On Dec. 18, Chinese leaders celebrated the 40th anniversary of the “reform and opening up” that propelled their country from one of the world’s poorest to the second-biggest economy on earth. But despite the predictions of many scholars and politicians, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) did not undergo political reform, but continued its authoritarian rule and abuses of human rights.
Beginning in 1978, then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping loosened some aspects of communist ideology, allowing the creation of a market economy that attracted foreign money, technology, and ideas. According to Chinese dissident Mo Zhixu, the reforms actually reinforced the CCP dictatorship, creating a system that he described as “neo-totalitarianism.”
In the last several years, the Communist Party has intensified its efforts to crush activism online and offline, crack down on human rights lawyers, and expand persecution of religious believers.
Thousands of church crosses across China have been torn down, and Christians are being coerced into giving up their faith. The Party is forcing priests to begin their services with communist “red hymns” and even rewriting the Bible to infuse it with “socialist core values.” As many as 1 million members of the Muslim Uyghur minority have been sent to rapidly constructed concentration camps to perform forced labor and receive atheist “re-education” by the authorities.
Meanwhile, the CCP has been enforcing its totalitarian ideology and rule across the entire Chinese population with an advanced infrastructure of mass surveillance and censorship.
While the CCP’s abuses in the last several years have attracted more international attention, the current era of repression began much earlier. Many of the methods and technologies used today were rolled out in the 2000s for use in the Communist Party’s nationwide campaign against the spiritual practice of Falun Gong.
First, they came for Falun Gong
In China, faith in heaven and gods has coexisted with secular affairs for thousands of years. Spiritual cultivators following the ways of the sages like Laozi or the Buddha sought to attain the Dao and be enlightened, while rulers and their subjects heeded the teachings of great thinkers like Confucius.
In the relaxed ideological climate of the reform and opening up, increasing numbers of Chinese began to explore their ancient heritage, which had been suppressed by the CCP’s ideology that persecuted China’s traditional culture as backward and oppressive.
Part of the cultural revival was the spread of spiritual disciplines known as qigong (氣功), which were promoted as a means of improving health and character. The most popular of them was Falun Gong (法輪功), which teaches moral self-improvement according to the universal principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance.
Throughout the 1990s, Falun Gong became known not just for the health benefits it brought to its adherents, but also for helping revive the moral fabric of society. According to one Chinese government estimate, there were 70 million people practicing Falun Gong by 1998.
But not everyone was pleased with the rapid spread of Falun Gong. As the decade came to a close, in July 1999, overruling other leaders, Party head Jiang Zemin ordered the group banned, saying that its teachings and beliefs were opposed to the Marxism and atheism of the Communist Party.
Throughout the 2000s, the CCP’s campaign against Falun Gong has been the largest and most brutal persecution of any group in China since the Cultural Revolution. Human rights groups estimate that hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of Falun Gong have been detained in the nearly 20 years since 1999.
Those imprisoned for practicing Falun Gong are often beaten, tortured, or suffer even worse forms of abuse. Beginning in 2006, reports emerged suggesting that the Chinese authorities were harvesting organs from living prisoners of conscience, most of them held because of their faith in Falun Gong.
Jiang Zemin had aimed to defeat Falun Gong in a few months. However, due to the huge number of people victimized by the persecution, as well as the campaign’s lack of popular support, the authorities found it difficult to fully eradicate Falun Gong. Even today, many millions of practitioners are still active in China, many of whom persist in raising awareness about the persecution and spreading the practice.
While gradually shifting the persecution of Falun Gong out of public view, the CCP kept up the pressure by finding new ways to marginalize the practice, its adherents, and anyone who supported them, such as human rights lawyers.
In the meantime, the rise of the Internet created a new threat to the Party’s rule, as users could spread banned information easily and anonymously. As a result, the authorities made a top priority of bringing the Internet under CCP control. The Golden Shield Project, created in 1998, was among the first of the systems commonly referred to as the Great Firewall.
The Golden Shield was built and implemented in two phases until 2004, and filtered out politically or socially sensitive search words. Overseeing the project was Jiang Zemin’s eldest son, Jiang Mianheng. Chinese companies, such as the telecommunications giant Huawei, as well as foreign firms like Cisco Systems, have been accused of aiding the Chinese government in its development of censorship and surveillance software, including the Golden Shield Project.
The most heavily blocked entries in the Chinese Internet have consistently been those related to Falun Gong. This includes the Chinese characters for its core teachings of “truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance.”
Huawei, currently at the center of an international dispute over Canada’s arrest of its CFO Meng Wanzhou, is closely linked to the Chinese military and intelligence services, as well as Jiang Mianheng. The younger Jiang himself is a prominent figure in the Chinese tech field. A former CCP disciplinary official told The Epoch Times that to his knowledge, Huawei is a company that served the Jiang family and its political allies in the government.
In addition to censorship, new communications technology is also utilized for tracking Falun Gong practitioners and other people the Party deems its opponents. The introduction of increasingly sophisticated digital surveillance has made it much riskier for dissidents to act or even talk in modern China.
Recent advances in artificial intelligence, big data computing, and facial recognition software have made it easier for the Chinese police to apprehend wanted individuals, as well as deter would-be offenders, by building up databases on hundreds of millions of people.
The “Skynet” and “Blue Sky” projects, representing further evolutions of the Great Chinese Firewall, make use of millions of cameras in Chinese cities and villages to collect and coordinate massive flows of data. The Chinese government has stated that the purpose of these projects is not primarily to fight crime, but to “maintain stability” in society.
Big Brother is in China
After nearly 70 years in power, the Chinese communists have come very close to building the surveillance state that George Orwell described in his world-famous book 1984. Like Orwell’s fictional Thought Police and the regime of Big Brother, the CCP has been steadily upgrading its censorship and surveillance technologies, as well as expanding the infrastructure needed to cover more of the Chinese population.
The Chinese phrase “to maintain stability” (維穩) is now commonly applied to describe any action by the government to crush dissidents and maintain the unchallenged power of the Communist Party.
In many ways, the need to “maintain stability” came about as a political consequence of the CCP’s persecution of Falun Gong. As the campaign dragged on beyond schedule, Jiang Zemin reserved top posts for the officials who prosecuted the campaign most enthusiastically, such as security boss Zhou Yongkang, military commissar Xu Caihou, and politician Bo Xilai.
As accomplices, members of the Jiang faction sought to expand their power endlessly, establishing corrupt fiefs in the Party and government. Meanwhile, to cover up their crimes — most damning among them the widespread and profitable practice of organ harvesting — those tied to Jiang had little choice but to ensure that the CCP expanded its repressions.
The persecution of Falun Gong fuelled the political need for the Orwellian dystopia being perfected in China today. It also provided the vicious experience that the Party’s security forces and propaganda mouthpieces have been using to brutalize greater sections of the Chinese populace.
The treatment of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs — such as the use of dangerous drugs to break down victims mentally during re-education — reflects the tortures first applied to persecute Falun Gong practitioners. Chinese Christians are now being forced to sign “statements of guarantee” promising to abandon their faith, much like those that have been forced on Falun Gong adherents since 1999.
And while Jiang and his lieutenants kicked off this dark trend, they have not been able to outlast it. Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, thousands of officials connected to the Jiang faction have been investigated and purged.
In his essay on China’s neo-totalitarianism, translated as China Change, Mo Zhixu noted that Chinese are still allowed “a certain degree of personal, economic, and cultural freedom,” but that these freedoms are severely limited, while “the political system’s need for absolute control” never changed. “It’s more apt to see China as a neo-totalitarian regime with characteristics of a market economy — it can by no means be called merely ‘authoritarian,’” he wrote.