These things happen almost imperceptibly. They happen piecemeal, and over a period of time, at least a number of years. Moreover, they happen, sometimes, in places and in ways that are unanticipated, so that we’re caught by surprise when we look close and careful and see that things have changed not in a minor way, but in a major one.
So it is with China. For some time now, at least for a couple of years, the president, Xi Jinping, has tightened the noose around the necks of dissenters, ordinary people generally who, in some way, register disapproval or withhold support. For a time, this noose-tightening was, or so it seemed, gradual. Moreover America’s overweening desire has been to make peace, to, in the interest of comity with the world’s other major power, look the other way even as repression there rises.
Which raises the question of when do we stop? When does the U.S. government stop playing nice for the ostensible sake of its long-term, multi-layered relationship with China? And, at what point do we, the American people, stop, say, traveling to China, or buying Chinese products, because we do not want to support a government in the habit of punishing, severely, its critics?
China has one of the world’s worst records in human rights. Dissenters are arrested or disappear on a regular basis. Moreover, there is a crackdown on civil society that is impossible any longer to pretend does not exist.
As anyone who has studied dictatorial leadership knows, concomitant with the squelching of the followers is the exaltation of the leader. And so it is in China. Particularly in the last year Xi has demanded from his subordinates, and received from his subordinates, their absolute loyalty. And he has sent to the Chinese people the same unmistakable message: every day are references to the “core” leader in China’s state-run news media, and every day his portrait dominates government messaging.
China is by no means alone in its recent turn from citizen activism to citizen repression. Russia is similar under the thumb of Vladimir Putin, as are Egypt under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But Xi Jinping takes second place to no one in his quest to resemble the dictators of times past. Times we thought had come and then gone.