Features | Society | East Asia

The Great China Exception

On religious freedom and the one-child policy, other nations stand quietly by as Beijing abuses its own citizens. They shouldn’t.

By Arch Puddington for

The magazine Commentary once published an article titled, “Has There Ever Been Anything Like the Soviet Union?” The title was meant to convey the message that in the sordid annals of despotism, the USSR was unique – in the completeness of its totalitarian scheme, in the staying power of its mechanisms of control, and in its determination to assemble a terrifying arsenal even as its domestic economy lay in ruins.

If today we were to pose an updated version of the Commentary question, we would no doubt ask, “Has There Ever Been Anything Like Communist China?” As with the Soviet Union, China today is sui generis. Its leaders have erected a flexible structure of control, combining repression of select targets with the openness that has enabled China to grow into an economic powerhouse. Having set aside policies that caused decades of isolation, the regime has been able to integrate itself into the global economy without abandoning the principles that enshrine the guiding role of the Communist Party.

It’s this calibrated economic integration that has allowed China’s government to evade opprobrium for its domestic repression. To be sure, the regime’s crimes aren’t ignored. Human rights organizations denounce the jailing of dissidents, the mistreatment of minorities, and the lack of the rule of law. But in an age when Ukraine and Turkey are chastised for breaches of democratic standards, China gets a pass for policies that have brought misery to millions. The separate category that China has carved out for itself goes beyond the usual double standard that has historically been applied to “progressive” dictatorships – Cuba, for example. Instead, there’s a kind of stand-alone China Exception, under which repression is acknowledged but actual objections are seldom voiced.

There are many examples of this China Exception. I’ll mention just two of the more egregious cases – egregious because of the ugliness of the policies and because of the world’s decision to ignore or condone Beijing’s actions.

The first example is the one-child policy. The fact that I take issue here will itself draw furrowed brows. The policy, most agree, is a settled issue, a hard but justified measure required by Chinese circumstances.

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But why should the world treat the one-child policy with such tolerance? I’m not aware of any scheme of universal values that justifies the state’s intrusion into the most personal and important decisions of human life. Regimes that prevent their citizens from travelling abroad are routinely criticized as oppressive, not to say anachronistic. Is the denial of travel abroad as outrageous as a law that imposes limits on reproduction?

There’s no shortage of evidence of forced abortions and compulsory sterilizations of women who became pregnant in violation of the law. Regulations in more than half of China’s provinces endorse mandatory abortions, and officials risk disciplinary action if they fail to meet birth and sterilization quotas. And, of course, it’s well established that the one-child policy has led to an epidemic of sex-selective abortions and infanticide by parents who prefer boys. The central authorities sometimes blame overzealous local officials in order to deflect criticism. Indeed, the Communist Party leadership seems more focused on the public image of the population control policy than on its implementation. For example, it recently urged officials to use less menacing slogans, phasing out “old fashioned” examples like “If you don’t receive the tubal ligation surgery by the deadline, your house will be demolished!”

It’s bad enough that foreign governments have remained silent about what should be treated as a great human rights atrocity. But commentators have actually extolled the Chinese authorities for their contribution to the global environment. Thus a columnist in Canada’s Financial Post once wrote that China “is the world’s leader in terms of fashioning policy to combat environmental degradation, thanks to its one-child-only edict.”

A second glaring example of the China Exception is the treatment of the Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking and largely Islamic ethnicity that lives primarily in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

In recent years there have been incidents of unrest fueled by Beijing’s repressive policies toward the Uyghur community. The authorities, justifying harsh security measures, have accused Uyghurs of mayhem and terrorism. But with media blackouts in place, the facts are often difficult to ascertain. Clearly, Uyghurs, like Tibetans, deeply resent Beijing’s strategy of cultural suppression, which includes efforts to assert state control over the practice of Islam. On this latter point, the authorities have in recent years initiated a campaign to prevent Muslims from observing the holy month of Ramadan. Officials have forced restaurants to remain open, and compelled Uyghur cadres to sign “letters of responsibility” in which they promise to avoid fasting and evening prayers. The government has made a point of providing free lunches to Uyghur schoolchildren during Ramadan, and punishing Uyghur adults if they refuse to eat lunches provided by their employers. Beijing also controls who can participate in the pilgrimage to Mecca by refusing to issue passports to those regarded as unreliable.

The restrictions placed on religious freedom are not secret. Yet few have seen fit to voice much more than a murmur of outrage – certainly not the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) or religious and political leaders in the world’s Muslim-majority countries. Indeed, the governments in some countries, including Pakistan, have sent asylum-seeking Uyghurs back to China. An offensive cartoon published in Scandinavia is enough to trigger protests across the Muslim world, yet a Chinese government directive to prevent millions of Uyghurs from observing Islam’s holy month is overlooked.

The one-child policy and the persecution of the Uyghurs are but two in a long roster of odious practices that, taken together with the world’s indifference, make up the China Exception. This indifference is a choice, often by people who hope for economic gain. Others mute their criticism because they believe that protest will provoke Chinese authorities into harsher crackdowns. But if the response to Beijing’s aggression is always deference and accommodation, there’s a real risk that on a broad range of trade, human rights, and democracy issues, transgression could become the global rule, and accountability the exception.

Arch Puddington is Vice President for Research at Freedom House. Michael Larkin assisted in preparation of this post.