President Xi Jinping wants to be leader for life, but brave Chinese citizens continue to speak out against the increasingly authoritarian rule. We must stand with them.
President Xi Jinping is on the verge of securing an unprecedented third term as the leader of the world’s most populous country, the People’s Republic of China. On October 16th, the Communist Party congress will declare Jinping as China’s ruler for an additional five years. Such congresses typically bring in a new batch of rulers but Xi, who is also head of state and leader of the military, amended the party constitution in 2018 to remove all term limits on the presidency, effectively making him China’s self-appointed forever-leader.
Under Xi’s leadership of China since 2013, there have been a host of human rights violations that will only likely worsen in the next half decade unless confronted by human rights activists globally. Professor Darren Byler of Simon Fraser University said, «Over the course of his term in power, Xi Jinping has radically expanded the power of the state to prevent political, religious and ethnic minorities from demanding their constitutionally protected civil liberties. This means that labour rights organizing has been sharply curtailed, feminist leaders have been detained, and the practice of so-called ‘foreign’ religions such as Islam and Christianity have been tightly restricted. At the same time, ethno-nationalism shaped by the nationwide, obligatory study of ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ has risen to the fore.»
Last month, the United Nations released a 45-page long-delayed report accusing China of serious human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims and other minorities that may amount to crimes against humanity. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said its investigation found credible evidence of torture; forced medical treatment; violations of reproductive rights; poor prison conditions; and individual incidents of sexual and gender-based violence against Uyghurs held in Chinese mass detention camps.
The U.N. released the report after months of unexplained delays and only moments before Michelle Bachelet ended her four-year term as U.N. human rights commissioner. Since then, Bachelet acknowledged she came under “tremendous pressure to publish or not publish” the report. A Chinese Foreign Ministry official condemned the U.N. report, writing in a statement, “It is completely a politicized document that disregards facts, and reveals explicitly the attempt of some Western countries and anti-China forces to use human rights as a political tool.”
While the Chinese state tries to discredit any criticism of its human rights record, brave Chinese citizens continue to speak out against the increasingly authoritarian Chinese surveillance state at great risk to themselves. Zhang, who only wants to be identified by her last name out of safety concerns, is a 25-year-old political asylum seeker from Xinjiang who now lives in New York City as an Au Pair. She is a mixture of Han and Uyghur ethnicities, but her national identity card states «Han,» the dominant group. Thus, she could have enjoyed all the privileges of majority rule but refused to be silent in the face of injustice when her Uyghur friend, Bahati Guli, inexplicably disappeared in October 2017. At the time, Zhang was studying in college in Guangdong. «I tried to contact my childhood friend many times on WeChat and call her but I got no response, so I was very worried.» When Zhang came back to her hometown for Chinese New Year in 2018, she tried again to find her childhood friend but to no avail. Zhang said, «After inquiring around, I found out that the whole family of Bahati Guli was taken away by the police. She was detained and her father and mother were also detained, but in different places. I know their family are honest and responsible people, I really don’t understand why their family was arrested by the police. I tried to visit her at the camp, but some plainclothes policemen were at the gate. They wouldn’t let me in at all, yelled at me and forced me away, and threatened me that if I came here again, I would be arrested and imprisoned for several years».
Zhang was so disturbed by losing her friend she wrote about her on Chinese social media, Weibo, and was immediately blocked from the platform. Within two days, the Director of Academic Affairs at the university where Zhang was studying warned her not to stir up trouble or she could be expelled. Zhang agreed not to post on Weibo again until she finished her studies. Then, in 2020 COVID-19 broke out and cities across China went into strict lockdown. Zhang created a new Weibo account to criticize what she saw as her government’s oppressive response to the pandemic. On March 10th, 2021, Zhang posted an article titled «Today’s Xinjiang is China’s Tomorrow.» The article talked about her experience growing up in Xinjiang under heavy surveillance and the arbitrary arrests of people like her childhood friend. The article was quickly blocked. When speaking about it now, Zhang says she wrote the article out of concern that «the Xinjiang government collects personal identity and biometric information on the grounds of security, and there are checkpoints everywhere. The article also mentioned what happened to my friend Bahati Gull. I was hoping someone can provide more information about her, and at the same time call on the government not to arbitrarily arrest and detain people, whether they are Han Chinese or other minorities, and call for the establishment of a society ruled by law.»
Within an hour, Zhang’s Weibo account disappeared. That evening half a dozen police officers stormed her house. Zhang described what happened next:
One policeman pressed my head against the wall violently and forcefully, and handcuffed my hands behind my back. They ripped through my house without showing any documents. My phone and computer were also confiscated. They asked me to point out where I put my ID card, and then took my ID card and verified my identity with me, took me into a police car, and sent me to Fuyong Police Station. During this period, I tried to ask what happened, and the police yelled at me fiercely, telling me that I could only answer their questions, and can’t ask them any questions. After arriving at the Fuyong police station, they put me in the detention room by myself. I said, ‘Why are you imprisoning me?’ They ignored me and left. I stayed in the detention room for a long time, and I was frightened and scared. After a few hours, I was taken to an interrogation room by two policemen, who bound me in a specially designed interrogation chair. They asked me why I was writing this article on the Internet, and whether anyone behind it was directing me to write it in such a way as to endanger social stability. They also said that this is not the first time for me, the Internet is not a place outside the law, and any illegal comments made online will be known to the public security organs. I replied that what I wrote was factual, nothing false, and that I did not break the law. Maybe it was my toughness that angered them. A policeman walked up to me and slapped me vigorously several times, and I was slapped with a buzzing of ears and nosebleeds. Another policeman started asking those questions repeatedly, and I kept my mouth shut. Seeing that I was still stubborn and uncooperative, they took me back to the detention room and threw me a pen and a piece of paper, yelled at me to write down the answers to the questions he had just asked me on paper, and to write down the confessions and repentances, and to promise not to do the same thing next time. He also said that when I wrote it, then he would let me go. Because they didn’t give me food, they didn’t let me sleep or go to the toilet, I was in a daze and didn’t know how long it took. I felt like I was about to collapse. I was crazy and wanted to hit the wall heavily. My body couldn’t support it anymore, so I wrote the so-called ‘Confession.’ When the police saw that I had finished writing, they gave me a cold box of lunch and a bottle of mineral water. They didn’t release me immediately, they also asked me to recite the confession I wrote and some laws and regulations. In this way, I was locked in the detention room for a period of time, during which time I could only get very little food. I only found out that I was locked up for 5 days after I was released. At the moment of release, I only had one strong thought, that is, to leave this country as soon as possible no matter what.
Zhang said she misses her friend and knows of so many others who have disappeared without reason. She added, «I was born and raised in Xinjiang, and I have lived in a place like a cage since I was a child: there are security checkpoints everywhere, and when I walk on the street, I will be stopped and questioned by the armed police or the police at any time. And they searched our bodies and checked the contents of our phones. If we don’t cooperate, we will be arrested immediately. Even when searching and interrogating us, the armed police or the police still observed our expressions while searching and interrogating. If they think our expressions show nervousness or dissatisfaction, we will also be directly arrested.»
After arriving in the United States in the summer of 2022, Zhang got a U.S. phone and posted an article on Weibo criticizing the Chinese state from a new number. Chinese police showed up at her parents home at Xinjiang and threatened her parents, saying her mother would lose her teaching pension. «My parents are very upset at me for putting our family at risk, but I cannot be silent.» Zhang’s story is not an anomaly. Uighurs living in the US and Europe have told Deutsche Welle that Chinese authorities are going after family members still living in China to suppress activism by the Uighur community living abroad. And The Diplomat reports, «Mirroring the patterns of its repression at home, the CCP targets individual dissidents, their family members, and entire ethnic, religious, or social groups. Those at risk include former student activists from the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, Hong Kongers, Uyghurs, Tibetans, Mongolians, Falun Gong practitioners, human rights activists, journalists, former state employees, and others who criticize the regime.»
President Xi Jinping wants to be China’s leader for life, which could be a death knell for China’s ethnic minorities and civil rights activists. Professor Darren Byler of Simon Fraser University said, «Throughout Xi’s tenure China has expanded infrastructure and settlement of the Han majority group into the frontiers of the nation. These settlers were induced to move largely by for-profit corporations in search of natural resources, property and cheap workers. Ethnic minorities, particularly those who might be better understood as the peoples indigenous to China’s frontiers—such as Tibetans, Mongols, Uyghurs and Kazakhs have faced an onslaught of human rights violations as a result of this internal colonization. Despite living in constitutionally protected ‘Autonomous Regions’—something similar to the reservation system for Indigenous Americans—these peoples have seen their institutions—the schools, mosques, temples, banks, and courts—captured by the settler authorities. This means that today millions of ethnic minorities are going through a process of settler colonization that is unprecedented in Chinese history. This is particularly the case for the Uyghur people who have been subjected to mass internment, widespread family separation, forced labour, and residential schools.»
The Free Tibet Campaign once mobilized thousands of activists around the world. Today, little of traditional Tibet is left with China having annexed the territory in its homogenizing efforts. Professor Darren Byler of Simon Fraser University said, «There are many parallels between Tibetans and Uyghurs. Both are relatively large groups of 4.5 million and 11 million respectively. They speak their own languages as their native tongue, have their own faith practices, can often not pass as Han due to their racialized difference, and live in their own ancestral lands. These factors mean that it is difficult for these groups to be forcibly assimilated, and as a result both are viewed as threats to the sovereignty of the ethno-nationalist Chinese state. To counteract this perceived threat, both are subjected to forced removal from their lands, residential school systems and police controls. The Uyghurs are perceived as an even greater threat due to a Chinese uptake of the U.S. led Global War on Terror. Since 9/11 Uyghurs have come to be viewed as Islamic radicals motivated by what Chinese state media refer to as an ‘ideology of hate.’ Normative Islamic practice such as mosque attendance or fasting during Ramadan is now perceived as a sign of terrorist tendencies. Islamophobia generated by the West has given the Chinese state and public a framework and justification to dehumanize an entire group of people. Tibetans on the other hand are often perceived as «backward» or «primitive» but less of a violent threat in need of mass incarceration.»
As Xi is set to secure his third term, the human rights community must continue to press him to respect the rights of all Chinese residents. The question of human rights in China has surprisingly become contentious among the American Left, with some fearing that to criticize the Chinese state is effectively to support American global hegemony. Concerns about a new «cold war» between the United States and China have made the question feel yet more urgent. However, progressives in the United States should remember always to align their voices with the oppressed people of China, like 25-year-old Zhang, not its oppressive leaders. We must show solidarity to people all over the world opposing state violence and always uplift the voices of people opposing oppressive and brutal regimes.
By Deena Guzder