A view from a Chinese student: How the West should deal with China - SOAS China Institute

//A view from a Chinese student: How the West should deal with China

A view from a Chinese student: How the West should deal with China

Photo credit: parhessiastes (Flickr)

By Cailin Cheng 程才林 | 10 June 2021

We live in a post-truth society. Before I went to college, Western powers accused China of abusing human rights in Tibet, and China responded by showing remarkable statistical achievements. When I was about to begin my undergraduate studies, Tibet was long forgotten, and Western powers began accusing China of abusing human rights in Hong Kong, and China responded by arousing the memories of foreign intervention and colonization. Two years into studying politics, few Westerners are talking about Hong Kong as many are busy trying to associate Xinjiang with genocide, and China responded with sanctions and propaganda.


Westerners should answer three questions:


1) Do you genuinely care about human rights and human rights in China?

2) Do you know what happened in Xinjiang and is that equivalent to genocide?

3) Is exerting increasing pressure helpful to achieve a positive impact?


After gaining economic capital under Deng Xiaoping’s teachings, China also gained the political capital necessary to challenge the ideological hegemony of the West by attempting to redefine concepts like democracy and human rights. I believe the necessity for this ideological struggle comes from continuous Western accusations that successfully projected a China undesirable in the eyes of Beijing. Instead of implementing bold political reforms, Beijing attempts to present itself as the vanguard of human rights and democracy, which enables Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi to lecture their American counterparts in Alaska.


If Westerners find human rights with Chinese characteristics unbearable, they need to rethink if their version of human rights is necessarily superior. For many Chinese, with recent Black Lives Matter protests and the storming of the U.S. Capitol, they have realized the imperfections within a supposedly superior political system. Without adequately addressing their internal affairs, however, criticism towards China is readily available from Westerners. Accordingly, Beijing gains legitimacy as many Chinese are willing to hide behind any figure that defends China’s international image. Blatantly interfering with domestic affairs is clearly against sovereignty, but if Westerners can promptly manage to solve the crisis of liberal democracy, their advice regarding the necessity for political reform would not backfire.


Regardless of history, Xinjiang was included into the Chinese territory when the People’s Republic of China was founded, which alone gives Beijing sovereignty over affairs in Xinjiang, but that does not justify unreasonable policies. Without having the opportunity of visiting Xinjiang, I believe there are some imperfect policies that need improvements. However, even if allegations of forced sterilization, forced labour, and religious suppression, are true, the term ‘genocide’ should not be used in the case of Xinjiang. The reason is simple: many Han Chinese were subject to such policies during the one-child policy and the Cultural Revolution. Additionally, China does not intend to hide state atheism as the governing party is Communist, which would necessarily require the suppression of all religions to a certain degree. For example, it is hard to find monks worshipping Buddhas in many Chinese cities. Interestingly, the practice of Buddhism in Tibet is much more common than in other regions with a Han Chinese majority.


Then, why do Westerners feel justified misusing ‘genocide’? To label genocide, or not to label genocide, that is a political question. The fact is, the Han people can live in harmony with Uyghurs without feeling the urge of wanting to enslave, torture, or kill them. However, with the aim of creating a harmonious people out of different races, integration is necessary. Under a regime that functions vertically from above and normally without extensive consultation with the public, unwise policies are sometimes issued that evoke mass dissatisfaction. Within the Xinjiang context, the negative cycle of unwise policies, dissatisfaction, unrest, and more unwise policies had been ongoing for centuries. Without seeing an end to this perpetual nightmare, some Uyghurs felt helpless in their attempt to live a better life, therefore, decided to become radical.


I doubt radicalization is preferable if we do not want to live in a polarized world. ‘Genocide’ only serves the purpose of fuelling mutual antagonism between China and the world as Beijing is ready to fight back and many nationalistic Chinese take pride in increasingly hawkish foreign policies. If Westerners truly want to resolve any conflict with China, they need to rethink their strategy as demonizing China increases the support of the regime. For those who argue that economic cooperation with China does not encourage political reforms, I beg them to have more patience. Xi Jinping claims the success of eradicating absolute poverty this year, but for the modernization theory to be testified in China, there is a long way to go. Instead of boycotting or supporting companies based on political standpoints, why not help normal Chinese people get rich so that they can have the leisure to think about the meaning of ‘political animal’? Chinese officials have accepted that radical transition to communism does not work in China, maybe it is time for Westerners to accept the reality that forcing liberal democracy upon a developing China would be counterproductive.

Cailin Cheng 程才林 is an undergraduate Chinese student studying Politics at King’s College London. He has created a Society called ‘China and the World’ (FB / IG / Twitter) with the stated aim of providing an unbiased platform for people interested in Chinese politics.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.