After a long day of work, you come home feeling exhausted and drained, left with only one thought: I need a vacation. Checking your calendar, you realize that, in fact, you have one more week of holidays left for this year and decide to book a spontaneous trip to your favorite island. Having found the earliest flight available, you’re about to click pay, when your account is suddenly blocked. While most of us cannot imagine being banned from travelling-Covid-19 apart-, millions of Chinese citizens have found themselves in a similar situation before. Why? Because they forgot to walk their dog on a leash or to pay for their last parking ticket.
Which Dystopian Movie Am I Referring To?
Simple misdemeanors such as jaywalking or listening to music too loud on public transport suffice to elicit harsh punishments.
Over the past years, the Chinese Communist Party has started implementing its ‘social credit’ system in which citizens are scored based on their online and offline activity. Consequences of a negative score include limitations to human rights such as the freedom of movement by preventing individuals from purchasing train or plane tickets. But surely, these harsh consequences are only put into place for actual crimes, right? On the contrary, simple misdemeanors such as jaywalking or listening to music too loud on public transport suffice to elicit harsh punishments. While digital data might not constitute an official human right yet, the idea alone that the Chinese regime was able to collect more than 14 million data points of “untrustworthy” conduct, raises questions not only concerning Chinese politics but the protection of privacy in general. Anyone who might be as naïve as to say “whether the Chinese collect data or not, could not concern me any less”, should realize how China is slowly taking over the technological world by building its own social media platforms such as the Chinese version of Twitter “Sina Weibo”. Who is to say they will not try to start collecting data on citizens from other parts of the world?
(No) Freedom of Speech in China
Evidently, criticizing the Chinese government on social media will not be left without consequences either – which alludes to another issue connected to the violation of freedom of speech in China: censorship.
In 2015, the spread of false information became a crime punished with up to seven years imprisonment. While eliminating the distribution of fake news might sound like a good idea at first, what is “right” or “wrong” information remains to be interpreted by Chinese courts. And usually, the latter like to adhere to what the Chinese government considers as allowed.
When she first accused the popular broadcast host Zhu Jun of sexual harassment in 2014 right after the incident took place, the police told the young woman to keep quiet.
Freedom of speech is not an abstract construct. It affects all aspects of society and daily life. In 2018, the #MeToo movement started to blossom in China. The popular blogger Xianzi was one of the women sharing her past story of sexual abuse. When she first accused the popular broadcast host Zhu Jun of sexual harassment in 2014 right after the incident took place, the police told the young woman to keep quiet. #MeToo gave Xianzi a voice- at least for a short while- and she decided to publish an essay about her story online. Ever since then, the authorities’ efforts to silence her and the #MeToo movement has been countless. In addition, Xianzi has been struggling to fight for her rights in court for the past three years, as judges prohibit her from providing evidence. Victims of sexual abuse in China encounter strict legal burdens: courts usually demand photographs and recordings of the actual incident. So how does the Chinese government protect young Chinese women? By asking them to please pull out their smartphones as soon as the rape begins.
China: A Western Responsibility?
Everyone is simply too afraid to try and stop them.
Another recent development has been tech giant Microsoft’s announcement to shut down their platform LinkedIn in the country with laws and regulations becoming increasingly more difficult to follow. The only major Western social media platform operating in China faced multiple demands to freeze journalists’ profiles – and even obeyed in some cases such as blocking the account of Greg Bruno, the author of a book addressing the Chinese treatment of Tibetan refugees.
It is no secret that China has grown to become an increasingly powerful and dangerously mysterious country with most of their actions incomprehensible to the public, ignoring any possible human rights, and ruling over our world’s economy. And while one might wonder how Western countries continue to simply ignore China’s human rights violations, the simplest answer one could provide is that everyone is simply too afraid to try and stop them. Should we thus sit back and passively watch China do their thing? Isn’t it the moral obligation of democratic regimes to not only ensure their own citizens’ rights but to work to establish a basic level of the protection of human dignity all over the world? It would be far too naïve to assume that the Western world can simply stop China during the course of a day. But what shocks me most is that, so far, I have not even seen any political regime try.
Cover by: Brett Sayles