Exporting Totalitarianism: Experts Explain Why You Should Care About China

By Mary Clark
Mary Clark
Mary Clark
July 21, 2020Updated: June 3, 2021

China’s mask is beginning to slip.

With pressure mounting from the CCP virus pandemic, Hong Kong protests, and the trade war with the United States, the West is starting to get a glimpse of the true face of China beyond the facade of a modern, high-tech, business-oriented, friend of the West—and we should be worried, according to four leading China experts.

“If we don’t kill the cancer, the cancer will kill us,” said successful Chinese entrepreneur Elmer Yuen, speaking at a webinar on Monday afternoon organised to mark the 21st anniversary of the start of the Chinese state-sponsored persecution of Falun Gong adherents. He was referring to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

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Elmer Yuen in Washington on June 12, 2020. (Sean Lin/Sound of Hope)

Little known to most of us in the West is the extent of the control exerted by the CCP over every aspect of life in China, and that it has been trying to extend that control into Western democracies.

“The relationship between the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese state is unlike anything we see in democratic countries. State functionaries are puppets. It is the party which pulls the strings,” said Canadian human rights lawyer David Matas during the webinar.

Matas has extensively researched the Chinese state, collating some of the first evidence that the CCP was systematically harvesting organs from prisoners of conscience to supply a burgeoning transplant industry.

David Matas, Canadian human rights lawyer.
David Matas, Canadian human rights lawyer, in a file photo. (Woody Wu/AFP/Getty Images)

“Up and down the government, political, and legal structure, for every state officer, there’s an instructing party official. Only at the top do the two systems converge. The secretary general of the party is also the president of the state. Everywhere else in the system, party officials who are instructing and state officials who are being instructed, are different,” Matas explained.

“The party is above the law because the party tells the legal system what to do. The party instructs the court registries, the police, the prisons, the prosecutors, the investigators, the defence council, and even the judges.”

Yuen echoed Matas’s observation.

“The nation is a facade; the government is a facade. Every government official, even including the prime minister, has a party member behind him, which is Xi Jinping, pulling the strings,” he said.

From every restaurant manager to every general in the Chinese military, each has a party secretary behind them telling them what to say and do, Yuen said.

Having done business in China for decades, Yuen has a unique perspective on what the Chinese Communist Party is.

He prefers to call it the “Chinese Cosa Nostra Party,” he said in an impassioned speech, because the regime works more like the mafia, which is “dominated by 50 different families” running different industries and territories. All 90 million party members are “gangsters doing the criminal work for them,” and the ordinary people, who are like slaves, are in essence “paying protection fees” to avoid trouble from the mafia.

“The whole world is treating [the People’s Republic of China] like a real nation, and that is a joke,” he said.

Yuen has recently been in Washington to lobby the U.S. government to designate the CCP as a criminal organisation and sanction party members.

Technological Surveillance

Robert Spalding, a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general, identified data as the strategic resource of the 21st century, with a race occurring between companies and governments to master data collection and analysis.

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Retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general Robert Spalding in Washington on May 29, 2019. (Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)

In China, the 5G network and big data systems are used to chilling effect to manipulate and control its population. With facial recognition, artificial intelligence, and many aspects of daily life linked to smartphone apps, it’s not easy to evade Communist Party control, at least in the big cities.

In recent years, the CCP has been able to exert even greater control over the Chinese people through technology under the guise of “smart cities.”

“In 2017 you could go into a restaurant in China, order some food off your phone, walk into the restaurant and never have to touch your phone again because a camera would pick up your face, do facial recognition, and the server would greet you by name and hand you your food,” Spalding said, describing the power of 5G.

“They found the technologies that Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent had mastered to great economic effect could also be used to influence populations,” he explained.

“So the goal in China is to build out the sensor network, if you will, in smart cities to be able to monitor what everybody does at all times and to use that monitoring, along with the tools and technologies and business models that Silicon Valley develop, to really understand the population and begin to influence it in ways that is defined by the Chinese Communist Party with regard to what is a good citizen.”

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A display for facial recognition and artificial intelligence is seen on monitors at Huawei’s Bantian campus in Shenzhen, China, on April 26, 2019. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

This is the “social credit system,” which rewards citizens for good behaviour and punishes those for any transgression, for example by preventing the booking of travel tickets.

For some time, the CCP has been attempting to export its totalitarianism overseas using a dizzying array of tactics.

“[Mao] would say politics is warfare by other means. In other words, political warfare becomes a leading effort and campaign in terms of perpetuating Chinese Communist Party rule in China and influence abroad,” Spalding said.

With Huawei making headlines recently following the UK’s decision to exclude it from the country’s 5G infrastructure, technology is perhaps the most overt method the CCP is using to attempt to exert control over other countries and their citizens.

“These networks that allow them to collect data and allows them to build an understanding of the characteristics of individuals and free societies then become fair game for the influence campaigns on social media networks,” Spalding said.

Part of that influence is self-censorship, which the CCP can achieve through economic coercion via the globalised system.

“That is what we’re talking about with regard to Chinese influence and their ability to motivate populations of democratic societies to self-censor, to really abandon the principles of their founding societies,” he said.

An example from October last year was the backlash in China against the NBA after a general manager tweeted support for Hong Kong protesters.

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A Chinese flag is seen placed on a mannequin wearing the USA basketball uniform in the NBA flagship retail store in Beijing on Oct. 9, 2019. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

“All the [NBA] merchandise was taken off all the shelves in all the digital marketplaces in China almost instantaneously,” Spalding said.

Google, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Apple dominate the market in the United States. So China has created its own companies to rival them, such as Baidu, Tencent, and Alibaba. Apps such as WeChat and TikTok, which dominate in China, are now gaining traction in the West, enabling the CCP to spread propaganda and disinformation with ease. Chinese companies also invest in U.S. companies, with Tencent investing in Reddit for example, Spalding said.

India has banned TikTok, and the United States is eyeing a ban over security concerns, because, as Matas and Yuen pointed out, although the companies claim to be independent of the Chinese state, there is no such thing in China.

“As these companies gain in economic power, then their ability to influence other companies and other institutions becomes really part of the fabric of our global economy,” Spalding said.

Freedom and Persecution

The webinar, titled “Understanding the Chinese Communist Party: Lessons for the Free World,” was organised by the UK Falun Dafa Association, a volunteer-run organization that represents practitioners in the UK of the spiritual discipline Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa.

Falun Dafa was first taught publicly in China in 1992 and spread rapidly in the 1990s, attracting an estimated 100 million people to the slow-moving exercises and moral teachings centred around truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. It is now practised by hundreds in the UK and by many millions in more than 80 countries worldwide.

But on July 20, 1999, then-leader of the CCP Jiang Zemin launched a persecution against the practice in an attempt to “eradicate” it.

“Twenty-one years ago, the CCP set out to eradicate Falun Gong—the largest spiritual group persecuted in China,” said Rosemary Byfield of the Falun Dafa Association in an introduction to the webinar. “It started with a massive propaganda offensive that incited hatred and dehumanisation. Unknown tens of thousands of practitioners have been killed and hundreds of thousands remain imprisoned by the CCP,” she said.

Religious persecution hasn’t lessened in the intervening years. According to human rights activist Benedict Rogers, “When it comes to religion, or religion and belief, I think we may be seeing the worst situation, the worst crackdowns, actually since the Cultural Revolution.”

The deal the Vatican did with the CCP 2 years ago to enable the party to appoint bishops doesn’t appear to have improved the situation for Catholics in China, he said. Churches and religious symbols have been destroyed; Communist Party propaganda is displayed in state-controlled churches and security cameras monitor those who attend services. Arrests of Christians are also increasing.

Rogers, who is East Asia team leader in the human rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), quoted from a CSW publication titled “Repressed, Removed, Reeducated: the stranglehold on religious life in China.” He cited pastor Wang Yi of The Early Rain Church who in December 2019 was jailed for 9 years on subversion charges after saying that Chinese leader Xi Jinping was not God.

Before his arrest Wang had said that the CCP was launching a “war against the soul” but that “they have established for themselves an enemy that can never be detained, can never be destroyed, that will never capitulate or be conquered, that is the soul of man.”

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Benedict Rogers, East Asia team leader at nonprofit Christian Solidarity Worldwide, at a rally commemorating the 20th anniversary of the persecution of Falun Gong in China, on the West Lawn of Capitol Hill in Washington on July 18, 2019. (Mark Zou/The Epoch Times)

Rogers is deputy chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission and a member of the advisory group to recently formed Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC)—an international group of legislators from a cross-section of political parties working on how democratic countries should approach China.

Former Conservative Party leader Sir Iain Duncan-Smith and Labour peer Baroness Helena Kennedy are co-chairs of IPAC, with Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) representing the United States.

On July 20, IPAC released a statement to mark the anniversary of the persecution of Falun Gong. It referred to the China Tribunal chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice, which designated China’s forced organ harvesting as a crime against humanity:

“Particularly troubling are reports of the targeting of Falun Gong prisoners for their human organs. Evidence of forced organ harvesting in China emerged 15 years ago and an independent and rigorous legal project—the China Tribunal—last year found beyond reasonable doubt that this practice had been perpetrated on a widespread, state-sponsored, and systematic level,” the statement read.

Overseas Coercion

It’s not only on a global or national scale but on an individual level that the CCP seeks to dominate.

Rogers, who also founded the NGO Hong Kong Watch in 2017 to monitor the deteriorating human rights situation in the former British colony, detailed how the CCP doesn’t constrain its repressive actions to within China’s borders—targeting both overseas Chinese and anyone who speaks out against the regime.

“I myself was denied entry to Hong Kong on the orders of Beijing. And I’ve also, as I’m sure a number of us have, been the recipient of a number of harassing letters and emails, and the Chinese embassy has tried to lobby British members of Parliament to tell me to stop speaking out on these issues,” Rogers said.

He told the story of his trip to Portugal last year to meet with two prominent Hong Kong democracy activists—Martin Lee, the founder of Hong Kong’s first pro-democracy party, and cardinal Joseph Zen—at a small private gathering. The CCP somehow found out about it, and, unable to get the two men uninvited from the meeting, a dozen Chinese diplomats set up camp in the hotel across the street to attempt to disrupt the gathering.

“If the Chinese Communist Party is prepared to go to such lengths to disrupt a small Catholic gathering in a European pilgrimage site just because two octogenarian Hong Kong democrats and critics of the regime were in attendance, then that shows both the insecurity of the Chinese Communist Party, but also how much worse is it within their own borders, where they will go to horrific length to silence dissent,” Rogers said.

David Matas, too, identified as a characteristic of the Chinese state its desire to control its citizens overseas.

“For instance, Chinese nationals abroad whom the Chinese government or Communist Party has identified as Falun Gong practitioners will be denied passport renewal unless they renounce in writing their belief in Falun Gong,” he said.

That happened to Wei Liu, chairman of the UK Falun Dafa Association, who came to the UK to study in 1997.

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Wei Liu speaking at the press conference of Interfaith International, in Geneva, Switzerland, on Sept. 18, 2012. (Yun Dong/The Epoch Times)

When his passport expired in 2002, he was denied an extension by the Chinese consulate in Manchester because he refused to give up his faith, he told The Epoch Times.

“My family members in mainland China have been harassed and interrogated by the municipal Chinese Security Bureau,” he said. “The local police have kept contact with my parents in China by meeting or phone call to threaten them to pass a message to me that I shouldn’t do anything harmful to the country [China] when in the UK.”

Liu also said his parents were intimidated by the CCP because he is chairman of the Falun Dafa Association, saying officials threatened to “cause consequences” if he “didn’t behave” himself in organising Falun Dafa events in the UK.

Practitioners, ever since the persecution began, have organised peaceful protests, marches, rallies, exhibitions, vigils, and other events to raise awareness of the atrocities committed against practitioners—often their own friends and family—back in China.

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Falun Gong practitioners mark the 21st anniversary of the persecution against Falun Gong with a candle vigil relay while maintaining social distance during the CCP virus outbreak, opposite the Chinese Embassy in central London on July 20, 2020. (Yanning/The Epoch Times)

For over 20 years, UK practitioners have kept a vigil going opposite the Chinese Embassy in London 24 hours a day—until the CCP virus lockdown measures forced them to pause it.

“Definitely there has been an awakening to the dangers of the Chinese Communist Party regime, both its severe repression inside of the country and its aggression around the world, and I think several factors have led to this reawakening,” Rogers told NTD, an affiliate of The Epoch Times.

The CCP virus pandemic is the first of these factors, he said.

“They [the CCP] repressed the truth about the virus and tried to silence the whistleblowers, and I think the knowledge of that has caused people in government and in Parliament in this country and in other countries to really rethink the relationship with not China as a country but [with] the Chinese regime.”

Lily Zhou and Kat Piper contributed to this report.