The disappearance of Peng Shuai, the top Chinese tennis star, who dared to speak out on sexual assault against a top Chinese politician in early November, is just another example to show that to the Chinese political leaders, might is right.
Peng’s disappearance speaks volumes about the dominance of the all-pervasive culture of fear under Xi’s China. Even in the 1990s, in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and through to the 2000s, there were still some dissenting voices in the society, such as Liu Xiaobo. Since ascending to the top leadership position in 2012, Xi’s iron grip on power has eradicated all possible opposition within the regime, as evidenced at the Sixth Plenum of the party’s Central Committee last month. Society under Xi continues to be subordinate to the CCP, however it leads and whatever it demands.
In such an environment, the disappearance of Peng and of others before her, who dared to speak out or cross the “red” line, should come as no surprise. Although journalists, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and activists have been locked up, silenced, or put under house arrest with no recourse before Xi’s time, such phenomena has now become the norm. But its design is quite clear and simple: any challenge to the CCP’s leadership will not be tolerated, no matter who you are. Jack Ma, for instance, had disappeared for several months after making a controversial speech that criticised the Chinese financial system in October 2020. Famous actresses such as Zhao Wei and Fan Bingbing have also disappeared under Xi’s leadership.
What does Xi really want? John Garnaut’s assessment of Xi Jinping in “Engineers of the Soul: Ideology in Xi Jinping’s China” offers a very compelling explanation. As he put it, “There is no ambiguity in Xi’s [total ideological control] project. We see in everything he does and – even in a system designed to be opaque and deceptive – we can see it in his words.” In terms of ideology, Garnaut argued that “the key point about Communist Party ideology – the unbroken thread that runs from Lenin through Stalin, Mao and Xi – is that the party is and always has defined itself as being in perpetual struggle with the “hostile” forces of Western liberalism.” No doubt that anything that may resemble features of Western liberalism, whether real or perceived, would be considered “enemies of the state,” and therefore likely end up in enforced disappearance or worse, including in online platforms.
The consequences of wanting to shape China in Xi’s ideological view are serious and concerning. Recent human rights reports from Amnesty International, Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, among others, including from liberal democracies’ government reports, evidenced Xi’s hostility towards human rights. The victims are many: an estimated 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslims detained; Tibetan monks and nuns treated as potential subversives; a systematic program of forced sterilizations of Uyghur and other Muslim women in Xinjiang. As of 29 June 2021, at least 118 Hongkongers had been arrested, 64 formally charged, of whom 47 in pretrial detention in relation to the National Security Law enacted on 30 June 2020.
The list goes on.
Within the next few hours, President Joseph Biden will host the first Democracy Summit on December 9-10, coinciding with Human Rights Day this year, with leaders and representatives of 110 countries around the world. Most of us unlikely wish to see any further escalation in tension between China and the US, already dubbed as the New Cold War. But avoiding or ignoring Xi’s behaviour is neither an option nor a responsible thing to do, especially at this critical time. Frank and open discussions or even direct challenges to the way Xi and other authoritarians have controlled their public sphere, particularly their civil society, are crucial and urgent.
History may offer us a lesson or two. Rwanda’s genocide in 1994, which killed 800,000 or more, is one such lesson. In an address by Kofi Annan to the Commission on Human Rights in April 2004, 10 years after the genocide, Annan emphasised that “We must all acknowledge our responsibility for not having done more to prevent or stop the genocide.” On the question of when to intervene, Mr Annan demanded that we “must not wait until the worst has happened or is already happening.” With millions of ethnic Chinese people being held hostage, and individuals with high prestige such as Peng whose action should be supported and investigated by the Chinese authorities instead of punished and kept silent, the evidence are clear. Xi will stop at nothing to achieve and maintain his supremacy, and hegemony, for the CCP, even at the expense of millions of Chinese people, including those across the Taiwan Strait. Xi is now a real threat to this young vibrant democracy of nearly 24 million people who have been exemplifying an ideal model of governance for other countries in the region.
Human dignity should not be at an expense of, or compromise for, anything at all, let alone deceptive behaviour. The world will be a better place where human rights are protected, promoted and fulfilled. The fact is that wherever human rights are honoured, the people would be able to create more wealth and material success, simply because they have more freedom and rights as well as creativity to turn their dreams into reality. Taiwan, in contrast to Xi’s China, shines and inspires.
There is no better time to speak up against human rights violation in China. As Martin Luther King Jr. rightly put it: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This stands true during King’s time, and in our current time.
On 12 June 1987, President Ronald Reagan called on the Soviet leader: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” These words were considered a defining moment of Reagan’s presidency, as two years later the Berlin Wall was toppled. Words from true political leadership matter. They change the course of history.
Similarly words from Steve Simon, the chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association, backed up by his action to announcing the immediate suspension of all WTA tournaments in China, including Hong Kong, set an excellent example of how we should deal with Xi’s China.
President Biden, outlining his vision for America to lead again last year, argued that “the most effective way to meet that challenge [China] is to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviours and human rights violations.” Obviously, President Biden has been fully aware of all the atrocities happening in China now and in the past. During the 2020 election, the fact that Biden even called Xi a thug said a lot about what he truly thought of Xi. The human rights situation in China, however, has not improved since. The recent announcement of diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics by the US government, as well as the UK, Australia, Canada and others is a welcome move. But diplomatic gestures won’t be enough.
Will this 2021 Democracy Summit be able to outline the concrete steps to fight corruption, consolidate democracy and protect human rights in the world, including those suffering under Xi and the CCP?
Let us hope so, because millions if not billions of lives and dignity count on it.
Teresa Tran and Khai Pham
Australia, 8 September 2021
Teresa Kieu Ngoc Tran is currently the legal director of CARES Lawyers in Adelaide, South Australia. Teresa is also the Founder of International Youth Movement for Human Rights. Teresa has also been a devoted speaker who has delivered human rights speeches in numerous cities around the globe including the United States, Canada, France, Norway Germany and Australia.
Khai Pham has been a blogger for Voice of America, Vietnamese language program, since 2019. One of his recent posts is a 7 September 2021 interview with Professor Clive Hamilton, author of Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia and Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World.