The conspiracy of silence over Chinese rights abuses

Tech firms continue to bow to pressure from Beijing. Where is the outcry? 

June 11, 2024
Chinese human rights activist Zhou Fengsuo at a rally in Japan last year to mark the 34th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Image: Keizo Mori/UPI/Alamy Live News
Chinese human rights activist Fengsuo Zhou at a rally in Japan last year to mark the 34th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Image: Keizo Mori/UPI/Alamy Live News

Last week, I interviewed the human rights activist Fengsuo Zhou for a podcast about the Tiananmen Square massacre on its anniversary this month for ARTICLE 19, the freedom of expression organisation. A 21-year-old student leader in the protests 35 years ago, he was sentenced to prison and sent for “re-education”. Zhou, who lives in the US, describes the events of that traumatic time as a battle between two Chinas—one democratic, one authoritarian—that shaped the repression to follow over the next generation.

Any mention of the student protests or the crackdown is entirely taboo in China. Four years ago, Zhou took part in a discussion on Zoom about Tiananmen Square to mark its anniversary with participants both inside and outside China. Zoom then shut down his account at the Chinese government’s request. The FBI later charged a Zoom employee in China with engaging in a conspiracy to disrupt and censor video meetings. In responding to the outcry, Zoom said that in future it would not allow requests from the Chinese government to impact anyone outside of mainland China. That still leaves any Chinese users vulnerable to censorship.

The incident was a direct consequence of the compromise Zoom had made in order to carry on doing business in China. In 2019, the Chinese government closed down Zoom’s operations in the country. The company was only allowed to resume business after it agreed to comply with Chinese law, including designating an in-house contact for law enforcement requests and transferring China-based user data housed in the US to a data centre in China. Apple also moved the data of its Chinese users to the country after the government passed a law in 2017 making this a requirement. And Apple’s success is dependent on Chinese manufacturing and knowhow—the majority of its products are made there.

The repressive nature of the Chinese state is well known. It has been accused of committing genocide against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. A Uyghur student, Kamile Wayit, is currently serving a three-year prison sentence just for sharing a video about a nationwide peaceful protest. Last July, an economics professor, Yang Shaozheng, lost his job and was sentenced to 4.5 years in prison for “inciting subversion” after he calculated the cost of party and government employees in China. In May, six people in Hong Kong were arrested for publishing messages with seditious intent ahead of an “upcoming sensitive date”—that’s code for the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. They are the first arrests under a new draconian security law. Those are just a few examples of the brutal, ongoing crackdown on civil rights, including the crushing of the pro-democracy movement since Hong Kong was handed back to China in the late 90s. On 11th June, Lord Sumption, who resigned from Hong Kong’s court of final appeal earlier this month, warned in the Financial Times that the territory is in danger of becoming a totalitarian state.

This isn’t a matter of repression happening somewhere far away, unrelated to the average Briton. More than a billion people worldwide have iPhones. TikTok, a Chinese company, also has more than a billion users. There are campaigns against the forced labour of Uyghurs, in which Apple, Microsoft and many leading fashion brands have been implicated. The US passed a law two years ago banning the import of goods made in whole or in part in Xinjiang.  But there is no public outcry, so far as I am aware, or call for a boycott, to compare with the current calls for divestment from Israel. And yet, many of us, including the millions marching for a Gaza ceasefire, use technology that depends on Chinese labour, is owned by China or colludes with Chinese censorship. All of us are surely more complicit as individuals in human rights abuse in China than anywhere else in the world.

So why aren’t people protesting about China with the same passion as they are protesting about Gaza? Why are we indifferent to some human rights abuse and enraged by others? It is hard to stand by when we’ve been witnessing the killing of thousands on our screens in Israel and Gaza over the past eight months and the indiscriminate devastation of communities and civil society. What happens in China, though it affects more people in terms of population, isn’t visible in the same way: it’s usually footage of abuse or suffering that triggers a global response—from the famine in Ethiopia in the 80s to the killing of George Floyd or even the Tiananmen Square massacre itself in 1989.

Our capacity for outrage is selective and short term. There are redoubtable, dedicated activists and organisations who campaign on a committed basis for causes, but political and public support mostly passes like a fashion season. Joe Biden has forgotten his promise to make Saudi Arabia a pariah after the shocking murder of Jamal Khashoggi six years ago and is now touting a regime that imprisons human rights defenders as a partner in a new Middle East. President Assad is back in the fold of the Arab League despite a violent crackdown against his own people in Syria’s ongoing civil war, in which more than 300,000 people have been killed. The UN recently criticised the world for failing more than six million Syrians who are now refugees.

The news cycle draws much needed attention to abuse around the world, but it also creates a hierarchy of suffering, and a hierarchy  of evil. For many Jews, the particular focus on Israel’s crimes, beyond the human rights abuses of its authoritarian neighbours such as Iran, Egypt or Saudi Arabia, feels like a continuation of an historic antipathy. The conflict in Sudan is not dominating any headlines, even though it’s estimated that more than 14,000 have died and eight million have been displaced in the fighting. Iran has entirely disappeared from daily news reports since the crackdown on the remarkable protest movement following the killing of Mahsa Amini, but state repression continues. Last month, eleven women activists received prison sentences that ranged from six years to more than nine years after losing their appeal.

When most of the world does not live in freedom, there’s inevitably a limit to the number of causes anyone can support, but as campaigners, we need to be alive to our own capriciousness—and even hypocrisy.