Wednesday 27 November 2019 6:47 am

China's human rights abuses should silence the declinists and self-haters in the west

One of the most damaging tendencies of contemporary western modernity has been the growth of declinism and self-hatred within our societies. 

The declinists argue that the era of western leadership is over, and that the future belongs to the east. They are content to go quietly into the night, rather than recognise that the rise of others is not a zero-sum game, and that leadership can be exercised in different ways in different periods.

The self-haters go a step further. Rather than shaming the world’s worst regimes into better behaviour, they magnify every fault they find within our own societies to argue that we are responsible for global misery. 

Taken to an extreme, some so-called human rights organisations in our own countries spend more of their time attacking the societies that gave birth to the concept of human rights — and which have legal and civil society defences to preserve them — rather than those that have never recognised them and continue to abuse them on an industrial scale. 


Of course, there are many flaws within western societies – and we should always strive for improvement – but the concepts of liberty, human and civil rights that have underpinned our historic rise are now immutable within our very systems of democracy. They set us apart on a moral plane from the non-democratic parts of the world, and their universal appeal can be seen by how those struggling to become free yearn for what we take for granted.

This has been a good week for the supporters of freedom and real human rights, and a bad one for the declinists and self-haters. For it has been a week that has exposed once more the enduring importance of western moral leadership in the world, as well as the superiority of our values.

That the case study in question proving this turns out to be China — the country most cited as being the chief challenger to our global role — is significant. 

China has many features that we can respect and admire: a dynamic economy, a massive population rising out of poverty, a storied history, and an ancient culture. But it is also the largest human rights abuser and repressor of freedom in the world. 

China’s many religious and ethnic minorities face the worst situation of all. The Falun Gong have felt the sting of oppression for many years. The plight of the Tibetans — who have had the Chinese jackboot on their jugular for decades — has been almost forgotten, but China’s annexation and administration of the country has seen the suppression of Buddhism and the “China-isation” of the region.

But all of this pales in comparison with what is happening in Xinjiang province on China’s north-western frontier. In an unprecedented development, reams of documents have been leaked which show 

that over a million Uighur Muslims and other minorities have been despatched to prison camps, where they are monitored constantly and subjected to what the BBC has termed “brainwashing”. 


China has asserted that the camps are for voluntary re-education and to protect against terrorism. But the leaked instructions issued in 2017 to prison camp bosses and signed by Zhu Hailun, then deputy-secretary of Xinjiang’s Communist Party and the province’s top security official, provide a chilling litany of control measures specifying that no escape is to be permitted and that the camps are to be run under strict disciplinary and punishment measures.

Perhaps the people of Hong Kong had this in mind on Sunday when they voted in huge numbers to elect pro-democratic forces in a landslide victory. Beijing’s strategy of hoping that the election would allow for a “silent majority” opposed to the recent demonstrations to assert themselves proved itself to be a chimera. 

Instead, the movement was all in the other direction, with pro-regime candidates ousted. The elections may have minor impact in governance terms, but their psychological impact is sizeable: in the only territory of China where there are elections and freedom of expression, the people have spoken decisively in support of those ideas. 

We should not delude ourselves that this election will mean a dramatic change in Hong Kong’s immediate destiny. But the very fact that dissent is alive and well within the Chinese monolith should be celebrated and supported. 

Above all, China must not be allowed to crush Hong Kong’s democratic resistance with force. It is undoubtedly the fear of western reaction that has stayed China’s hand thus far. We must maintain pressure in the hope that reform will follow.

If what has unfolded in recent weeks is the future of an eastern world order, it is not one that inspires any optimism. The bleak reality of life in Xinjiang serves as a warning of what may befall the world if western leadership retreats, while Hong Kong is the frontline in the battle of ideas and principles. 

The people of China and Hong Kong deserve better than what they are enduring. We can help them by rejecting notions of decline and self-hatred, and remind ourselves of the example and inspiration that we are still capable of setting.

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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