have enjoyed since 1997 after Britain handed over Hong Kong to be governed under the “one country, two systems” mechanism.
In essence China has employed both traditional and modern methodologies, tools and tactics to respond to domestic socio-political dissent and control its people with an iron hand. It is not surprising that United States has announced numerous sanctions on Chinese Communist Party functionaries, businesses, banks and other entities, withdrawn the special status for Hong Kong, and announced that it would be “treated the same as mainland China — no special privileges, no special economic treatment and no export of sensitive technologies." It also announced direct financial support to the Tibetan Government-in-Exile based in India, a move that should be seen as “acknowledging [Tibet] to be a political entity that is campaigning since 1959 against China’s occupation of and rule over Tibet. Similarly, the Uighur Human Rights Act, passed by the US Congress almost unanimously calls out Chinese officials responsible for the “arbitrary detention, torture and harassment” of Uighurs and other minorities.
It is fair to argue that China is under enormous pressure from inside and the CCP is not prepared to ‘read the tea-leaves’. Its reliance on coercive power to control and curb dissent is likely to be under duress. The US is unlikely to relent and will use political-diplomatic-strategic-economic tools including human rights to challenge the CCP. It remains to be seen if the Party also unveil additional measures and tools to respond to any dissent that takes roots in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Consultant with Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.