The Dark Side of Chinese Modernization

The Dark Side of Chinese Modernization

Over half of China’s 1.3 billion citizens are connected to the Internet. Ninety-five percent of these citizens access the web on their mobile devices, and China recently became the largest iPhone market in the world. Urban areas are quickly becoming cashless as consumers opt to pay for noodle bowls, cab fares, and movie tickets with QR codes. Concurrent with these technological advances, during the fourth plenary session of the 18th Communist Party Congress in October 2014, Chinese leadership passed an ambitious legal reform and modernization plan aimed at strengthening “rule of law.” This move created new legislation and inspired efforts to promote professionalization and judicial independence in local courts. These impressive technological and legal advancements appear to herald a new era of development and cosmopolitanism in China, creating a world of free-flowing information, money, and people protected by a fair legal system. The reality, however, is quite the opposite. Xi Jinping's government steadily harnesses “modernization” – technological advances and legal developments in particular – to survey, censor, and punish its citizens.

The 2017 annual Human Rights Watch Report on China finds that “the outlook for fundamental human rights, including freedoms of expression, assembly, association, and religion, remains dire.” Similarly, in Freedom House’s 2017 Freedom in the World Report, China placed 189th out of 211 countries and territories evaluated, ranking as definitively “not free” in the pivotal categories of political rights and civil liberties. Though conventional wisdom may suggest an inherent contradiction between China’s rapidly modernizing society and the government’s continued violation of human rights, the two have evolved in tandem.

The CCP Sees All

Increasingly, Chinese law enforcement agencies employ advanced technologies to keep tabs on citizens in a manner reminiscent of a dystopian science-fiction novel. In 2015, the Ministry of Public Security launched a project to build the world’s most powerful facial recognition system, capable of identifying any citizen within three seconds. Authorities also recently collaborated with iFlytek, a company that produces 80 percent of all Chinese speech recognition technology, to develop a system that automatically identifies voices in phone conversations. These steps contribute to a larger effort to build up extensive biometric databases, ostensibly to promote social stability and reduce crime. In areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang, the government targets individuals for violations related to religious expression and peaceful activism. Experts have likened these control measures to a “kind of frontline laboratory for surveillance” or “open-air prison.”

Of equal concern, China has pledged to aggregate all of this data to create a social credit rating by 2020. This all-encompassing, personal credit score will synthesize spending and shopping habits, the ability to pay bills and taxes, traffic tickets, community awards or demerits, and much more, to assign citizens a public rating. The score will affect one’s ability to purchase train or airplane tickets, apply for public housing, or send children to certain schools. There are massive implications for human rights: absent any semblance of privacy and anonymity, these invasive technologies exponentially increase the ways in which citizens can get caught “disturbing social order” or “subverting state power.”

Repressive Reform

Furthermore, in the last few years, China has passed several controversial laws that codified systemic human rights abuses, often employing technology as a means of enforcement. The 2015 Counterterrorism Law provided blanket justification to crack down on ethnic minorities at the country’s periphery under the guise of combatting terrorism. The law resulted in, among other things, increased military presence in Xinjiang and Tibet and the ability to label any dissent as a national security threat, limit religious practice, or increase oversight through measures including the forced installation of phone surveillance apps. China’s 2016 Cybersecurity Law further undermined already limited online freedom and anonymity by providing a legal basis for large-scale network blackouts as a legitimate response to “major [public] security incidents.” It also prohibited “websites and communication groups” that disseminated “information related to unlawful and criminal activities” and outlawed internet use perceived to “endanger national security.”

Officials often manipulate these ambiguous conditions to detain and punish activists for crimes carrying harsh sentences. In 2016, China passed the Law on the Management of Foreign Non-Governmental Organizations’ Activities Within Mainland China, which further restricted funding and registration regulations for foreign NGOs operating in China. The law requires that a Chinese government organization sponsor these groups, and grants police extensive investigative and enforcement powers. Together, these laws suggest that legal developments prioritize fortifying and systematizing central control and Party supremacy over protecting rule of law or citizens’ rights. 

It’s Our Problem Too

Though Chinese officials maintain that humanitarian issues are a domestic concern, and take great offense when anyone suggests otherwise, Beijing’s crackdown on human rights is extending beyond Chinese borders to affect non-Chinese citizens and businesses. China has consistently sought international cooperation in both its counterterrorism and cybersecurity efforts. The Cybersecurity Law’s stipulations for data localization—storing company data in servers located in Mainland China—directly threatens the privacy and interests of foreign businesses operating inside the country. Moreover, the Foreign NGO Law restricts international organizations from operating in China, putting the safety and livelihoods of many foreigners in China at risk. This law forced the American Bar Association to relocate its office to Hong Kong after presenting the International Human Rights award to Wang Yu, a detained human rights lawyer. In 2016, a Swedish human rights activist became the first foreigner detained for ‘endangering state security’; in January 2018, another Swedish citizen – a Hong Kong-based bookseller – was detained by Chinese authorities and remains in police custody.

As China’s global ambitions grow, it will be increasingly important—and difficult—for the U.S. and international organizations to pressure China to adopt more liberal human rights policies. The Trump administration has willfully retreated from global leadership and largely ignored human rights in China, while many other countries dependent on Chinese trade and investment have also turned a blind eye. Without real checks from the international community, conditions have deteriorated even further. So, what can be done? Even if governments and international organizations do not go on record criticizing China’s abuses, they should at least feel compelled to intervene in areas where these repressive laws directly affect their own citizens and businesses. Foreign governments and companies should push back on key provisions in the Cybersecurity and Foreign NGO Laws, in particular. A more self-interested, less head-on approach to human rights may yield small improvements for Chinese citizens.

China has leveraged its leadership in international organizations – whether by using the UN to block NGO accreditation or by hunting and repatriating ‘fugitives’ and ‘terrorists’ through Interpol – to pursue its own agenda. The international community cannot allow Beijing to buy its way to prominence, but rather must hold the nation to higher standards. As Chinese officials assume positions of global importance, it is even more important to ensure close guardianship over global rules and norms.

Realistically, outside actors have limited opportunities to change human rights dynamics inside China. However, other groups – albeit small, dispersed, and perpetually maligned – of courageous lawyers, feminists, religious worshippers, ethnic minority activists, artists, democracy advocates, and others are pushing for reforms within China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Ultimately, change must derive from internal efforts. At the very least, however, the United States and others should step up to publicly support these activists. 


Viola Rothschild is a China studies research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is a former Fulbright scholar and holds a MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies from the University of Oxford and a B.A. from Bowdoin College. Her research covers a diverse range of China-related topics, including China’s human rights regime, Sino-African relations, and China and global governance.