China is using its power to undermine democratic institutions and free expression in democracies worldwide. From the harassment of journalists to the removal of thousands of articles in prestigious academic journals, the CCP is rapidly eroding freedoms that we have long taken for granted. Olivia Yang reports.
During his three-and-a-half-hour address to the 19th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress on Oct. 18, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to make his party more responsive to calls for democracy and justice. But tight security around the congress — human rights lawyers, rights defenders, petitioners and dissidents were arrested nationwide — suggested otherwise. And increasingly, China watchers are warning of Beijing’s accelerating efforts to reinforce and export its anti-democracy beliefs abroad.
One day before the closely watched Party Congress, a press conference was held in Taipei to draw attention to China’s spreading influence in democracies around the world.
Titled “Made in China: Democracy Oscillated and Human Rights Wrecked,” the media event was convened by 17 Taiwanese non-government organizations, including the Taiwan Association for Human Rights, Covenants Watch, Taiwan Support China Human Rights Lawyers Network, Human Rights Network for Tibet and Taiwan, International Tibet Network, and Tibetan Youth Congress.
Beijing has been increasing pressure on international events and organizers to either not extend an invitation to Taiwan or force the island-nation to attend under the name “Chinese Taipei.” Taiwan delegations, research teams, journalists and NGOs have also been barred from entering international meetings and assemblies despite having gained access in the past. These events have included the World Health Assembly (WHA), the Interpol general assembly, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the International Labor Organization conference, and others.
Other than interfering with Taiwan’s international affairs, China has been tampering with local events through more direct means. This includes the kidnapping of Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che in March, influence in Taiwanese media, threats against journalists, and longstanding reliance on pro-unification groups to intimidate civilians, such as the violent assault on student protesters who rallied against the “Sing! China: Shanghai-Taipei Music Festival” which was scheduled to be held at National Taiwan University last month.
Growing international threat
China’s interference is not limited to Taiwan. In August, Chinese authorities demanded Cambridge University Press (CUP) remove 315 articles in China Quarterly, CUP’s China-focused journal, when accessed in China. Around 1,000 e-books were also asked to be taken off from CUP’s Chinese websites. The writings covered issues ranging from the Tiananmen Square protests and the Cultural Revolution to Taiwan and Tibet.
The U.S.-based Association for Asian Studies (AAS) also confirmed the same month that China had requested the censorship of around 100 articles in its Journal of Asian Studies — also published by CUP. It was also learned in early November that Germany-based Springer Nature, the world’s largest academic book publisher, had removed at least 1,000 articles in the Journal of Chinese Political Science and International Politics. The articles in question also contained the keywords “Taiwan,” “Tibet,” and “Cultural Revolution.”
U.K-based CUP reversed its decision to comply with Beijing’s request after receiving widespread criticism, while AAS refused to adhere to Chinese authorities.
Visa denial is an alternative approach China is taking to curb discussion of democracy and human rights.
Canadian Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen in August was denied a visa upon planning to raise questions on human rights on a Canada-China Legislative Association trip. Prominent British human rights activist Benedict Rogers this month was also barred from entering Hong Kong, despite Rogers saying he was making a private trip.
In a more extreme case, leader of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Berit Reiss-Andersen, was not even allowed to apply for a China visa when she sought to attend the funeral of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo in July.
China has long used visa denials to also rid itself of foreign journalists and academics who are too critical of its repressive policies. In recent years, several foreign journalists have also been denied access to certain sites or regions, and a number of them worldwide have been threatened with legal action for writing about sensitive issues in China. In August this year, Nathan Vanderklippe, the Beijing bureau chief for Canada’s Globe & Mail, was briefly detained by police and his computer was seized while reporting in Xinjiang. For updates on how China meddles and censors media worldwide, see Freedom House’s “China Media Bulletin.”
In recent years, several foreign journalists have also been denied access to certain sites or regions, and a number of them worldwide have been threatened with legal action for writing about sensitive issues in China.
While Beijing authorities had a direct hand in the above occurrences, the Chinese Communist Party is also infiltrating democratic countries through “soft power.”
In May, the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, which has chapters in universities across the U.S., condemned one university for inviting the Dalai Lama to deliver a speech. A few days later, it accused a Chinese student of “not loving China” because she praised U.S. freedom and liberty in her graduation speech.
The following month, Chinese students at Australian universities were reported to be monitoring fellow nationals and keeping the Chinese embassy informed of activities such as human rights protests. Political parties in Australia have also been accused of taking donations from Chinese property developers in recent years, while Chinese state-controlled media giants have sought to influence mainstream Australian media by pushing cooperation deals.
Interference by Chinese officials has also been reported in Canada, such as during a state visit by then-president Hu Jintao, when, according for a former Canadian intelligence officer, a Chinese diplomatic mission mobilized Chinese counter-protesters. Keen on securing a free-trade deal with China, the Liberal Trudeau government has been reluctant to openly criticize Beijing for its human rights violations or activities that undermine Canada’s democracy.
Dr. Anne-Marie Brady of the University of Canterbury, also a prominent expert on Chinese affairs, in September published a research paper examining how China’s soft power is becoming a growing concern for New Zealand and how its effects could be mitigated.
In the executive summary of her study, Brady writes, “The focus of media attention has been on Australia, but the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) attempts to guide, buy, or coerce political influence abroad are widespread. China’s foreign influence activities are part of a global strategy with almost identical, longstanding approaches, adapted to fit current government policies. They are a core task of China’s united front work; one of the CCP’s famed ‘magic weapons’ that helped bring it to power.”
China’s influence, and by default its nefarious influence on democratic institutions, is also growing through its “One Belt, One Road” initiative and in places like Africa, where it has been cooperating with local media organizations.
The Australian government is preparing to introduce next month a series of laws covering espionage and foreign political interference. The U.K.’s Foreign Office also summoned China’s ambassador to the U.K. after Rogers was denied entry in Hong Kong. The activist said on Oct. 17 that he will start an NGO to monitor the city’s democracy and human rights.
However, in Canadian MP Bergen’s case, she said Liberal MPs that were also traveling to China for the Canada-China Legislative Association trip did not reply when she asked what measures they would take in response to her visa denial. The group proceeded with the trip without her. Senator Joseph Day, co-chair of the Canada-China Legislative Association, said the group was told by Canadian and Chinese officials it had no choice if it still wanted to go.
When Montreal-based ICAO last year refused to invite Taiwan and blocked Taiwanese reporters from a triennial air safety assembly, Paraguay’s ambassador to Canada, Julio Cesar Arriola Ramirez, told reporters that the ICAO Secretary General, Fang Liu of China, had warned them their microphones would be muted if they tried to speak on behalf of Taiwan.
“The government must make the utmost effort to safeguard Taiwan’s values of democracy and freedom, as well as our way of life.”
In addition to his vow to respond to calls for democracy, Xi also mentioned cross-Strait relations during his report at the 19th CCP Congress, saying China has “a firm will, sufficient faith, and adequate capacity to defeat any intention of ‘Taiwan independence’ in any form.”
“[We will] never allow any person, organization or political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China,” he said.
In response to Xi’s remarks, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said in a statement that the unilateral construction of a “one China” on Taiwan was unlikely to gain support from the Taiwanese. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in her National Day address on Oct. 10 also dedicated a passage reminding that the island-nation’s democracy and freedom “only came following the joint efforts of all Taiwanese people.”
“As a result, the government must make the utmost effort to safeguard Taiwan’s values of democracy and freedom, as well as our way of life,” Tsai said.
The president also reiterated that she and Taiwan would not “bow to pressure” from China regarding cross-Strait relations.