In Liangjiahe, a small village in central China, visitors can tour the sites that formed Xi Jinping. Here is the humble dwelling where, almost fifty years ago, the future president-for-life slept alongside his fellow Communist Party functionaries; there is the well he helped to dig. When a CNN crew reported on Xi’s village, they were followed everywhere: This is a place for paying homage, not for smirking or criticizing.
The same rules apply elsewhere. Roy Jones of Omaha, Nebraska, was on shift at Marriott Hotels’ Twitter account, shortly after Marriott had offended China with an online survey that listed Tibet as a country. Some Tibet campaigners tweeted Marriott their congratulations; Jones liked the tweet. Immediately Chinese government officials complained, and Marriott, mindful of its nearly 300 hotels in China, sacked their employee. As Jones discovered, you don’t always know when you’re in Xi Jinping’s village.
One can see it from China’s point of view. Marriott is a guest in their country; guests are not supposed to bring up awkward subjects. But the speed and force of the response show the extent of China’s authority. So did Mercedes-Benz’s apology for posting a dull Dalai Lama quote on Twitter. (The car giant promised: “We will immediately take measures to deepen our understanding of Chinese culture and values.”) There is a long list of brands who have been forced, not just to mollify China, but to issue abject apologies expressing their deep shame over, say, absent-mindedly referring to Taiwan as an independent nation.
It is remarkable what statements can be wrung out of people by commercial interests. There are many alarming things about Facebook’s wooing of China, but Mark Zuckerberg’s infamous status update—“It's great to be back in Beijing! I kicked off my visit with a run through Tiananmen Square”—accompanied by a picture of said run, was especially distasteful.
Twenty-nine years have passed since the Tiananmen Square massacre. But in China you can still be arrested, even jailed, for publicly commemorating it, according to Amnesty’s annual report. The police may also pay a visit if you are a human rights lawyer, a workers’ rights advocate, or a critic of government policy. Human Rights Watch says that activists are tortured, held incommunicado, and forced into confessions that are then broadcast on state TV and social media. Churches are vandalized by state authorities, religious leaders arrested. All this is getting worse, not better, under Xi’s increasingly centralized rule. The forthcoming “social credit” scheme will rank citizens according to the minute details of their daily lives, and could prevent them finding loans or jobs.
Meanwhile, China reaches deep into the family lives of its citizens: Its “family planning” policies, including forced abortions, have brought about the world’s highest number of deaths of unborn children. The government claims to have ended its organ harvesting practices, in which political prisoners were strapped to tables and cut open, but academics point to a lack of transparency. Indeed, the scale of torture, execution, detention without trial, oppression of workers, and forced abortion is a mystery—and it is even less likely to be known now that China is bringing foreign NGOs under closer surveillance.
These are fairly well-known facts. But they are obscured by China’s PR campaign drive—the 2008 Olympics were a virtuoso exercise in propaganda—and blurred by the sycophancy of other nations and institutions. China’s image is crafted through innumerable extensions of soft power. February’s report from the Global Public Policy Institute, “Authoritarian Advance,” catalogued the extraordinary range of parties that have been prodded or nudged or steered toward a stance more acceptable to Beijing.
Hungary and Greece have benefited from Chinese funding; both have gone out of their way to block EU statements on China’s human rights record. In 2016, three Czech ministers were publicly denounced by their own prime minister and president for meeting with the dreaded Dalai Lama. Several African and Latin American countries, dependent on Chinese investment, are increasingly willing to side with the Communist Party in UN discussions of human rights.
Think tanks and universities are also entangled with Chinese money. A few universities have closed down their Confucius Institutes because they doubted the independence of the curricula. The international media are implicitly warned not to look too closely at China’s dealings: Those who stray, such as the French journalist Ursula Gauthier, are noisily expelled. As Gauthier remarked: “They are just telling [foreign journalists]: ‘Beware! Behave! If you don’t … you will have the same end as Ursula Gauthier.’”
Let’s not be naive. There is no such thing as a free lunch, and if China’s money is going to fund infrastructure, education, and research, China will receive friendlier treatment. The same is true for any country’s diplomacy. Moreover, Western governments are hardly innocent of funding gruesome programs in faraway places. And countries that feel isolated—say, EU nations under pressure from Brussels—may see China as a useful counterbalance. Nevertheless, it is alarming how quickly, and how unreservedly, Beijing’s new friends abandon their solidarity with China’s oppressed millions and start flattering the regime instead.
All this is not to disparage China’s people, its civilization, its achievements in reducing hunger and destitution. It is to note one more way in which political force is quietly exercised today.
So if we are to live on the outskirts of Xi Jinping’s village, I hope we will not lose our dignity as well. Perhaps we can aspire, if not to full-blooded resistance, then at the very least to the irony of the Duke of Wellington, who is supposed to have signed off a letter: “I have the honour to be, sir, your humble and obedient servant (which you know damn well I am not).”
Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.