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A public policy blog from AEI
On August 6th, thousands of China’s Hui Muslim minority gathered to protest the demolition of a rebuilt mosque in Weizhou, a major city in Ningxia, an autonomous region with a large Muslim minority. Local authorities announced the demolition two days prior, claiming that the mosque was not built with the proper local permits. The protest then ballooned from hundreds to thousands, an unusual and important situation in a country as tightly controlled as the People’s Republic of China.
The protest comes at a time when China is under increasing international scrutiny for its detention and oppression of Muslim minorities. This demonstration, and how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) responds to it, will have implications far beyond Ningxia.
To quell the demonstrations, the CCP brought in hundreds of security forces and cut off internet and cell phone service to block all media coverage. While the CCP has agreed to “delay” the demolition, the CCP is likely to take steps to quash potential future demonstrations. To do so, the next step may well be to install high-tech surveillance equipment in the region similar to that in Muslim-majority Xinjiang, where artificial intelligence-enabled cameras and police glasses monitor the movement of every person in the region.
Reactions to the protests as well as a well-documented regime of oppression in Xinjiang make clear that the CCP has no intention of allowing religious and ethnic minorities to “coexist peacefully,” notwithstanding assurances and laws to the contrary. Rather, Beijing’s tendency will be to use the pretense of rule of law to enforce CCP authoritarianism. Increasingly, small infractions such as parking tickets or improper permits — enforced and documented through China’s strict surveillance apparatus — are the cover for major crackdowns on nominally constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of speech.
This tactic serves two purposes: First, it acts as a political cover that shields China from harsh international backlash; after all, even Americans and Europeans need permits to build. Second, it creates a domestic information campaign to quell the masses. By relying on the “rule of law” and focusing on dissidents’ “illegal” activity, the CCP takes control of the narrative and asserts that it is not an authoritarian state run by a dictator, but a “socialist state with Chinese characteristics” that only punishes those who break the law. This trite explanation conceals an increasingly alarming level of control and oppression for which Muslims are merely the first group to be targeted by China’s high-tech modern authoritarian state.
It is blatantly clear even the pretense of the rule of law is beginning to slip under Xi Jinping, President and Secretary General of the CCP for China’s foreseeable future. But the reaction to the Ningxia protests as well as the all-seeing AI-monitored surveillance of Xinjiang are more foreboding still. Taken in conjunction with the newly instituted “social credit scoring” system that monitors each and every Chinese citizen’s every move, the PRC is beginning to model a future of technological authoritarianism that mixes Orwell’s dystopian society with today’s most advanced technologies.
Annie Kowalewski is a Research Assistant in Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
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