Presiding for life over an economy beyond reproach, Xi Jinping has once again achieved the feat of stifling his own birthday. On June 15, he marked aging to 70 by dimming public discussion of the landmark, as yet another of his nicknames was expunged from the Chinese internet — Pang Hu (胖虎), a character of Doraemon fame.
That raises the China Digital Times list of banned pejorative monikers for Xi, who is not a dictator, to at least 565, over one for every week that he has been in power. The incrementing total, which is likely to be a considerable underestimate, highlights the paradox that, in attempting to eradicate unflattering names, he is encouraging people to create more of them.
Accumulation of years for Xi has run parallel to an accumulation of suspected crimes, including people trafficking. Observing a documented pattern of such behavior, the U.S. State Department has officially reconfirmed China as one of just 11 countries where forced human transfers are state-sponsored, a position which concurs with concerns of possible sexual and other slavery that have been already been tabled by the relevant United Nations special rapporteur in 2022.
Two lawsuits have been concurrently filed in Europe against companies whose due diligence is not believed to be sufficient to prevent forced labor in their supply chains, particularly with regard to materials and parts from East Turkestan (Xinjiang), where a crackdown on Uyghurs is continuing: One targets the German carmakers BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen. The other focuses on the clothing producers Indietex and Fast Retailing, which own Zara and Uniqlo, respectively.
As well as Uyghurs and Tibetans, North Koreans are a particular group at risk of trafficking, linked to factories in cities like Dandong, and, more illicitly, to prostitution or the demand for wives in rural areas. Research based on satellite images coming into the public eye this month unveils yet another challenge in their often tough lives: Prison are expanding near the China-North Korea border, renovations which are expected to prepare for Koreans who have been rounded up by Chinese authorities to be deported following escape from their despotic regime.
China categorizes escapees from North Korea as economic migrants, not refugees, an excuse which enables it to send them back to their country of birth, where they face further imprisonment, labor camps, torture and even death. As of 2022, approximately 2,000 people were staring down the barrel at this dire future, but the total is imprecise and may have risen since. They are in imminent danger, as the border between China and North Korea is set to reopen at any moment following closure for COVID.
By deporting the vulnerable, China maintains another nexus with the North Korean regime, whose nationals are using Beijing as a base to transfer people and materials related to the development of missiles and weapons of mass destruction, according to individualized sanctions recently authorized by the U.S. Treasury. While many analysts consider China to be a stabilizing influence on its neighbor, its own nuclear stockpile is estimated by the Stockholm International Peace Institute to have swelled by 60 warheads in the past year, too.
Typically, the plight of North Koreans is clouded by imprecise data and blocked access, two of China’s many tactics to prevent accountability and evade responsibility under agreements such as the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Its broader suite of obfuscation antics has been exposed by two other cases that deserve highlighting from the past couple of weeks as well: the leak of an internal document between county-level officials and their prefectural superiors on the death of an elderly man several years ago in East Turkestan; and the intense harassment of the Beijing-based family of Wang Quanzhang (王全璋), a disbarred human rights lawyer who has been forced to move homes 13 times in just three months.
The former, provided and analyzed by Bitter Winter, a specialist magazine on religious and human rights, reveals the intense reaction of Chinese authorities to a Radio Free Asia article in 2018 that relayed to the wider world the death of an 80-year-old man in Yopurga County, who was crushed by a wall. If authentic, the document details a two-day deployment of 171 Communist Party agents to comb the communication history of everybody with foreign contacts in the locale to weed out any who had exported the news overseas.
Why would China devote so much manpower for a story concerning somebody who had died in an accident? Uncomfortably, the maintenance issue occurred because the man’s children had been taken away for “re-education,” a euphemism for the detention camps where many Uyghurs have been forcibly detained. Embarrassingly, it also happened during a government-sponsored village restoration project. Crucially, however, it exposed cracks in China’s information wall, through which far graver details could trickle to an international audience.
A similarly outsized reaction has been applied to the aforementioned Wang Quanzhang, one of several human rights activists who are undergoing serial intimidations to bundle them out of Beijing as the city hosts a parade of foreign leaders, many of whose electorates do not view China’s treatment of its people very positively. Documented despite police threats by a Twitter account in the name of his wife Li Wenzu (李文足), the tactics have included authorities busting into their latest home and placing it under effective siege, impounding it, setting thugs at the door and cutting off both water and electricity.
The Wang family incidents and the leaked document are significant in many ways: They underline that authorities are less concerned about injustice than other people knowing or doing something about it. They also emphasize the vast resources that are dedicated to information control and coercion in China, which any Western de-risking policy will indirectly empower as long as it grows the economic clout of the state. And, in the case of the document, there is reference to breaking Uyghur connections, part of a policy that can be interpreted as aiming to destroy them as a people.
Nonetheless, they also prove another point: For all the hidden deaths and state control, there are still individuals with the courage and humanity to stand up for others’ rights and inform people outside China’s borders of what takes place within them. In a country now ranked by the Human Rights Measurement Initiative as the most dangerous state to its own citizens, they will continue to shine light on the consequences of Xi Jinping’s policies, no matter how old he gets or what name he takes.