Democracy is remarkably fragile. It requires a careful balance between majority rule and minority rights, yet we humans are hardwired to gravitate toward strong leaders and suspicion of the "other."
It is not the natural state of affairs, but something we must constantly and consciously strive towards. When we stop striving, we fall backward.
The optimism in the 1990s, that the world was simply destined for democracy, has given way to a grim recognition that democracy is in fact in decline. For the first time since 2001, most people on Earth now live under authoritarianism.
In my opinion, no country merits more concern than the People's Republic of China (PCR). President-for-life Xi Jinping has rolled back the modest reforms of his predecessor, creating a totalitarian cult of personality and surveillance state in all aspects of Chinese life.
The university, the media, the home and the workplace are inundated with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda. CCP memos express hostility to "Western constitutional democracy" and "universal values," like human rights and free speech. Under Xi, the PRC has created an elaborate system of concentration camps to "re-educate" Uighurs, the Turkic Muslim minority in the western province of Xinjiang. Detainees are stripped of their culture, raped, forcibly sterilized and enslaved. Though information about the camps is strictly censored, independent sources estimate as many as 1 million Uighurs have been detained.
Under Xi, the PRC has repeatedly violated Hong Kong's autonomy, which was supposed to be inviolable until 2047, by cracking down on peaceful protestors through a draconian "National Security Law." The law, which is so vaguely worded that even chanting a slogan can be prosecuted as terrorism, theoretically applies to everyone on Earth. Under Xi, the PRC has used its growing economic clout to bend international organizations and businesses to its will. Companies wishing to do business in China increasingly must toe the party line, on issues from Hong Kong to Tibet to Taiwan to Xinjiang. The international community can come together and confront authoritarianism, as it did during the anti-apartheid movement. Activists slowly but surely gained momentum through awareness campaigns and boycotts.
Although the United Nations passed an arms embargo and economic sanctions in the 1960s, countries simply ignored it. South Africa was expelled from the Olympic Committee and faced other means of cultural isolation, but it was basically symbolic.
The turning point was when universities around the world started divesting from South African companies in their endowment funds, prompting even tougher actions from governments. It set in motion a chain of events that led apartheid to its grave. Students and faculty at Rutgers, organizing as the Rutgers Coalition for Total Divestment, successfully convinced the administration to divest $3.6 million from seven businesses associated with South Africa in 1985 after months of sit-ins and demonstrations.
New Jersey followed suit, passing legislation to divest $2 billion. Rutgers was just one of many universities, and New Jersey just one of many states, whose divestment plans built momentum for federal action. Overriding President Ronald Reagan's veto, Congress enacted the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986, tightly restricting trade with South Africa. Reagan's argument that "constructive engagement" with the white minority regime would lead to reform seemed hollow, given its willingness to shoot unarmed protestors to preserve white supremacy. Though boycotts and divestment did not singlehandedly bring down apartheid, they were surely significant. Today calls for similar actions, coordinated among the world's democracies, to isolate China economically, diplomatically and academically. Everything from Olympic boycotts —Beijing is scheduled to host the 2022 Winter Olympics — to divestment should be on the table. We can start small, just as the anti-apartheid movement did. Rutgers is one of the dozens of universities to have a "Confucius Institute." These institutes, promoted as cultural centers to teach Mandarin, are largely funded by Hanban, part of the Ministry of Education of the PRC.
Hanban's financial support is an incentive to avoid controversial topics that go against the Party line. At a minimum, it creates the appearance of conflicts of interest and the potential for censorship.
In 2014, the American Association of University Professors advised universities with Confucius Institutes to either "cease their relationship with the Chinese government or renegotiate their practices to support greater transparency and academic freedom." Human Rights Watch is blunter: "Refrain from having Confucius Institutes on campuses, as they are fundamentally incompatible with a robust commitment to academic freedom." The Rutgers Foundation's $1.4 billion endowments should also ensure that it divests from any companies complicit in Chinese human rights abuses. No government or university on any level should invest in companies that use forced labor, facilitate mass surveillance or in any way contribute to repression.
Nor should researchers collaborate with firms involved with Xinjiang surveillance technologies, like iFlytek, as Rutgers agreed to in 2017 before wisely terminating the partnership two years early. Considering the Chinese government's heavy role in the economy, there are few truly clean firms.
I believe the PRC's abominable human rights record deserves universal condemnation, just like apartheid. China may be far more powerful than South Africa ever was, but that is no excuse to not try.
Thomas Kozma is an Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy junior majoring in planning and public policy. His column, “With Liberty and Justice for All,” runs on alternate Thursdays.
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