In the largest leak ever to come out of Beijing, 400 pages of classified government documents were leaked to Western media sources. These documents provide an unprecedented look into the Chinese government and its priorities. Some of these documents concerned government endeavors in the Xinjiang province.
Chinese’s actions in Xinjiang have been covered by the Western media for a few years now. Specifically, Western media has revealed the existence of secret, prison-like camps detaining large numbers of the Uighurs, a Muslim minority within Xinjiang. After blatantly denying these allegations in 2018 the Chinese government acknowledged the existence of the camps but maintain that they were merely vocational programs and boarding schools. The leaked documents paint a very different picture.
Most incriminating are the pages that detail how these camps are meant to be run and their intended purpose. Words like “reeducation” and “ideological transformation” are used to describe the primary objective of these camps –hardly supporting the narrative of boarding school like institutions. The camps are described as seeking to exert constant surveillance of all dormitories and classrooms including armed patrol towers and a wall surrounding the entire compound.
While the documents themselves are highly incriminating and corroborate countless previous reports, they also mean a great deal in terms of the state of Chinese political stability. The Chinese Communist Party has ruled their population with an iron fist, quickly destroying any criticism or civil disobedience within their society. They have generally succeeded in maintaining complete control over their citizens and have encountered no real threat to their current political system. Even the protests in Tiananmen Square failed to make any concrete change within the government. This leak comes at a time where the protests in Hong Kong have reached an all-time high, with over 2 million individuals joining the fight for democratic reform. These two instances show a potential for change in China and suggest that the stability of Beijing is no longer as unshakeable as it once was. Interestingly, similar dynamics can be observed in other countries as well.
Currently, 15 other nations are experiencing mass protests and civil unrest and millions of people around the world are demanding change and rejecting the choices of their retrospective governments. These protests are not limited to regions or political ideologies but represent a mass mobilization of people against oppressive political regimes. Corruption, climate justice, political freedom, inequality and the rejection of illegitimate regimes are the most common issues behind these protests. Millions of people around the world are using their collective voice to demand change and respect for their civil rights from their political institutions.
Looking at the Waves of Democratization theory, these protests might indicate the beginning of a new democratic wave. According to Huntington’s famous theory, as of 1993, the world had experienced 3 distinctive waves of democracy the first 2 of which were followed by a reversal period. Some of the important features of these waves were a mass call for political equality and a more representative governance system, both of which can be currently seen throughout these protests (Huntington, 1993). The problem is that while these protests distinctly suggest a fourth wave of Democracy, the political trends in current democratic states support the notion that we are currently experiencing a third reversal period instead. These trends include the rise in successful populist campaigns and general democratic erosion.
Therein lies the question: Are we experiencing a Democratic wave or a reversal or something new altogether. Is it possible for Democracy to be gaining popularity in the face of authoritarian political choices while at the same time slowly eroding within fully democratic systems?
“Global Protests in 2019: Demonstrators Around World Demand Reform.” Voice of America, 30 Nov. 2019, https://www.voanews.com/americas/global-protests-2019-demonstrators-around-world-demand-reform.
Huntington, Samuel P. The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. University of Oklahoma, 1993.
Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. Penguin Books, 2019.
Ramzy, Austin, and Chris Buckley. “’Absolutely No Mercy’: Leaked Files Expose How China Organized Mass Detentions of Muslims.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 16 Nov. 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/11/16/world/asia/china-xinjiang-documents.html.
Stahl, Chelsea. “Secret Chinese Documents Reveal Inner Workings of Muslim Detention Camps.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 24 Nov. 2019, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/all/secret-chinese-documents-reveal-inner-workings-muslim-detention-camps-n1089941.
Though the recent globalization movement swelling across the earth makes it seem a small place, the world is still quite large. There are many different actors with many different goals so I’m sure that there could be a wave of democracy going on in one part of the world while another experiences an erosion. Just look through history, while Mao Tse Tung became the leader of the Communist People’s Republic of China in 1949, Indonesia became independent.
China has a long-standing history of autocratic rule, and these documents highlight the authoritative philosophy that is prevalent within China’s governance. Symptoms of autocratic consolidation may be seen from its following documents, alongside descriptions of “reeducation” and “ideological transformation.” And while there has been much global backlash against the implementation of China’s Uighur camps, this issue has mostly been silenced in the Mainland (Azam, 2021, OWP). Furthermore, while China consists of many diverse ethnic groups, the Han Chinese population makes up 91% of the state’s population (Song, 2021, China Highlights). The predominant homogeneity present within China’s ethnic landscape consequently does not allow much room for pluralism; and it may be an additional precursor to China’s autocratic consolidation.
This article brings up an imperative question to political thought in International Relations: “Is it possible for Democracy to be gaining popularity in the face of authoritarian political choices while at the same time slowly eroding within fully democratic systems?” The global backlash against China’s Uighur camps provides a re-energization for public belief in democracy; but at the same time, we also must determine how to balance or protect civil liberties within an autocracy – insofar it is impractical to force a complete shift from China’s autocratic rule to a democratic regime.