It is very difficult to find anyone today who will not acknowledge the tremendous accomplishments that the People’s Republic of China has made over the past two-and-a-half decades. From stunning economic growth, rapid (albeit uneven) modernization and the lifting of millions of ordinary Chinese from abject poverty to having a finger in nearly every aspect of global affairs, today’s China is, by several yardsticks, a success story worthy of recognition.
Underneath these achievements, however, are troubling developments that not only should be criticized but that, left unchecked, could have truly nefarious global repercussions. But given their growing assertiveness, Chinese officials won’t brook such criticism and are increasingly belligerent in their response to it. By bristling with anger, China has repeatedly succeeded in scaring off its critics, which includes foreign governments, activists, journalists and academics.
More and more, those who are daring enough to expose China’s worrying expansionism, hardening authoritarianism and attacks on freedom of expression are accused of having a “Cold War mentality,” of “hating” China or, as a journalist who raised the issue of human rights with Foreign Minster Wang Yi (王毅) at a press conference in Ottawa on Wednesday, of “arrogance” and “prejudice.” In an outburst of indignation, Wang argued that “it is the Chinese people who are … in the best position to have a say about China’s human rights situation.” The problem, of course, is that the Chinese who indeed are in the best position to talk about the dire human rights environment in China are increasingly faced with state-sponsored intimidation, arrest, and long imprisonment.
Many people continue to point out the many deficiencies in the Chinese system, the CCP’s grip on power among them, and do so at the risk of being barred access for their academic work, or of seeing their visa cancelled and face expulsion.
Meanwhile, Chinese-language newspapers abroad that remain critical of the CCP have become the targets of pro-Beijing elements in those countries, while Beijing has used the immense financial resources it has at its disposal to either compromise or sign agreements with major media companies worldwide. The possible consequences, as the authors of an article discussing one such agreement involving a major Australian media company, are troubling. “Leninist propaganda systems work not by persuading people through what they say but by intimidating or embarrassing others into not reporting things that matter,” John Fitzgerald and Wanning Sun wrote in a piece titled “Australian media deals are a victory for Chinese propaganda.”
Increasingly, China has also resorted to threats and intimidation—including the possibility of taking legal action—to silence academics and journalists who are shedding light on China’s complex, and increasingly global, network of agencies, some of which are engaged in activities that may be detrimental to democratic institutions abroad.
Worryingly, China now takes such action outside its borders with growing frequency (it has already taken such action on three continents). This type of extraterritoriality will have to be countered at some point, otherwise journalistic freedom will be undermined on a global scale. For one thing, courts and law firms outside China should avoid taking up cases that risk making them complicit in the CCP’s assault on international freedom of the press. It is no longer enough for China to silence its critics at home; it is now turning its sights on those who do that from the outside.
If China is to become a normal member of the international community, it will have to become a responsible stakeholder and not, as it is currently, a catalyst for the erosion of freedoms on a grand scale. In order to do so, it will have to learn to live with, if not to embrace, criticism.
It very clearly isn’t there yet, and its refusal to absorb criticism suggests that in the end, the CCP remains a very fragile animal indeed.