Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the Insecurity of China’s Leadership > Articles

Skip to container

팝업레이어 알림

팝업레이어 알림이 없습니다.


사이트 내 전체검색
Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the Insecurity of China’s Leadership
By Mel Gurtov

Hong Kong remains in chaos, with no sign that pro-democracy protesters will yield on their demands. Mass incarceration and indoctrination of Uyghurs and other Chinese Muslims has become so widely known that Chinese leaders no longer try to deny that a roundup has taken place, although they dispute the numbers and offer justifications. As China extends its economic reach, its leaders have to confront another reality: Reputation matters, and economic clout will not easily convert to political or cultural influence. China now, of course, also has to cope with the fallout from international reaction to its handling of the Covid-19 epidemic.


While the jury is still out on how the virus outbreak that apparently began in Wuhan will eventually play out, international repugnance is already widespread over the Xi Jinping government’s flouting of human rights norms and seeming indifference to human suffering. Xi’s belated response to the coronavirus outbreak has encouraged these doubts, especially at home, as responsive leadership proved less important than concern about social stability.


The larger context here is Xi’s determination to wipe out all sources of resistance to his lifetime rule, foreign or domestic. He is hardly looking like the “people’s leader” (renmin lingxiu: 人民 领袖). His government typically cites “three evils” to justify repression: separatism, terrorism and extremism. Actually, it has several other “evils” in its sights, including organized religion, protests, cultural autonomy, activist lawyers, independent journalists and environmental organizations. (One wonders if the coronavirus epidemic has added another: healthcare workers who speak the truth.) In its view, all these forces threaten the one-party state, disrupt economic plans and unravel the myth of the unified multi-ethnic state. For an insecure leadership, these points of unrest are challenges to regime control and legitimacy, and justifications for the dubious title Xi has earned for China: the surveillance state.


‘Cultural Genocide’ in Xinjiang

By now it is crystal clear that Xi long had designs on the Muslim minorities in Xinjiang Province.​1


These have evolved from a once-legitimate concern about attacks on Han Chinese, in particular a stabbing incident in 2014 that took 31 lives, to entirely illegitimate and inhumane forced detention and incarceration of Uyghurs and other Muslims. The figures on incarceration are staggering; one expert, Adrian Zenz, estimates that in Xinjiang 1.8 million people are detained.​2 Most other estimates range from just under 1 million to 1.5 million. This full-on subjugation has been facilitated by deployment of advanced surveillance technology and by collection of blood samples that can be used to identify not just Muslims but potentially any minority group through DNA analysis.​3


Persistent reports and aerial images suggest that what the Chinese authorities call “retraining” centers are in fact prisons devoted to wiping out Muslim identity and inculcating Han Chinese and Communist Party cultural and political norms. Forced labor, disguised as poverty alleviation and training sessions, is another tool employed against those who resist this gulag-like regimen.​4 Beijing does not help its cause with responses such as it gave to US criticisms at the UN.5 China’s spokesman not only defended the actions in Xinjiang as an anti-terrorism effort and insisted that China’s rise includes respect for religious freedom generally, but also pointed to US human-rights problems such as religious intolerance, gun violence and racism. This may be a fair enough item for debate, but it’s not a way to justify China’s behavior.


Is there anything the international community can do to mitigate the human-rights violations in Xinjiang? Naming and shaming can sometimes help. Bringing the Uyghur repression (which some call cultural genocide) before the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has already produced a joint statement by 22 countries, in July 2019, condemning “large-scale arbitrary detention” and other violations.​6 The US government has taken a minimalist position on Xinjiang, despite what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called “the crime of the century.” Sanctions on surveillance technology have been applied, but since the US is not involved with the UN Human Rights Council or the International Criminal Court, it cannot join the governments that have brought the Xinjiang case before those bodies.


The ‘Deal’ in Hong Kong

The Hong Kong protests are more explosive than Xinjiang inasmuch as Hong Kong is visible in ways that Xinjiang is not. This is a defiant and widely popular uprising, exposed to international media, situated in an international trade and financial hub. The protesters, however, have no central leadership, an advantage while in resistance but a disadvantage if the aim is a settlement. Only if the pro-Beijing establishment in Hong Kong responds positively to at least some of what the protesters call the “five appeals” (wu da suqiu: 五 大 诉求), — such as having Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam step down, permanently removing the extradition law, and reaffirming the commitment to Hong Kong’s social and political autonomy — is there any chance of a peaceful resolution. A gracious response to such demands would be a sign that China is indeed a “responsible great power.” But no such response is in sight.


If the violence in Hong Kong escalates further after the current coronavirus outbreak subsides, direct Chinese intervention is a definite possibility. Chinese sources say the demonstrations are “descending into terrorism,” using language reminiscent of the months before military intervention to remove mass protesters from Tiananmen Square in 1989. Prior to the virus epidemic, some observers believed China’s relations with the US were the key reason for Beijing’s avoidance of deeper intervention in Hong Kong. But China-US relations are in near-total disrepair; these days the talk in Washington is about economic and technological decoupling, not resuming engagement.​7 The Hong Kong demonstrations raise clear issues of constitutional order and democratic governance, yet the US has not challenged China’s violations of promises made to respect the city’s autonomy within the Chinese system. But Donald Trump has kept his promise, reportedly made to Xi Jinping last June, that Washington would “tone down” its comments on the spiraling protests. And in January, Pompeo said the US would “work with Hong Kong and the Chinese Communist Party to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms” there. Work with the CCP?


Legislation such as the US Senate’s Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act appropriately sanctions Chinese and Hong Kong officials but also reeks of political posturing about American values and bipartisanship.​8 Trump quietly signed the act but indicated he would not honor all its provisions. In a tweet on Aug. 14, 2019, he wrote: “Of course China wants to make a deal. Let them work humanely with Hong Kong first!” China hasn’t “worked humanely,” but that didn’t keep Trump from reaching a trade deal at year’s end that is at least as advantageous to China as it is to the US.


Further complicating Beijing’s position on Hong Kong is Taiwan. Xi must feel very concerned about the impact that Hong Kong’s resistance is having on Taiwan. “One country, two systems” ends in 2047 for Hong Kong, but for Taiwan that idea is less appealing now than ever. As in 1989, Hong Kong’s protest movement is cementing Taiwan’s determination to maintain its own system, as the landslide reelection of Tsai Ing-wen in January confirmed. (Immediately after the vote, she said it was a victory for “democracy and sovereignty.”) Some Hong Kongers traveled to Taiwan for a four-day election tour, to see how a real democracy operates, while student protesters threatened with arrest in Hong Kong fled to Taiwan, in essence voting with their feet. Beijing, on the other hand, launched a disinformation campaign against Tsai that failed miserably, just as its other pressure tactics have failed. Unless Beijing takes a more accommodating line in Hong Kong, its appeals to Taiwan for closer association will be dead-on-arrival for many more years to come.


Should America’s China Policy Still Focus on Engagement?

What brings Hong Kong and Xinjiang together is the failure of China’s leaders to accommodate local politics and culture, and instead to impose “stability” through draconian measures — a clear indication of leadership insecurity and blindness to conditions that prompt unrest. But outside pressure has to be carefully calibrated lest it lead to even more oppressive Chinese steps and contribute to an emerging Cold War dynamic. More direct US political intervention in Hong Kong or Xinjiang, for example, would only exacerbate the situation — and give demonstrators and victims false hopes. As Chen Jian, a distinguished scholar of China-US relations, has written: “It is beyond America’s capacity and mandate to try to impose answers upon the Chinese in American ways. Any attempt to do so will only trigger China’s lingering ‘victim mentality’ and mobilize radical Chinese nationalism centered on an anti-American-hegemony discourse. The biggest beneficiary of such a scenario will, ironically, be no one else but the Chinese ‘communist’ state.”​9


That advice is not being heeded. A new bipartisan consensus has emerged in the US regarding China, with liberals joining conservatives to argue the need to confront China’s across-the-board efforts to influence American opinion.​10 One report that reflects this new alignment makes an arduous but ultimately unsatisfying attempt to support an aggressive US stance on alleged Chinese spying, pilfering of technical secrets and influence peddling while also urging protection of Chinese Americans from being categorized as a fifth column.​11 Another report by a bipartisan commission of Congress urges a crackdown on China’s “intensified use of disinformation, propaganda, economic intimidation and political influence operations.”​12 Most Democrats, including most if not all the Democratic presidential candidates, seem united in adopting a tough stance on US-China relations.


Chinese protests and US critiques of China’s alleged influence-peddling make finding common ground especially difficult. Both are driven to a large extent by overblown and unmet expectations of the other, which, as we all know, can lead to self-justification and blame.​13 To be sure, there is simply no way China’s leaders, or their intellectual supporters, can defend what is happening in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. No amount of overseas spending under the Belt and Road Initiative can obscure China’s indifference to human rights at home. These circumstances weaken China’s response to US exaggeration of the China threat and the spreading efforts around the US to impose obstacles to people-to-people and other exchanges. It becomes all too easy for official and non-official US sources to claim China is aggressively on the march when the Hong Kong demonstrations and Xinjiang internments are at center stage.


At times like these we need more, not less, interaction with China. Care needs to be exercised not to feed an anti-China hysteria by exaggerating threats to national security. Cutting back exchanges, closing down Confucius Institutes, imposing immigration and visa restrictions and putting Chinese nationals and Americans of Chinese heritage who work in US laboratories and universities automatically under suspicion is nothing less than a new Red Scare. Politically motivated sanctions that hold up China as an enemy only embitter relations and encourage retaliation, which Beijing has conducted since the trade war began, while failing to project the best of American society and democratic values — not to mention doing nothing to alleviate China’s repressive policies. Policy-specific criticism of and competition with China, on the other hand, are certainly in order — for instance, on human rights violations and cyber hacking — as well as informed objections to unfair Chinese practices, such as receiving low-interest World Bank loans and ignoring foreign investors’ intellectual property rights.


Let’s stay focused on this: China is not the Soviet Union, notwithstanding administration officials’ comments suggesting the contrary. To say, as Pompeo did, that Beijing poses “a new kind of challenge; an authoritarian regime that’s integrated economically into the West in ways that the Soviet Union never was,” is to forget that China’s embrace of globalization had been a fond wish of US leaders for many years.​14 Nor is Beijing emulating Moscow by interfering in US and European elections, seizing a neighbor’s territory or refining its nuclear weapons. To conclude, as Vice President Mike Pence does, that “the Chinese Communist Party continues to resist a true opening or a convergence with global norms,” merely revives the notion, long since rejected by Beijing, that to be a “responsible stakeholder,” China must comply with the “rules-based international order” fashioned in Washington.15 Neither he nor Pompeo acknowledges that US policies, notably the trade war, have contributed not only to tensions with China, but also to developments elsewhere contrary to US interests, such as deteriorating US relations with South Korea and increased Russia-China military co-operation. Moreover, China has become much more of a global citizen than Russia when we examine, for example, contributions to UN peacekeeping, tourism, scholarly and scientific exchanges, and overseas investments.16 The Belt and Road Initiative has had a positive impact in several African countries even as it has created “debt traps” and charges of neocolonialism in some others; and tens of thousands of Chinese students and scholars at US universities are a huge plus for the talent and commitment they bring, not to mention the values they learn and the dollars they spend.


In a word, positive relations with China are of far greater importance to, and have greater urgency for, US national interests than do relations with Russia — which does not mean neglecting opportunities for engaging Russia, but rather understanding that for all the problems in US-China relations, finding common ground is essential to maintaining a peaceful international order. And when it comes to common ground, climate change, the international economy, energy, maritime rules of the road, nuclear and conventional weapons proliferation, and aid to developing countries are areas where US-China co-operation is crucial to Asia’s and the world’s peace. Red scares and Blue scares only make the friction worse. As Evan Osnos writes, “uneasy coexistence” is the likely future of US-China relations. Competitive coexistence might therefore be the appropriate label for US China policy.17



1 See the collection of leaked documents at www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/11/16/world/asia/china-xinjiang-documents.html; China’s response is reported at www.nytimes.com/2019/11/18/world/asia/china-xinjiang-muslims-leak.html

2 Interview at www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/detainees-11232019223242.html

3 See the interview of the Belgian geneticist, Yves Moreau at www.npr.org/2019/12/07/785804791/uighurs-and-genetic-surveillance-in-china, Dec. 7, 2019.

4 Chris Buckley and Austin Ramzy, “Inside China’s Push to Turn Muslim Minorities Into an Army of Workers,” The New York Times, Dec. 30, 2019.

5 “Spokesman for China’s Permanent Rep to UN: Firmly Oppose the US Representative’s Use of Human Rights to Interfere in China’s Internal Affairs,” People’s Daily Online, Dec. 11, 2019, world.people.com.cn/n1/2019/1211/c1002-31501976.html

6 www.hrw.org/news/2019/07/10/un-unprecedented-joint-call-china-end-xinjiang-abuses

7 See, for example, David Shambaugh, “U.S.-China Decoupling: How Feasible, How Desirable?” China-US Focus Digest, Vol. 24 (December 2019), pp. 18-22.

8 www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/1838/text

9 “From Mao to Deng: China’s Changing Relations with the United States,” Wilson Center, Cold War International History Project Working Paper No. 92, November 2019, www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/mao-to-deng-chinas-changing-relations-the-united-states

10 A prime example is Chinese Influence & American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance (Hoover Institution, 2018), www.hoover.org/sites/default/files/research/docs/chineseinfluence_americaninterests_fullreport_web.pdf

11 See Peter Waldman, “As China Anxiety Rises in US, Fears of New Red Scare Emerge,” Bloomberg, Dec. 31, 2019.

12 www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/us-report-calls-for-sanctions-on-china-for-human-rights-abuses-influence-operations/ 2020/01/08/08b75596-31be-11ea-971b-43bec3ff9860_story.html

13 See James B. Steinberg, “What Went Wrong? US-China Relations from Tiananmen to Trump,” Texas National Security Review, January 2020, tnsr.org/2020/01/what-went-wrong-u-s-china-relations-from-tiananmen-to-trump/

14 Ana Swanson and Keith Bradsher, “U.S.-China Trade Standoff May Be Initial Skirmish in Broader Economic War,” New York Times, May 11, 2019.

15 For the October 2019 speech, see www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-vice-president-pence-frederic-v-malek-memorial-lecture/ . Examples of Pence’s misstatements: “Much of [China’s] success was driven by American investment in China”; “we rebuilt China over the last 25 years”; and “President Trump has stood strong for free and fair trade.” Two examples of hyperbole: “lately China has also been trying to export censorship — the hallmark of its regime. By exploiting corporate greed, Beijing is attempting to influence American public opinion, coercing corporate America”; and “China wants a different American President, which is the ultimate proof that President Trump’s leadership is working.”

16 Mel Gurtov and Mark Selden, “The Dangerous New US Consensus on China and the Future of US-China Relations,” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, Aug. 2019, apjjf.org/2019/15/Gurtov-Selden.html; Fareed Zakaria, “The New China Scare: Why America Shouldn’t Panic About Its Latest Challenger,” Foreign Affairs, Dec. 6, 2019, www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2019-12-06/new-china-scare

17 Osnos, “Fight Fight Talk Talk,” The New Yorker, Jan. 13, 2020, pp. 32-45.

Back to Issue
    There is no excuse for China’s human rights violations against its Muslim minority in Xinjiang nor its intransigence in Hong Kong. For all his bluster, ‘lifetime’ President Xi Jinping seems to act out of a deep and dangerous insecurity about his country’s future. How the world reacts to China’s dismal human-rights record could prove crucial in the near term, writes Mel Gurtov. Bellicose, often inaccurate statements from both sides of the aisle in Washington risk making the situation worse when the times call for wary coexistence.
    Published: March 2020 (Vol.15 No.1)
    About the author

    Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University (Oregon) and Senior Editor of Asian Perspective. His most recent book on China is Will This Be China’s Century? A Skeptic’s View (Lynne Rienner Publishers). In July, his latest book, America in Retreat: Foreign Policy Under Donald Trump, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield.

    Download print PDF


No Reply

About Us Latest Issue Back Issues Article Search How to Subscribe Advertise with Us Submit an Article Forum Privacy Policy
Global Asia, The East Asia Foundation,
4th Fl, 116 Pirundae-ro, Jongno-gu,
Seoul, Korea 03035
Business Registration Number: 105-82-14071
Representative: Sung-Hwan Kim
Tel. +82 2 325 2604
General: info@globalasia.org
Editorial: editorial@globalasia.org
Subscribe: subscriptions@globalasia.org
Advertising: ads@globalasia.org
This website
© 2016 by the
East Asia Foundation.
All rights reserved.