Trump's election is bad news for human rights in China

Updated : 20.02.2017 / Category Sentaku in The Japan Times

Leaders of the Chinese Communist Party must be all smiles with the inauguration of Donald Trump as the new president of the United States.

When Trump was reported to be leaning toward strengthening U.S. ties with Taiwan -- defying warnings from Beijing following his telephone conversation last year with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, major Japanese media outlets reported that dark clouds hung over Sino-American relations, expecting that the Communist Party leaders in Beijing would be rattled by that prospect.

Such an anticipation, however, is off the mark. A source well informed of China's internal affairs says that Trump, who is not too keen on protecting human rights, will soft-pedal Washington's interference in China's human rights issues, which in turn would enable the Communist Party leadership to step up its ruthless suppression of pro-democracy forces and those advocating independence for Uyghurs. According to that scenario, Chinese President Xi Jinping will take advantage of Trump's policies of pursuing nothing but economic benefits, and deprive his nation of 1.3 billion citizens of the freedom of speech and thought.

One evening in November at a restaurant in downtown Tokyo, a leading journalist from a major Chinese news organization confided that all knowledgeable persons in China were being alarmed by such a prospect. If the U.S. loses interest in human rights issues in China, he said, the Xi regime's suppression of freedom will proceed endlessly. The journalist must remain anonymous because if his identity is revealed, he could face a most serious threat upon his return home.

The first sign of Trump's attitude toward democracy issues in China came last March when he discussed the 1989 Tiananmen Incident in a TV debate sponsored by CNN. Although this received little media attention in Japan, he used the word "riot" to refer not to the indiscriminate shooting of the protesting students by the People's Liberation Army, but to the pro-democracy movement of the students. Trump asserted that the incident was a Chinese government's suppression of the student riot, the nuance of which was identical to the official stand of the Beijing government that justifies the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement. This could mean that Trump and Xi share the same ideology that it is incumbent upon the state to eliminate "alien" elements for the sake of the nation's prosperity and maintaining public order.

As if to substantiate such a view, Xi made a call to Trump on Nov. 14, during which he said there were opportunities and great potential in future Sino-American relations. It would only be natural for Xi to find Trump, who declared he would focus on the pursuit of America's interests, easier to deal with than U.S. President Barack Obama, who kept a close watch on human rights issues in China. Speaking to the Japanese media, Jia Qingguo, dean of the Peking University School of International Studies, said Beijing thinks that U.S.-China relations will take a turn for the better if Washington eases its pressure on human rights issues.

Until now, Xi has been on the defensive as Obama pressured China on human rights issues. When they met in Hangzhou last September, Obama said it was incumbent upon China to protect freedom of religion for all of its citizens. He was referring to Tibetan Buddhism and the Catholic Church being the target of suppression by Beijing. Xi countered by accusing Obama of interfering in China's internal affairs, but China could not escape the labeling as a "variant" major power.

China's self-styled annual white paper on human rights was part of its effort to combat Obama's pressure. The paper claimed that there is ever-expanding room for people to express themselves -- even though the internet in China is under the strict surveillance of the cyber police force. While the report has won the ridicule of overseas human rights organizations for its gap with the true situation in China, it is worth noting that Beijing has begun to feel a sense of crisis that China will be alienated by Western powers unless it at least makes a gesture of tackling such fundamental issues as freedom of speech and thought. It must have been humiliating for China to have to issue the white paper after it came under pressure on human rights issues -- but that can also be taken as a sign that the pressure from Obama was starting to have an effect on Beijing.

China saw the U.S. presidential race as a golden opportunity to remove the thorn in its side. In anticipation of Obama's presidency turning into a lame duck, the Chinese leadership began well before the U.S. election to tighten its grips on anti-government elements at home. In July 2015, China took into custody about 300 lawyers and human rights activists. Liu Xiaobo, a pro-democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was sentenced to 11 years in prison on charges that he agitated for state subversion and remains in jail.

Surveillance and control are tightening not only on newspaper and TV reports but online as well. In June 2015, the popular Japanese animation "Attack on Titan" was labeled by the Chinese authorities as "harmful" content banned for online distribution, for the express reason that its content could encourage minors to resort to crime, violence, pornography and terrorism -- an explanation that is taken at face value by hardly anyone. In Taiwan and Hong Kong, which are outside the reach of Beijing's control, web postings speculate that the authorities banned the content because the brutal Titan is seen as representing Xi and his cohorts while the heroes standing against the giant are thought to depict pro-democracy activists.

Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-founded international NGO, said in March 2015 that China was under the harshest suppression of freedom of speech in a decade, indicating that the Xi government had stepped up its oppressive campaign. The transition in Washington from Obama to Trump now frees Xi of the last obstacle in his drive.

China has long been wary of U.S.-supported pro-democracy groups, believing that they aim to peacefully overthrow Communist Party rule. Even today, concern remains strong among Xi and his close associates regarding what they perceive to be an American conspiracy for the "peaceful evolution" of China. Such suspicion and fear, however, will likely recede as Trump takes over.

Once China ceases to be hemmed in by human rights issues, it will have more energy and resources to pursue its policies of hegemonism. It will then be able to accelerate its efforts to militarize the South China Sea, which in turn would impact its territorial row with Japan over the Senkaku Islands. Dwindling pressure from the U.S. would no doubt lead to more provocations by China. Japan could face serious consequences unless it changes its simplistic view that the telephone conversation between Trump and Tsai was a sign of storms in U.S.-China relations.

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This is an abridged translation of an article from the January 2017 issue of Sentaku.