Donald Trump taints everything he touches. If he supports a cause, he damages it. If he takes a stance, the instinct of most self-respecting liberals is to rush to the opposing side. So when Trump rails against China, a favourite bete noire, it can make a progressive pause.
That’s especially true when the US president lurches so easily into casual bigotry – referring to the coronavirus as “kung flu” – and when his hypocrisy is so rank. Thanks to his former national security adviser, John Bolton, we know that, for all his talk, Trump begged Beijing to meddle in this year’s election in his favour, breezily granting US blessing to what Amnesty International calls the “gulag” of camps in Xinjiang, in which China holds a million Uighur Muslims against their will.
And yet, just because Trump exploits China’s human rights abuses when it suits him doesn’t mean those abuses don’t exist – or that we shouldn’t be paying attention. Most western interest has been aroused by the plight of Hong Kong, on which Beijing last week imposed a new and crushing national security law, a move the Economist rightly described as “one of the biggest assaults on a liberal society since the second world war”.
The new law criminalises dissent. Lest there be any doubt, within hours of the law’s passage a man was arrested for no greater offence than carrying a banner calling for independence for Hong Kong. Now national security cases can be tried before government-appointed judges, in secret and without a jury – or on the Chinese mainland, where justice is what the ruling party says it is, and where prosecutors have a near-100% conviction rate.
What’s more, the new law applies globally: in theory, anyone anywhere deemed to have “subverted” the Chinese state could have their collar felt by the long arm of Beijing. That may sound fanciful, but in a speech on Tuesday the director of the FBI, Christopher Wray, described Operation Fox Hunt, China’s continuing global campaign against Chinese nationals abroad. Beijing insists it’s an anti-corruption drive, but Wray said it had coerced expat “political rivals, dissidents and critics” – some of them US citizens – to return home, often by threatening their families. One target was passed a message that said: “Return to China promptly or commit suicide.”
“The last six months have revealed more about China under President Xi Jinping than the previous six years,” wrote John Sawers, the former head of MI6, this week. To which a fair reply is: only because we didn’t want to look. Of course, it’s understandable that the west notices when things happen in Hong Kong: it was a British colony until 1997, and to this day it remains “where China meets the world”, as one longtime observer puts it. But the evidence of the Chinese Communist party’s willingness to crush not just opposition but difference goes far beyond Hong Kong, and that evidence has been there from the start.
The repression of minorities in Tibet and especially Xinjiang has escalated sharply. The horrific plight of the Uighurs has been hard for reporters to document, but the publication last November of the China Cables, a cache of secret documents, confirmed the existence of a vast prison network in Xinjiang where a million people, mainly Muslim, have been held captive; former inmates speak of torture and rape. These are brainwashing detention centres, designed to strip Uighurs of their cultural memory and identity. The existence of this gulag, the largest mass incarceration of an ethnic-religious minority since 1945, is a grievous crime, a stain on humanity. And yet it is barely mentioned.
Less than a fortnight ago, an investigation by the Associated Press revealed that the Chinese government is forcing intra-uterine devices, sterilisation and even abortion on hundreds of thousands of women, in a bid to “slash birth rates among Uighurs and other minorities as part of a sweeping campaign to curb its Muslim population”. All this as it “encourages some of the country’s Han majority to have more children”. The AP quoted experts who called it a form of “demographic genocide”.
Those who have long watched China’s rulers can see the pattern. “This has been the project of the Chinese Communist party: to tame and domesticate Tibet, then to do the same to Xinjiang and now to Hong Kong,” says Nicholas Bequelin, who monitors the region for Amnesty International. He fears this record suggests an obvious next target: Taiwan, as China pursues what it sees as “its manifest destiny, complete reunification”. Such a move raises the prospect of war.
This is where those unmoved by arguments rooted in human rights might prick up their ears. China’s conduct cannot be walled off as somehow unconnected to the rest of the world.
You don’t have to engage in Trump-style name-calling to know that the authorities in China sat on the news that there was human transmission of coronavirus for nearly a week – a move that surely had lethal consequences. You can listen to specialists such as Bequelin who have concluded that Beijing’s “ambition is to dismantle systems that protect democracy and human rights”.
How, then, should the rest of the world react? One option would be to brand China a rogue superpower, to shun it as a pariah. But that’s hard to do when the US is itself in the hands of a rogue president. How to condemn China’s suppression of peaceful protest when Trump’s response to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations was to tweet, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts”? It did not escape Beijing’s notice that Republican senator Tom Cotton published his notorious op-ed call to “send in the troops” on the eve of the anniversary of the crushing of the protests in Tiananmen Square.
Nor does trolling and insulting Beijing get results, even if it gives Trump and his lieutenants a Twitter sugar-rush. No one should want to trigger a new cold war; we know from bloody experience what happens when cold wars turn hot. Besides, in the hands of Trump, it’s all too easy to see how a conflict with China would spill over into suspicion and hostility directed at the Chinese diaspora. Sanctions such as those Trump is expected to sign into law next week may fail if Beijing has decided it can take the economic hit.
In the age of coronavirus, with future global pandemics likely, there has to be some engagement with a country of the heft and importance of China, the world’s second largest economy. So perhaps the answer begins in finding allies and taking on the undramatic, often unglamorous work of diplomacy, anchored in basic notions of reciprocity. At its simplest, it would mean saying to China: “If you want to keep selling us your tinned tomatoes produced in Xinjiang, then you have to ensure they are verifiably forced-labour-free.”
Practical, hard-headed, advancing bit by bit towards something better: none of that is Trump’s strong suit. But faced with a mighty power behaving so cruelly towards those it rules, it is essential.
• Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist