China's Deficit of Freedom

Leadership Faces Difficult Choices

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Chinese Communist Party repression has intensified under the current leadership, but this has led to a situation where coercion is provoking increased resistance. This is the point made by a report published a few days ago by Freedom House.

The American organization is dedicated to defending freedom around the world and in its report, “The Politburo’s Predicament: Confronting the Limitations of Chinese Communist Party Repression,” it analyses the regime’s efforts to maintain its hold on power.

The report, authored by Sarah Cook, is based on official documents, human rights reports and personal interviews.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has led what the report described as an increased effort to impose its will on society.

As well as increased repression the Chinese authorities have undertaken a more coordinated and extensive campaign to repress both online activism and public protests.

The current Politburo Standing Committee headed by Xi has rejected concepts such as a free press, judicial independence, and universal human rights, the report explained.

“Indeed, these components of democracy are viewed as an existential threat to the party’s rule,” the report said.

Cook described how the government has concentrated power at the top, with the ultimate authority over information controls and domestic security in the hands of President Xi.

Freedom House identified 17 groups targeted by authorities in terms of censorship and repression and found that 11 of them have experienced an increase in controls following the coming to power of Xi. In addition some of the repressive methods of the Mao Zedong era have been revived, such as televised confessions and community surveillance.

These efforts have had some success, the report admitted, with the activities of some protest groups being reduced. For example, a number of popular critics have been silenced along with the initiatives of some reformist groups.

“Yet the overall increase in repression is driven by a deep sense of insecurity and an explicit assessment that the party is losing the loyalty of the public and some of its own members,” the report noted.

Internal resistance

In fact, civic participation in some of the activities in defense of human rights is growing. Even more concerning for the Communist Party, the report commented, is that there is a certain degree of internal resistance among party members and those responsible for security and censorship.

This means that, “In spite of the heightened repression, fear of the regime appears to be diminishing,” the report noted.

This is what the report termed a “vicious circle,” in which every act of repression leads to the need for even more repression. “As the chilling effect induced by one crackdown fades, a new escalation is required.”

A more recent complication is the slowing of economic growth. The tolerance of controls over freedom was previously counterbalanced by high levels of increased prosperity, but this balance is now being upset by a slowing economy.

What will happen in the future, the report asked. The prospects for top-down change in terms of a more open political structure are “slim to none.” Meanwhile, “signs of support for bottom-up change are appearing: reduced fear among dissidents, ideological disloyalty within the party, noncompliance within the repressive apparatus, and growing public resentment at restrictive policies.”

The regime is facing growing difficulties in controlling information, with the number of Internet users going from 59 million in 2002 to 560 million in 2012.

“Official documents reflect a perceived lack of control and depleted ability to influence public opinion, to the point that it is seen as an existential threat to the regime,” the report commented.

Long-term consequences

As a result authorities have increased efforts to control information and censor opposition and Freedom House admitted that they have had success in doing this. In turn, however, this has provoked anger and resentment, so while there are short-term gains the report warned of medium- to long-term adverse consequences.

In the report’s conclusion it called for a greater involvement by the international community to protect those who are victims of repression and to ensure a transition to a more open political and legal situation in the future.

“At a time when more and more Chinese citizens are jeopardizing their livelihoods and safety by standing up against repression, it behooves those outside China, who risk much less, to join their cause.”

One of the report’s central findings was that by concentrating the repressive power in the hands of President Xi the Communist Party has upset the balance between the use of coercion and the need to maintain legitimacy.

China’s leaders are “reinforcing a vicious circle of repression” that no doubt will also have consequences for religious freedom. With China’s increased economic power the consequences of this current policy by the government will reach well beyond the country’s borders.

Full text of report:

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Fr. John Flynn

Australia Bachelor of Arts from the University of New South Wales. Licence in Philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University. Bachelor of Arts in Theology from the Queen of the Apostles.

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