China’s Bad Old Days Are Back

Why Xi Jinping Is Ramping Up Repression

Police remove barricades erected by pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, October 2014.  Carlos Barria/REUTERS

Disturbing things have been happening in China lately. Hundreds of thousands of Muslim Uighurs have been sent to Orwellian reeducation camps in the western province of Xinjiang. A political party in Hong Kong has been outlawed despite the city’s special status and history of free speech. Teachers in a southern port city were asked to hand over their passports so that closer watch could be kept on their movements. An ailing dissident, the Nobel Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, was barred from seeking medical treatment abroad. Upon traveling to his native China, the chief of the international crime-fighting organization Interpol vanished, only to reappear in government custody, facing corruption charges. And the list goes on. 

As reports of such events trickle out, each may be shocking in its own right but all too easy to dismiss as an outlier to more positive trends. Taken together, however, the dots connect to present a clear—and distressing—picture of China’s course under President Xi Jinping. For all its talk of moving forward, the country is in many ways returning to the past, with its officials and leaders displaying a new brazenness in their crackdown. Rounding up five to ten percent of an entire ethnic group, as the government has in Xinjiang, is a method that seems to belong in the last century, not this one.

But these heavy-handed measures have not simply rolled back the reforms and opening of past decades. Beijing is widening the geographic scope of such measures, extending them from its Western border regions into areas that once seemed relatively free by comparison, and employing cutting-edge methods in service of old totalitarian ambitions. What we are witnessing, in short, is not a continuation of China’s oppressive status quo but the onset of something alarming and new. 


In the vast western territory of Xinjiang, indigenous opposition to Chinese rule has a long history, as do Chinese efforts to suppress this opposition through controls on movement, speech, and cultural expression.

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